September 2, 2014

Daniel O. Donovan House - 1221 Bagley

The index to building permits for the City of Detroit contains two entries for 11 Baker Street, the original address of this home. It is not clear why. The first permit was issued on November 6, 1878, and the second on July 21, 1879. The Detroit Free Press announced on July 27, 1879 that this second permit was issued to John Brennan, and that the construction was estimated to cost $650. At the time, the house stood on half of the same lot occupied by the home of William B. and Lacyra Wesson, the brick Greek Revival home now addressed as 1227 Bagley.

On December 20, 1880, the Wessons sold 11 Baker Street to Rose V. Lane for $2,069.33. Mrs. Lane was born Rose Virginia Sherlock in Detroit in 1856, and married Thomas H. Lane around 1877. Mr. Lane was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1850. He was a shoemaker with a store on Monroe Street. Both Mr. and Mrs. Lane were first-generation Americans whose parents were Irish immigrants. Mr. and Mrs. Lane had lived at 11 Baker Street since it was built, although the purchase was not made until 1880.

Rose Lane sold 11 Baker street to Mary Moynahan for $3,350 in July of 1882. This is an example of 19th century Corktown's tradition of female home ownership. In Irish households at the time, wives were in charge of the domestic finances, and property was often held in their names.

11 Baker St. in 1884. The front part of the house had two stories and was attached to several
one-story additions. The house would have had a very different appearance at the time.

The home's new owner, Mary Moynahan, was a first-generation Irish-Canadian, born in Ontario in 1846. Her husband, Matthew J. Moynahan, was an Irish immigrant. The couple married around 1876 and had two children. Two years after moving into the home, Matthew Moynahan passed away. Mrs. Moynahan was listed at 11 Baker Street through 1887, after which she rented the house to Martha Fessenden, a widow. One of Mrs. Fessenden's son's, Mark, died at the home on February 15, 1889, at the age of 26.

Other boarders listed at this address in 1887 and 1888 included Thomas W. Richardson, a porter for Thorp, Hawley & Co.; Walter Parrish, a lineman for the Brush Electric Co.; and Frank Hutchinson, a clerk.

Daniel & Isabelle Donovan

On June 5, 1889, Mrs. Moynahan sold 11 Baker Street to Daniel and Isabelle Donovan for $4,000.

Daniel O. Donovan was born outside of Chatham, Ontario on October 28, 1851 to Irish immigrants John and Helen (Driscoll) Donovan. At the age of 21, he began his study of medicine, ultimately receiving a Doctorate of Medicine from the University of Michigan in 1876. He practiced in Manistee and Ludington, Michigan before moving to Corktown in 1881.

Dr. Donovan was united in marriage to Isabelle Genevieve Lynch by James Savage of Most Holy Trinity Church on April 30, 1889. Miss Lynch, a first-generation Irish-American, was born in Detroit in 1858. Dr. and Mrs. Donovan purchased the Baker Street home just a few weeks after their marriage.

Isabelle and Daniel Donovan and their five children,
Edna, Daniel Raymond, Ella, Florence, and Marian.
Photo courtesy of Colleen Mahan.

In addition to the children pictured above, Dr. and Mrs. Donovan had a baby girl, Mary Isabelle, born in 1904, but died at less than four months in age.

"Old Corktown's Physician"

11 Baker Street was not only the Donovan family's home, but it served as Dr. Donovan's home office for forty-six years of his sixty-year medical career. Patients did not always need to come to the house, however, since doctors in those days very frequently made house calls.

Dr. Daniel O. Donovan, circa 1920s.
Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

At the end of his life, obituaries referred to him as Old Corktown's physician. The Detroit News related:
his commanding figure, dressed in a Prince Albert coat and topped by a hat of the style worn by Civil War veterans on parade, was a familiar one on the streets of Detroit between Cass and Trumbull avenues and Grand River avenue and Fort street, the heart of Corktown. He made his rounds on foot. There wasn't an Irishman who didn't know Dr. Donovan's home next to the fire engine house at Sixth and Bagley, then Baker Street. ... His practice, friends relate, was extensive enough to have made him a rich man, but he was the type who gave freely of his services and many of his patients were poor.

