Lansing History

Every so often we are asked to identify images and try and determine just where the subject/building/home/etc., is located. The above photograph is an example of an image long identified with Lansing, in fact it appeared in two books on Lansing history. The problem is that neither book identified where the business in the photograph was located in Lansing.

The first clue is in the top right-hand corner. It is the name of a physician, Dr. McPherson, the second clue is the number 73 below the window pane with Dr. McPherson’s name. So, we have a name and street address number, but not the street name. After reviewing the Michigan Gazetteersand census information all signs point to Dr. James A. McPherson, a well-known physician who practiced in Grand Rapids. We have a last name and street number. After searching the Lansing City Directories in the 1890s, we find no McPherson practicing medicine in Lansing in the 1890s. Why was the decade of the 1890s chosen? Well that is based upon the style of dress of the individuals in the photograph. Reviewing the Grand Rapids City Directories’ for the 1890s we know that Dr. McPherson’s office was located at 73 Canal Street in 1892 and 1893. However, this is not enough, we need corroboration.

If you look closely in the above image, under the poultry you can barely make out the name of the company next door to Dr. McPherson’s office. The front of the awning the words ‘Wholesale and Retail’ appear, the rest is obscured. So, given that this was either a butcher shop or a commercial hide company, there are bear and deer carcass hanging in the windows, it had to be one of the two. The Grand Rapids City Directories’ for 1892 and 1893 listed the Western Beef and Provision Company at 71 Canal Street. Given all these factors it can be stated with a high degree of certainty that the image is from Grand Rapids and not Lansing. Of course, today there are a variety tools that can be used to aid in the identification of a photograph that were no available to earlier researchers. Now an image can be scanned, then changed to a negative and manipulated in a variety of ways that allow more information to be pulled from a photograph then was possible just 20 years ago. The researcher can also examine a wide range of City Directories and other sources electronically, while back in the day the authors of the books where these images were published could not. So, if you are willing to stretch the definition of Lost Lansing, this really is a loss for Lansing, but a gain for Grand Rapids.

© Lost Lansing 2018



One of the enduring mysteries of Lansing is the Frederick M. Cowles’ house that was located on the site of what is today’s Durant Park. Why is the Cowles’ residence so enigmatic? Well no photograph of the home has ever been located. I find this odd, the home sat at the center of an entire city block, Number 54, one of the few homes in Lansing that had this distinction. The site was bounded on the east by Washington Avenue, the west by Capitol Avenue, the south by Saginaw Street and the north by Madison Street. The residence was also built by one of the early settlers of the city and was described as being a “pretentious mansion”.  Given those factors it seems odd that no photograph of the residence survived. Hopefully this short article will trigger something in the minds of the readers that will help uncover a lost image of the home.

The 1866 Birds Eye View Map of Lansing, with the detail of the Cowles’ Residence. Note the curved porch and the three full stories plus cupola.

The first image we have of the Cowles’s home is from the 1866 Birds Eye View Map of Lansing, notice how the residence is not at the center of the block, but rather positioned in the northeast corner of the block. This may have been a case of the prospective of the artist being off, because as you will observe in later maps the home is in the center of the block. The home was three stories tall, with an Italianate cupola atop the third story. The residence seems to be in the Italianate style, although a three-story Italianate home were rare in the Midwest. Also note the curved, eastern facing porch, with arches and wings on both the north and south side of the home. Moreover, there is a two-story wing to the west that may have housed the kitchen and servant quarters, but this is only speculation. The two-story outbuilding was in all likelihood the carriage house, which mimicked the design of the main house.

The Cowles Home from the 1873 map of the Lansing.

The curious aspect of the 1873 image of the Cowles’ home is the lack of an outbuilding and how the home was positioned just off center of the central point of the lot. It is also interesting to note how the layout of the residence was not symmetrical, there is a small protruding wing on the south side of the structure and the narrow back structure, the rear structure should have followed the width of the main building.

The 1913 Sanborn map image of the Cowles’ residence at 719 N. Washington.

Notice in the above image how the home is directly centered on the block facing east toward Washington Avenue. What the above image shows us is the wonderful curved front porch faced the Grand River, a three-story main building, not including the cupola, two wings both on the north and south side of the home with rear porches and a two-story structure at the back of the main building with another rear porch. One other fact about the home, it was built of brick, that was stated in a later article regarding the property. The carriage house at the top of the above image was a two-story structure. This is basically all that is known regarding the appearance of the Cowles residence.

Detail of 719 N. Washington.

