Remembering the past, and lessons

One of the things that has made this project so special for us is the rich history of the building. It was built in 1920 during a boom time in Detroit, and the first tenant that we know of was the DeFord Motor Truck Company, followed a year later by the Ames-built Sales Corp, who made bodies for Model T cars. A series of auto-related businesses followed (see our Green Garage history page for more details and photos), and then, at some point in the 1930’s, Samuel Kanners brought his shoe supply business to the building. By the mid-1950’s, Victor Kanners, Sam’s son, merged his business with a similar business owned by Samuel Patrize, and the company became Kanners and Patrize. The Kanners and Patrize sign was on the building when we bought it, and was just recently removed. It will be hung inside the building when it opens.

There are a lot of gaps in our knowledge of the building’s history, and in order to learn more, we have had one meeting with some of the people who worked in the building decades ago, including Dave Patrize and Frank Lucente. Dave is the son of Sam Patrize, and Frank worked in the building from the 1950’s. Here they are at our meeting: Dave Patrize, Frank’s son, Dave, Frank Lucente and his wife, Winnie.

Kanners group

At this meeting, Frank told us to get in touch with Marilyn Beckham, Sam Kanners’ granddaughter, to learn more about the business. We plan to meet with her in the new year. She has also connected us with Bob Zukowski, who probably worked at the building longer than anyone, starting at age 13, when he was hired to fill the coal bin before school.

Anyway, Bob just sent us a new photo of the 1948 sales team at S. Kanners and Co. Sam Kanners is in the back row, right.

1948 sales force
One of the things that’s interesting about this photo is the number of years these men worked in the shoe repair and supply business – 162 years total! Many of the men worked in the business over 25 years. One thing Frank talked to us about was the speed with which the shoe supply business died. He told us that in this era, there were over 4,000 shoe repair businesses in Michigan, and within 50 years, the number dwindled to less than 100. The reason? The influx of tennis shoes from foreign companies, which were made in a way in which they could not be repaired.

The past can inform us about how we live today, and this makes me think first of how many years most of us work in one job. I would guess that in our lifetimes, the vast majority of us do not spend 25 years in one profession, like the men of S. Kanners and Co. Technology moves us quickly to rethinking and retraining, always adapting to the new new thing. So we often work in a series of professions that build upon each other, changing as times change. Perhaps one of the last businesses of the long-term employment era is our own auto industry, and even here significant changes have occurred in the past couple of years, albeit somewhat involuntarily.

And so we learn our lesson from history. At the Green Garage, we are designing the building and the business to anticipate change. Even though we are designing the building to last another 100 years, we have added another component to the design, which I’ll call cradle-to-cradle (borrowed from William McDonough). Everything we are putting into the building can be easily removed for reuse or replacement (like our floor – we’re screwing it down instead of nailing it, for easier removal). On the business side, people renting space will be encouraged to rent only the space they need, depending on the ebbs and flows of their businesses. Change is something we expect.

I do wonder what these men would think of what’s happening in the building where they spent so much of their lives.

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