Ann Arbor's Oldest Apartments
Author: Grace Shackman
Eighty years later, they’re back in the spotlight.
Ann Arbor’s oldest surviving apartment houses, built between 1923 and 1930, were glamorous affairs designed by the area’s leading architects. Many included such amenities as doormen, on-site maids, cafes, and beauty parlors. Even so, they drew mixed reactions: some Ann Arborites welcomed them as elegant and cosmopolitan additions to the city, while others deplored their size and their effect on existing neighborhoods.
Now they’re back in the political spotlight. Since 1994 the city has been fighting to protect the buildings, one of which was demolished by the U-M in 2003. Meanwhile, as city planners look for ways to expand downtown housing, they’re confronting many of the same issues raised by the original apartment-building boom eighty years ago.
In the nineteenth century the U-M campus was surrounded by student rooming houses. Apartment buildings as we know them today, where each unit has its own kitchen and bath, didn’t arrive in significant numbers until after World War I.
As the U-M’s enrollment and employment swelled in the 1920s, multistory apartment buildings were a good solution to the housing crunch. But the idea took some getting used to.
The city hired the Olmsted Brothers, son and stepson-nephew of the famous landscape architect and city planner Frederick Law Olmsted, to make recommendations for Ann Arbor’s future development. Besides encouraging street improvements, more parks and playgrounds, and scenic drives, the Olmsteds’ 1922 report urged the city to enact a zoning ordinance. Council responded by dividing the city into four zoning categories: single residential, residential, local business, and industrial. Apartment buildings were permitted only in the “residential” district near campus.
That zone included one existing apartment building: the twenty-unit Cutting, built in 1906 on the southeast corner of State and Monroe. “For its time the Cutting was a remarkable structure, one of very few apartment buildings in the city, where rich people lived and where elegant old ladies sat looking out on the world through lace-curtained plate-glass windows,” recalled Milo Ryan in his 1985 memoir View of a Universe. “A carriage was usually to be seen waiting at one of the three entrances.”
Florence Mack, widow of department store owner Walter Mack, lived in the Cutting with her son Christian. Broadcaster Ted Heusel, who as a boy lived nearby, recalls that Christian “was so spoiled he used to take a cab home from the Blue Front, two blocks away.” The Cutting was torn down in 1962 for a parking lot. “People lived there forever,” recalls veteran Ann Arbor real estate agent Maynard Newton. “When it was to be torn down, they tried to sue, saying they had a proprietary right because they’d been there so long.”
The 1920s apartment houses followed the example of the Cutting: they were elegant buildings designed in the latest styles, mainly Tudor and Spanish Revival. And, as in the Cutting, their tenants made up a who’s who of Ann Arbor.
The Anberay, built in 1923 at 619 East University, was the first of the postwar apartment buildings. U-M architecture professor J. J. Albert Rousseau designed it in a U shape around a court. The light brick, zigzag roof, and balconies on each of the three levels, often filled with flowers, give it a Spanish flavor.
Early Anberay tenants included grocery heiress Elizabeth Dean, whose bequest to the city continues to bankroll the tree-planting Dean Fund; Palmer Christian, U-M organist; and Francis Kelsey, the archaeology professor whose finds from the Near East make up a large part of the Kelsey Museum’s fabulous holdings. This illustrious tenant mix continued into the 1960s, when then-tenant Ray Detter recalls his neighbors included Herbert Youtie, an expert on the Dead Sea scrolls; Renaissance scholar Palmer Throop; and Jacob Price, a U-M history professor who ran for city council.
Washtenaw Apartments, at 322 East William, dates from 1925. Although a simple red-brick building, it has elegant touches, such as a decorated stone entrance and stone wreaths on top. Carl Wurster, who grew up on Division Street around the corner, remembers his dad saying that the place was being constructed from very shoddy materials and would never last--but almost eighty years later, it still stands. When finished, the building didn’t impinge very much on the lives of Carl and his sister, Elizabeth. Carl delivered papers there, and tenants occasionally rented spaces in the Wursters’ garage. The only person Elizabeth and Carl knew in the building was their math teacher, a Miss Shipman.