Home Addition

In 1898, the old house was renovated and partially rebuilt, giving it an entirely new look. This was at a time of an upward social mobility of Corktown's residents--the poor, hardworking immigrants who founded the neighborhood grew into a middle class, well-educated and more integrated into American culture. Small worker's cottages were torn down and replaced with larger homes at the turn of the 20th century. The new facade of 11 Baker Street, which some have classified as late Victorian/Colonial Revival, would have been keeping up with these changes.

A notice printed in the Detroit Free Press of April 24, 1898 stated:
Architects Grenier & McLain [sic] are receiving bids for building a two-story frame veneered dwelling, to be erected on the southeast corner of Lafayette avenue and Nineteenth street. Arthur Lefevre is the owner. Also, for a two-story frame residence, located on the corner of Baker and Sixth streets. Dr. Donovan is the owner.
The architecture firm mentioned had just been organized that year by Frank J. Grenier of Detroit and Joseph G. McLean of Windsor.

It does not appear that 11 Baker Street was demolished and a new home built from scratch. On May 4, 1898, permit #128 was issued to builders Reynolds & Dolan for a two-story wood addition to the front of the home, measuring 24 feet by 15 feet. The estimated cost was $1,100. No incorporated firm by the name of Reynolds and Dolan was listed in the city directory, but it's likely that this refers to Henry Reynolds, a builder listed on Sidney Street; and carpenter Edward B. Dolan of Gratiot Avenue.

There is no way to know what the house looked like before this renovation, but the Sanborn maps reveal some clues. Before the addition, the home consisted of a front section two stories high and a one-story rear section. Following the renovation, most of the home was stories tall. A set of bay windows on the second floor of the west side and a large front porch have been added. The new second-story sleeping porch was almost certainly part of the 1898 addition, as the concept became popular at the turn of the 20th century for its reported health benefits.


Before the days of modern snow plows, horse-drawn bobsleds were a common method of transportation in winter months. A bobsled driven by John Palmer for pork producer Raymond S. Webb was traveling south on Sixth Street from Michigan Avenue around noon on Saturday, February 4, 1905. Two of the Donovan girls--Marian, age 9; and Edna, age 11--were playing on a sidewalk with a group of other children when Palmer rode by. They ran up and hitched a ride by jumping on the back of the sled.

The bobsled made a left-hand turn onto Abbott Street, which used to run farther east before the construction of the Lodge Freeway. In the process, the sled crossed street car lines on Abbott. Mr. Palmer's view of eastbound traffic was blocked by a saloon on the northwest corner of the intersection, as well as a large grocery truck stopped in the westbound lane. Just as the sled was crossing the tracks, it was hit by an eastbound street car, Baker car no. 379.

Marian Donovan was the most severely injured of the children, having suffered a crushed pelvis and legs. Fifteen-year-old John O'Donnell of 155 Beech Street suffered a fractured skull. The sled driver and the other children were injured, but not severely. A fireman nearby called the local hospitals by telephone and several ambulances arrived. Mrs. Donovan was alerted of the accident and went with Marian in the ambulance to Emergency Hospital at the southwest corner of Porter and Second Streets. Dr. Donovan was out making house calls, but was found and brought to the hospital. The Detroit Free Press reported:
At the hospital, everything possible was done for the little Donovan girl... It was immediately seen by Dr. Stapleton that the girl could not recover. Her father and mother staid by until the end came, shortly after 2 o'clock. Fr. Savage arrived at the hospital in time to administer the rites of the church to the little girl before she passed away. She was unconscious and in a delirium and sang occasionally Good-Bye, Little Girl, Good-Bye," a song now popular with the children.

The Detroit Free Press of February 5, 1905.

