From yesteryear’s ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ to today’s ambitious oral history projects, the Detroit Historical Society has kept its finger on the city’s pulse.
The Detroit Historical Society was slow to get off the ground, but after its formation in December 1921, it opened “the highest museum in the world.” The Detroit Historical Museum, established by the DHS in 1928, originally occupied space on the 23rd floor of today’s Cadillac Tower, east of Campus Martius Park.
Despite the original endowment of clippings and files collected by lawyer and historian Clarence Burton, the museum’s location was its most distinguishing feature.
“It became very much like museums of the day,” says Joel Stone, curator emeritus of the DHS and author of “100 Years of the Detroit Historical Society,” published last December by Wayne State University Press. “It was a cabinet of curiosities — things just put in cabinets, with very little interpretation.”
Stone says one of the original, generous founders may have rented the space. There was enough room for demonstrations of arts such as weaving, but “the people from the other offices were always upset” when a visiting troop of Boy Scouts would take over the building’s elevators for five or 10 minutes.
One question concerns the relatively late date for the DHS’s founding. The Cincinnati History Library and Archives, for example, was started in 1831. It turns out that the Historical Society of Michigan had come into being even earlier: 1828. (It was one of the first such organizations in the country.) The state society went about its business in Detroit until its move to Lansing in 1874. For more than four decades, there was an opening in Detroit for a historical-preservation organization with a local focus.
Through the Great Depression, the DHS gained little momentum even after the museum moved to a house on Merrick Street, near the Detroit Public Library’s main branch. During World War II, a key development was the involvement of George Stark, whose “Town Talk” column was required reading in The Detroit News. With an eye toward the creation of a fine facility, Stark became president of the DHS and enjoyed crucial support from Leonard Simons, who was also instrumental in founding the Wayne State University Press.
“Stark and those guys went out and found the money, mostly from old, well-heeled Detroiters,” Stone says. Within three years, $250,000 was raised for a museum. The DHS offered the money, along with 15,000 artifacts, to the City of Detroit, which created the Detroit Historical Commission to build and operate a museum.
Designed by William Edward Kapp of Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls (today SmithGroup in Detroit), the modernist building at 5401 Woodward Ave. was dedicated on July 24, 1951, on Detroit’s 250th birthday.
The arrangement with the City worked for more than 50 years. In 1961, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum opened on Belle Isle, and received marketing and fundraising support from the DHS, which also threw its embrace around Historic Fort Wayne.
But Stone recounts how “the City’s fortunes really started to change.” This was part of a national trend that found municipalities needing to shed obligations. “In 2006 the City came back to the society and said, ‘We’re having financial issues. We’re going to have to close the museums. Can you help us keep them open?’ ”
The DHS reassumed management of the museums in 2006, and a fundraising campaign in 2012-2013 enabled renovations to both buildings. Meanwhile, the City’s Parks and Recreation Department took over Historic Fort Wayne, where the DHS still warehouses 250,000 artifacts, including about 70 cars and trucks.
In 2018, Elana A. Rugh was appointed the society’s executive director and CEO, and today she’s leading a drive “to make sure that our stories are reflective of the city today.” She says she’s aware of the “huge responsibility to connect more with the community.”
Oral history projects have gained importance, and artifacts such as COVID-19 vaccination flyers and even face masks are being gathered. Rugh adds that the museum is “not just about old dusty things, but what’s happening now and what will be happening in the future — that’s how we’ll be relevant.”
– by Ronald Ahrens
Originally staffed with 18 people, Lear Corp. ranks 166th on the Fortune 500 list and faces a bright future as an auto supplier.
Frederick Matthaei liked to think big, as in bringing the Olympic Games to Detroit. Over three decades, starting in 1936, Matthaei led the Detroit Olympic Committee in hopes of changing his native city’s image as a “dirty factory town.”
In September of 1946, the committee applied to host the 1952 Games, stating, “Metropolitan Detroit’s 2 million citizens have kinship with, and the utmost affection for, all of the nationalities of the world.”
The Olympics eluded Detroit — one of the few unchecked boxes in Matthaei’s fruitful life. He had launched his American Metal Products Co. on Aug. 24, 1917, in Detroit. Eighteen employees made tubular, welded, and stamped assemblies for autos and airplanes. Eleven years later, AMP made the first seat frames with coil springs.
