Overlooked Fence Post Marks Once-Grand Rochester Estate

A lonely stone pillar near the sidewalk on North Main Street is easily overlooked by passersby, yet it stands as a witness to the existence of a once-grand estate tied to an influential Rochester family.

Postcard image of a two-story stone building with nicely landscaped garden.
The Charles S. Chapman residence depicted in a hand-colored postcard.

Situated on the property line between St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and the 714 North Main building (where the Denny’s Restuarant used to be), the pillar is an artifact of the decorative stone fence that marked the Charles S. Chapman estate at that location. Charles S. Chapman was a native of Vermont, but at age 18, he came to Michigan with his parents and younger brother, William. He learned his business skills in the employ of Edson, Moore & Co., a Detroit wholesale dry goods house, where he worked for ten years. Edson, Moore operated its own factory for the production of woolen and cotton goods.

In 1891, Charles Chapman and his brother, William, and lumber magnate William S. Yawkey founded the Western Knitting Mills (WKM) in Detroit. The partners decided to move WKM to Rochester in 1896, buying out an existing woolen mill here and building a large, state-of-the-art brick mill on Paint Creek at the foot of Fourth Street. The mill was prosperous and became Rochester’s largest employer; it also gained national prominence in the textile industry and was for a time the second largest such operation in the United States.

Old black and white image of a two-story house on a bluff with a stone wall surrounding the property.
A postcard view of the Chapman estate showing the stone fence along North Main Street (Courtesy of Ray Russell Postcard Collection, Rochester Hills Public Library)

In the spring of 1899, Charles Chapman broke ground for a new house on Rochester’s North Main Street. Detroit architect Albert Kahn, who at the time was at the start of his career, designed the building. Kahn would later achieve renown as an industrial architect, and the Chapman house represented one of his few residential designs. The Rochester Era followed the progress of construction on the new Chapman house and noted that its estimated cost was about $20,000—a literal fortune at a time when the average American worker earned about $12 a week, or just over $600 a year.

Chapman’s residence stood on a bluff overlooking Paint Creek and the WKM’s millpond, sometimes known locally as Chapman Pond. He named his new estate “Oak Bluff” for its obvious natural attributes. He built a boathouse at the edge of the millpond, where he kept a small steam launch that he could use to “commute” from home to his office at WKM. A lavish lawn surrounded the house and was set off from the street by a fieldstone fence. The estate quickly became the subject of popular postcard images.

A small building sits in a pond.
Charles S. Chapman’s boat house on the WKM millpond, as seen in the Rochester Era in 1903.

Chapman, his wife Minerva Robbins, and his children, Frank and Doris, made their home in the 12-room, shingle-style mansion. Frank’s wife, Lou Blackwood Chapman, remembered fondly in a 1980 interview the home’s hand-carved staircase and fireplace mantels, heavy stone walls, billiard room, and music room. She also recalled that the bathroom was “enormous,” with decorative cupids painted on the ceiling over the large tub.

Old black and white photo of Charles wearing a suit and bowtie.
Portrait of Charles S. Chapman, ca. 1904.

Charles Chapman was a frequent traveler, making many business trips to represent the interests of WKM. He also sojourned often to his hometown of Ludlow, Vermont, to visit friends and relatives there. Apparently, his devotion to his company took an extreme toll upon his health. In 1910, he was obliged to step away from his position at WKM because of illness, and took a long trip to Europe in the hope that it would aid his recovery. In early 1912, Chapman was committed to the Pontiac State Hospital after suffering a mental breakdown related to overwork. On May 5, 1912, while still a patient at the hospital, he choked on a piece of bread and died at the age of 47. Out of respect for his business and civic leadership, merchants in Rochester closed their doors on the day of his funeral. Services were held at his Oak Bluff estate, and his remains were transported to his ancestral home in Vermont for burial.

In 1948, Frank Chapman, along with his wife and sister, subdivided a large part of the property that had been part of the Charles S. Chapman estate. Much of the acreage lying east of North Main Street and south of Romeo Street was platted as the Oak Bluff subdivision. The two streets in the subdivision were named “Charles” and “William” in honor of the Chapman brothers. A small portion of the acreage containing the house was reserved from development and kept for the use of Chapman’s widow, Minnie. She died in 1951.

Neither Frank nor Doris Chapman chose to live in their childhood home after the death of their mother. They leased the house for use as the Stoney Croft rest home, a nursing home for women. Lou Chapman recalled that the arrangement ended after authorities determined that the house lacked sufficient stairways and other safety features for use as a residence for the infirm. After the rest home vacated the property, the house was closed up but fell prey to squatters and vandals. Concerned about liability, the Chapman family placed the property on the market and sold it for redevelopment.

On February 13, 1968, the community was shocked by the sudden destruction of the house and the mature oak trees that surrounded it when the developer abruptly bulldozed the property. There was considerable public outcry over the loss of the once-elegant landmark, but lacking any viable alternative for the property, the owners had considered themselves out of options. An apartment complex was built where the stately Kahn-designed dwelling had stood for over half a century, while restaurant and retail space occupied the frontage along Main Street.

A stone pillar, larger than a big oak tree round, stands about eight feet tall next to a brick building.
A surviving pilllar from the Charles S. Chapman estate and a historical marker stand along the sidewalk near 714 N. Main.

The lone reminder of the Chapman estate was a single stone pillar that somehow survived the demolition and subsequent construction. Decades later, that last remnant of the estate’s fence was noticed by a prospective Eagle Scout, who researched and created an interpretive historical marker that was placed beside the pillar to inform passing pedestrians about this fascinating bit of Rochester history.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. Nancy Boughner says

    Thank you for this story! My family moved to the area in 1955 and I loved that place on Main Street. I was so sorry to see it destroyed!

  2. Frederick (Rick) Quitmeyer says

    Great story Deborah. I remember the house well. Growing up in downtown Rochester in the mid 60s I delivered the Detroit Free Press newspaper early each morning to the house. At the time I was in junior high, and the house was a senior nursing facility. I had to deliver the paper each morning to each room of the elderly residents. From the upstairs windows you could see the Paint Creek river, Oak Gas Station next door, and the A&P store across Main St. The cut stone pillar is a wonderful reminder.

  3. Tad Blankenburg says

    Thanks for sharing this story. I’ve driven by there 1000’s of times, and never noticed. I’ll be sure to look next time.

  4. Catherine Doerr Robinson says

    Our grandmother, Leah Dean Wilson, managed Stonycroft as a retirement home. There was a full staff of cooks and housekeepers with a relaxed, dignified lifestyle for the residents. The grand staircase and dining room made a great impression on me as a child and sleeping on the wrap-around porch during the summer months is one of my favorite memories. I was heartbroken to find it demolished!

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