Jeanne Watson: Are we like Parisians who no longer notice the Eiffel Tower?

Published 8:57 am Thursday, February 6, 2014

I hope you know more about Niles than I did.

While working on the committee that compiled the Niles historic business district report for the state of Michigan, I was embarrassed to find how much I did not know. One of the things I discovered is that our downtown business district is considered a treasure of architecture by people whose business it is to know such things. It occurs to me that I might not be the only resident who loves Niles, thinks our buildings are cute but takes the Niles historic business district for granted.

In his Description of the Niles historic district Robert Christensen wrote, “Niles’ commercial facades are a museum of storefront design of the early and mid-twentieth centuries,” Christensen of the state preservation office further wrote, “This unique history has made downtown Niles a museum of Kawneer storefront design from 1920s to the 1960s.”

I had heard about Kawneer Store Fronts as long as I can remember, and I thought it referred to the formed metal that was put on the buildings during the urban renewal project of the 1970s. Kawneer did indeed manufacture the rolled metal fronts, but that is not what is meant by “Kawneer Store Fronts.”

Francis Plym moved his sheet metal fabricating shop to Niles in 1906. Plym then developed and patented the metal structural system that made large plate glass display windows possible. Before his invention, windows had to be small.

Mr. Plym’s invention changed the face of office buildings, apartment buildings and store fronts here and around the world.

A friend and I were having a really good lunch at The Nuggett Downtown Grill, and I mentioned my new knowledge of how special our buildings are to owner, Dave Dulemba.

Dave said, “It is not unusual to see an out-of-state car pull up and someone get out taking photos of the buildings on Main Street.”

Apparently non-residents notice our architecture.

Since my conversation with Dave, I have discussed the district architecture with other merchants and as a result have developed a genuine pride in our business district. If, like me, you did not know how special our historic business district is, I hope you develop that sense of pride and pass it on.


Jeanne Watson is a sixth generation Niles resident who wants to see the downtown strong once again. Jeanne has volunteered her time with the Niles Main Street/DDA for nearly 15 years. She can be reached at