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Tuesday, August 3, 1999

Sheldon Block, Albion, Michigan



James Wadsworth Sheldon (1830-1894) was born August 25, 1830 in Parma, Monroe County, New York, and came to Michigan with his parents in 1836, where he worked on his fathers farm. His father, also by the name of James Sheldon was Albion Township's first supervisor in 1837. He worked on his fathers farm by summer, and studied at Wesleyan Seminary (new Albion College) by winter until the age of 21.

Next he served as a clerk in the store of J. Crowell, & Co. After three months he was promoted to the counting room. A year later, he accepted a position as head book-keeper for the firm of D. Peabody & Brother, dealers in general merchandise. Two years later he was accepted as cashier and bookkeeper in the banking house of M. Hannahs & Son, the first bank in Albion. Upon the failure of that firm in 1858, Mr. Sheldon took over their bank and reorganized it as the Albion Exchange Bank.

James W. Sheldon married Mary E. Peabody, daughter of Tenney Peabody, in 1856. Together they had one daughter Madelon L. Sheldon. Tenney Peabody is cited as being Albion’s first white settler, and his wife is credited with giving Albion its name. Sheldon became a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1865, and Superintendent of the Sabbath-school of that church for several years.

Sheldon was active in community affairs, and served as president of the Village of Albion in 1868, 1869 and 1870. He also served as a trustee of Albion College for 15 years, and President of its Board of Trustees for 10 years. As Treasurer of Albion College starting in 1874, Sheldon greatly contributed to the schools success. Sheldon gave $1,000 towards a $10,000 campaign to construct an Observatory on the campus of Albion College. He made his home on the second floor of the ornate Sheldon Block on the N.W. corner of Superior and Erie Streets.

When the estate of J. Crowell & Co. went into bankruptcy, Sheldon was the assignee. With aggregate value of $110,000, Sheldon managed to pay creditors ninety cents on the dollar. This was the highest amount paid anywhere in Michigan outside of Detroit.


The Sheldon Block
The corner of Erie Street and Superior Street, on the opposite side of the block from Sheldon’s bank had its first building built there in 1836. This was the site of the first hotel in Albion. In 1872 this building was demolished and work started on a prominent Second Empire styled three-story building on the site.

As originally built there were room for three shops on the ground floor, the Sheldon’s apartment on the second floor, and the Hotel Allen on the third floor. The entrance to the hotel was originally between the two northern stores.

Private staircase leading from Erie Street to Receiving Hall on second floor.

The Sheldon’s apartment was isolated from the hotel quarters and accessible via a private staircase. A grand entrance and an oval-shaped spiral staircase from Erie Street provides the means to enter the Sheldon apartment. The stairs start about six feet from the threshold. The newel post is octagonal in shape and the spindles up the stairs repeat the style. Two niches inset within the staircase most likely would have held vases or figurines.

At the top of the stair is a Receiving Hall where visitors would be met. Directly at the head of the stairs are large walnut and butternut paneled double doors with etched glass leading to the Drawing Room. To the right a small door leads to a room connecting to a long Hall. To the left is the Dining Room.

Dining Room and door opening to balcony (left) and Kitchen (right), middle photo looking into Kitchen from Dining Room, and right photo in Kitchen leading towards Service Hall.

The Dining Room is accessible through a door on the west wall of the Receiving Hall. The Dining Room has two windows that look over to Erie Street and two doors that opened to cast iron balconies and a fire escape on the west side of the building. A doorway leads to the Kitchen from the north wall of the Dining Room. From the Kitchen there is a door that leads to a Service Hall. This Service Hall wraps around the Drawing Room and leads to the Ballroom and areas of the hotel. The Kitchen based on where it is placed would have likely served the Sheldon’s as well as the hotel. One window and one door opened from the kitchen to the fire escape.

View at top of stairs in Receiving Hall towards double doors leading into Drawing Room, with the doors closed (left) and open (right).

