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Lost Genesee Block: The Denzinger-Sigwalt Building

Constructed ca. 1870, the remaining portions of the Denzinger-Sigwald Building at 91-95 Genesee Street were demolished last year as the building became unstable and deemed beyond repair by owner Genesee Gateway LLC.  While the property is now surface parking, the owner has not ruled out future new construction on the site.

Jennifer Walkowski, an Architectural Historian with Clinton Brown Company Architecture, prepared the application necessary for the designation of the Genesee Gateway Historic District.   Below is an excerpt from her findings on the now-demolished Denzinger-Sigwalt Building.

While a more modest commercial variant of the style in comparison to some of the more exuberant residential examples, the Denzinger-Sigwald Building contained all of the features which were typical of the Second Empire style.  The building’s straight-sloped slate-tiled mansard roof contained six, round-headed, 2/2 wood sash, hooded dormer windows.  Some early Sanborn maps refer to the mansard as a “French roof” responding to the origin of the style.

DSC_0148gg.JPGThe Denzinger-Sigwald Building was constructed on the site of a previously existing structure which dated to the antebellum period of ca. 1850.  Portions of a brick building located at what is now the 95 Genesee Street space may have been incorporated into the new, expanded four-story brick building in the 1870s.

The 1860 census records that Louis Webber and his family as well as Jonathan Sigwald and his family occupied houses at these addresses.  Webber was noted as being a postal clerk of French descent, but like many of the residents in the Genesee neighborhood, he was from the ethnically-German region of Alsace which was under French control during this time.  Similarly, Jonathan Sigwald, whose cutlery shop had been located at this location since at least 1854, was also listed as being of French extraction. B oth men appear to have owned small mixed use residential-commercial buildings at the present 91 and 95 Genesee Street addresses in 1866 as well.

Based on the footprints outlined on the 1872 City Atlas, it appears that the present Denzinger-Sigwald Building was constructed at 91-95 Genesee Street around 1870.  With the establishment of the quickly growing Washington Market in 1856, the surrounding neighborhood was rapidly developing into a center for commercial activity in the post-Civil War era.  The new development of the present Denzinger-Sigwald Building may also have resulted from new ownership at the site, bringing new ideas and new money into the project. 

The 1870 census identifies Peter Favre, a retired grocer of French origin, and Charles Sigwald, a cutler and the son of previous owner Jonathan Sigwald, as owners of the two adjacent properties.  It is likely that as a result of the increased business and the increasing demand for commercial and residential space in the area, both new owners of the 91 and 95 Genesee properties joined forces to create a new larger building.  This new building united both the independently-owned commercial spaces into what appeared from the outside to be one large structure from the north-facing façade.

By 1872, the two halves of the building were owned by William Denzinger, a cutler originally from Württemberg, German and Charles Sigwald.  Given that this map is the earliest known description of the extant building, these two men lend the Denzinger-Sigwald Building its present name.  It appears that Charles Sigwald did not occupy the 95 Genesee Street portion for very long, moving his family to Atchinson City, Kansas by 1900.  William Denzinger would run his cabinetry and furniture making shop from the building for many years throughout the 1870s and 1880s.

In 1884, Frank Pfennig relocated to the 95 Genesee Street location, likely following his sale of property at 99 and 101 Genesee Street to Gabriel Giesser.  Pfennig relocated his tobacco shop to the Denzinger-Sigwald Building, where he operated it until the late 1890s.  By 1889, Charles Sigwald appears to have abandoned his carpentry business for a job as a postal clerk, and while he continued to reside at 91 Genesee Street, it appears that Emil Doerner ran a shoe and boot retail shop from the commercial space, in addition to residing in the building as well.

