Early Architecture: Wood Frame Construction

Houghton wasn’t always a city of impressive brick and stone structures. In the earliest days of the Michigan Copper boom, masonry supplies were hard to come by in the frontier region. A ready supply of trees, however, allowed for simple log structures to dominate the urban frontier. Rough-hewn logs, notched on their corners, were chinked with a variety of materials to keep wind, rain and animals out. Yet log structures had distinct limitations in size and in the number of door and window openings.

By the end of the 1860s, wood frame buildings clad with clapboard siding became the norm. These buildings utilized a simple stud framing system similar to that in use today and was made possible with the increased availability of lumber and construction materials in commercial centers like Houghton. Frame construction allowed for greater variety; buildings could be larger and include many more windows, wings, extensions, doors, towers, and the like. By the 1870s, Houghton was transformed from a collection of small log dwellings into a bustling commercial center with several buildings of at least three stories in height. Most buildings were of a simple front-gable design that encouraged snow to fall to the sides of the building. Some owners added a false facade that they felt improved the stature of their building and increased signage space.

Not surprisingly, municipal structures and hotels provided the extreme examples for what was possible with frame construction. The city of Houghton was selected as the county seat in 1860 and ten thousand dollars was set aside for construction of a courthouse and jail complex. This first Houghton County Courthouse, completed in 1863, was an impressive two-story white frame structure, highly visible on the hillside above the town center. Along the town’s main street, Shelden Avenue, several hotels vied for the patronage of visiting copper speculators, salesmen and other travelers. The Douglass House Hotel, opened in 1861, was a multi-gabled frame structure that commanded two lots along Isle Royale Street. It included a broad veranda overlooking a terraced front garden stepping down to Shelden Avenue. By sheer size and complexity, these buildings marked the upper end of what was possible locally with wood frame construction. Perhaps not surprisingly, these two buildings were eventually replaced by brick and stone buildings that set the tone for the next era of Houghton architecture.

Although much more versatile than earlier log construction, frame buildings also reached their limitations in Houghton’s town center. Local businesses wanted larger buildings and found the wood frame buildings hard to insulate and heat during the Keweenaw’s notoriously long winters. Most importantly, wooden buildings were highly susceptible to fire. Although Houghton was never the victim of a catastrophic fire, its residents were certainly aware of fires that decimated the nearby towns of Hancock, Lake Linden and Ontonagon between 1869 and 1896.

As early as the 1880s, brick and stone buildings began to replace Houghton’s frame structures. Within only a few decades, the city became widely known for its sandstone buildings and impressive architectural richness. Even today, however, one can still locate a few of the historic front-gable frame structures that transformed the city in an earlier era.

Later Architecture: Brick and Stone

Houghton’s business district experienced significant change between the late 1880s and the early 1900s. Many of the village’s earliest frame buildings were replaced with large stone and brick structures, reflecting Houghton’s maturity into an established center of commerce and trade in the Copper Country.
The Houghton National Bank building at the corner of Shelden Avenue and Isle Royale Street is a good example of an early stone and brick architectural style. This structure, completed in 1889, had elements of the Richardsonian Romanesque style, with heavy, rough-cut stone masonry and imposing arched window openings. The bank was reported to be the first brick "block" built in the Copper Country and its three stories dominated the landscape. The building mixed dark brick and distinctive red sandstone obtained less than twenty miles away at Jacob's Quarry near the small town of Jacobsville.

Not surprisingly, the area surrounding this intersection became a focus for additional brick and stone construction. The second wave of activity began with an upgrade to the Douglass House Hotel. Work on a new brick "addition" to their existing building was completed in 1900, though a fire in that same year destroyed the original 1861 wood framed hotel. Turning the disaster into an opportunity, a second brick structure was constructed to match and the completed two-part hotel was opened in 1902. Unlike the dark and imposing bank, the rebuilt Douglass House had a more classical look, with lighter brick and glazed terra cotta elements.