Notice how the rear structure differs from the presentation of the image of the Cowles’ home in the 1873 map of Lansing. In the Sanborn map the rear building is symmetrical. It may be that in 1903 there was a porch on the rear of the south wing of the home but not the north wing, which would explain the unbalanced view on the 1873 map. Just what happened to the Cowles’ residence is almost a microcosm regarding Lansing track record on preservation, basically there was none.

Frederick Mortimer Cowles

Frederick Mortimer Cowles was born in New Berlin, Chenango County, New York on February 3, 1924 to Elliot and Sarah (née Phelps) Cowles. The family moved to Ohio in 1833 and ten years later Frederick, with his brother, Joseph P. Cowles moved to Ingham County, Michigan where they built and operated a sawmill near Aurelius. In 1847 Frederick settled in Lansing where he worked as a carpenter and contractor. He was one of the men who worked as a carpenter in the building of the first Capitol in Lansing. In 1848 he became a clerk in Hiram H. Smith’s general store. Frederick became Smith’s partner in the business in 1851. At some point between 1856-1859 Frederick’s partnership with Smith was dissolved. On the 1859 map of Lansing, Frederick is listed as managing a store on the south-west corner of Michigan and Washington Avenues. Frederick operated the business until he sold the company to Nelson F. Jenison, his future son-in-law. It seems Frederick loathed retirement and worked as a salesman for Lansing Wagon Works. He also served as a city alderman in 1861-1862 and 1875-1876. Frederick was instrumental in the rebuilding of the city bridges after the flood of 1875 and actively encouraged local residents plant trees along the street. On October 23, 1851, Frederick married Miss Delia L. Ward. The couple had three children; Alice Glendora, who married Nelson F. Jenison, Lizzie B., Lucy D. Cowles.[1]His wife Delia Louisa Cowles passed away on July 1, 1895. After his wife’s death Frederick lived at the home on Washington Avenue with his daughter’s Lizzie and Lucy. Towards the end of his life he resided with his daughter, Alice at 403 Seymour, Alice’s husband, Nelson died on November 3, 1907. Frederick stayed at the home on Seymour until his death on January 16, 1910. After Frederick’s moved in with his daughter Alice, Lizzie and Lucy Cowles maintained the residence at 719 N. Washington until about 1910, when they moved to 403 Seymour to care for their sister Alice.


So, what happened to the Cowles house? Well it had a rather sad and confusing history after the death of Frederick. Starting in 1911 over a two-week period Fred Lee Perkins, a former Lansing Fire Fighter, systematically looted the empty Cowles residence. Perkins had stolen, silverware, oil paintings, and mahogany furniture, which he resold to secondhand dealers. He was arrested and charged with burglary, oddly he only netted a total of $28 from his crime spree. It seems the secondhand dealers were cheating Perkins. Judge Wiest sentenced Perkins to two to five years in Jackson Prison. (LSJ 4/7/1911) Towards the end of 1911 there was a move by then Mayor Bennett to acquire the Cowles property as a city park at the cost of $40,000, paid for by city bonds, the proposal went nowhere. Two years later, Clarence Bement proposed that the city should acquire the Cowles property and convert it into a city park. First ward Alderman Jay M. Smith recommended that not only should the city acquire the property, but they should convert the house into a convention hall. (LSJ 4/3/1913) In March of 1915 the Board of Public Parks and Cemeteries recommended that the city acquire the Cowles property for $45,000, but there was no movement by the city to purchase the property. All the time the debate was going on regarding the city’s acquisition of the Cowles property the residence deteriorated, to a point where the neighbors requested that the city board the home up because it had become an eyesore and a haven for tramps. In May of 1915 a mattress in the home was set on fire, the cause of the blaze was never determined. What is remarkable is that the home was still fully furnished. A year later the property was being cleared and the house was scheduled for demolition, the property was being subdivided for resale. (LSJ 8/15/1916) A year later the city was again trying to acquire the property as a park, the main stumbling block in the sale of the property was the insistence of the family that the park be named after Mortimer Cowles. The city then tried to acquire the property through condemnation proceedings which, failed due to a hung jury. (LSJ3/1/1917) The city decided again to offer $70,000 for the Cowles property and put the proposition to Lansing voters on June 16, 1917, the measure was defeated, Yes 792 votes, No 925 votes. To many of the young residents of Lansing, the Cowles house was considered haunted. There were stories of strange sounds and mysterious lights emanating from the house. Turns out the ghost were usually Michigan Agricultural College students suffering the trials of a fraternal initiation. Finally, in 1918 C.I.B. McLean, a real estate developer completed a deal to subdivide the property into 21 lots, it was to be known as Cowles Square. No stores or public building were to be built on the lots. At this time the article mentions that the house was still standing on the lot, with the statement “At one time this home was considered the finest between Detroit and Grand Rapids” (LSJ9/14/1918). That all changed when William C. Durant visited Lansing in 1919. Upon seeing the property Durant was enchanted and purchased the property for $100,000. (LSJ 6/9/1919) Just what Durant’s plan for the property was a mystery. It seems that at this time the home was torn down and the foundation filled in, one wonders if the foundation is still present? (LSJ 9/25/1919) For two years Lansing residents were left to speculate what Durant would do with the property, finally on Monday, March 21, 1921 at the City Council meeting Durant’s lawyer presented the city with the property. (LSJ 3/22/1921) One final note, there is an image of the Cowles home in the Lansing State Journal, it is part of a collage of images that showed how overgrown the lot has become. The only thing that may be taken from the images is that the home has several columns. Seems like a sad end for such an enigmatic structure, but hey, Durant Park is beautiful.