In 1900, the Denzinger-Sigwald Building appears to have served much the same function it had originally served dating to its origins in the 1870s as a mixed-use commercial and residential building, where shopkeepers both worked and resided with their family.  By the turn of the century, the building at 91 Genesee Street housed Gilbert Hitchcock, salesman, and his family and Elizabeth Denzinger (the widow of William Denzinger) and her family. At 95 Genesee Street, was George Swartzenburg, bartender, and his family as well as Mathilda Pfennig, widow of Frank Pfennig.

As the 1900s progressed, the Denzinger-Sigwald Building housed a variety of small commercial shops including Hyman Jacobson’s pawnbroker shop and the Wilson Brothers wholesale and import jewelry business in the 91 Genesee commercial space, while the 95 Genesee space house businesses such as the Unger-Schalger Optometrists who occupied the space in the 1920s and 30s. 

By the early twentieth-century, many of the original owners and occupants had died and their families had vacated the properties, leading to the building’s use as a boarding house renting “furnished rooms” by 1926.  This trend reflects the development of the separation of family living and family businesses, the demise of the small retail shop that was accessed by walking, and a way of life hard to imagine in today’s world of automobile accessed malls of corporate chain stores – all leaving downtown spaces to itinerant boarders.

The Denzinger-Sigwald Building continued in use as a commercial building and rooming house throughout the mid-1900s, and was noted as functioning in such a capacity into the 1980s.  Since the building provided generic, non-specific spaces for commercial and residential tenants, the Denzinger-Sigwald Building appears to have undergone relatively few structural changes throughout its history until the late twentieth-century.

The storefront of the north façade faced some minor alterations, but retains its original cast iron pilasters and even portions of the paneled wood bulkheads.  By the 1940s a single fire escape was grafted to the north façade, serving the safety of the residential occupants.  This single unit was later replaced by the two individual metal fire escapes which adorn the building today.  As originally constructed, each portion of the bifurcated building featured wood porches at the south of the building for use by the residential tenants. 

The Denzinger-Sigwald Building, along with its neighbor the Caulkins Building at 85-87-89 Genesee Street, were largely vacant for nearly three decades in the 1970s-90s and suffered neglect and decay during this period.  The first major alteration to the building came in 1987 following a devastating fire, likely resulting from what had previously been cited as faulty electrical work in the building. 

As a result of structural damage from the fire, owner Bert Simon applied for a building permit to remove the damaged fourth-story mansard roof and replace this with a flat membrane roof.  Unfortunately due to years of neglect coupled with the fire damage, the interior floors collapsed into the building in 2000, taking portions of the exterior walls with them. 

Remarkably, despite such damage, two interior cast iron columns remained intact in the 91 Genesee commercial space towards the south of the building, which once supported the masonry wall above.  Equally as impressive is the fact that little damage was caused to the primary north façade of the building during the collapse; with the exception of the well-documented mansard roof, the primary and historically most significant façade of the building remained much as it did in the 1800s.

DSC_0215g.JPGDue to the fragile condition, both the Denzinger-Sigwald and Caulkins Buildings were twice slated for demolition by the City, including a narrow escape in 2001.  In early 2002, local planner Jessie Schnell Fisher formed Triangle Development in order to purchase these structures at the western end of the Genesee block, hoping to use $50,000 in funds earmarked for their demolition to restore and rehabilitate the buildings.

Triangle Development purchased the buildings in October 2002 and began an attempt at rehabilitating the building which included removing remaining historic fabric in order to brace the interior walls, similar to the work Willard A. Genrich had completed in the 1980s at the eastern end of the Genesee Gateway block.

Only a month later in November 2002, a strong wind storm caused the collapse of significant portions of the Caulkins Building, taking portions of the adjacent Denzinger-Sigwald Building with it.  After removing the debris from the site, the project was largely ignored for several years.

In 2008 the building was purchased by Genesee Gateway LLC with intentions to redevelop the property as a future phase of the Genesee Gateway project.  Last summer the building became unsafe as work crews tried to shore up the structure.  What remained of the building was demolished in July.   

Source: Local Historic District Application, May 17, 2010.  Clinton Brown Company Architecture.

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