LANDMARKS: Cobbs & Mitchell Building

May 18, 2012

In Cadillac one of the city’s most historic buildings is in the process of being reborn. But the market is tough these days for new office space, even for what might be the most ornate office building up north.

Monument to Cadillac’s golden age

It’s hard to imagine a more historic building in the region. The Cobbs and Mitchell building stretches back to the lumber era when Cadillac was an economic powerhouse. Cliff Sjogren, past president of the Wexford County Historical Society, says it had the strongest economy in Michigan.

“We had the lowest unemployment rate of any community in the state.”

Sjogren says much of Cadillac’s success was due to two men: William Mitchell and Jonathon Cobbs. Mitchell was the son of the city’s founder, George Mitchell. Cobbs was his business partner.

Shogren says at the start of the 20th century most of the pine trees up north had been cut down. The lumber companies that remained consolidated and turned to hardwoods. Cobbs and Mitchell led the way and became known worldwide for their tongue-and-groove maple flooring—electric maple it was referred to because electricity was just starting to power the saw mills. Sjogren says they owned the largest flooring factory in the world. and went all over northern Michigan logging hardwoods.

“It wasn’t just Wexford County. Mitchell Street is the main street in Petoskey.”

In 1908 the Cobbs and Mitchell building was finished. It was the largest office building in northern Michigan and it doubled as showroom. A wide variety of hardwoods were used in the trim, paneling, floors and furniture. And a promotional booklet with photographs was made. The front page says “Michigan’s Woods Intelligently Exploited by Cobbs and Mitchell, Inc.” It boasts that the building is not only fit for business but “also affords a dignified and permanent exhibit of the finer uses of Michigan hardwoods.”

More than 100 years later that permanent exhibit remains largely intact and recently came under new ownership.

Building changes hands

The lumber industry was winding down by 1930s and in 1939 the state’s highway department purchased the Cobbs and Mitchell building. Instead of lumber barons smoking cigars, the “commodious” club room (the most interesting room in the building according to the booklet) was filled with planners and draftsmen. And the famous maple flooring was covered up with carpet.

The state moved out of the building a few years ago and sold it to a developer. Now the club room has had much of its grandeur restored, including refinished maple floors.

Nan Taylor, with the Michigan Historic Preservation Network says the state took good care of the Cobbs and Mitchell building. The original marble fireplaces are intact. So are the original radiators and the wallpaper throughout.

The growing challenge of historic preservation in Michigan

The historic significance has helped the redevelopment of the Cobbs and Mitchell building. It captured considerable state tax credits, credits that are not available anymore. Governor Snyder mostly eliminated these when he restructured Michigan’s economic development programs. Nan Taylor says that’s too bad because many cities are struggling to find new uses for historic buildings like libraries and courthouses.

Finding businesses to move in can be tough. In Cadillac, the Cobbs and Mitchell building is mostly restored but the owner is still looking for the first new tenant.