Full construction mode (and a little history lesson)

We’re in full construction mode right now, and you don’t need to enter the building to sense the scale of what is happening. Walking down Second Avenue, you hear the sounds of construction a couple of blocks away. As you approach, the smell of welding and drilling fills the air. Once inside, it’s difficult to hold any sort of extensive conversation because crews are working in pretty much every area within the building (so we speak with a lot of pauses). If you are ambitious enough to open your laptop and attempt work, as Joe, Tom and Kirsten do every day, you need to clean off the grit before packing it up at the end of the day. I tend to record everything on film and get it up at home!

So let me get you up to date. Last week we began opening up the beautiful front windows that had been bricked since 1968. In case you are unfamiliar with the story of these windows, they were bricked up the year after the riots, in 1968, after the insurance company told the owners that they would no longer be insured if they did not cover the windows. When we began taking out the inside bricks last year, we were surprised to find the original windows still intact. So we took those windows out, cut them up, and have stored them for use when we build our greenhouse. We will be using the frames for interior windows. Here is a photo of the first window opened at the end of the day last Friday.

New window

During our Friday meeting, we spent some time talking about the significance of this, and a little about the history of the building. Marilyn Beckham joined us, whose grandfather, Samuel Kanners (of Kanners and Patrize) spent decades working in the building in the shoe supply business. For us, it was a good time to pause in our construction and think about who had been in this building and how their lives had been affected by what was happening in the city…and what was to come.

This week the rest of the windows have been removed, and right now crews are working to get the openings ready for the new windows (which are waiting inside).

Working on front windows

In other construction-related news, the framing has begun for the walls.

Framing walls upstairs

Kevin Gardner is making progress on the wood wall that will surround our new stairway. The wall is made from wood scraps that we have no other use for.

Kevin and wall

The alley is progressing on schedule. Here is how it looked Wednesday, with sections of concrete and sections of historic brick. The brick will get power washed to restore its beauty, but you can get a sense of the look. We go to pick up the plants from Native Plant Nursery in Mason, MI, next Monday. Planting should be on the 1st and the 2nd of July.

Brick pavers

Dan Scarsella of Motor City Brewing Works brought over his hi-lo on Wednesday to move the pavers from inside the building to the alley, with a little help from GG people to balance the weight.

Dan and help

In other news, we had 2 film crews out Wednesday. The first is an independent group who are developing a film about post-industrial cities and how they are reconfiguring themselves, particularly in relation to green business. They are trying to sell this as a series to the Discovery Channel. The Green Garage will be featured in their pilot. Here I am doing some filming by the alley.

Peggy and crew

We also met with Ron Williams and his Free Speech TV crew Wednesday afternoon. They are here with the US Social Forum, and talked with us about the genesis of our idea and what we hope our work will accomplish. I did feel for the sound men yesterday, as they had some pretty difficult challenges with all the construction noise.

Some of us are spending some time off site right now, learning all we can about the history of this property. For a few hours every Thursday, mostly at the Detroit Public Library, we are tracing the roots of this property to see who lived or worked here in the past. Our building history page shows you some of this work. We have traced ownership of the general Cass farms area back to before the American Revolution (Charles Courtois, Francois Berthelet and Charles Beaubien owned it at the time). Some other points of interest:

  • Lewis Cass purchased the property in 1816 for $12,000, and it became known as Cass Farms
  • In the late 1900’s, as Detroit became a leading manufacturing center, this area became home to wealthy Detroiters, with property bordering Woodward Avenue housing the wealthiest
  • By the early 1920’s, with the advent of the automobile, this property was home to many of the first automobile dealerships, including the parcel where the GG now stands
  • The Depression of the ’30’s greatly affected the area, and the magnificent large homes were turned into multiple family residences
  • We found the first family to own a home on our property was the Mulliken family (John, Emma and sons Harry and George), from 1882-1896. John was a general manager at the Detroit, Lansing & Northern Railroad, and the Chicago & West Michigan Railway. After John died at age 55 in 1892, Emma lived in the home until 1896, when she moved to Farnsworth St.
  • We traced ownership through subsequent families (the Ross family, the Doyle family, Samuel Jacobs and Fred Reissman) until 1919, when the homes must have been destroyed in order to erect the building we are in now.
  • Our building was built in 1920, with the DeFord Motor Truck Company as the first tenant in 1921. A series of automotive-related businesses passed through the doors until 1941, when Sam Kanners brought his shoe supply business to the building, and stayed until around 1996.

In digging up the foundation for our greenhouse (on the alley side of the building), we have found numerous artifacts that must have come from these previous residences, such as a fork, medicine bottles (possibly related to a chemical company that listed residence there for a year), bones (dog?), and foundation bricks.


We have more research to do, as we just discovered that 3 residences were on the site, not just the one we supposed was there. So back to the library! And eventually we’d like to trace the site back to indigenous owners, before the western world made an imprint.

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