Crescent Corset Factory

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, March 1996,
March 1996

Author: Grace Shackman

The whole town gasped with pleasure a year ago January, when the stark white panels covering the former Kline’s storefront were removed, revealing ornate terra-cotta decorations around the windows and across the top of the building. The striking detail work, damaged when the panels were applied to the facade in Kline’s 1961 remodeling, dates to the construction of the building in 1896. Called the Pratt Block, it was built to house the factory and headquarters of the Crescent Corset and Clasp Company.

The Crescent Corset and Clasp Company was incorporated in 1891. The September 24, 1891, Ann Arbor Register reported that the firm had raised $10,000 in capital and that “seven or eight men will be employed at the outset.” The company’s first president was publisher Junius Beal, and its first location was a rented space on the third floor of Beal’s Courier building on the corner of Main and Miller (now Dobson-McOmber insurance).

A corset was a “foundation garment,” designed to mold a woman’s body into the hourglass shape that was the style of the day. To achieve this effect, waists were cinched as tightly as possible in order to make the hips and bust look more voluptuous. The corset achieved the desired profile with stays made of whalebone or metal, and body compression was achieved by tightening laces spread up the back of the corset like shoelaces. (Anyone who has seen “Gone with the Wind” will remember the scene where Scarlett is laced into her corset in preparation for the ball.)

Although today corsets sound like instruments of torture, Crescent’s products were advertised as being more comfortable than other models; one modified corset, called a “waist,” was recommended “for bicycle riding or to wear around the house.” By 1894, the county census recorded twenty employees at the company, four men and sixteen women. They earned $1.33 for a twelve-hour day. Two years later, the growing company moved into the newly built Pratt Block, spreading out over the two top floors.

The Pratt Block was named for its owner, Stephen Pratt, a Detroit industrialist who made his money manufacturing steam boilers. It was designed by Malcomson and Higgenbothan, Detroit architects who designed many area school buildings, including the old Ann Arbor High School and Carnegie Library (now the U-M Frieze Building). Made of molded and fired clay, terra-cotta was widely used for architectural detailing from the end of the nineteenth century until the 1930’s. (Other examples on Main Street include the 1925 Marchese Building at 319 South Main, the 1929 First National Building at the corner of Washington, and the 1908 Mayer-Schairer building between Washington and Huron.)

Advertisements for Crescent corsets called them “superior fitting and extra durable.” The 1896 Headlight, a promotional magazine put out by the Michigan Central Railroad, concurred, stating that “the excellence of their goods has given them an enviable reputation in this line. They deal direct with the consumer and every article is made to the individual measure of the customer, and their trade extends all over this and neighboring states.”

The corset factory closed in 1912. Although corsets continued to be worn for a few more years, they were declining in popularity. Social historians give a number of reasons: women’s more active lifestyles, changing fashions that emphasized a more boyish figure, and, several believe, the fact that the popular tango was hard to perform while wearing a corset.

Before the factory closed, one of the street-level storefronts was taken over by Schmacher Hardware, which had started in 1870 in the adjacent building to the south. Afterward, the hardware store took over most of the rest of the building. In 1930, Kline’s department store moved in, staying until December 1994.

In 1961, Kline’s hid the terra-cotta detailing behind a featureless “modern” facade. It was a time when appreciation of old buildings was at its nadir. The 1877 courthouse at Main and Huron had been replaced five years earlier, and Bertha Muehlig’s house across the street from Kline’s would soon be demolished. Proponents of urban renewal advocated tearing down entire neighborhoods. Those older buildings and homes that were saved were often remodeled, like Kline’s, expressly to make them look new.

Developer Ed Shaffran bought the Pratt Block after Kline’s closed. He has already converted the two upper floors-—site of the corset factory-—into nine apartments. On the top floor, he found three rows of holes in the hardwood floor, which he surmises were made when the sewing machines were bolted down. He also found a bunch of straight pins, but no old corsets. On the second floor, he discovered Schmacher Hardware advertisements--for Royal furnaces, Jewitt stoves, and tinware--on the south wall.

Before the 1961 panels were removed, Shaffran had some idea of the detailing beneath them, and he also knew that it had been damaged, because he had climbed out onto a second-floor windowsill and looked under the panels with a flashlight. However, he was surprised by the extent of the damage to the terra-cotta along the top of the building. He theorizes that when Kline’s sent the measurements for the new panels to their New York office, they reported the width and height of the building but didn’t take into account how far away from the building the panels would have to be hung in order to avoid damaging the terra-cotta detailing. Whoever installed the panels simply knocked off the parts of the terra-cotta that protruded too far. If they had extended the bracketing beams just a little farther—less than a foot—they could have preserved it all.

A careful washing of the building has revealed the original color of the bricks and terra-cotta. Shaffran is now repairing the facade, replacing broken bricks with new ones of the same color and shape as the originals. The architectural terra-cotta is being replaced in some places with new terra-cotta, in others with a combination of wood and molded millwork, which is then sprayed with a product called Sto to give it an appearance close to the original fired clay.

Shaffran is currently finishing the first-floor storefronts, which will be rented to five retailers. Tenants so far include two home furnishing stores, Jules and Atys, both of which expect to open in April or May, and a Main Street branch of Le Dog. When he’s done, Shaffran promises, the Pratt Block will once again be “the diamond of Main Street.”