While the arrival of rail service to Oak street influenced the street’s rise to power, an absence of available space along 5th street no doubt was a contributing factor. The crop of new hotels and boarding houses that the arrival or rail service spurred had no where to go but along Oak – the closest available real estate to all the action. And the first open block would be the one immediately west of 5th – the 500 block.
In the beginning the 500 block was predominately home to single family residences, with the exception of a pair of wood business blocks at the corner of 5th. Soon a duo of boarding houses took up shop on its western end, on the corner of 6th. On the south end stood the Provincial House, and across the street was the exclusive sounding Anglo-American House. As Oak street matured, these wood framed structures were replaced by more modern steel and brick buildings; the Anglo would become the Hotel Michigan, and the Provincial would be replaced by the massive Vertin Brother’s Department store. Those wood framed business blocks on 5th would also be updated to their modern brick counterparts. We’ll start at that end today, on the corner of 5th.
First up is the business block occupying the south-west corner of 5th and Oak. Built around 1890, this terra-cotta embellished building is known as the Caesar Block and was built to house the Caesar’s clothing store (you can take a look at those terra-cotta details HERE). The store front seen here is an unfortunate modern renovation, replacing a much more graceful and unique front facade. Originally the store featured a corner entrance facing Oak along with a second floor entrance at the building’s left end, highlighted with a large sandstone arch.
The Caeser block would continue to be house its clothing store for several decades, before eventually being replaced by a dry goods store. Later the building would be bought up by the neighboring Vertin Brothers Store, to be used to house the massive store’s men’s department. The Vertin’s new annex was attached to its main building by means of a connecting walkway, built across the alleyway that once separated them. That walkway continues to connect the two buildings still today, but Caesar’s is now home to a flower shop.
Along Oak itself the Caesar Block presents nothing other then a large blank brick wall. For most of the building’s life this large canvas was used as advertising space, usually for the store that occupied the Caeser block at the time. You can still makes out the remains of the last ad to grace the wall, though its message is no longer clear.
Across Oak along its northern end we have The Murphy Block. The first business block built along the 500 block, this rather dark and muted building currently serves as a storage and display space for Cross Country Sports. The building also has the distinction of being home to the village’s first Post Office, which rented out the first floor retail space around 1888. After the Post Office moved down the street, the building would become home to a round of new businesses including a saloon, grocer, cigar shop, and clothing store. In its later years the Murphy block would become known as the Salvation Army building, after the religious organization moved its operations here from their old and decrepit home on the corner of 7th and Portland.
Next door stands a relatively petite building known as the Sorsen Block, built around the turn of the century. (You can view a closer examination of this building back in the CCE archives, HERE). The building was named after Dr. Charles Sorsen, a Finnish immigrant who had built a successful drugstore down on 5th known as the Finnish Apothecary. Sorsen’s success enabled him to build this stately little building and move his business to Oak Street.
The Sorsen block was a family affair, as it also housed a second Sorsen family member – Oscar Sorsen. Oscar came to the country with his father when he was just 17. He would end up receiving an education in dentistry from the Dental College of Chicago and set up a dentist office on the second floor.
The Sorsen Block sits alongside a narrow alley originally known as Ash Lane (back in the day all the alleyways had names, usually taken from trees). On the other side of Ash Lane sits a large open area, a space that had previously been home to a pair of wood framed structures dating back to when the Anglo-American Hotel was still standing next door. Today those buildings are long gone however.
But we can catch glimpses of those two archaic structures in this photo, sitting just to the right of the recognizable Michigan House. Zooming in provides an even better view…
The building immediately to the right of the Michigan House has no name, but was home to a barbershop for most of its existence. It was built around 1890, originally housing a Chinese Laundry (convenient considering the presence of the neighboring boarding houses). Next door sits a small squat structure that was actually a single family residence. It was home to Daniel and Margeret McCarthy around 1916. Behind those wood structures you can also make out the neighboring Sorsen and Murphy Blocks as well, rounding out the block’s offerings.
As for that large building in the foreground, we’ll take a closer look at that next….