Fidelity Building, Benton Harbor Michigan

Date added: January 19, 2023 Categories: Michigan Office Retail

The Fidelity Building is the largest office building in Benton Harbor. Constructed in 1926 during an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity, it is located on a wedge-shaped lot at the city's historic and commercial core. The building overlooks the busiest commercial intersection in Benton Harbor and, in its heyday, was the hub of professional and business life there.

Located on the high ground above the marshes northeast of the St. Joseph River, Benton Harbor was first settled in the 1830s by Eleazer Morton. Traveling west via the Territorial Road, farmers from as far east as Kalamazoo would carry their goods through what later became Benton Harbor on their way to St. Joseph, a shipping point on Lake Michigan on the opposite bank of the river. When St. Joseph refused to help rebuild the St. Joseph River bridge in 1858, community leaders in Benton Harbor began a drive to build a mile-long shipping canal from the river to the smaller settlement. Completed in 1862, this canal provided direct access to Lake Michigan and established Benton Harbor as a shipping center for area grain, lumber, and fruit. The young settlement (initially called Brunson Harbor) grew rapidly and was incorporated as a village in 1866. The first lot at the corner of Main and Pipestone streets sold that year for $60. Located just one block from the canal terminus, this crossroads was the site of most early commercial activity in Benton Harbor and was known as Four Corners.

Commercial fruit growing became an important business beginning in the 1850s. Capitalizing on a favorable climate and fertile soil, more orchards were established throughout the region, with land selling for up to $1,000 an acre. In the 1870s, steamships loaded more than 30,000 packages of fruit per year from the city's docks, and by the turn of the century Benton Harbor was known as the heart of Michigan's fruit belt. For decades the city was the principal service and market center for southwest Michigan's fruit industry, and for a time was the largest cash-to-farmer market in the country, drawing fruit and produce buyers from cities within a 600-mile radius. Benton Harbor achieved city status in 1891 and prospered throughout the early twentieth century with the growth of several small industries, including foundries, sawmills, canneries, basket factories, and carton mills.

In 1905 the Benton Harbor Development Company was organized to draw new business to the city, and incentives were offered to entice industries to the area. Among the early companies that came were the Malleable Company, Covel Manufacturing, and the Ross Carrier Company (later part of Clark Equipment). Tourism also became an important industry at this time, and the local beaches, dance halls, hotels, mineral baths, and amusement parks made Benton Harbor a popular vacation destination, particularly for Chicagoans. Beginning in 1869, the railroad offered direct access to the east (via the Pere Marquette), but improved transportation helped commerce and tourism grow even further in the twentieth century. Between 1900 and 1915, the Graham & Morton Transportation Company alone operated six large, side-wheeling steamers between Chicago and Benton Harbor, and made daily trips that carried millions of passengers across the lake. Ultimately, the steamboat trade was eclipsed by cars and trucks, and with the scarcity of bridges across the St. Joseph River, Benton Harbor's Main Street became a principal thoroughfare for travel through western Michigan. Boosters credited the city's expansion to "its strategic position as the gateway to western Michigan, the heart of the fruit belt and the center of growing manufacturing and summer resort activities."

The decade of the twenties was one of the most progressive and colorful periods in Benton Harbor history, in terms of general population and economic growth and diversification. Along with numerous civic improvements including the adoption of the city commission form of government, construction of a new high school and churches, and creation of a municipal airport and park system, many small manufacturing concerns supplying products to the growing automobile industry were established. Other manufacturers began an uninterrupted growth that led to national prominence, such as the Whirlpool Corporation, Superior Steel, and Remington Rand. Modern fruit packaging and processing plants were established at this time, and the House of David acquired a cold storage plant, a motel, and hotel. In the midst of this post-war boom, construction began on the Fidelity Building in 1925. The Fidelity's construction, in the words of the local newspaper, heralded "a new era of progress in civic development" in Benton Harbor.

The first major construction project of the twenties was the Hotel Vincent. Designed by Charles Nicol, the Vincent was located at the corner of Main and Sixth streets, one block east of the Four Corners district. At eight stories, it was (and continues to be) the tallest building in Benton Harbor. With its completion in 1925, the city acquired a dramatic new skyline and a new standard of luxury in tourist accommodations. The hotel was closed in 1975 and converted to offices in 1989.

