1. Department of Corrections
This history of my family’s house on Hull Street—a house I saw only once, in a city I visited just a few times—is never going to be as right as I would like. Too much has been lost in the half-century since my family moved away. Perfect is not an option.
My family knows this as well. They’ve been utterly patient and helpful as I ask them to put a shovel into their old memories. After I published my introduction post, their responses shone with appreciation and added details. But one of my aunts did have a gentle change: “I loved it. But the peonies weren’t along the fence in the yard. I don’t remember where they were, but it wasn’t there.”
So much for my opening line about the peonies starring along the sidewalk fence. I took this news back to my dad, who had drawn me a map of the garden with the peonies there. He shrugged in response, saying, “The peonies were everywhere.”
Perhaps they were. Maybe they’re both right. A garden is forever in flux; memories are only correct for a moment. Memoir is where fact is layered on certainty, at right angles with another half-memory. The stories mesh or they don’t. They run in reinforcing parallels—or they cross each other out and leave you standing in between. The best I can do is overlay fact upon conflicting fact, and hope some shadow of truth appears in the crossing.
As it happens, the intersection is where we begin.
2. Hull and Stender
My family’s house at 17210 Hull Street and its adjoining garden are long gone to grass, but the corner where they sat endures. You could go today and stand at the intersection of Hull Street and Stender Avenue. You could stare at the grass lots like ours, the homes that are splintering into collapse, and the better-kept houses a block away, while the din of the nearby Chrysler Highway fills your ears. It’s a curious section of Detroit—not Palmer Park, not Highland Park or Hamtramck, but tucked into the elbow of those neighborhoods. Google says it’s called Cadillac Heights. Cars are the beginning and end of this place.
My dad: “When we lived there, we just called it Detroit.”
The house was here from the 1920s to the 2000s, but the intersection is decades older. Businessman Robert E. Hull created it when he first laid out this subdivision in the 1880s. The area wasn’t yet incorporated into Detroit. It had a few crisscrossing railroad lines but not many buildings. It was, at best, farms that had only recently been prairie. A man had to squint to see any promise in it.
Hull saw it. Soon enough, he must have felt, the city would grow in his direction. He amassed farmland from what is now Dequindre St. west to Swift Railroad tracks, and then he got out his ruler. He cut the land into a mannered grid of about 1,200 125 x 30 lots, and delicately christened the whole thing “Jerome Park”—either after his business partner Thomas Jerome (who would later sue him), or after a well-known New York racetrack. He also named a street after himself.
For its first several decades Stender Avenue wasn’t Stender at all—it was Mason Street and then Alabama. The original Stender Avenue was north of here, off of Woodward Avenue, near what would eventually be the tonier Palmer Park district. Hugo Stender was a manufacturer of “sigars” who set his sights on real estate. His nerve might have outdone Hull’s. He named TWO streets after himself: Stender Street and Hugo Avenue right above it. The streets barely outlasted him; after his death they were rebranded. This Stender Avenue, our Stender, was a reclamation—a scrapped name dusted off for reuse.
I don’t know if Hull and Stender, the men themselves, ever connected in real life. It fits that their streets meet here: Industry married with ingenuity. Perseverance overlaying ambition.
Robust 19th-century aspirations meeting the cold eye of the 20th-century market. Not for the last time.
Hull spent the last 30 years of his life trying and failing to sell off his Jerome Park parcels. Some sold in chunks during the 1890s, mostly to other real estate companies; after that, only one or two sold at a time. The city was growing, but Jerome Park remained outside its borders. The neighborhood still lacked piped water or sewers. By 1906 Hull was asking $100 for lots that, just a few years earlier, he had priced at $300-$400.
The streets were there first, and for a long time only them, waiting.
3. The Crystal Palace
And then: The boon to beat them all.
In 1907, the Ford Motor Company was a big fish in a small bowl. The company was thriving, but its factory on Piquette Avenue had reached capacity. If they ever hoped to build enough cars to meet consumer demand, the company needed space. A lot of it.
The company looked north to the very fringe of Detroit, to Greenfield Township where Henry Ford himself had been born. In nearby Highland Park they found an available racetrack and a stretch of adjacent properties. The news arrived in April 1907: Henry Ford’s newest, biggest factory would go here.
Jerome Park was less than a mile away.
Sadly, Hull didn’t get to enjoy watching his long-held gamble paying off—he died in 1909, months before the plant’s opening day in January 1910. He must have known it would be big. But he couldn’t have foreseen that the Highland Park plant would, for a time, become an axis on which the entire world’s manufacturing spun.
The Highland Park Ford factory was, without exaggeration, a technological marvel. It was three times larger than any other car factory in the world. The construction was revolutionary, setting a template by which factories are designed even today: Concrete walls and floors, ventilation and light, open space, and long work areas. Its interior innovations, too, such as efficiency management and moving assembly lines, are still with us. Thanks to the new plant, Ford’s production went from 14,000 cars in 1907 to 78,000 in 1912. People would look up at the factory’s vast expanses of concrete and glass block in admiration. There had never been anything like it on the planet.
