Vacant hotel in Michigan

Hotel Columbia, Vassar Michigan
Date added: February 24, 2023 Categories: Michigan Hotel
Exterior, northeast and southeast facades (1991)

The Hotel Columbia is Vassar's only surviving and longest-operating lodging establishment. In addition, the Hotel Columbia is associated with J. P. Blackmore, one of Vassar's most influential nineteenth-century business leaders.

Settlement of Tuscola County took place slowly in comparison with other lower peninsula counties. By the 1840s, however, the county began to attract entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on the commercial lumber potential of the area's impressive stands of virgin pine forest. The large trees, known as "cork pine," produced broad, strong boards which were virtually knot-free and of excellent substance.

In 1849 a small band of settlers led by Townsend North and James Edmunds made its way to northeastern Tuscola County and founded the community of Vassar on the banks of the Cass River. The small settlement was reportedly named in honor of Matthew Vassar, a relative of Edmunds and founder of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.' Shortly after their encampment, North, who owned a considerable amount of Tuscola timberland, constructed a sawmill to serve the lumber business that was expected to center around Vassar. The sawmill was the first business to be established at Vassar and soon it, and the lure of the emerging lumber industry, began to attract settlers to the area. In 1851 a church, school, and several other businesses were established, and in 1854 the village of Vassar was officially platted.

Tuscola County was organized in 1850, and being the most successful community therein, Vassar was designated to serve as temporary county seat until 1860. When the time came for selection of a permanent seat of government, Vassar found itself in stiff competition from the fledgling communities of Caro and Wahjemega. In a highly contentious decision, Tuscola County supervisors voted 12 to 8 to remove the county seat from Vassar, and mandated that a site on the banks of the Cass River be purchased for the establishment of a permanent seat. The selection of a new site did not go smoothly, however, and the Tuscola county seat controversy persisted through the 1860s. After an attempt to locate the seat of government at a site named "Moonshine" failed in 1863, the seat was moved to Centerville in 1865, and to Caro in 1866 where it was to remain."

Despite losing the county seat to Caro, Vassar grew steadily through the 1860s and was finally incorporated as a village in 1871. Although the lumber business and the village's position on the Cass River had been strong enough to fuel the community's growth up until this time, Vassar remained disconnected from the state's expanding rail network. Recognizing the importance of securing a rail line through Vassar that would connect it with the growing urban centers of Michigan and the Midwest, citizens subsidized construction of the Detroit & Bay City and the Vassar & Caro Railroad through town. Completion of the rail lines in 1873 boosted the village's position as one of the leading lumber towns of the Thumb. The 1870s and 1880s brought not only an increase in population and the establishment of numerous commercial enterprises, but also the establishment of cultural institutions such as a community band, library, and opera house.

While the railroads brought commercial success to Vassar, they also contributed to the rapid depletion of the area's timber resources. In the late nineteenth century, faced with the inevitable decline of the area's lumber industry, the community began to undergo a change in character, from serving as a center for the lumber economy to functioning as an agricultural service center.

In September 1881 the Thumb area was devastated by several spectacular forest fires, which destroyed much of the remaining timber lands of northeastern Tuscola County. Over 2000 square miles of forests, farms and settlements were decimated, approximately 280 people killed, and an estimated 15,000 people left homeless by the fires. While the fires virtually ruined the Tuscola lumber industry, the vast acres of cleared timberland contributed to the rise of another important industry, agriculture.

The Michigan Legislature passed the "sugar bounty" law in 1881, which became the impetus for the establishment of a distinct brand of agriculture in the Thumb region. Under the "sugar bounty," the state offered $.01 to Michigan manufacturers for every pound of sugar produced from Michigan-grown beets. Farmers throughout the Thumb area were quick to try the new crop. By the turn of the century, sugar beets had become an important cash crop in Tuscola County, with growers steadily increasing their production to supply the area's rapidly expanding sugar processing facilities.