The companion to the Vincent was the Fidelity Building, nearly as large as the Vincent and the most imposing structure in the nascent business district at the southern end of downtown. Built on the site of the old brick Sweet block, the Fidelity was constructed for the Bradford-Bowlby Real Estate Company at a cost of $256,000. Completed in 1926, the building "marked in a definite way Benton Harbor's emergence from a 'Main street town' to a city proper." The Fidelity filled a void in Benton Harbor's commercial landscape, and upon its completion, the center of the city's business district shifted south to the five-point intersection; the juncture of Wall, Michigan, Pipestone, and Elm streets, known as Five Corners. The key anchor at that intersection, the newly-completed Fidelity Building was "a steel, brick and stone reminder that a location within a stop of the 'four corners' is no longer essential," and its construction signaled "an awakening civic consciousness and boundless confidence on the part of the city's business men" in the future of Benton Harbor.

The Fidelity Building was designed by Charles W. Nicol of the firm of Nicol, Scholer & Hoffman. Nicol was involved in the construction of several prominent Benton Harbor landmarks during the decade of the twenties. Born in Cincinnati in 1888 and educated at Purdue University and the University of Illinois, he served for several years as chief architect at Purdue University. Important commissions included the LaSalle Hotel, South Bend; Elkhart Hotel, Elkhart; Hotel Gary, Gary; the Spaulding Hotel, Michigan City (all in Indiana); and the Roshek Department Store, Dubuque, Iowa. In 1925, Nicol designed the Vincent Hotel and annex in Benton Harbor, and in 1926 the First Community Church on Wall Street. In 1928, his Tudor Revival-style Gray-Hall/Gas Building was completed at the corner of the Pipestone and Wall streets. In 1925, Nicol announced the opening of his general headquarters in the Straus Building in Chicago. Nicol practiced architecture, in his later years in partnership with a son, until about 1960.

The M.W. Stock & Sons Construction Company was general contractor for the Fidelity project, and fifteen other companies furnished the materials and labor for the finished building. Preference was given to local firms whenever possible. These included: C.L. Myers Electrical Company of Benton Harbor (wiring); Fred C. Lerch & Sons of St. Joseph (plumbing); Mamer Brick Company of Benton Harbor (reinforcing steel); Union Trim Company of Kalamazoo (mill work); Glass & Glazing Company of Saginaw (glass); and the United Stone Company of Belleview (art stone). Other materials were supplied by out-of-state companies: J.J. Steinbring of Chicago (roofing and sheet metal products); Union Foundry Works of Chicago (structural steel and miscellaneous iron work); Advance Terra Cotta Company of Chicago (terra cotta); Art Mosaic & Tile Company of Toledo (terrazzo flooring); Marble & Fireplace Company of South Bend, Indiana (marble); American Mailing Device Corporation of New York (mail chute); and Fred Ruele, Inc. of Lafayette, Indiana (finish hardware). Over 5,000 people attended the formal opening of the building on September 10, 1926.

With the completion of the Fidelity, both Michigan and Wall streets were widened and improved, to relieve the traffic congestion along West Main Street and encourage development in the Five Corners area. Within a year, the new Y.M.C.A. building on Michigan Street was completed, and the renowned open-air fruit market on Elm Street (now known as West Wall Street) was expanded. Older buildings on Pipestone were demolished to make way for new ones like the Gray-Hall/Gas Building at Wall Street, directly across from the Fidelity. In 1926, the City Commission was petitioned to purchase the old Michigan Central depot at Oak and Michigan streets, and to build a new city hall and fire station on the site. In response to this proposal, the local press noted that "if this site is selected and the building program goes through, this once shabby district will become a civic center with the new Y.M.C.A. and the Fidelity Block but a stone's throw distant." In 1937, the new municipal building was finally completed one block east of the Fidelity, and the area was thus firmly established as the core of civic and business life in Benton Harbor.

Fully occupied, the Fidelity Building provided space for about sixty tenants, including doctors, dentists, lawyers, insurance agents, loan companies, realtors, and stockbrokers. Among its most prominent early occupants were the Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Fruit Growers' Association, and the Fidelity Insurance Company. A leader in local business development and recruitment, the Chamber was organized in 1917 for the purpose of "centralizing, synchronizing and concentrating the community's interests." In the 1920s it assumed the work of the Benton Harbor Development Company. Headquartered on the fourth floor of the Fidelity, the Chamber advanced the industrial, civic, agricultural and commercial interests of the city, and operated subsidiary credit and traffic bureaus as a means of serving the retail and manufacturing sectors. The annual Blossom Festival was one of its most well-promoted public activities.