But there is no hive without worker bees: Productivity requires labor.
Ford’s rapid growth meant its manpower needs were insatiable. Luckily for the company, the United States was in the midst of a massive labor migration. A week after the announcement of the new Highland Park plant in April 1907, Ellis Island set its one-day record for processing immigrants entering the country: More than 11,000 people were moved through its halls. They were already on an assembly line.
Another labor migration was also flowing into Detroit, but Henry Ford was uninterested. African Americans were beginning to move north in hopes of finding factory wages that promised better than sharecropping. But they would find much of Detroit’s jobs, and homes, off limits. Except for a few janitorial positions, Ford would not employ African Americans until the mid-1920s. Auto unions also refused to admit blacks as members. And increasingly restrictive housing covenants kept black residents to a few small, crowded sections of the city. The homes that would be built in Jerome Park would be for, and filled with, white workers only.
4. Good Water, Cement Sidewalks
There was no lack of salesmen for Hull’s Jerome Park lots now. It helped that in 1916 Jerome Park was finally annexed into Detroit. City services were still limited, but the new factories (Ford and others) spurred the government to extend streetcar lines and build schools. Smaller side businesses showed up to serve the growing neighborhoods.
Early house ads stressed their nearness to factory jobs. Later in the 1910s, they often pitched themselves as places to build your own urban farm—a particular appeal for agricultural immigrants from Europe or rural America.
Wayne County records show the house at 17210 Hull Street as being built in 1919. Through two really remarkable bits of research luck, I am fairly certain I now know who built it. However, I don’t think the 17210 house was the first structure on the lot.
In the 1918 and 1919 city directories, two people were living at the address that would become 17210: Aime Lordeau and Harry Brown. So there must have been some sort of structure on the property. In the 1920 directory, just Lordeau is listed. However, the US Census for that year shows Brown still at the address along with a new resident: John Sandich.
Sandich was in some ways unremarkable. Like thousands of other autoworkers of his day, he was born in eastern Europe in the late 1800s; emigrated to the United States in the 1910s; signed up for the draft during World War I; got married and began a family; and moved among a number of jobs and homes.
But unlike so many of his contemporaries, we have multiple descriptions of Sandich’s life and work. John (originally Isa) was a skilled carpenter with a notable history. He earns a full paragraph in the book “South Slavs in Michigan”:
Other Serb immigrants found jobs in the auto industry due to their specialized training. Isa (John) Sandich arrived from Serbia with experience as a wagon and furniture maker. Because of his excellent woodworking skills, he was hired by General Motors as a maintenance carpenter. When needed he was employed by the Fisher brothers to work on their country home. In his free time he helped friends construct their own homes, and he augmented his GM wages by building a new home on inexpensive land on the outskirts of Detroit. The home was completed, lived in for a time, and a new one started while the previous home was sold for a profit.
A new home at the edge of Detroit sounds a lot like Hull Street. But there’s more.
In 2003, Professor Russell Magnaghi interviewed Sandich’s daughter Dorothy about her parents, and about her experiences as a first-generation American. By truly remarkable luck, Professor Magnaghi has made a transcript of the interview available online.
Dorothy: [My father] always bought property in the suburbs because, for one thing, it was cheaper. And then like when he built our first house, there was no water, there was no gas. But like in a matter of maybe a year both that all came into the little suburb from Detroit. So…where we lived was like right on the fringe of Detroit, but we were still in the suburbs.
Magnaghi: Where was that first place that you lived? Or, not that you remember, or maybe you did, but where your family lived in 1916?
Dorothy: We lived on Hull Avenue.
Fact upon conflicting fact: Isa’s WWI draft card shows him on Hull Street in 1918, but at a different address. So his daughter is remembering correctly, and incorrectly, all at once. The truth is somewhere in the crossing of histories.
Magnaghi: So he started this process then, from the very beginning, he was building these houses?
Dorothy: Right. And then we’d live in them and they weren’t finished, like you wouldn’t have plaster walls or anything. We’d live in it so he’d be close to the house, to work on it on evenings and weekends.
Magnaghi: So he would then finish it off.
Dorothy: Finish it off, we’d live in it for a while and then he’d sell it. And he’d buy the next piece of property.
When I found this interview, I was astonished. I never expected to find a first-hand account of living in the Hull Street house while it was built. It’s fascinating and discomfiting at the same time. Sandich’s daughters were born in 1914 and 1916. They were tiny, in a house that probably didn’t even have plaster walls let alone running water.
Later in the interview, Dorothy spoke about how their limited transportation options kept the family isolated from the rest of their Serbian community. Living on the edge of Detroit was more affordable, but at a cost.
The family’s stay on Hull Street was only a few years. They didn’t go far: The Sandiches eventually settled in Highland Park, a mere half-mile west of 17210 Hull. Close enough to drive by every so often for a peek at the old place.
It was a new place to someone else. The 1921 city directory showed its latest resident: Benjamin Brovet, my great-grandfather. ☗