The 1926 Hildene Manor, at 2220 Washtenaw, looks from the outside like an English manor house with classic Tudor details--dormers, half-timbering, nine-over-nine windowpanes, and heavy wooden doors. Inside are eight six-room apartments, plus common areas and a three-room caretaker’s flat. Set back on a wide expanse of lawn, “it was the apartment in Ann Arbor--the most expensive and the best,” recalls Ted Heusel.
The Wil-Dean, 200 North State, and Duncan Manor, 322 North State, are perfect mirror images of each other, except the first is faced with light brick and the second with red brick. Harold Zahn and Dugald Duncanson hired recent U-M architecture grad Gardiner Vose to design the buildings, and construction on both started in 1928. Zahn took ownership of the Wil-Dean, which he named after his son Dean William; Duncanson claimed the other, naming it Duncan Manor. Asymmetrical, with balconies, tile work, and casement windows, the buildings fit in with the best of the Tudor apartment houses.
The 1929 Kingsley Post, at 809 East Kingsley, a Spanish/Moorish Revival design by R. S. Gerganoff, is nothing like the architect’s most famous Ann Arbor building, the Washtenaw County Courthouse. With its elaborate ornamentation--tiles, rounded windows, wrought-iron decorative balconies, arched entrance--the Kingsley Post stands in striking contrast to the comparatively drab post–World War II apartment buildings flanking it.
In the early 1950s, when they were first married, Ted and Nancy Heusel lived in a third-floor efficiency in the Kingsley Post. Jimmy Murnan, manager of the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater, lived on the same floor but in a more luxurious apartment overlooking the river valley and the railroad tracks. Murnan, a big circus fan, would invite the Heusels over to watch circus trains unload.
The Planada, at 1127 East Ann, opened in 1929. It catered to employees at the then new University Hospital a block east--the 1931 city directory lists nurses, therapists, interns, and research assistants among the residents. Like the Kingsley Post, it was a Spanish/Moorish Revival design, but less symmetrical. The Observer’s Eve Silberman, who lived in the Planada in the 1980s, recalls that “the apartment definitely had more character than any I’ve rented before and after.” Silberman particularly liked the gargoyles in the lobby. She moved, however, because she did not like sharing her apartment with a mouse.
Forest Plaza, 715 South Forest, was built the same year as the Planada. Although there had already been a number of successful apartment projects and its site was in the “residential” zone, the original plan for the building set off a storm of controversy. The older apartment buildings were three and four stories high; Forest Plaza’s developers wanted to go up nine stories--a sketch that appeared in the Ann Arbor Daily News shows an elegant tower that would have looked at home on New York’s Park Avenue. The “Spanish Renaissance” design was expected to cost $400,000, including the land.
Presaging future controversies, neighbors led the fight against the new building while real estate agents and businessmen defended it. U-M professors Frederick G. Novy and Charles Cooley, who lived in houses on either side of the site, argued that the new structure would block their light and air and would increase congestion in the neighborhood.
After much discussion, a compromise was reached: Forest Plaza was scaled down to five stories and set far back on the lot. The resulting building, while not as ornate as originally proposed, still has many attractive details, including Spanish tiles, terra-cotta decorations, and rounded windows. The increased setback actually adds to its elegance, making it reminiscent of glamorous apartments on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Like other apartment houses of the era, Forest Plaza provided homes for many upper-level university people. A 1930 Michigan Alumnus photo essay mentions that Forest Plaza was the home of Harry Kipke, football coach and later regent. Mark Hildebrandt recalls being taken there as a child to visit his parents’ friends Jan Vandenbroek, a U-M engineering professor, and his wife. Hildebrandt remembers Vandenbroek’s apartment as “classy but comfortable, with soft dark-red carpeted floors, Spanish irregular plaster, wrought-iron sconces.”
