Historical Albion Michigan
By Frank Passic

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Any photos not otherwise credited are from the personal collection of Frank Passic, Albion Historian.


Albion Recorder, April 7, 1997, pg. 4

The building housing ABC Copy Service and Sam Friia’s Law Offices at 204 and 206 S. Superior St. respectively, was one a major entertainment center in Albion. The outside appearance of the upper stories of this structure are largely unchanged since its erection in 1857. This commercial Italianate-style structure was built by local harness maker John Howard, and was known as the Howard Hall block.

The first floor of the building contained mercantile enterprises. The grocery and dry goods establishment of brothers Billings and Wellington H. Bidwell was located on the south side, while the hardware store of Augustus Porter Gardner was on the north. The second floor of the structure has been used for many things, most recently as apartments. This building is an example of where there are still apartments allowed above the stores, due to their being “grandfathered” as far as local zoning laws are concerned. Many communities have adopted friendly “loft” zoning policies allowing second story apartments to be constructed as long as they meet certain safety and construction standards. Perhaps many of Albion’s downtown buildings could be revived if local zoning laws could be changed and new standards adopted.

The third floor of the Howard block contains a large multi-purpose room which was known for years as Howard Hall. This was a major social center for Albion in the middle and late 19th century. The room was rented by Mrs. Howard to various groups and organizations. Several commercial and educational endeavors were begun here, including the Ira Mayhew Commercial College (186), the Albion Public Schools (1867), and the Homestead Loan and Building Association (1889). The “Alert” Fire Department also held its meetings here.

Most importantly however, Howard Hall was a very popular gathering place for young and old, even though they had to climb two flights of stairs to get to it. Entertainment was by far the most popular pastime at Howard Hall. Dances were held here every Friday night, and various orchestras provided live entertainment in the days before phonograph records were invented. Music was performed on a square grand piano (ca. 1850), a treasured instrument which miraculously survived through the years and was donated to a local history museum.

James C. Reed (1843-1893) was a student at Albion College in the late 1850s, and kept a diary detailing his various social activities. Reed frequently mentions Howard Hall in his writings. Numerous references are made in the diary to singing schools, old-fold songs, and concerts held at Howard Hall. After each day of classes at Albion College, Reed would customarily make his way to downtown Albion, visit a few friends, and almost every evening would end up at Howard Hall to attend whatever event was scheduled.

The Reed diary gives a first-hand account of not only the socially accepted norms of mid-19th century entertainment in Albion, but also of those types of entertainment and recreation which were more spurious. For example, a Professor Palmer began a series of phrenology lectures in Howard Hall in February, 1860. Student Reed was torn between attending the lecture and another event--billiards! He finally solved the dilemma by first going to the billiard hall and then to the lecture.

Reed’s diary was excerpted in the book “A Young Man in Albion Village” by the late Audrey Wilder (1975). She writes (pg. 14), “Glamour arrived with theater for five nights, and Old Lull’s Opera Troupe brought drama and real live actors to the little community. Bullock’s concert on December 21, 1858 at the Hall was followed January 11, 1859 by ‘The Nationals,’ a singing group. ‘The Dutch Dance’ in February gave evidence of enough Germans in the neighborhood so that they were able to organize themselves. Homesick as they must have been for customs and traditions of the old country, they could now and then dance and sing and talk over old times back in the Fatherland.”

In summary, Howard Hall was a unique community asset, with its diversity of programs appealing to a wide variety range of tastes. This week we present an 1857 lithograph of the Howard Hall, showing the first floor businesses and the inviting center staircase leading up to the Hall. Perhaps someday the first floor storefronts could be restored to their original appearances as shown here.

Lithograph of The Howard Hall


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