THE ARBAUGH HISTORY : :

The Arbaugh’s Department Store structure occupies what is still a prominent position near the southern end of the Central Business District of downtown Lansing. At the time of its construction in 1905, it was reputedly the tallest building and largest department store in Lansing. Located on an approximately square, roughly one half acre parcel of land at the corner of Kalamazoo street and Washington Avenue (on the Washington Square corridor), the building was named after the founder of the department store, F. N. Arbaugh. The structure is composed of six-bay facades on both Kalamazoo street and Washington Avenue, in what remains to this day a bustling office, retail and (more recently) loft apartment district.


The Arbaugh building is a masonry bearing wall structure with heavy timber post and built-up beam construction in the north (1905) half, and round steel post and steel I-beam interior construction in the south (1915) half. All of the above ground floor and roof decks are composed of dimensional lumber with hardwood decking. It consists of five floors, the first level of 17,000 square feet and all upper floors each of 15,600 square feet. The 21,600 square foot basement extends under the west and north sidewalks. The building displays what remains of a three-part façade characteristic of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century commercial buildings and exemplifies the classic elements of the regional vernacular Commercial style in its symmetry, bold cornice treatment (since removed,) and simple use of classically derived details. The street level consists of a series of rectangular storefronts along the west (Washington) and north (Kalamazoo) elevations.

The brick facades of the street frontage elevations are embellished with masonry piers defining each bay, continuous concrete sills below each window group, and a recessed brick pan above each window at stories below the fifth. A continuous limestone beltcourse lies just above the fifth floor windows, with prominent detail supporting the wrapping of each pier.

The entire interior of the structure has experienced complete plan alteration and remodeling, save the northeast stairwell. No interior doors or partition walls remain. Multiple suspended ceilings have been hung below existing wood lath and plaster. Glass block exterior windows appear at the west face of each landing in the southwest stairwell.

By contrast, the upper, more open floor plans reveal the regular column spacing necessary for a flexible department store lay-out. After the escalators were closed off during the conversion for office use, elevators were installed immediately to the north providing access to all floors including the basement. We find terrazzo floors in the lower levels of the northeast stair and the north end of the east entryway, but no interior woodwork or trim (including interior window casings) exist.

Located centrally in the lower part of the state, Lansing was named after the town of Lansing in Tomkins County, New York, in 1841 by Joseph H. North, a native from there who moved to Michigan. Both places were named to commemorate Revolutionary War hero and legal author, John Lansing. In Michigan’s Ingham County, Lansing exists, in large part, as a result of a compromise between upstate and downstate legislators to site the state capitol in a more central location in 1847. Even with the designation as the capitol of Michigan, the city wasn’t incorporated until 1859, with 3,085 inhabitants. The current Capitol Building was dedicated twenty years later in 1879.

Lansing boasted two downtowns in 1897: the original city center near the mills in North Lansing, now known as Old Town, and a more traditional and identifiable CBD established close to the Capitol on Washington Square (the downtown “main street”) and Michigan Avenues. Ground-floor street fronts offered stoves, furniture, clothing and groceries to city-dwellers and farm families. Upstairs offices housed real estate and insurance agents, milliners and doctors.

In 1891, while attending the State Teachers’ college at Indiana, Pennsylvania, Frank N. Arbaugh had as a roommate a young man named Basil C. Cameron. In the same year Cameron’s uncle, J. M. Cameron, arrived in Lansing to start a department store, erecting a one-story building near the corner of South Washington Ave. and Kalamazoo Street. Although headquartered in a building only 22 by 80 feet, the enterprise quickly attained fair success even before B. C. Cameron arrived to help his uncle.

Five years later, Frank Arbaugh also left Pennsylvania for Lansing. The elder Mr. Cameron becoming ill, the nephew hired Frank. Together with one clerk, the two young men operated the store. Early in 1897 the ailing uncle offered to sell Frank Arbaugh his half interest for $1,500. He accepted, and the name of the firm was changed to Cameron and Arbaugh. During their first year as owners, the two youthful entrepreneurs pushed sales up to $17,000, a significant increase from the previous high of $12,000. Each year “the thriving merchants” saw their business grow and by 1902 they purchased the neighboring Octagon house built in 1857 by one Col. Whitney Jones, who had served as Lansing’s first postmaster and had represented Ingham and Eaton Counties in the state legislature.

At the same time, the partners gained wide attention for their original merchandising methods. Cameron and Arbaugh’s became the first store in Lansing to accept employees’ paychecks from the newly established Olds Motor Works. The policy became so popular that the merchants began cashing paychecks from “any established business organization.” In succeeding years, Frank Arbaugh credited the innovation as one of the most important factors in the rapid growth of the company during the 1900’s. By later standards the sums of money were small, as the merchant observed in 1934. “In those days, the average check for two weeks’ hard work was $17.50,” he commented. “I used to cash the checks personally – I know.” But regardless of the sums involved, the result was a substantial increase in the company’s share of Lansing’s retail trade.