It was during this period of transition that the Hotel Columbia was constructed in 1892. The hotel was built not only to serve business travelers, but also to provide a comfortable resting place for members of the general public passing through town. James P. Blackmore (better known as "J. P." Blackmore), the hotel's builder and owner for nine years, was a prominent Vassar businessman. In planning the two-story brick hotel's construction, he provided for the incorporation of modern conveniences lacking in other local hotels. Upon completion, the Hotel Columbia was billed as the first in the area to have such amenities as electric lights, running water on all floors, and sewer connections. The hotel had its own livery, and a dining room on the first floor, which quickly became a popular gathering place for Vassar area residents. Two full baths served the second floor and each of the hotel's guestrooms had running water. In addition, customers were provided with free "bus" service to and from the railroad depot.

The extra expense and effort put into making the Hotel Columbia one of the most modern, up-to-date small hostelries of its time was not surprising, given the way J. P. Blackmore typically handled his business dealings. By the time the hotel was built, Blackmore had been wheeling and dealing in Tuscola County for over fifteen years and was one of the area's most prominent businessmen. His business ventures ranged from railroad construction projects to farming and livestock breeding.

A native of London, Ontario, J. P. Blackmore came to Michigan in 1871 to work on the construction of the Detroit & Bay City Railroad in Lapeer County. Along with his brother Simon, Blackmore contracted with various railroads to construct heavy timber bridges throughout the Midwest. In 1872 both brothers were stationed in Vassar to work on various building projects related to the area's timber industry and railroad construction. Three years later, after terminating their involvement in railroad construction projects, both men settled in Vassar and engaged in other business ventures. The men opened a saloon and billiards hall in 1875 and later purchased the Central House, one of Vassar's earliest inns. Four years later, Blackmore sold his share of the inn and opened a livery, which he later traded for a Tuscola County farm. In 1883 he purchased the Jewell House in Vassar. After expanding this hotel and managing it for five years, Blackmore sold out in order to concentrate on his farming and livery businesses. His "Fairview Farm," and another farm owned by Blackmore near Juniata, were actively involved in livestock breeding. In the late nineteenth century, Blackmore held a reputation for high-quality stallions and pure-bred Durham and Jersey cattle.

He served as secretary of the local agricultural society, was a founding member of the Vassar Driving Park Association and took an active part in the financing and construction of Vassar's Recreation Park.

Blackmore retained proprietorship of the Hotel Columbia until 1902 when he sold the business to his brother Simon. John H. Schultz took over ownership from Simon Blackmore in 1909. Shortly after Schultz's purchase of the business, passage of a prohibition amendment in Tuscola County required the conversion of the hotel dining room into a restaurant and temperance house. By the time Prohibition ended, the hotel was reputed to operate one of the best dining establishments in Tuscola County.

Although remaining profitable, the hotel and restaurant passed through a number of ownerships between 1913 and 1932. In 1929 the hotel was renamed "Vassar Hotel," and in the mid-1980s became known as the "Heritage Valley Inn." Occupation of the building continued uninterrupted until a severe flood in the fall of 1986 damaged the building and forced it to close. Flooding has been a recurring problem in Vassar due to the town's position on the shallow floodplain of the Cass River. The Cork Pine Preservation Association is currently making plans to restore the hotel, with spaces on the first floor of the building devoted to local history displays. The hotel's lobby will be restored and second-floor guest rooms will be decorated to match different time periods in the hotel's ninety-year history.

Building Description

The Hotel Columbia is a two-story, flat-roofed late-nineteenth-century commercial building. It is constructed of medium brownish-red brick laid in common bond with a concrete foundation and trimmed with light-brown rock-faced sandstone. The hotel anchors the southwest corner of Huron Avenue and Cass Street in Vassar, Michigan and, along with the Vassar State Bank building which faces the hotel across Huron Avenue, defines the eastern edge of the town's historic business district. The building is composed of a two-story L-shaped mass, with a smaller one-story block inserted into the angle of the "L." Located at the rear of the hotel, this one-story segment originally contained service spaces for the hotel and dining room. Two small one-story concrete block additions were appended to this service area after 1949. The longer segment of the L faces Huron Avenue, and it is on this street that the building's principal entrances are located.