The Drawing Room is rectangular in shape, twelve-and-a-half feet by eight-feet. A closet is in the far right corner from the double doors. This closet has its original wallpaper. Wood floors in this room have a custom designed pattern using one and a half inch boards. A large cornice runs across the top of the wall where it meets the ceiling. A plaster medallion of oval shape is in the center of the ceiling.

View of Hall leading to Red Parlor from the Receiving Hall, small cloak room at top of stairs off of Receiving Hall, built-in furniture in Trunk Room, view down Hall looking back towards Receiving Hall.

From the Receiving Hall it is also possible to follow another long narrow Hall to the Red Parlor, another space that would have been accessible to people visiting the Sheldon's. Along the hall are many doors that open to various rooms, closets, and bathrooms. The first large door on the left enters into a large Trunk Room. This has built in cabinets to store household goods. A door to the right leads into the Back Parlor.

View of medallion with light in ceiling and parquet floor in Back Parlor

Door entering to small room off of the Back Parlor; wall recessed shelves behind door to left of door leading to Hall; door leading to Hall.

The only door on the right side of the Hall leads into the Back Parlor. This room has two single windows facing towards Erie Street. A small door on the west wall leads into a small room whose original use is unknown. On this same wall the room is balanced with another door, though this one opens on to shelves built into the door casement. One final door leads into the Hall that leads back to the Receiving Hall. Double pocket doors on the east wall open into the Red Parlor, giving the Sheldon’s an opportunity to open both of the spaces for entertainment on special occasions.

Red Parlor showing two windows on east wall, portion of bay window on south wall, and pocket doors and doorway leading to Receiving Hall.

The floor of the Red Parlor has a border which extends out 2’10”. The parlor offered a commanding view of the intersection of Erie Street and Superior Street below. On the Superior Street side of the building there are three windows visible from the exterior, though only two on the inside. The middle window is false, and inside of it may be seen shutters consistent with others installed throughout the building at the time of construction.

Detail of gray fireplace, then and now, in the Red Parlor, after said fireplace was removed.

Originally a bay window opened up on the Erie Street side of the room. This had two columns each 10’ 6”, with a Corinthian capital, flanking a 12’8” opening. Opposite the bay window is where a gray marble fireplace was once located. Dimensions of the fireplace were 5’6” and 5’. The heart of the fireplace has gray tiles with a deep red Pompeian border, tiles with yellow flowers, and solid green tiles to accent the other colors. Regrettably this was removed in the 1990s and placed in the home of one of the building owners. On either side of the fireplace are doors that open to the Morning Room, located to the north. On the wall a gas valve is on either side of the fireplace just above the mantel.


A 9’ x 5’ portrait by Perry Averill, a Jackson painter, shows the Sheldon’s sitting in the Red Parlor. This and an article in the Albion Evening Recorder describing the painting, shed valuable light on the condition of the room. "Mrs. Sheldon is seated in a chair that the arms and back of which are of ram’s horns." Mary Sheldon is shown holding a Crazy Quilt which she most likely sewed. One like this is stored in the Stockwell collection at Albion College and was made by Mary Sheldon for her sister Madeline Stockwell.

The Morning Room faces Superior Street. Four eastward-facing windows in this room would allow ample light to enter in. Opposite the fireplace in the Red Parlor, is another fireplace in the Morning Room. The fireplace in the Morning Room was made from white marble. Regrettably this fireplace too was removed and placed in the home of Victor Bernstein also in Albion. On the west wall a large double door opened into the Sheldon’s bedroom. The northwest corner of the Morning Room had a small protrusion where the hotel stairway came through. A few feet to the right of the double doors is another door leading to the hotel lobby.

Detail of door knob, white fireplace, and door handle, all removed from Sheldon apartment and placed in home of Victor Bernstein.

Morning Room looking towards Red Parlor, and double doors on west wall of Morning Room looking into Bedroom.

