The Anna Bach Home on West Liberty

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1983,
December 1983

Author: Grace Shackman and Mary Hunt

Looking like a yellow stucco Italian villa of neoclassical design, the Anna Botsford Bach Home stands on the very crest of the long hill Liberty Street climbs on its way from town. Between it and downtown are suburban streets of the 1920's, but after it, Liberty takes on an air that is even today rather rural. The big house, with its curved front drive, its rolling lawns and meticulously maintained flower beds, and the alley of white pines just to the east, resembles a country estate so ample and well organized that it might well have provided its owners with milk and meat, fruit and vegetables, as well as splendid shelter.

Grace Shackman, the west side's diligent historian, informs us that the house was built by Dr. Robert MacKenzie, a prominent general practitioner and head of the U-M medical school's obstetrics department, who was instrumental in expanding St. Joseph Mercy Hospital from a remodeled house on North State into the large brick hospital on North Ingalls.

Most Ann Arborites of any pretensions in 1916 would have built on the city's new and stylish east side, especially if they were connected with the U-M. But Robert and Marian MacKenzie, who had been childhood sweethearts in the small town of Chester, Illinois, preferred to have more acreage on the west side. The west side was familiar territory for the doctor. He had an extensive practice among Ann Arbor's large German-speaking population on the west side because he spoke fluent German. His physician father, believing that proficiency in German would help his son in the medical career he intended him to follow, had sent him to a German-language Lutheran school in Chester.

Robert MacKenzie achieved prominence early. Graduated from the U-M medical school in 1907, he interned under its dean, Dr. Cyrenus Darling, and had his offices in the Darling Building on Liberty at Fifth Avenue, over the present-day Afternoon Delight. MacKenzie's excellent connections, his quiet, thoughtful character, his reputation as a skilled diagnostician, and his fluency in German all combined to get his career off to a fast start. In 1913, just six years out of medical school, he was elected mayor. A Republican, he profited from the candidacy of a Progressive that year, which split the Democratic vote. In those days of minimal city government in Ann Arbor, the position of mayor was more an honor than a daily responsibility.

By 1916 the MacKenzies were in a position to buy four and a half acres of land between West Liberty and a branch of Allen's Creek and to begin building their dream house. Marian MacKenzie vehemently vetoed the architect's plans for a third-story ballroom. "This additional piece of elegance was not at all to my mother's liking," recalled her son John later. "She was very upset that the architect would imagine that she and her husband were sufficiently wealthy to afford such a luxury." Since Dr. MacKenzie was extremely busy with his medical practice, his wife acted as superintendent of construction, negotiating large piles of dirt on the site despite her pregnancy.

Even without the ballroom, it was a grand house, with spacious rooms and verandas and a center hall big enough for sons John and Bob to play football in. And even without a ballroom, the family entertained a lot. Especially memorable were big neighborhood Fourth of July parties, where Dr. MacKenzie would shoot fireworks over the creek, and everyone would come in for cookies after the big display.

Dr. MacKenzie's health began to fail while he was still relatively young. He had contracted flu in the 1918 epidemic, and later discovered he had diabetes. Frequently staying up all night with patients didn't help, either. In 1926 he and his family decided to move to Frankfort, Michigan, near where they had a summer cottage. Dr. MacKenzie continued to practice medicine there until his death in 1934.

In 1927, the spacious downstairs rooms that had amply served a family of four soon proved that they could gracefully handle a much larger family--the seventeen elderly residents of the Anna Botsford Bach Home. Then on State and Kingsley, it had opened in 1909 to house women who were past working age and without family or without resources to live alone. Some women were able to pay their own entry fees. It was not unusual for others who had been useful members of the community but who had very little money to have their entry fees paid by a collection raised by friends and colleagues.

Shortly after the home was opened, its name was changed from the Old Ladies' Home to honor Anna Botsford Bach, the energetic clubwoman who had helped found it. (The name "Bach" is locally pronounced to rhyme with "law," rather than with the hard "ch" ending, reflecting the consonant-dropping Swabian dialect spoken by Ann Arbor's Germans.) Anna Bach, the third wife of Philip Bach (owner of the Bach & Abel drygoods store downtown that later became Muehlig's and the school board president after whom Bach School was named), also served on the school board, one of the first women to do so in Ann Arbor.

The MacKenzie house was deemed an excellent new location for the Anna Bach Home when its directors decided to seek larger quarters. There were no structural problems in adding a third story, since the building had been designed to hold a ballroom. Other changes included a west addition for a director's quarters and larger kitchen, enclosing the back porch as a dining room, and screening the east porch. The renovations were completed and the home's move was made in 1927. The first floor's main rooms remain much as they were in the MacKenzie's day, with some of their original furniture still in use.

The two upper stories are divided into seventeen rooms, one for each of the home's residents, who today range from seventy-three to ninety-five years old. All are, under the terms of the home's state license, capable of self-care and getting around by themselves, sometimes with walkers or canes. (For temporary nursing care, residents go to full-fledged nursing facilities.) The home is really a small, homelike retirement center for women only. Residents pay a fee, augmented by the home's trust fund, that varies with the size of their rooms and covers three meals a day, linens and laundry, and a nurse and aide in attendance around the clock.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: the house from the east before it was remodeled in 1927

[Photo caption from original print edition]: the Anna Bach home today, with third story

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Though the neoclassical exterior would suggest a lot of plaster ornamentation inside, the interior of the MacKenzie house was actually quite plain. Two big fieldstone fireplaces gave it a rather rustic air. Marian MacKenzie, daughter of the owner of a large flour mill complex in Chester, Illinois, preferred to use family antiques in a simple setting, rather than buying furniture to help create a period look. According to her daughter-in-law, Eleanor MacKenzie of MacKenzie Insurance, she was a dynamic and independent woman who remained active--and drove cars fast--into her eighties.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: The MacKenzies on the front steps