Forest Plaza’s current manager, Chris Heaton, says long-term residents have told him that the building used to have a doorman who would park cars for the few residents who owned them, and a maid living on the first floor, who was available to do housework.
The debate over Forest Plaza led to new ground rules for apartment construction. Part of the compromise allowing it to be built was an agreement that city council would revisit the zoning law, which it did. At a public hearing, a speaker called for more limits on apartment buildings, citing several instances in which “the homes next door to apartment houses have stood vacant since the construction of the larger building, being of value neither for a single home nor for another apartment house, as the one apartment is usually enough to care for the district.”
On May 5, 1929, city council voted that future apartment buildings could be no more than three stories or forty-five feet high. Clothier and theater owner J. Fred Wuerth dissented, protesting that “the growth of the city would be held up by discouraging outside capital.” Supporters answered that the law would encourage developers to construct a larger number of smaller buildings, and so would help preserve the city’s residential character.
Neither side realized that the apartment boom was already essentially over. Only one more apartment house, Observatory Lodge, was built before the Great Depression, followed by World War II, virtually halted construction in the city.
If Observatory Lodge was the last apartment house of its generation, it at least was a spectacular expression of the best of the age. Built in 1930 at 1402 Washington Heights, Observatory Lodge, like the Planada, was just a few steps from the 1925 University Hospital. One admirer calls its design “a feast of Tudor Revival details,” including oriel windows, heavy Tudor-style doors, half-timbering, and a quirky squirrel weathervane. Inside are stained-glass windows, beautiful tile work, and a lobby fireplace. Residents in its thirty-four units also enjoyed the services of a beauty parlor and barbershop. And it must have been approved before the 1929 height limit went into effect: it’s four stories high.
Apartment construction resumed in the 1950s and 1960s, when U-M enrollment more than doubled. This time around, apartment developers created buildings catering to U-M students as well as staff.
Maynard Newton recalls that when he came back from the Korean War in the mid-1950s, students still rented rooms in boardinghouses--“big, comfortable houses, run by a landlady usually called ‘Ma’ something, such as Ma Guenther on Oakland or Ma Jeffries on Monroe. These ladies thought the value was in the house,” Newton recalls. “But savvy Realtors realized the land was what was valuable.”
Developers began buying up old houses around campus and downtown, demolishing them, and building modern-style apartments on the lots. A few, like the Nob Hill complex off South Main, were thoughtfully designed and integrated into their neighborhoods. Most, however, were bare-bones cubes derisively dubbed “cash boxes”--both because of their flat roofs (unlike the peaked roofs of the surrounding older houses) and because they were built to squeeze as many rental units as possible onto their lots.
In 1963 city council amended the zoning ordinance to limit apartments to bigger lots, and to require that they be set farther back from their lot lines. These two provisions, followed by the formation of historic districts in and around downtown, virtually eliminated teardowns of existing structures to build apartments.
The 1963 zoning change also abolished the height restriction for apartment buildings, instead setting limits on the “floor-to-area ratio” (FAR). Two high-rise apartment projects, the eighteen-story University Towers on South University, finished in 1965, and the twenty-six-story Tower Plaza, at William and Maynard, approved in 1965 and finished in 1969, were built under the new regulations. Tower Plaza was particularly controversial.
The Tower Plaza debate echoed the one nearly forty years earlier over Forest Plaza. Proponents saw the high-rise as an asset to the city, opponents as an affront to downtown’s existing scale. Eunice Burns, who was on council when Tower Plaza was approved, recalls that she and the other three Democrats were called antidevelopment because they voted against it. (With the backing of council’s Republican majority, it passed anyway.)
In classic Ann Arbor fashion, council then appointed a study committee and hired a consultant. The resulting report, Central City High-Rises and Parking, suggested a system of premiums, allowing developers more height in their buildings if they added amenities such as public space in front, parking, or landscaping. These changes, plus further increases in minimum apartment lot size and setbacks, were enacted in 1967.