The building responds to its corner location with public facades on both Huron Avenue and Cass Street, but gives primacy to Huron. First and second-story facades display flat arch one-over-one windows atop continuous rock-face sandstone sills which visually delineate the two story levels. On both elevations, first-floor wall openings are complemented on the second by one-over-one windows which light the upstairs guest rooms. A series of small recessed panels and serrated corbels decorate the exterior brick wall above a sandstone belt course at the parapet. A canted entrance that serves the hotel lobby is located beneath a semi-circular projecting bay, or "turret," on the corner of Cass and Huron. The door is flanked by segmented sidelights and surmounted by a transom light. The turret, which originally held a conical slate shingle roof, is supported by two plain stone columns with cushion capitals which are flanked by matching pilasters. The semi-circular bay is pierced by three one-over-one windows. These windows feature sandstone lintels in place of brick arches, but are otherwise identical to the other hotel windows. Originally a wrought-iron false balcony circled the bay from its stone base. Set into the top of the bay is a sandstone block bearing the inscription "J. P. Blackmore," name of the hotel's original owner.

Both northeast (Huron Avenue) and southeast (Cass Street) elevations were originally partitioned by brick pilaster strips into four bays. Although irregularly proportioned, the bays reflect the vertical division of spaces within. A few years after the hotel was built, an additional bay was appended to the northwest end of the northeast elevation. This fifth bay is consistent in scale and detail with the original portion of the building.

The turreted corner bay serves as a hinge for both elevations. On the northeast, the turreted bay is joined by a narrow bay that contains an entrance that leads to the hotel stair hall. The third bay contains a series of four regularly spaced one-over-one windows which light the hotel dining room. The fourth bay was built to serve as living quarters for the hotel manager and was not internally connected to the hotel spaces on the first floor. As previously noted, the fifth bay was later added to the building. Both remained unconnected to the first-floor public spaces of the hotel and continued to serve as private living quarters until the early 1930s when the first-floor spaces were converted to use as small dining rooms. The first-floor elevations of both bays have been modified from their original state. In each, a single entrance is paired on the left with a "picture window," the surrounding wall being made up of a brick somewhat lighter in shade than that of the original hotel.

The southeast (Cass Street) elevation is also divided into four irregular bays, with the right edge of the elevation anchored by the turret. The two southern-most bays are approximately equal in proportion. The end bay features two windows, while the adjoining bay to the north has a door and one window. The third bay is much narrower than these two and has only one window. The fourth bay features two windows and the turret. As with the northeast elevation, each first-floor opening is answered on the second with a single window.

The southwest (rear) and northwest elevations consist of a one-story plain concrete block surface punctuated irregularly by service doors. Above the flat-roofed one-story concrete portion the second floor of the brick L features one-over-one windows regularly placed.

Internally, the hotel is organized with public and service spaces on the first floor and guest rooms on the second. The hotel lobby is entered directly from the Huron/Cass Street corner entrance. The lobby runs the full depth of the Cass-facing portion of the L. Wall surfaces are painted plaster and all trim is oak which has been painted a pale yellow-white. The left (exterior) wall is punctuated with windows having symmetrical molding and "bull's eye" corner block trim. The original pressed tin ceiling survives in the front (northeast) 1/3 portion of the lobby. However, the remaining portion of the ceiling was covered by acoustical tile when the hotel was remodeled. The right (interior) wall features a pair of six-panel wooden doors located across from the lobby entrance which leads to the principal stair hall. Beyond this doorway, along the same wall plane, is a bar with a recessed service alcove. It is believed that the bar area originally served as the location of the innkeeper's desk. Doors on both sides of the bar lead to a kitchen and laundry room (part of the one-story portion).