The Michigan Fruit Growers' Association was incorporated in 1923 to organize the fruit growers along the eastern Lake Michigan shoreline and secure for them more stable markets and reasonable prices. Lobbying on behalf of its members, the Association played an important part in the marketing of southwestern Michigan's fruit crops and the adoption of legislation favorable to growers in the region. Largely as a result of the Association's efforts, members were protected from what they considered unfair competition and unjust marketing conditions, and the quality of their fruit crops became nationally recognized. Their offices in the Fidelity were just a short distance from the city's open market on lower Elm Street, three blocks to the west.

The Fidelity Health & Accident Insurance Company, the namesake of the building, was established in 1903 as the Workingmen's Mutual Protective Association by A.R. Arford, E.C. Edumunds, and E.C. Bowlby. The founders' goal was to "take the ever present spectre of the wolf from the door of the day laborer, and place the threat of starvation for his kiddies in a remote place." In 1913 the company was reorganized as the Fidelity Health & Accident Insurance Company, and it began extending policies to other states. In 1927, it moved to the fifth floor of the newly constructed Fidelity Building, and in 1940 doubled its floorspace there by removing partitions for spaces that had formerly been leased for individual offices. By the 1960s the company had grown from one office worker and two field representatives to fifty-five office workers and more than 1,500 field agents, and was one of the largest insurance companies of its type in the country.

Over the years, other organizations like the Great Lakes Fruit Industries, the Straight Side Basket Corporation, and the Berrien County Sunday School Association were headquartered in the upper floors of the building. At street level, the Fidelity Drug Store was located in the distinctive corner storefront. From 1927 to 1962, the Drug Store coffee shop was the favorite gathering place for local business and professional people. Other traditional retail operations such as a hardware, barber shop, florist, men's clothier, photographer, and butcher also operated in the smaller spaces at the storefront level.

The city's tallest office building and the heart of the new commercial district, the Fidelity was a prestigious location that captured the progressive spirit of Benton Harbor's leaders like no other. In erecting the building, the owners aimed "to bring to Benton Harbor more business, more prosperity" and for fifty years it continued to "set the pace" for progress in the city. Built at the end of the city's most rapid period of growth, it represented the last major building fluorescence in the central business district.

The construction of interstate highways (I-94 and I-196) through the region in the 1950s and 60s provided quick and easy access to Detroit and Grand Rapids, but while growth along those transportation corridors accelerated, Benton Harbor's downtown languished. Beginning in the 1960s the city shared the experience of many Michigan cities through loss of central city population, businesses and tax revenues, and today's population now stands at less than 13,000. The urban setting in Benton Harbor has radically declined as a result of these changes. As part of a general decline in the local economy, the Fidelity was closed in 1976. It has been vacant since that time, and its condition has deteriorated. Current plans call for rehabilitation of the building for use as senior housing. Once the commercial anchor of the central business district, the Fidelity Building stands as one of the few remaining landmark buildings surviving in an area now characterized by expanses of vacant space, caused by years of urban renewal and neglect.

Building Description

The Fidelity Building occupies what was once a prominent position in the center of Benton Harbor. At the time of its construction in 1926, it was reputedly the largest retail and office building between Kalamazoo, Michigan and South Bend, Indiana. Located on a triangular parcel of land at the corner of Pipestone and Michigan streets, it was commonly called the Flatiron Building after its well-known east coast predecessor. The Fidelity is composed of seven-bay facades on both Pipestone and Michigan streets, and its distinctive curved corner overlooks the five-point intersection known locally as Five Corners. Once a bustling business district, the area around the Fidelity is now characterized by open lots and vacant buildings.

The Fidelity is a reinforced concrete frame structure with brick veneer. It consists of six floors, each with 6,600 square feet of space, and an 8,000 square foot basement. The building displays a three-part facade characteristic of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century commercial buildings, and references elements of the Renaissance Revival style in its symmetry, bold cornice treatment, and simple use of classically derived details. The street level consists of a series of rectangular storefronts along the northeast (Pipestone) and northwest (Michigan) elevations, composed primarily of expansive glass display windows. The Pipestone and Michigan elevations come together to form a curved corner entry at the intersection, a prominent commercial space that was occupied for over thirty years by the Fidelity Drug Store. Above this entrance are five stories of paired, curved glass sash windows. Between the fifth and sixth floors is a plaque with "FIDELITY BLDG." carved into it.