By 1904 both Cameron and Arbaugh agreed the store, although enlarged, was of insufficient size to keep up with increasing business. Planning to erect “Lansing’s first skyscraper,” they chose to locate on the site of the Octagon house and relocated the solid brick structure to the east end of the lot. Ground was broken in the early spring of 1905. Originally planned as a four story building, the building was given a fifth floor when the Lansing Business University requested space in the structure (the business school remained on the fifth floor until 1910.)

Lansing residents watched with great interest as the city’s newest landmark began to take shape. The front page headline of the May 1, 1905 Lansing Journal noted, “The Cameron and Arbaugh Building is to be the tallest in the City,” and further, “Work is being rushed on the new store on Washington avenue south, the first story being already of a height to show its fine proportions. The first story is so high and all of the upper ones will be of more than the ordinary height, thus lifting the top of the building over even the Hollister Block and the new Prudden office building.”

A grand opening on the evening of Tuesday, October 3, 1905 presented the attendant crowds with “the Glass Block, so styled, because of the wealth of glass, with which its construction abounds, is capable of characterization, as the finest department store building in Central Michigan, and without a peer in the entire state.”

Towering majestically in the business district of the city, the structure comprised five stories and a basement, and embraced a total area of 38,000 square feet. Reinforced concrete beams rested upon pillars of red paver brick, of which both ‘fronts’ of the building were composed, support the upper stories. The beams were constructed “on the famous Kahn system and are reinforced by several rods passing through them.” Both in interior arrangement and finish and exterior adornment, “it combines metropolitan massiveness with the beauty and symmetry of modern architectural skill.”

Material and labor was furnished largely by local firms and included heating by the “Central system,” installed by Shields and Leadly, and the mains connected with the plant of Piatt Brothers. Plumber John Toolan provided every floor with closets and lavatories, and a public drinking fountain on the first floor near the elevator. Out of state equipment and material included the electric elevator, costing $2,500, installed by H. J. Reedy & Co., of Cincinnati, Ohio, The Sampson pneumatic tube system (by which cash was carried from every department on every floor to the main office in the balcony, where change was made and returned in a few seconds) installed by the Thompson Consolidated Store Service Co., of Boston, for the contract price of $2,500, stonework of Ohio sandstone, and both interior and window lighting from 150 Wernst lights (their first use in Lansing) .

In 1906, the partners decided to incorporate their enterprise with a capital stock offering of $100,000. In 1909, after the younger Cameron’s attraction to retailing seemed to diminish, he sold his share to Mr. Arbaugh and the store then became the F. N. Arbaugh Company. In 1915, after continued success and increased share of the retail trade, Arbaugh razed the original buildings that stood to the south and constructed a seamless addition to the 1905 structure, which increased square footage to almost 100,000 and gave the building 132 feet of frontage on Washington Avenue.

In spite of the dark depression, the company continued to be an economic bright light in Lansing throughout the 1930’s. Its payroll climbed to over 250 employees, while other firms were laying off workers. In 1953, general manager George Arbaugh announced that “a sizeable interest” in the company had been sold to the Sperry and Hutchinson Company of New York. The green stamp company, which also owned the Wurzburg department store chain, placed two representatives on Arbaugh’s board, and although Frank Arbaugh remained as chairman of the board, it soon became obvious that control was passing from local hands.

Six months later, George Arbaugh was replaced as president by Clarence R. Knapp. The new general manager, on the job only three weeks, proclaimed an ambitious “remodeling of the store.” The $300,000 renovation, announced jointly with Frank Arbaugh, called for a five-story addition to the south, including installation of escalators and the construction of “…a two-story, light-colored front – from the first to second floor – along both Washington ave. and Kalamazoo st.” In one of his last major public statements, the elder Arbaugh showed a flash of his old enthusiasm. “Our plans for the future call for making Arbaugh’s the most modernly equipped, customer convenient and attractive store in central Michigan,” he told reporters. Unfortunately, in addition to removal of the original storefronts, this included removal of the original cornice on both the west and north facades.

Sperry and Hutchinson continued to operate under the Arbaugh name until 1969 when Jack Butler of Detroit “purchased the Wurzburg chain, which included the local store.” Butler dropped the Arbaugh designation and renamed the store Wurzburg’s. The store went into decline as shoppers abandoned the downtown area in favor of the new malls that were springing up around Lansing. Finally, in April, 1972, Butler threw in the towel and closed the store “…ending 89 consecutive years of department store retailing” at the site.

With the demise of the landmark retailing giant, the Arbaugh family again took over the building and property and placed them on the market. The building remained vacant until 1974 when automobile dealer Karl Story purchased the structure and renovated it entirely for office use, at a reported cost of $1.2 million, including the glass skin which remains today. The structure was occupied for the next couple of decades largely by State of Michigan offices.

After two years of vacancy, the building has undergone an entire rehabilitation, completed in late 2005, for mixed use as market rate loft apartments and first floor office and retail, with the basement converted to underground parking accessible by the surface parking lot immediately adjacent to the south. Once the commercial anchor of the central business district, the Arbaugh department store structure stands as one of the few remaining "landmark" buildings, and has regained its stature.