The Thompson Block's place in Ypsilanti's history
The history of the Thompson Block begins20 years before its construction, and across the street. Mark Norris, a pioneer of the Ypsilanti, and a founder of what is now the Depot Town section of the city, built the Western Hotel. This stood on the west side of River Street, where the railroad depot stands today.
“The building was of brick with stone facings and the enterprise was of considerable magnitude of the period. Shops occupied the ground floor two or three steps down from the walk and the hotel proper was above,” wrote Harvey C. Colburn in The Story of Ypsilanti, published in 1923. The hotel opened in May of 1839, the year after the first train had arrived at Ypsilanti.
This property was acquired by the Michigan Central Railroad for expansion. Norris demolished the hotel and carried the bricks across the street for use in a new building. Now known as the Thompson Block, the building was at first called the Norris Block, after its builder. This was a three-story Italianate structure, intended for retail and residential use.
On the ground floor where six bays intended for use as shops, each measuring 20 by 60 feet, with an addition to each of 20 by 40 feet added in 1889. The building was 120 by 100 feet. The foundation was of rough field stone. Brick masonry made up the construction material of the exterior facades and the interior load bearing wall.
“The Norris Block, Ypsilanti, is complete and several of the stories are being occupied. The upper stories are being well finished, and families are already occupying them,” reported The Peninsular Courier, an Ann Arbor newspaper, on Aug. 13, 1861.By this time, the Civil War had begun and the federal government had called for the recruitment of troops. With the recruitment of troops arose the need for places to quarter them during training. The Norris Block fit the bill. The 14th Michigan Infantry Regiment moved into the Norris Block in 1862, turning it into a barracks.
“In the basement is the culinary arrangement. Each company cooks for itself. The boys have lots of fun. They have a debating society, and also hold dances in the upper story where they ‘balance to your partner’ in the genuine style, to the music of fiddle and bones,” noted The Peninsular Courier and Ypsilanti Herald on January 28, 1862.
The regiment was mustered into service on February 13, 1862, with enrollment of 925 officers and men. The 14th Michigan left Ypsilanti on April 17, 1862, for St. Louis, where it joined the army of General Grant at Pittsbury Landing.
The building was again used as a barracks in 1863 when the 27th Michigan Infantry Regiment was stationed there for training. Forty years later, the 80 surviving veterans returned for a reunion.
“It was a special pleasure to revisit their old barracks in the Thompson Block, which is the only building used as a barracks in 1862 in Michigan that is still standing, observed The Ypsilantian of October 30, 1902.
For many years after the war, the building was known as “The Barracks.”
“Going to the Depot you notice unusual activity going on in the corner store of the Norris Block. The new proprietor Mr. O.E. Thompson, will inform you, for he is always genial and social, that he has bought this property, and is going to renovate and repair it right up to the handle. He means to make one of the completest paint shops in the state, using the first floor for a store connected with the business. If that corner don’t shine in less then three months, the pride of the Depot, set us down as a false profit,” noted the Ypsilanti Commercial of May 29, 1869.
Oliver E. Thompson was born in Ypsilanti in 1838, the son of a pioneer family. In 1856 O. E. Thompson began the manufacture of wagons, and began to make carriages in 1870. He became a wagon dealer in 1871, when he began to sell Jackson wagons made by Tomlinson & Webster. Then in 1873 he became a dealer in agricultural implements, including root cutters, grass seeder, and krut and slaw cutters. These were made in the building, and many were of his own invention. Thompson and his sons, Benjamin, Edward and John, were also active in the house, sign and carriage painting, as well as the sale of porch swings and patterned wallpaper. In one year, Thompson & Sons sold more than 200 bicycles.
The Thompson family put their name on the building in the 1880’s when they painted the family name in big bold letters on the south wall of the building. The name could still be read, if one knew were to look, up to the day of the fire, even under layers of paint.
By 1900, Thompson & Sons employed about 50 men. Although Thompson & Sons owned the building, their business rarely occupied more than the three bays at the south end of the building. The bays at the north end of the building were rented out for the use of others. One of these bays at the north end of the building was occupied by part of the Ypsilanti Volunteer Fire Department from the 1870’s into the 1890’s. This same bay was used by the city for storage into the 1950’s.
Oliver Thompson died in 1910, and his sons took over the business. In 1916, Joseph H. Thompson, grandson of Oliver, opened a Dodge dealership in the north end of the building. He operated here only a short time, before moving across the street to where Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum is today.
The long occupancy of the Thompson family ended in 1950, when the family closed the last of their business interests. The building was put up for sale, and stood empty for over a year. Other businesses would come and go over the years. As time passed, the building was left to rot. The building then became the subject of court case and controversy. At least there was the hope of saving it.
Editor’s note: The Thompson Block is currently owned by developer Stewart Beal, who took it over several years ago with plans to renovate it for retails shops and luxury lofts.
James Mann writes monthly columns on Ypsilanti history for AnnArbor.com.