Books and Learning at the Corner of Fifth and William

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, January 1991,
January 1991

Author: Grace Shackman

The Beal mansion had a lot in common with the public library

For about a hundred years, a fifteen-room Italianate house stood on the corner of William and Fifth Avenue, where the Ann Arbor Public Library is now. The house, described in Samuel Beakes's 1906 Past and Present of Washtenaw County as "the center of true social life and hospitality," was home to the prominent Beal family. Rice Beal took over Dr. Chase's publishing ventures in 1869, and his son, Junius, was the longest-serving U-M regent. Though the mansion was torn down in 1957, the same ambience prevails at the public library that replaced it: the love of books and the encouragement of education in a place where all segments of society meet.

The Ann Arbor School Board bought the house in 1953 from Loretta Beal Jacobs, daughter of Junius and Ella Beal, who had inherited the house in 1944 after her mother died. (Her father had died two years earlier.) Mrs. Jacobs and her family lived in the house only part-time, usually summers; her husband, Albert, had a distinguished academic career, ending up as president of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Bob Warner, now dean of the U-M School of Information and Library Studies, lived nearby on William as a graduate student. He remembers the Beal house as "decorated with Victorian furniture and filled with papers and books." Mrs. Jacobs, he says, was "an intelligent lady who liked to talk."

From 1948 to 1950, U-M student Joe Roberts lived in the house during the months the Jacobses were away. (He now works at the library.) His upstairs bedroom, furnished with a cherry-wood four-poster bed, a marble fireplace, and a marble basin, looked out onto the garden's magnolia tree. When it bloomed in the spring, he says, it "made it almost impossible to study." Although the garden was pretty overgrown during Roberts's occupancy, Junius Beal's granddaughter, Loretta Edwards, remembers that in its prime it contained a wildflower area near the carriage house, a rock garden, and many unusual plantings, including an Osage orange tree and an elm grown from a scion of a tree planted by George Washington on the Capitol grounds.

The Beal house was built in the 1860's by W. H. Mallory. Rice Beal moved into it in 1865, planning to enjoy retirement in Ann Arbor after earning his fortune in a number of business enterprises in Dexter. Born in 1823, the child of immigrants from New York State, he was raised on a farm in Livingston County and received only a basic education (elementary school and one year at Albion Academy in New York). He taught school for a year, then used his savings to buy a stock of notions and fancy goods, which he traveled around selling until he had enough money to set up a store, first in Pinckney, then Howell and Plainfield. He ended up in Dexter, then an important station on the Michigan Central line, where his many enterprises included a general store, four mills, a lumberyard, and a bank.

Rice Beal's "retirement" in Ann Arbor lasted less than four years. In 1869, he could not resist the opportunity to buy Dr. Chase's printing business at the corner of Main and Miller, which included the publication of Dr. Chase's book of home remedies and a weekly newspaper, the Peninsular Courier and Family Visitant. Beal enjoyed using the paper's editorial page to explain his outspoken positions in numerous controversies, including a long-running quarrel with Dr. Chase after the former owner broke a pledge not to return to the publishing business. A Republican since the Civil War, Beal was active in the party, serving as a delegate to the conventions that nominated U. S. Grant and Rutherford Hayes. In 1880 he came close to being nominated as his party's candidate for governor.

When Rice's son, Junius, graduated from the U-M in 1882, Rice decided to give retirement another try. He turned over the publishing business to his son, and started out on a trip around the country with his wife, Phoebe. He died just a year later, in 1883, while visiting Iowa Falls, Iowa.

Junius Beal, born in 1860 in Port Huron, was actually Rice's nephew, but had been adopted by Rice at eleven months of age, when his mother died. Thanks to his father's extensive holdings, Junius could afford to spend much of his time with civic concerns, concentrating on education and on promoting modern infrastructure. He was one of the founders of the interurban streetcar line, lobbied for better roads, and owned the first telephone in town. An active Republican like his father, he served a term in the state house (1904), twenty years on the Ann Arbor School Board (1884-1904), and thirty-two years as a U-M regent (1907-1939), the longest anyone has ever served. He took part in the selection of four presidents, insisted that Hill Auditorium be built large enough to hold 5,000, and defended the building of the huge Michigan Stadium, arguing that the profit could help other students.

When Beal's friend and fellow regent, William Clements, set up the Clements library in 1923 to house his collection of early American historical material, Beal donated some of his own collection of 2,000 rare antique books. More of his books were donated by his heirs, as was the Beal house's book-shaped carriage step, which now sits on the front lawn of the Clements.

Because of Junius Beal's many connections with both the university and the town, the Beal house was a natural place for the two to meet. Loretta Edwards remembers that her grandparents entertained a variety of people, ranging from the Methodist minister (who came every Wednesday morning), business acquaintances, university benefactors such as William Cook and Charles Baird, and dignitaries who were receiving honorary degrees from the university.

The Beal house was in limbo for three years after its sale in 1953, while the city and the school system tussled over whether the site should be used for a library or a new city hall. During the interim, in 1954, the newly formed Friends of the Library held their first sale in the remains of the Beal garden, selling books, records, picture frames, baked goods, and flowers. As an added attraction, they displayed the old electric car that many older residents remembered Mrs. Ella Beal driving around town. It had for many years been stored on blocks in the carriage house.

The new library was designed by Alden Dow (also the architect of City Hall and the home of his sister and brother-in-law, Margaret and Harry Towsley) and opened for business on October 24, 1957. An addition was built in 1974. A second addition, which will add 43,000 square feet, and a renovation of the existing 53,000 square feet are in progress and will be done about Labor Day, 1991.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Left) Ella and Junius Beal posed in their carriage with son Travis and their coachman. (Top) Junius Beal in 1938. (Above) The same corner today.


Hey, were you looking for the Summer Game code? You found it! Enter BLOWYOURSTACK on your play.aadl.org player page.