2009-10-10 / Columnists

A Look at History

Carpenter Frank Rounds Helped Build Historic Mackinac Island
BY FRANK STRAUS

I recently had the chance to talk with craftsman-carpenter Dale Gensman. Mr. Gensman often comes back to the Island from his home in lower Michigan to visit old friends and to urge us to maintain the heritage he remembers from his boyhood on Mackinac Island.

Mr. Gensman is well known to many of us as the man who suggested and is himself one of the inspirations for the Mackinac Island veterans’ tribute room in the Stuart House on Market Street. In much of our talk, however, Dale chose to remember his father, carpenter, lighthouse-builder, and stonemason Frank Russell Rounds.

Mr. Rounds is best remembered for his leadership of the building team that raised the Round Island Light in 1894- 96. This brick lighthouse has remained an icon of the Straits of Mackinac to this day. Mr. Rounds’ craftsmanship in wood, however, is a key element in the visual heritage of Mackinac Island. For example, in 1900, Mr. Rounds led the construction of the cottage located on what is now called Cass Cliff: It is the westernmost East Bluff cottage, the one closest to the Fort. When this home was built, it was called “Crow’s Nest,” a good name because there are a lot of crows on Mackinac Island. Crow’s Nest has an excellent example, facing the street, of the enclosed “glass porch” that has become an endangered feature of vernacular Mackinac Island architecture – today’s builders and developers tend to prefer open-air decks and balconies.

Frank Rounds Frank Rounds “Glass porches” of the type built by Mr. Rounds should be saved because they reflect the craftsmanship and manufacturing achievements of the United States during one of the happier times of our national history. Earlier, in the 1800s, American builders in Chicago and other Great Lakes ports had invented the “balloon frame,” a way of enclosing unprecedented amounts of airy space within a lattice of small, easy-to-carry pieces of wood. By the late 1800s, builders like Mr. Rounds could also order and install unexpected quantities of small-pane glass poured in newly invented glass factories.

These gateposts at the east entrance to Grand Hotel were built by Frank Rounds. The image is from the early 1900s. (Postcard courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) These gateposts at the east entrance to Grand Hotel were built by Frank Rounds. The image is from the early 1900s. (Postcard courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) A “glass porch” lattice of wood and glass shows passersby that the builder of the house understood and was able to use state-of-the-art late Victorian materials and building styles. (By the way, sheet glass is rarely used in authentic Victorian exteriors because no one had discovered a way to mass-produce sheet glass at that time, and it was very expensive.)

Builder Mr. Rounds was a multifaceted craftsman with carpentry skills. He was also the contractor who signed an agreement in October 1898 with Dr. Lewis L. McArthur to lead the landscape construction of the new golf course, Wawashkamo, in Mackinac Island’s interior. The golf links opened in 1899 as built by Mr. Rounds and his crew, and has since become the oldest course in Michigan in which golf is played on the original grounds. (Several other Michigan golf clubs are older, but these club organizations have moved their courses or re-landscaped their grounds.) Historic Wawashkamo hazards such as the “chocolate drops” on the 8th and 17th hole were raised by Mr. Rounds and his men with some of the fieldstones uncovered during the landscaping work.

Rates of pay were lower in 1898 than they are now. The Wawashkamo contract offered Mr. Rounds only $200, from which he also had to pay his laborers; however, Mr. Gensman believes that landowner Peter Early and its lessor, Wawashkamo, offered Mr. Rounds a valuable perk: the chance to take many of the fieldstones southward for another use. In 1899, Mr. Rounds’ wife, Charlotte, joined with other Island Protestants to organize the Union Congregational Church, acquiring a plot of land on Cadotte Avenue leading up to Grand Hotel. Mr. Rounds worked closely with the lead contractor to build this church, and is credited with many of its key elements. The new church, which was built in 1904, is faced with local fieldstones, which has led everyone to call it the “Little Stone Church.” Mr. Gensman believes that many of the stones in this church are fieldstones salvaged by his father, Mr. Rounds, from his work at Wawashkamo.

During the first decade of the last century, Mr. Rounds’ expertise with fieldstones and durable mortar led to more enduring additions to Mackinac Island architecture. When the Cudahys hired him at Stonecliffe, Mr. Rounds and his crew built the safety wall at Sunset Rock, the bluff-top overlook recently acquired by the State Park. The historic fieldstone gateposts at Stonecliffe and Grand Hotel are also almost certainly Mr. Rounds’ work.

Two of Mr. Rounds’ Grand Hotel gateposts, both on the west side of the hotel facing West Bluff Road, survive. It’s good that some of Mr. Rounds’ signature work is visible to the public as part of the overall Grand Hotel complex, because Mr. Gensman told me that Mr. Rounds had actually first come to the Island in 1887 as a worker helping to build Grand Hotel. Mr. Rounds’ carpentry skills were honed in his labor on Mackinac Island’s largest wooden structure.

Mr. Rounds was a multitask participant in the Golden Age of Mackinac Island summer travel. Although the period of active building on Mackinac Island was winding down in the 1920s and 1930s, Mr. Rounds continued to operate his carpentry shop on a back street off downtown’s Astor Street, helping to repair and maintain the buildings he and his neighbors had built. Mr. Gensman reminded me that although there was no physician practicing full-time on Mackinac Island in those days, Mr. Rounds remained active and healthy into his 70s. Now he sleeps in the Protestant Cemetery near the heights of Mackinac Island. Workman, craftsman, builder, and businessperson, Mr. Rounds was one of the people who created the Island’s visual heritage we enjoy today.

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