Through the large double doors to the west of the Morning Room is an entrance into the only Bedroom on the second floor. The Sheldon’s had no children living with them and had no use for extra rooms. The west wall of the Bedroom has a small room with mechanical equipment inside. This may have originally been a bathroom and later altered. The Bedroom was later divided by a new staircase from the store front level below and doors that enter to the hotel lobby.

View from Bedroom leading towards Service Hall, and Service Hall looking towards service entrance of Kitchen and Bedroom.

Hotel Lobby with three windows set in east wall, ceiling medallion, and view towards service quarters with stairway to the third floor behind them.

The Hotel Allen portion of the Sheldon Building retains much of its 19th century appearance, with wallpapers of Oriental influence such as peonies and irises, which were typical décor for the 1870s and 1880s. A large parlor for guests was on the second floor facing Superior Street. Staff rooms and a large Ballroom and dining room were to the rear of the building on the second floor. The third floor of the building included a variety of rooms with both private and shared baths. A variety of rooms from singles to suites were provided to meet the needs of overnight guests.


Stairway leading to second floor from landing, and light through door of room in southwest corner of third floor.


Epilogue

Sheldon bought a portion of the Bell House in 1893 that had been built as the original dormitory and classroom for the Wesleyan Seminary, predecessor to the later Albion College. He had this moved to the west side of South Monroe Street, between Cass and East Porter Streets.

Sheldon died September 26, 1894, and is interred in the Sheldon mausoleum at the entrance to Riverside Cemetery. At the time of his death Sheldon was the wealthiest person in Calhoun County. Interestingly the mausoleum has the year “1895” over the entrance. This may be a reflection of the fact that the building was not actually completed until 1895, despite the fact that Sheldon died in 1894.

Shortly after his death, his wife remarried Henry Ismon. Together they built the Mary Sheldon Ismon Club House on Clinton Street for hers and her husbands clubs to meet. Following her death Mary Sheldon Ismon was interred at the Sheldon Mauseleum along with her first husband in Riverside Cemetery.

Although Sheldon was a prominent figure in the community, his reputation as a banker was to charge high interest rates, thus making a fortune off the residents of Albion. John Fox in Riverside Cemetery, A Selection of Historic Internments from 1980 recounts, "His untimely foreclosures ruined a number of prominent Albion area families, probably including Jesse Crowell. It is about him that the only "ghost" story in Riverside Cemetery that has maintained any sort of currency concerns. It is said that late at night, voices can be heard emanating from the mausoleum. But it is reported to be just Banker James trying to collect rent from Henry Ismon, widow Mary's second husband, who is also interred within."

Madelon Leffingwell, daughter of James Sheldon, left $50,000 that was given by her son, James Sheldon Riley to erect a hospital in Albion. The James W. Sheldon Memorial Hospital opened May 1, 1924.

The successor firm to Sheldon’s bank, the Albion State Bank, closed in 1931.

The building that Sheldon made his home for over two decades, went through a series of insensitive alterations, before being left vacant in the mid-20th century. This building was rediscovered in the last decade of the 20th century by enterprising Albion College students.

Measured drawing of Sheldon Block by John Spanos Fellows, 1991.

John Spanos Fellows in 1991 focused intensively on this building as part of a broader study on historic preservation in Albion. These results were presented in a written report with handsome measured drawings of the Sheldon Block and several other buildings downtown.


This work was followed at the close of the decade by another student, Isaac Kremer, who attracted attention of college officials, students, and city leaders to the plight of this and other historic buildings in Albion. Collaboration with several visual artists helped to feature this building in numerous photo shoots, and the "Experience Residual Space Media Based Installation" exhibition. The exhibition was staged March 2000 in the Bobbitt Center for Visual Arts on the campus of Albion College.

Today the Sheldon Block is awaiting someone who recognizes the historic significance of this building and the people associated with it, to come along and bring this historic gem back to its former luster.