By the start of World War II, the company had exceeded $1 million in annual sales, it was serving 12 customers, and it employed 900 people. During wartime, AMP departed from its main offering to produce assemblies for aircraft as well as axle housings for military trucks. Sales hit $11 million in 1944.
Innovation in the postwar period led to AMP’s exclusive design for machinery to make seat springs. Matthaei’s son, Frederick Jr. — a University of Michigan graduate like his father — helped develop seat adjusters in the early 1950s. Matthaei Sr. stepped down as president in 1954, but remained four more years as chairman. Electrically powered seat adjusters were another of the company’s milestones, then contoured, self-leveling seats for semi-tractors. AMP topped $72 million in 1957 sales.
AMP was acquired in 1966 by Lear Siegler Inc., which had originated in 1962 when inventor and businessman Bill Lear sold his interests in Lear Inc. to Siegler Corp. and undertook a new venture to mass-produce business jets. As a conglomerate, Lear Siegler pursued diverse operations. Meanwhile, automotive seating became more complex with additional power-operated functions, swiveling bases, and the integration of headrests. The next step for LSI’s General Seating Group was to devise processes for the “just-in-time” supply of fully trimmed seats to final-assembly plants.
In 1987, the private-equity firm Forstmann Little and Co. acquired LSI for $2.1 billion. The next year the General Seating Group was spun off, with its 12 plants, in a $507-million management buyout led by executive Kenneth Way, forming Lear Siegler Seating Corp. (It later became Lear Seating Corp.) To complete the deal, the executives even had to mortgage their homes. “They’ve got us handcuffed, and there’s no turning back,” Way told The New York Times.
“A guy like Ken Way in the 1990s was a real visionary,” says John Taylor, associate professor of supply chain management at Wayne State University’s Mike Ilitch School of Business in Detroit. “Not only did (he) see the trend toward outsourcing, but some other critical things, as well — one being that you need to be a global player.” To that end, Lear’s 1997 acquisition of Keiper Car Seating for $235 million solidified relationships in the German auto industry.
While Lear has since experienced ups and downs, including reorganization during Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, the company can forthrightly face a future in which electric vehicles will require fewer parts — but autonomous ones demand different interior features. “That plays to Lear’s strength,” Taylor says. “They’re pretty well-positioned compared to many large Tier 1 suppliers.” And perhaps that’s how Frederick Matthaei would have drawn it up.
– by Ronald Ahrens
The end of Louis Schostak’s rabbinical studies was the beginning of a sprawling, multifaceted real estate and development business.
“There was a time when a seminary student was pictured as a thin, emaciated looking figure,” Louis Schostak wrote in 1921. “The modern rabbi, however, must be strong both in mind and body.” At the time, Schostak was urging officials at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati to build a gym and tennis courts.
But he abandoned his studies after a controversial guest sermon, about which he disagreed with officials of the Queen City, and before long the young man found himself in the real estate business back in Detroit, where Rabbi Wolf Schostak and his family had ended up after leaving Ukraine in 1906.
Specializing in residential brokerage, Schostak Brothers & Co. was a partnership among Louis and two brothers. They went their separate ways during the Great Depression, and Louis focused on commercial work. After World War II, his 14-year-old son, Jerome, served his father as a messenger.
“At 18, I was walking the neighborhoods, making surveys, and compiling information about the stores,” Jerome told The Jewish News decades later. He earned a business degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Rather than representing tenants such as Winkelman’s, S.S. Kresge, and Petrie Stores as they expanded beyond downtown locations, Jerome steered his father toward ownership interest in properties such as Livonia’s Wonderland Center, which Schostak Brothers opened in 1959.
Starting in the late 1970s, Jerome’s sons — Robert, David, and Mark — joined the business, adding new salience to the Schostak Brothers name. And they found themselves at a crossroads. Today’s CEO, David, recalls how they built a Kmart in Alpena, intending to sell an “outlot” for a Burger King; “Long story short, we became the Burger King franchisee and opened up that restaurant in 1981,” he says. Eventually, brother Mark oversaw a dozen Burger Kings under the Team Schostak Family Restaurants banner.
Sticking with Burger King, Team Schostak expanded to 70 Michigan locations by 2002. With new professional management on board, operations were refined with the slogan “Lead the Way,” as well as an increased commitment to customer and employee satisfaction.