The stair hall, which is oriented toward Huron Avenue, separates the hotel lobby from the dining room. Originally a pair of wooden doors, which matched those of the lobby doorway across the hall, hung in the dining room doorway. Both doors have been removed. In addition to serving as a transition space between the hotel's two major public rooms, the stair hall was intended to serve as an informal reception area, and can be entered from the street through a vestibule. The interior vestibule door features a lower decorative panel surmounted by a single light, and is flanked by subdivided sidelights and surmounted by a transom light. The exterior vestibule door is an aluminum clear-panel door and is not original. The building's principal stairway lies directly in front of the vestibule entrance and rises to a landing where it makes a 90-degree turn to the left and after four more steps reaches the second floor. An oak balustrade follows the left edge of the staircase. The balustrade commences with a newel post that resembles a squat Tuscan column capped with a composite dentilated molding. A cavity in the top of the post suggests a missing decorative element, perhaps a lamp or finial.

The dining room, rectangular in plan, is lighted by four one-over-one windows on the northeast-facing exterior wall. The northwest wall has a single opening that was added to connect with the two shop spaces beyond. The southwest wall features a set of double doors which lead to a kitchen. The southeast wall contains a single door that leads to an intact walk-in pantry that is tucked under the stairs. The dining room retains its original tin ceiling throughout. Wall surfaces are of painted plaster, but in some places the plaster has cracked and fallen, exposing the brick wall beneath. The floor surface, like that of the hotel lobby, is of concrete.

The second-floor spaces of the hotel are organized along a double-loaded corridor. Seventeen guest rooms open from the corridor which follows the L-shaped plan of the building. All of the guest rooms are equipped with porcelain pedestal sinks, and a few of the rooms share toilets. A common bathroom is located at each end of the corridor. A wooden six-panel door opens into each guest room and bathroom. All door openings are surmounted by transoms which have been blocked by metal vents. Trim throughout the second floor matches that of the first floor. However, the wood is painted pine instead of oak. The floor plan of three small guest rooms in the southwest corner were modified when they were converted into an apartment.

Hotel Columbia, Vassar Michigan Exterior, northeast and southeast facades (1991)
Exterior, northeast and southeast facades (1991)

Hotel Columbia, Vassar Michigan Exterior, southeast and southwest facades (1991)
Exterior, southeast and southwest facades (1991)

Hotel Columbia, Vassar Michigan Exterior, northeast and northwest facades (1991)
Exterior, northeast and northwest facades (1991)

Hotel Columbia, Vassar Michigan East corner room, 1<sup>st</sup> floor, looking east (1991)
East corner room, 1st floor, looking east (1991)

Hotel Columbia, Vassar Michigan 1<sup>st</sup> floor room, looking south (1991)
1st floor room, looking south (1991)

Hotel Columbia, Vassar Michigan Main dining room, facing north (1991)
Main dining room, facing north (1991)

Hotel Columbia, Vassar Michigan Main dining room, facing south (1991)
Main dining room, facing south (1991)

Hotel Columbia, Vassar Michigan 2<sup>nd</sup> floor corridor (1991)
2nd floor corridor (1991)

Hotel Columbia, Vassar Michigan Typical sleeping room, 2<sup>nd</sup> floor (1991)
Typical sleeping room, 2nd floor (1991)

Hotel Columbia, Vassar Michigan Typical sleeping room, 2<sup>nd</sup> floor (1991)
Typical sleeping room, 2nd floor (1991)

Hotel Columbia, Vassar Michigan 2<sup>nd</sup> floor room, showing typical woodwork (1991)
2nd floor room, showing typical woodwork (1991)

Hotel Columbia, Vassar Michigan Main staircase detail (1991)
Main staircase detail (1991)