Corktown, Detroit, Michigan – A Row House Time Capsule

Originally published in 2010.

The Workers' Row House, Corktown, Detroit.
The Workers’ Row House, Corktown, Detroit.

Historic, working class, dwellings are often hard to find in America’s older cities. Many fall prey to highway expansion and urban infrastructure projects. Many were never built to last forever, only needing to meet an immeadiate need for housing for a rapidly expanding population and then be replaced with newer housing later on. Whatever the reason, along with the lost of the architecture, there is a loss of the history of the residents, some who are responsible for the building of the great cities of America, as well.

Sometimes, however, working class row houses survive. Often it happens because the people refuse to move out and leave the block open for hostile take over, such as with Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia, which has been constantly occupied since the 1700s (see the article). The Workers’ Row House, in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, is a similar case. It had been occupied for 150 years and is one of the oldest houses in the city and remarkably well preserved for working class, rental housing.

The Workers' Row House, Corktown, Detroit.
The Workers’ Row House, Corktown, Detroit.

According to the Greater Corktown Development Corp’s web site, “Corktown is Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, located just west of downtown Detroit and blocks north of the Detroit River. Founded in the 1830s by Irish immigrants, the neighborhood is comprised of a variety of housing styles, including workers’ cottages and Queen Anne homes.” Corktown was a gateway into Detroit where newcomers could find “boarding houses, rooming houses, worker’s cottages and tenements built… within walking distance to the shipyards, rail yards, lumber yards, lumber mills, tobacco shops, shoe factories, clothing manufacturers, copper foundries and wagon factories…” Although much of the neighborhood was demolished to make way for a highway, a few of the homes remain.

The Workers’ Row House is a small singular unit, constructed in the Barn Frame 4X4 post, platform upon platform construction, that was divided into three separate homes. Each home measured about 12 feet wide by 26 feet deep or about 560 square feet. Although two of the three homes were combined and some of the lay out changed to accommodate indoor plumbing, some of the original details that remain include “original wood framing members, two staircases, doors, some plaster, two original windows with sash pins, wallpaper remnants, original floorboards and other original materials,” according to the GCDC web site. This inadvertant preservation is, in part, due to the constant occupancy. The Workers’ Row House is “believed to be among the oldest residences remaining in the city.”

This constant occupancy also helped preservation efforts since the tenants histories have been well documented. Additional research by a graduate student who helped with the preservation project helped to put together a detailed history of the people who lived in these homes. There is an interesting relationship between the occupations of the residents and the growing industries in the city during various periods.

“Row House tenants in the 1850s included a nurse, carpenters, laborers, and a grocer. From 1870 to 1900, the tenants included a washerwoman, painters, laborers, dressmakers, molders, firemen, and bakers. Between 1900 and 1916, the tenants included drivers, clerks, a plumber, finishers, carpenters, and laborers. Beginning in 1916, the tenants of the Row House become more affiliated with the auto industry; that year, tenants included bodymaker Samuel Golden who boarded with his parents at 150 Sixth, autoworker Charles Elliott who lived at 152 Sixth, and chauffeur Eugene F. Peters at 154 Sixth. From 1916 until 1941, Row House tenants included a truck driver, autoworkers, coremakers, diemakers, laborers, and machine operators.”

Restoration at the Workers' Row House, Corktown, Detroit.
Restoration at the Workers’ Row House, Corktown, Detroit.

Hopefully, the Workers’ Row House will offer a unique gimpse into every day life of the working class family. The GCDC hopes to restore one of the homes to a typical working class dwelling from the 1850s. Two of the remaining rooms will show life in 1910s and the rest will become space for exhibits, administrative and collections. Aside from the house itself, the surrounding property was part of a non-invasive archeological dig, conducted by the Wayne State University Department of Anthropology, to learn more about the daily lives of the working class citizens of Detriot as the city grew from a small port town on the Detroit River to a major industrialized city.

The mission of The Greater Corktown Development Corporation is to facilite the redevelopment of the Greater Corktown community by promoting historic preservation and adaptive use of the homes in the neighborhood. The restoration and utilization of the Workers’ Row House is a main componant of the GCDC’s mission. The GCDC hopes that “a visit to the Workers’ Row House will enable its visitors… to learn about Detroit’s rich working-class history [and] introduce them to the historical significance and charm of the Greater Corktown neighborhood.”

Learn more at the Workers’ Row House Experience, Corktown, Detroit web site.

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