In 2004, Team Schostak agreed to develop 15 Olga’s Kitchen restaurants. (Eleven years later, the company acquired Olga’s Kitchen Inc., bringing 25 restaurants out of bankruptcy for nearly $11 million.) In 2009 and 2010, Team Schostak earned Del Taco’s Franchisee of the Year honors. Meanwhile, MOD Pizza franchises joined the portfolio. The big step in 2012 was buying 65 Applebee’s restaurants in Michigan from DineEquity, a California company, for $61 million. Three years later, the Burger Kings were sold to GPS Hospitality, of Atlanta, for an undisclosed price.
“Coincidentally enough, after selling those, then the opportunity came (in 2019) for us to buy 56 Wendy’s in the Michigan market,” David Schostak says. That gives Team Schostak about 165 restaurants today.
Meanwhile, under the direction of Jeffrey Schostak, a fourth-generation leader, Schostak Development looks for shopping centers, office buildings, and industrial space. A 2019 announcement revealed a joint venture between Schostak Brothers & Co. and the Detroit Pistons to demolish and redevelop The Palace of Auburn Hills and manage a future mixed-use complex there.
With fourth-generation Schostaks already in action and an abundance of fifth-generation grandchildren, succession planning is an everyday matter. David Schostak asks, “Do you want to be a clock-builder or time-teller?” The idea is that a clock-builder can keep ticking along. “The next generation will continue to make changes and pursue avenues and interests that are exciting to them,” he adds.
– by Ronald Ahrens
Harness IP in Troy protects the increasing wealth represented by intellectual property.
Henry Schwager had a better idea about a muffler for internal-combustion engines. Applying for a patent in 1924, the Royal Oak resident turned to 26-year-old J. King Harness, who had started a legal practice in Detroit three years earlier, after leading the patent department at Ford Motor Co.
While Schwager’s application progressed, Harness, a pioneering specialist in patents, added two partners to his firm from his days at Detroit College of Law: Art Dickey and Hodgson Pierce. The firm of Harness, Dickey & Pierce delivered welcome news to Schwager in 1926: The muffler patent was granted.
From garage geniuses to immense multinational corporations, the representation of clients on patents and intellectual property has continued as the specialty of Harness, Dickey & Pierce. Along with celebrating its centennial on May 15, 2021, the firm rebranded itself, taking the name Harness IP.
“Our name is what we do,” says CEO Raymond Millien, who arrived last year after a stint in Sweden as chief IP officer at Volvo Car Corp. “It’s pretty trendy for law firms to go to single names as opposed to listing everyone on the door, and most people on the door have passed away.”
Indeed, Harness outlived his partners and until his retirement in 1962, he split his days between private practice and serving as chief patent counsel for Chrysler Corp. By then, the firm had 26 lawyers. Two of Harness’ sons were among them, and Don Harness took a leadership role.
HD&P’s first office was in the former Majestic Building, which opened in 1896 and has since been replaced by the 1001 Woodward Building.
The firm soon moved to the General Motors Building in New Center, and eventually to the Fisher Building. In 1973, there was another move — to Birmingham. Harness IP today operates out of offices in Troy, still within striking distance of the Elijah J. McCoy Midwest Regional Office of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, located in the Stroh Building at 300 River Place Dr. in Detroit.
Additional offices are in Clayton, Mo.; Frisco, Texas; and Reston, Va. (just 35 minutes from the USPTO headquarters in Alexandria). Millien visits each branch once per quarter to keep abreast of cases being handled by the firm’s nearly 100 lawyers and about 150 non-attorney employees. Besides paralegals, docketing specialists, and human resources staff, the firm has its own information technology team.
Longtime clients are General Motors Co., Chrysler, 3M, Nokia, and Samsung, as well as major universities and research institutions. Budding Thomas Edisons seek representation, too, although Millien says the large companies generate vast numbers of patent applications. “If you employ 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 engineers, their job is to create things, and you have to get the legal rights around them,” he says. “That’s intellectual property.”
Control of knowledge and images is ever more crucial; algorithms, trade secrets, and the workings of search engines must be protected. “That is now the measure of wealth in the 21st century, and if you look at the book value of the S&P 500 companies, over 75 percent of that is intangibles like intellectual property,” Millien adds.
As the landscape has changed, so has the general view of IP lawyers, who used to be seen as “folks in the corner.” The specialized nature of IP practice means that budding talent must pass through narrow gates, starting with an undergraduate degree in science or engineering. Millien, for example, studied computer science at Columbia University before attending law school at George Washington University.
