Downtown Hillsdale consists of blocks of buildings such as the City Hall, the Dawn Theatre, and the Keefer Hotel which are well over 100 years old and have endured as testaments to their builders’ skills.
Jeffrey Horton, the owner of many properties in the Hillsdale area, is part of a group which has restored the Dawn Theatre to its 1930’s appearance. The theatre was originally build in 1919 as a vaudeville theatre with a curved stage and stenciled plaster walls. These walls were later covered with homasote when the theatre was rebuilt in the 1930s to accommodate “talkies,” said Horton. Homasote is a durable material manufactured by compressing recycled paper and glue at high temperatures.
The original manufacturer of homasote was still in business; as a result, Horton was able to restore the theatre walls to their 1930s appearance.
In the restoration process, several posters from 1930s films were discovered pasted on wooden walls in the basement. One poster advertises the Clara Bow film “No Limit” released in 1931. Another poster is missing its title but based on the photograph and the name of the leading actor, Charles Rogers, it appears that it advertised the 1931 film “Working Girls”. The third poster is that of the 1930 film “The Virtuous Sin” with Walter Huston.
The basement of the Dawn Theatre bears many signs of its colored past; the walls in one corner are visibly darker than the other walls. Horton believes that this was where coal was piled to feed the building’s two boilers.
“The side facing Broad Street is the only side of the building that allowed for coal to be delivered, the alley was too narrow,” Horton said.
He pointed out a square hole in the side of the basement which had been filled in with concrete blocks where the coal chute had been located.
Horton also owns the Keefer Hotel whichhe is in the process of renovating. The Keefer Hotel is located on the next block over from the Dawn Theatre. Its large windows overlook Howell Street giving the lobby a bright, open feeling. The lobby floor consists of square inch tiles in Central American style designs identical to those in City Hall, likely a result of Mexican laborers who were working in the area at the time of the hotel’s construction, Horton said.
The Keefer Hotel was built in 1885, suffered from a fire, and was rebuilt around 1911,Horton said. The hotel opened with 54 rooms on two floors with the main floor occupied by the lobby, dining room, and the kitchen.
The original wainscot pattern in the lobby and dining room is identical to that of the state capitol, and Horton believes that the same skilled laborers who worked on that building also finished the hotel. Since much of the original wainscoting was beyond repair, Horton had it carefully covered over by an exact duplicate of the pattern thus preserving the original wall as wellas the rooms’ aesthetics.
The ceiling in the lobby was stenciled plaster similar to the walls of the Dawn Theatre, but it was covered with stamped tin plates during the rebuilding of 1911, preserving the original ceiling behind.
Jilly Beans also residesin a historical building which was originally the Smith Hotel. The third story burned in the 1980s and was never rebuilt.
A familiar haunt for students of Hillsdale College, some of whom are familiar with the garden to the rear of the coffee shop which offers patrons a delightful atmosphere in which to enjoy their drinks and chat with friends. A wisteria tree in the center of the courtyard provides shade and lends itself well to the peaceful setting.
“This [the courtyard] was where they kept the coal, orso I’ve been told,” Jilly Beans’ owner Jill Nichols said.
The Dawn Theatre, Keefer Hotel, the Smith Hotel and all the other buildings in downtown Hillsdale from that period are brick, highlighting the builders’ attention to the longevity of the buildings.
“Fires were not an uncommon thing at that time,” Horton said.
A comparison of the downtown area in past decades as seen in photographs compared to the present-day confirms this.
For more information about historical buildings in Hillsdale and the surrounding area as well as photographs, look up “Vanished Hillsdale” on Facebook.