Frederick Stearns worked as a clerk in Buffalo and then joined with a partner in operating a retail drug store. In 1855, he moved to Detroit where he collaborated with a new partner, Mr. Higby, in operating a drug store located on Woodward. By 1864, Frederick Stearns became the sole proprietor of this establishment. At this time, drug stores generally sold products that the owner compounded although some patent medicines and many locally produced remedies were also available.
In 1875, Frederick Stearns son, Frederick K. Stearns, joined the firm after completing his education at the University of Michigan. He became a partner and was responsible for the manufacturing of drugs. Today, we think of drugs as very sophisticated products produced by scientific pharmaceutical companies in scientific laboratories and rigorously controlled by scrupulous government agencies. That was not the case in the Nineteenth Century when individuals could compound most anything they wished and then try to sell it as a remedy for any ailment. Quite likely some of these home-made medicines did great harm to those who took them. Oswald Schmiedeberg, a professor at the University of Strasburg who lived from 1838 to 1931, is credited with being the founder or father of modern pharmacology. The first appointment of a professor of pharmacology in the United States was at the University of Michigan in 1890.
Stearns played a role in the development of the modern pharmaceutical industry. By 1882, he devoted the firm to the wholesale manufacture of drugs and got out of the retail trade. He decided to develop a complete array of remedies for common illnesses so as to cultivate customers. And then, to assure them of the quality of his drug, he decided to list all contents on his labels. Apparently, this was seldom done at that time so a customer or doctor knew little about the medicine being used. Those doctors and customers who could read, could learn what they were prescribing or taking when they consumed Stearns medicines. Recall, that this was before the publication of the Flexner Report, so there was little in the way of licensing the medical profession.
Stearns was also innovative with regard to marketing. By the 1880s, much better transportation allowed the firm to manufacture drugs in Detroit and sell them through the nation. Eventually, Stearns began selling his drugs throughout the world.
In 1882, Stearns began construction of the large manufacturing complex but that was replaced, in the late 1890s, by the very large and quite attractive Frederick Stearns and Company Building at 7333 East Jefferson. Designed by William Stratton with changes or additions by Albert Kahn, that massive industrial complex has been successfully converted into the Lofts at Riverfront. Detroit, by 1890, was likely the drug production center of the entire county with two very large firms headquartered here: Parke Davis and Stearns. Fortunately, both of their production facilities survive and have been converted into remunerative purposes. Indeed, the Parke-Davis complex is a National Historic Landmark.
Frederick K. Stearns played baseball while a student at the University of Michigan. He may have been a member of the first team that school fielded. In 1880, Mayor William Thompson realized that major league baseball was becoming a very popular sport and knew that a city as important as Detroit should be represented in the dominant circuit, the National League. He successfully bought the Cincinnati Redlegs and installed them in Recreation Park in Detroit for the 1880 season. He sold the team after several years during which the Wolverines had no more than moderate success on the playing field. After the 1885 season, Frederick K. Stearns purchased the team and he quickly hired many of the star players of the Buffalo Bisons, then also National League team. The Wolverine’s play improved sharply and, in 1887, they became the first Detroit professional baseball team to win their league’s championship and then the series that followed, a series that was equivalent to today’s World Series. However, Frederick K. Stearns either lost interest or lost money on the sport. After the 1888 season, he disbanded his team and the franchise moved across Lake Erie to Cleveland. When Detroit was once again represented in the major leagues, 1901, it was in the American League.
Just as Frederick Stearns had William Stratton design his firm’s building, so to he commissioned Stratton to design his home, this time in collaboration with architect Frank Baldwin. This is an appealing structure with both Medieval and Arts and Crafts elements. It is two and one-half stories with a distinctive timbered façade that incorporated extensive stucco. Note the gabled roof with its broad surfaces. There are a great variety of window styles in this home reflecting the once-popular Arts and Crafts movement. This home is included in the National Register’s East Jefferson Avenue Residential Thematic Resource. In 2013, the home was serving as an office building. Given its architectural significance, it is fitting that the organization promoting the revitalization of Belle Isle rents office space here.
Architects: William Stratton and Frank C. Baldwin
Date of Construction: 1902
Architectural Style: Arts and Crafts
Use in 2013: Office building
Website for Belle Isle Conservancy: http://www.belleisleconservancy.org/
National Register of Historic Places: Listed October 9, 1985, Building # 85002947
State Register of Historic Sites: Listed P25, 252
State of Michigan Historic Marker: None visible
City of Detroit Designated Historic District
Photograph: Ren Farley, April 21, 2008
Description prepared: July, 2013
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