It would be impossible to build a high-rise like Tower Plaza under the current FAR limits. Still, residents who have arrived since the 1960s take Tower Plaza for granted. Some even admire its clean lines and appreciate that the landlord included a cutaway first story and shopping arcade, even before the system of premiums was enacted.
The 1923–1930 apartments, also scoffed at by some when they were new, today look very elegant next to the cash boxes abutting the Kingsley Post, or the monolithic Mary Markley dorm near Observatory Lodge. “They are a good example of apartments of that era,” says Heather Edwards, Ann Arbor’s historic preservation coordinator. “They gave people the chance of living in the downtown vicinity in buildings pleasing to look at that also met all their needs.”
Four are already in historic districts: the Wil-Dean, Duncan, and Kingsley Post are in the Old Fourth Ward, and the Washtenaw is in the East William Street district. The historic district commission has worked to preserve the other five, but the process has been slow. In 1994 city council voted to designate 120 buildings as “individual historic properties” (IHPs), a classification intended to protect historic buildings that are outside of historic districts. Included in the list were the An¬beray and the Planada, both then owned by the Draprop Corporation.
Draprop sued, claiming the city had no legal right to designate buildings as IHPs without the owners’ permission. The circuit court upheld the city’s right to do so, but in 2001 the Michigan Court of Appeals declared Ann Arbor’s IHP district invalid. “They said it didn’t meet the definition of a historic district—that it didn’t hold together geographically or thematically,” explains Louisa Pieper, historic preservation coordinator at the time.
At the recommendation of the state historic preservation office, the HDC divided the original IHP list into thematic sublists—apartments, of course, but also churches, early homesteads, industrial and commercial structures, landmark homes, schools, and transportation—and appointed study committees to research each area and decide which properties were the most significant.
The apartment committee recommended protecting all five surviving early apartment buildings that weren’t already in historic districts—the Anberay, Forest Plaza, Hildene Manor, Observatory Lodge, and the Planada. Any city restrictions would not apply to the last two, however, since the university owned them.
Observatory Lodge, in need of repairs, was closed several years ago but is now being converted into offices. A sadder fate awaited the Planada: when the university bought it, the report to the regents warned that “the building will be demolished and the site integrated into the adjacent campus.” It was torn down in fall 2003, and the U-M plans to build a parking structure on its site.
While the legality of the IHP is being investigated, the issue of height of buildings is also part of an on-going discussion. The eight-story Corner House Lofts on the corner of State and Washington is the tallest new residential building in the city in more than thirty years. And like its predecessors in the 1920s, it has been controversial. The city planning commission voted against approving the project, only to be overruled by city council.
The passage of the greenbelt measure November 2003 gave even more impetus to the height debate. A number of people--even some who had been no- or slow-growth advocates--began asking whether preserving more green space around the city obliged Ann Arbor to accept greater population density within its boundaries. Mayor John Hieftje enthusiastically supports the idea of more downtown density, although he says he began thinking about it independently of the greenbelt.
Noting that only about 200 new residents moved into downtown Ann Arbor in the 1990s, Hieftje says he’d like to see 1,000 more arrive in the next decade. He argues that an increased downtown population would provide the economic base for the return of practical stores, such as food markets, and would ease parking and congestion problems, especially if the new residents also worked downtown. While this increased density would obviously require more multifamily dwellings, Hieftje says they would probably be condominiums rather than apartments.
Does Hieftje mean Ann Arbor will see a new generation of high-rises? “Taller buildings would upset the delicate pedestrian balance downtown,” Hieftje replies. “I’m protective of Main Street and a block or so off it, as well as State Street. But I can see them maybe on Thompson, Maynard, or Huron.” Eighty some years after Ann Arbor’s first apartment-building boom, the town is still debating how and where future generations of downtown residents will live.