With “Souvenir of Saginaw, Michigan’ impressed in gold script on a maroon and meticulously bound cover, opening to form a gateway to seven fan-folded leaves filled with historic photos of a community re-inventing itself, the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History has crafted an enthralling and interactive new exhibition offering a window back through time into the way Saginaw looked and existed back in 1889.
Opening on February 1st and running through the winter months, this exhibit features enormous large-scale reproductions of magical-sepia-toned lithographs offering visitors an Alice through the looking glass glimpse back in time to a wealth of street scenes, views of public buildings, and thriving businesses that suggest the vibrancy of what was then Michigan’s third largest city.
Commencing with a birds-eye view of the city, although it was titled a ‘souvenir’, the visual imagery providing content for this exhibition is better described as a promotional piece, which was prepared during a time before Saginaw had even become a city back when East Saginaw and Saginaw City were still working out the details to become one city by making the merger official in March, 1890.
According to Chief Historian Thomas Trombley, “This exhibit is based upon a souvenir brochure published very early in 1889 by a Saginaw publisher called Twelvetrees, who manufactured these brochures for a lot of major cities like New York City, Niagara Falls, and bigger cities out west. It folds out like an accordion and will be set up like that in our main gallery. We’ve enlarged each image to a gigantic scale and the idea behind the book is that it was designed to remember the community as a souvenir, which was sold on trains running in and out of Saginaw.”
“With this exhibition we are reversing the perspective by using this as an item to take patrons back into history as if you were a tourist visiting Saginaw for the first time,” he continues. “This was a subscription based book and what’s interesting is that it was published for a city that technically didn’t exist yet, because East Saginaw and West Saginaw were still independent ,and it would not be until the next year that the City of Saginaw actually merged.”
“Ironically, some of the historic buildings we usually associate with Saginaw that are depicted individually, like Hoyt Library, are either non-existent because they weren’t constructed yet, or they appear not in the image that we usually associate them with,” he notes. “The Saginaw Club had just been formed and the building had just been completed, and even the Castle Museum wasn’t represented yet.”
According to Trombley, the publishers used a European lithography process that utilized drawings based upon photographs, with well-known attractions such as Hoyt Park existing basically as a bayou. “The chromolithographic process they used on these images was very glossy and shiny, and you can see buildings where Little Jakes was located, which was open about 20 years before it became known as what we now call it today.”
“Buildings on Court Street like the old Fordney Club would not become known as that until the first part of the next decade,” adds Trombley, noting how structures like the historic Fordney Hotel were painted in red lacquer and actually sat vacant for 10 to 15 years.
The way this exhibition will be presented is that patrons can walk through the actual exhibition at The Castle Museum, but will also be able to take an audio tour that will allow them to also go out on the street and conduct their own walking tour with Google Maps.
Another interesting image is of Saginaw’s favorite summer resort back in 1899, which was known as the Bayport Inn and located up in Bayport. “Bayport owed its quarries and tourist potential to Saginaw investors and the railroad leading to it,” notes Trombley. “The Bayport Inn was designed by a Saginaw architect but eventually became demolished and didn’t make it through the ages. One interesting structure was also the Mayflower Mills, which was constructed in 1675 and most of it taken down early in the 1970s when the I-675 expressway was being built.”
What is also compelling about this exhibition is how many of us in Saginaw often think about projects that don’t come to fruition, but one that eventually did is the structure where the Bearinger Building would eventually go. “At the time this book was published investors were still trying to line up funding to build the Bearinger Building, which came much later, but that project is one that did come to fruition,” notes Trombley.
“We often forget that Saginaw’s future back then was not that certain or promising. There was still a lot of money around, but the lumber was gone so Saginaw had to reinvent itself. The Bancroft Hotel was actually a different building back then and would need to be rebuilt. It took them less than a year to tear it down and build a new one in 1916, so it’s really quite amazing how quickly buildings went up back then,” states Tom, “especially buildings like The Academy of Music, which was built in about one year because there were so many craftsmen around.”
Other fascinating images on display consist of the Potter Street Station, and another image of a building that once served as a passenger depot for the Pere Marquette Railroad on the west side of town. “During the 1930s it became the Depot Nightclub during prohibition and another building still stands by The Temple Theatre on Washington Ave. that once served as the offices for the Pere Marquette railroad. It lost one floor in the attic during a fire back in 1951.”
Another is the Eddy Building, which when you look at the image you think is gone but surprisingly is still here and in plain sight. “Back then you see this white block structure that was actually purchased from the Hoyt heirs,” notes Tom. “They added two floors to the building and an alternating window pattern, so it’s interesting to see how these buildings also change and evolve.”
“This exhibition is actually fun with a purpose,” concludes Trombley, “because it transports us back to a time when there was a rosy glossy view of Saginaw without looking at population numbers plunging, and how people would look at something like Hoyt Park without knowing it would become a park eventually because cows were grazing on it and they didn’t know what to do with it.”
“It makes people go out and really explore and helps you realize how cities are constantly changing. Even though some of these buildings are no longer there, or are still present but exist in a different form, it gives you a link and a window into how you can reinvent your future.”
Souvenir of Saginaw, Michigan is now on display at the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History, which is located at 500 Federal Ave. in Downtown Saginaw. Hours are 1 pm - 4:30 pm Sunday; 10 am - 4:30 pm Mon - Weds, 10 am - 7 pm on Thursdays, and Friday & Saturday 10 am - 4:30 pm. For more info phone 989.752-.2861 or visit www.castlemuseum.org.
9th February, 2024