Niles and Vicinity

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Located along a principal ford across the St. Joseph River, Niles was the site of major Miami and Potawatomi Indian encampments, an early Jesuit mission, a French fort, an Indian uprising and treaty, a very short Spanish occupation, and a Baptist Indian school—all before the first permanent settler arrived with his family in 1823. The village was platted in 1829. By then the French were gone, the Baptist school closed, and the Native Americans had deeded their lands to the United States. Overlapping these changes were the opening of the Chicago Road, the establishment of a stage line in 1831, and the linking of Niles to St. Joseph and to the territorial road to the north. With the coming of the Michigan Central Railroad in 1848, the pattern of change was complete.

Niles prospered in the decades before the Civil War, and its architecture includes examples of styles that reflect the popularity of national trends. By the early twentieth century the area was a major paper-producing center, and the home of Simplicity Patterns. Little building took place between 1900 and World War I, and the construction that followed the war tended to be simple. Reflecting the area's industrial base, neighborhoods in Niles represented much of small-town, working-class America in the period between World War I and the 1950s. Only in the post–World War II period, with the development of new materials and technologies by the Kawneer Corporation, was local architecture affected by local industry. Because of their long-term durability and maintenance-free exteriors, in the 1970s downtown merchants refronted older buildings with locally manufactured Kawneer aluminum panels, altering the face of Main Street for the next three decades. In 2004 the Downtown Niles Revitalization Project stripped away the panels from the facades to reveal the historic nineteenth-century storefronts. The project created new apartments within the historic buildings and improved the streetscape.

Writing Credits

Kathryn Bishop Eckert

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