Since the development of East Saginaw in the early 1850s, South Jefferson Avenue has been an important and vital center of the community. It is a uniquely urban place. Within a six block area can be found businesses, churches, civic buildings and homes. Its buildings chronicle the city’s development from a lumber boomtown to one of Michigan’s major industrial centers and form an almost encyclopedic collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century architectural styles - a collection with outstanding works by regionally and nationally prominent architects.
Natural geography was far more important to South Jefferson Avenue’s growth than careful planning and development. Saginaw’s planners ignored the existence of bayous and seasonal flooding. The plan they developed worked well on paper; however, in reality many of the early community’s lots, located in bayous and on low ground, were not reliably dry. The first permanent settlement in East Saginaw was at the intersection of E. Genesee and Washington on high ground near the Saginaw River. However, South Jefferson, following an ancient riverbank at the edge of a forest of Maple, Beech, Oak and Elm and well above the bayous and the Saginaw River’s flood levels, offered ideal building lots - and a consistently dry North and South route. By the late 1850s, development started on South Jefferson near the plank road leading to Flint. Today this is Genesee Avenue. Until the bayous were filled, when the water was high, the two areas of development were isolated and connected only by E. Genesee and a bridge at Hoyt Avenue.
By the early 1860s, South Jefferson had become a major thoroughfare. At the end of the Civil War, three major brick church buildings - First Baptist Church, Jefferson Avenue United Methodist Church and First Congregational - were constructed on South Jefferson. With towers and steeples visible throughout the community, they became instant landmarks. They announced the permanence and prosperity of East Saginaw and defined the scale of stature of South Jefferson. One-hundred forty years later, two of these three churches are still landmarks in the community.
By the late 1870s, East Saginaw, Michigan’s third largest city, was known as the lumber capital of the world. It was a wealthy, boisterous city. This prosperity was evident in the elegant homes that lined the street and the prosperous businesses near the intersection of South Jefferson and East Genesee.
The 1890s marked a period of transition. The lumber supply had been exhausted and the community’s population was declining. In 1889, an act of the State Legislature consolidated the separate city of East Saginaw and Saginaw City to form the City of Saginaw. While the community struggled in the 1890s to reshape itself as an industrial center, the dedication of Hoyt Public Library in 1890 and the Federal building in 1898 created a public square that had been lacking in the original plat of East Saginaw. In 1906 this public square was further expanded and completed by Jeffers Park.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, Saginaw had become an important industrial center, and the automobile became an important part of the community’s economy and culture. The city barns that once housed horses and carriages were replaced with garages. Early garages can be found at 523 South Jefferson and 505 Thompson. As you walk on South Jefferson, careful scrutiny will reveal garages and gas stations related to Saginaw’s early automotive heritage. Further evidence of the automobile’s transformation of the community is evidenced in the c. 1970 construction of I-675.
This tour focuses on South Jefferson Avenue’s architecture. However, countless other stories about the people for whom these buildings were constructed, and the people who lived and worked on South Jefferson Avenue - Harriet Ames, the first librarian at Hoyt Public Library, The Goodridge Brothers, African-American photographers who recorded the development of South Jefferson, W. Q. Atwood, African American lumberman - could be recounted. Their stories are intertwined with South Jefferson’s buildings and are preserved in the Local History Collection at Hoyt Library.
The South Jefferson Avenue Corridor Committee was formed in 2002. Spearheaded by Neighborhood Renewal Services of Saginaw, Inc. (NRS), the Committee recognizes the special qualities of South Jefferson Avenue’s architecture and its institutions. Focusing on the blocks between East Genesee Avenue and Saint Mary’s hospital, we are working to build on the community’s strengths and revitalize its residential qualities. As a means of accomplishing this, NRS has purchased and stabilized six vacant homes. New uses for these homes are being explored.
The members of the South Jefferson Avenue Corridor Committee cooperate to promote the Avenue’s resources. For more information about the project, please contact Neighborhood Renewal Services at 989-753-4900.