Marian's funeral was held at her home and at Most Holy Trinity Church on the morning of Tuesday, February the 7th, 1905. Four of her classmates were pallbearers. The scene was described by the Free Press:
Many beautiful floral pieces have been sent to the grief stricken home. Among the number was a handsome piece from the members of Engine Co. No. 8, which is stationed near the dead child's home. Marion was a favorite with the firemen and her daily visit to their quarters will be greatly missed.
The home and church were filled with friends, family and neighbors paying their last respects. At the church, the hymns "Nearer, My God, to Thee" and "Face to Face" were sung in addition to a requiem mass. According to the Free Press:

While the coffin was being carried out of the church, a Sherman street car bore down upon the hearse and a collision was narrowly averted. One side of the hearse was scraped by the car...

Undertaker Frank J. Blake says that the car which hit his hearse is the one that ran into the sleigh and caused the death of the child whose remains were being interred.

Marian C. Donovan's grave at Mount Elliott Cemetery, Detroit.

Other Members of the Donovan Family

Of the six children born to Dr. and Mrs. Donovan, four reached adulthood:

  • Florence (1891-1985) Enjoyed a long career as a teacher in the Detroit Public Schools. Never married.
  • Ella (1890-1980) Lived with her sister Florence, but did not work due to ill health.
  • Daniel Raymond "Dr. Ray" (1893-1960) Became a physician and served in the U.S. Army 302nd Medical Corps in World War I, receiving a Bronze Star. Married Married Rheta Grace McCubbin in the 1920s, but the couple did not have any children.
  • Edna (1894-1968) Married Theophilus Mahan in 1925, had three children.

Dr. Daniel Raymond Donovan, son of Dr. Daniel O. Donovan.
Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

Colleen Mahan, a great-granddaughter of Dr. Daniel O. Donovan, has shared with me some of the memories of the family homestead passed down by her Aunt Mary (a daughter of Edna [Donovan] Mahan) and Great-Aunt Florence Donovan. The following information comes from these relatives. Although Dr. Donovan did make some house calls on foot, there was also a barn at the rear of the property where a horse and carriage were kept for longer distances. Dr. Donovan hired an elderly African-American man to tend to the horses and drive the carriage, and he ate his meals in the family's kitchen. When automobiles became common, Dr. Donovan purchased a Plymouth, but he never learned to drive. Instead, his daughter Florence would drive him. The house was situated next to the Detroit Fire Department's Engine Co. No. 8, and if the firefighters had to rush off to a fire, the family would go next door to ensure that the stove burners were turned off if the firemen were in the middle of cooking. Beggars would collect food from the side door of the home, and when one did, he would mark the stepping stone at the curb (for climbing into carriages) with a piece of chalk, presumably to let other transients know that the house had already given that day.

Detail from a photograph of Engine Company No. 8, built in 1918 to replace an
older building on that site. The Donovan house barely appears at the edge of
the photo, which was probably taken soon after the firehouse's completion.
Image courtesy of the Manning Brothers Historic Photo Collection.

Isabelle Donovan died on April 21, 1928. Her husband survived her by eight years, passing away at home on July 13, 1936. He remained active in medicine until the end of his life, as his obituary in The Detroit News noted: "In later years he attempted something of a retirement, but until the last he received patients at his home and even made calls on old friends who insisted on having his advice and care."

The Donovan family plot at Mount Elliott Cemetery, Detroit.

Anthony & Jessie Xerri

On September 20, 1937, the children of Daniel and Isabelle Donovan sold the home they grew up in to Anthony and Jessie Xerri. By then, the address had changed from 20 Baker Street to 1221 Bagley.

Anthony Xerri was born in Victoria, on the island of Gozo, part of the nation of Malta, on January 8, 1896. He was employed as an auto worker at Ford. Giuseppa "Jessie" (Mallia) Xerri was born in Hamrun, Malta, in 1907. The couple had three children: Mary, Joseph, and John.

1221 Bagley Avenue in 1976.
Photo courtesy of the State Historic Preservation Office of Michigan.

Anthony Xerri spend the last 47 years of his life in this home, passing away September 7, 1984.

On May 10th, 1985, Jessie Xerri sold 1221 Bagley to Barbara Anderson. She has since married John Prusak, and the couple continue to lovingly maintain the home of "Old Corktown's Physician."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this. Dr. Donovan is my great-great grandfather and it was wonderful to learn more about the family through this.