The primary tenant access is on Michigan Street through centered, double-entry doors beneath a flat metal canopy; there are three individual storefronts at the south end of this building elevation. The Pipestone elevation reveals a more functional pedestrian access pattern, with four asymmetrically positioned storefront entries. Many of the elements comprising the commercial facades have experienced alteration, but most retain primary characteristics such as the large display window and recessed entry with transom light. At the second-floor level, fenestration is defined almost exclusively by large rectangular windows each composed of a fixed central pane flanked by narrow double-hung sash, commonly known as Chicago windows. Above this level, the brick wall surface is punctuated with one-over-one light, double-hung wood sash windows. Glazing in most windows is broken or fallen out.

The brick facades of the central four stories are embellished only with quoins at the corners. The sixth floor is ornamented with belt courses at floor level and window sill and lintel level, with vertical banding that outlines each pair of windows, and a course of stretcher brick that outlines each window. The facade is capped with a metal cornice with modillions and dentils.

The ten-bay wide rear (southeast) elevation now overlooks vacant lots fronting on Pleasant Street. This elevation is composed of two unembellished four-bay wings pierced by sash windows. Each wing flanks a recessed central tower that houses the elevator and mechanical systems, creating an open courtyard above the third-floor level. The lower three stories of this elevation present a blank wall that partitioned the Fidelity Building from an attached structure that has since been demolished. A portion of the sixth-floor brick wall has exfoliated and fallen from the building face. Overlooking an alley, the four-bay side (southwest) elevation is a functional composition, penetrated by three service entries at the street level and double-hung, wood sash windows above.

The public and retail areas of the first-floor interior have experienced a high degree of plan alteration and remodeling, and few original spaces there remain intact. Most interior doors have been replaced, a suspended ceiling system has been installed, and synthetic paneling is applied over some plaster walls. In many areas where original walls are exposed, water damage has caused the plaster to fall off, exposing the original Certain-teed gypsum tile base below. Some plaster crown molding in the lobby area on Michigan Street remains intact, but the brushed aluminum doorway with transom and sidelights is a later addition.

By contrast, the five upper stories reference the historic building layout rather faithfully. Each floor is divided into ten generally standard tenant spaces, each accessed by a central stairway and elevator. All offices have exterior exposure, as well as interior windows and glass panel doors, with transoms, that open onto the central hall. Along with the central stair and terrazzo floors, much of the interior woodwork and trim in the hallways is intact. Deterioration of plaster in the upper floors is substantial, and on the sixth floor the original inverted pan concrete roof slab is visible from below.

Fidelity Building, Benton Harbor Michigan Front elevations, looking south. The northeast (Pipestone Street) elevation is on the left, and the northwest (Michigan Street) elevation is on the right (2001)
Front elevations, looking south. The northeast (Pipestone Street) elevation is on the left, and the northwest (Michigan Street) elevation is on the right (2001)

Fidelity Building, Benton Harbor Michigan Primary, canopied tenant entrance on Michigan Street (2001)
Primary, canopied tenant entrance on Michigan Street (2001)

Fidelity Building, Benton Harbor Michigan Rear (south) elevation, showing open lightwell and window configuration (2001)
Rear (south) elevation, showing open lightwell and window configuration (2001)

Fidelity Building, Benton Harbor Michigan Main lobby area, looking north towards doorway on Michigan Street (2001)
Main lobby area, looking north towards doorway on Michigan Street (2001)

Fidelity Building, Benton Harbor Michigan Staircase in main lobby area, looking east (2001)
Staircase in main lobby area, looking east (2001)

Fidelity Building, Benton Harbor Michigan Typical Pipestone Street storefront. Note recessed doorway, original single-light wood panel door with transom, and plaster wall treatment (2001)
Typical Pipestone Street storefront. Note recessed doorway, original single-light wood panel door with transom, and plaster wall treatment (2001)

Fidelity Building, Benton Harbor Michigan Typical Michigan Street storefront. Door on right enters directly into the main lobby (2001)
Typical Michigan Street storefront. Door on right enters directly into the main lobby (2001)

Fidelity Building, Benton Harbor Michigan Corner space on second floor, showing Chicago style window on left (2001)
Corner space on second floor, showing Chicago style window on left (2001)

Fidelity Building, Benton Harbor Michigan Fourth-floor hallway, showing door and window configuration (2001)
Fourth-floor hallway, showing door and window configuration (2001)

Fidelity Building, Benton Harbor Michigan Fifth-floor hallway, showing door and window configuration, stairway on left, terrazzo flooring (2001)
Fifth-floor hallway, showing door and window configuration, stairway on left, terrazzo flooring (2001)