[1]Alice Jenison died on November 12, 1915 in Lansing. (LSJ 11/13/1915) Miss Lucy Cowles died in Santa Monica, California on October 12, 1935. (LSJ 10/14/1935) Miss Lizzie B. Cowles passed away on February 11, 1941 in Santa Monica, California. (LSJ 2/12/1941)

© Lost Lansing 2018

1119 N. Washington (CADL/FPLA)

Oliver G. Tooker built his home in Lansing in 1847 (1848) the same year that the Capitol was moved to Lansing. The Tooker name was one that was interwoven with the early history of Lansing. Oliver was born in New York in 1823-1824 to Eliphlet (Ellflit) and Sarah (née Smith) Tooker.[1] Oliver came to Lansing in 1847, he was a carpenter by trade and was a veteran of the War of 1812.[2] After the death of his parents in New York, Oliver raised his younger brother, John S. Tooker, who would later become Lansing’s Mayor (1872-73 and 1876) and Territorial Secretary of Montana (1884). In December of 1847 Oliver married Miss Caroline M. Stoffey (Stuffey), the couple had three children, two daughters who predeceased their parents, Lizzie and Mary and one son, Edwin S. Tooker. Oliver passed away at his home on December 11, 1892. (SR 12/11/1892) Caroline stayed in the home after Oliver’s death and 1898 celebrated with family and friends her 50th year in the home.  An account of Caroline’s early days in Lansing was published in the State Republican, which explained that after her marriage to Oliver in December 1847, Oliver returned to Lansing to build a home for his bride. In April 1848 he returned to Woodhull, Michigan to take his wife to Lansing. When Caroline arrived in the Capital City she discovered that they had only four neighbors and at night she could hear the Native Americans who were camped on the banks of the Grand River. Oliver purchased a stove in Dexter, Michigan for Caroline and she managed to acquire six tea cups and saucers at a store near Main Street and the river, with those items secured she set up her home. (SR 5/24/1898) Less then a year after the celebration Caroline passed away at the home where she lived for so many years on May 10, 1899. (SR 5/10/1899) After both his parents died, Edwin S. Tooker lived at the home until his death on February 1, 1924, Edwin’s wife Martha stayed at the home until 1951, Martha passed away at a nursing home in Farmington, Michigan on March 25, 1952 at the age of 95. (LSJ 3/26/1952) In July of 1951 the Tooker home, the oldest standing structure in Lansing was torn down, for wait, you guessed it a parking lot. (LSJ 7/21/1951) Yep a parking lot, which it still is today, only now it is covered in grass. I should say WTH. Really, the oldest home in Lansing was torn down for a parking lot. They knew it was the oldest home but what the heck let’s just tear it down. I have been doing research on Lansing for 20 years and the same result is always found, ‘Structure torn down for a parking lot’, the irony is there are a lot of parking lots in Lansing and they are never filled and no one has trouble finding a parking spot, and this lot is never used! Consider what North Lansing would be like if it had the oldest home in Lansing. The home was a wonderful example of the work done by a talented carpenter. The porch faced the south allowing for a comfortable seating area during the summer months. Notice the location and size of the windows, positioned to allow as much natural light as possible to flood the interior rooms. In its day, this would have been a cozy and functional home. The home was not a grand structure, but what the hard working man who built Lansing would have lived in.

The will not be an August post, see you in September.

© Lost Lansing 2018

[1] History of Montana, by Joaquin Miller, 1894

[2] It is doubtful that Oliver served in the War of 1812, this claim was made by his nephew Dr. Oliver A. Tooker. Oliver Tooker date of birth is always listed as being in 1823 or 1824 and State Republican listed his age as 69 at the time of his death in 1892. Oliver A. Tooker may have confused Oliver’s service with that of his father, Eliphlet Tooker who served in the War of 1812 as a private. See LSJ 7/21/1951