The building known as the Shelden-Dee Block was also completed in 1900 on a corner opposite the hotel and bank. Like the Douglass House Hotel, it was designed by respected Chicago architect Henry L. Oppenheimer. The building was commissioned by James R. Dee and Mary E. Shelden, members of Houghton’s earliest pioneer families and the building was halved into portions for each investor. Each half included ground floor retail and commercial spaces, with offices and apartments in the upper floors. Utilizing lighter and sharper classical elements like the Douglass House Hotel, the Shelden-Dee building included smooth-faced stone walls, intricately carved sandstone hoods above the entryways and a rich ornate copper cornice.

Over the course of the next ten years, a variety of brick and stone buildings were constructed throughout the city. In 1902, the impressive red sandstone St. Ignatius Catholic church was dedicated on Houghton Avenue and the Citizen’s National Bank opened its doors in the newly-constructed Hall Building further west along Shelden Avenue. Houghton’s Masonic Temple was completed to the east of the bank in 1905 and was joined in 1910 by the Houghton Club building which housed a private club for local businessmen. Other buildings of varying size and purpose filled in the gaps between larger structures.
Within a period of twenty years the center of Houghton was transformed from a collection of wooden-frame buildings into one of the most significant architectural gems in the Upper Great Lakes region.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Houghton’s population also peaked during this same period, spurred in large part by the development of the mines and railroads south of the village. This zenith period of Houghton’s activity, from 1895 to 1920, was marked not only by new businesses but is also evident in the architectural history captured in its downtown.

Standardized Design: The Store Front Facade

As Houghton made its transition from predominantly wooden buildings to more substantial structures of brick and stone, a different, more standardized type of building facade was introduced to downtown architecture. Although individual buildings varied in their specific choice of construction materials and styles, most utilized similar design components.

A typical building facade was broken into two main components: a storefront facade at the street level and a upper facade comprised of the upper stories of the building. The storefront portion of the building included entrances and display windows for the commercial business, often recessing doorways to increase display space and draw customers into the store. An overhead sign frieze advertised the goods and services available inside. Most buildings also offered a secondary entrance leading to a stairway with access to the building’s upper floors. A window above the secondary entrance allowed natural light to illuminate the stairwell.

One additional element incorporated into many buildings constructed before 1910 was a section of small prismatic glass panels above the store’s main display windows. These three-dimensional pieces of glass utilized the same optic principles as the Fresnel lenses in the Keweenaw’s lighthouses, though in this case, they magnified natural sunlight from the street and redirected it into the darker recesses inside the store. Different patterns adorn some of the individual panes; some prism glass in the Hall Building and the Shelden-Dee block has a pattern patented by Frank Lloyd Wright. Prism glass was an affordable way to augment oil and gas illumination before electric lights were in extensive use.

Most people do not notice the upper stories of downtown buildings, which often offer an interesting contrast to the lower floors. Although some upper facades were intended to complement the storefront level, many incorporated dissimilar architectural styles and building materials to highlight the different functions of these floors. Arched windows, often accented with sills and lintels of contrasting brick or stone, and vertical elements, such as carved stone pilasters, added dramatically to the building’s overall presence. The tops of most buildings were capped with a cornice incorporating additional design elements, sometimes molded in copper or carved from local red sandstone. Many of Houghton’s historic downtown buildings include a frieze below the cornice that includes the date or name of the building.
In taking a tour through Houghton’s downtown, you may want to consider the different elements that make up each building’s historic facade. Many visitors are surprised by the amount of detail incorporated into the fronts of buildings, particularly in the upper levels. In a region with such a long and diverse history, it is perhaps not surprising that some traditional design elements have been replaced over time with more modern features. Still, the city’s downtown buildings remain a testament to the rich architectural heritage developed during the century and a half of Houghton’s development.

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Wood frame / brick and stone transformation on Shelden Avenue