Patent law and trademark protection is serious business, even when representing a cartoon figure. In 1952, Kellogg Co. introduced its Tony the Tiger trademark on food products. Twelve years later, Humble Oil and Refining Co., a Standard Oil Co. subsidiary, unleashed its own tiger, urging gasoline buyers, “Put a tiger in your tank!”
Many years passed, and the cartoon tigers coexisted. After Standard Oil became an element of Exxon Mobil Corp., a new initiative created Tiger Marts — without the expansion of trademark protection. Kellogg enlisted Harness to sue. In 2000, Exxon’s move was deemed “progressive encroachment,” and Kellogg and Exxon reached a settlement. Once again, Harness had earned its stripes.
– by Ronald Ahrens
The Calcaterra and Bagnasco families have been taking care of mourners in metro Detroit since 1908.
The funeral business is one of the most ethnically driven industries around. It was even more so in the early 1900s, when the roots of the Bagnasco and Calcaterra Funeral Homes were planted on Detroit’s east side.
In 1908, three Italian American brothers — Frank J., Louis C., and Paul C. Calcaterra — opened Detroit’s first Italian funeral home, the Frank J. Calcaterra Funeral Home near Eastern Market. The business catered exclusively to the Italian immigrants who gathered in that neighborhood.
“The ethnic focus comes from family traditions and the fact that in the old neighborhoods, the different nationalities lived in the same areas because of the language barrier,” says Paul R. Calcaterra, 86, president of the Bagnasco and Calcaterra Funeral Homes. This trend continues, as 70 percent of the company’s business is still Italian.
In 1915, Frank T. Bagnasco started his funeral business, Bagnasco Funeral Home, on St. Aubin Street in the same neighborhood as the Calcaterras. The Bagnascos catered to Sicilian families, whereas the Calcaterras were favored by people who hailed from northern Italy. “There was always dissention between the northern Italians and the Sicilians,” Calcaterra says. “Among older folks, that’s still a little bit alive.”
As Detroit’s population grew, both families saw the need to expand their operations. In 1937, the Calcaterras relocated their business to East Grand Boulevard. The Bagnascos followed in 1953.
Metro Detroit’s Italian population shifted again from the city center to the near-east side and the northeast suburbs, and the Calcaterras and Bagnascos again migrated, along with their customer base.
In 1962, Bagnasco Funeral Home — then run by Frank’s widow, Bessie, and her two sons, Sam and Anthony — moved to its current location on Harper Avenue in St. Clair Shores. In 1965, Louis Calcaterra and his four sons — Louis Jr., Frank, Paul, and Lawrence — moved their operation to the corner of Moross (Seven Mile) and Kelly roads.
In the 1980s, the Italian migration continued its progress northeast. In 1980, one of the Calcaterra brothers, Lawrence, became partners with his longtime friend, Edward J. Wujek, from the prominent Polish funeral family, and opened Wujek-Calcaterra and Sons Funeral Home at Schoenherr Road and Metro Parkway in Sterling Heights. In 1998, Wujek-Calcaterra opened a second location at Van Dyke Avenue and 25 Mile Road in Shelby Township.
In 1984, the three remaining Calcaterra brothers bought an existing funeral home on Schoenherr Road at 15 Mile Road in Sterling Heights. More than a decade later, the Frank J. Calcaterra Funeral Home in Detroit closed in 1996.
In August 2000, the brothers sold Frank J. Calcaterra Funeral Home Inc. to Carriage Services, a conglomerate based in Houston, which purchased the building, company, and name, along with other area funeral homes including Bagnasco Funeral Home. Carriage Services and the families decided to put the two Italian names together. “When we merged, so many families were happy because northern Italians had married Sicilians, and now they could both go to the same place,” Calcaterra says.
Calcaterra and William Bagnasco remained involved in the merged companies. Bagnasco passed away in August 2021, and Calcaterra still is actively involved in the business.
“It’s gone through many changes, but the big change is the philosophy of death and dying,” Calcaterra says. “We’re in the era of throwing things away. That’s why there’s so much cremation. The problem with cremation and the funeral business is there are no products being sold. The casket is minimal, or a rental. There’s no vault because you’re not burying (people) in the ground. But you still have the building to maintain and the personnel you want to keep. It’s tricky.”
– by Tim Keenan