The First National Building

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, September 1992,
September 1992

Author: Grace Shackman

It recalls the ebullient optimism of the 1920's

On February 21, 1929, the First National Building, the tallest and most lavish office building yet built in Ann Arbor, was opened amid great fanfare. More than 5,000 people attended the grand opening of the ten-story building at Main and Washington.

The building was designed by local architects Paul Kasurin and Lynn Fry, who also served as general contractors. Work had begun on the building on February 1, 1928, with the demolition of the three-story Wadham's Department Store, which had been on the site since 1887. Using local contractors as much as possible--Muehlig and Schmid for hardware, Mack and Company for linoleum flooring, Rohde for lime and plaster, and Killins for sand and
gravel--they were done in less than a year.

The 1920's were the golden age of the U.S. auto industry, and the whole state was booming. The First National's owners, a group of investors, spared no expense in their pursuit of elegance: the building had a granite base, bronze doors, and steel casement windows. Inside, they installed black terrazzo floors, Italian travertine walls, and a richly decorated paneled ceiling. They named it for its main tenant, the First National Bank, which occupied the two-story main lobby, a mezzanine, and the basement.

The grand opening was like a city wide party, with refreshments, live music performed by the U-M music school's symphony orchestra, and favors: corsages, nosegays, cigars, blotters, and picture postcards of the building.

By the end of the evening 2,700 corsages and 1,500 nosegays had been given away. The only untoward incident occurred when two university students managed to get themselves locked in the bank's basement vault during a demonstration of the door's mechanism. Bank officials quickly assured onlookers that the students were in no danger, since the vault had a fresh air supply and even a telephone. They had to obtain the master key to release the pair.

The bank opened for business the following Saturday. On the mezzanine opposite the bank president's office, Merrill Lynch opened one of its earliest branch offices. The new building itself was presumably part of the lure, but the choice was probably also influenced by the fact that founder Charles Merrill was a former U-M student.

The remaining eight stories were fully rented before the building was even finished, mainly to doctors, dentists, lawyers, real estate agents, and insurance businesses. Fry and Kasurin took ninth-floor offices for themselves. The whole eighth floor was rented to two prominent U-M doctors, R. B. Canfield and A. C. Furstenburg, while the entire tenth floor was taken by lawyers Frank Stivers and Joseph Hooper. Street-level storefronts on Washington were filled by the John Tice Confectionery and Sandwich Shop and Germanis Brothers shoe repair.

The space had rented out so quickly that the First National's owners decided immediately to build an addition on the south side to match the five-story section on the back. They finished it a year later. But by then the Depression had hit, puncturing the ebullient optimism of the Twenties. Demand for office space disappeared, and the owners never completed the rest of their plan, to enlarge both of these five-story sections to match the ten-story height of the building's central part. You can still see where the additions were expected to be: the south and east sides of the tower are finished in simple brick instead of the luminous white granite that covers the rest of the building.

Downtown never regained the buoyant, pre-Depression optimism symbolized by the First National Building. After World War II, new commercial development followed the housing expanding out toward the edges of town. The First National Building stood unchallenged as Main Street's tallest for almost sixty years. It was surpassed by the ill-starred One North Main only in the mid-1980's.

In 1936, the First National Bank moved out as part of a merger with the Farmers and Mechanics and Ann Arbor Savings banks to form the Ann Arbor Bank (which has since merged with First of America). The two mezzanines were then connected to form a second-story floor, which was rented out to various businesses. Over the years, the elegant details became obscured as the marble floors were carpeted, the painted ceilings hidden by a dropped ceiling, the bronze mailbox converted to a fire alarm, and the Main Street facade altered to accommodate various storefronts, the last being Daniels' Jewelry.

In 1981, local developer Bill Martin bought the building and began the slow process of restoration. He removed the Main Street storefront and restored the original bronze entryway and terra-cotta detailing. Inside, he took out most of the later additions, restored the floors, walls, bronze elevator doors, and bronze mailbox to their original condition, and had the decorated ceilings cleaned and repainted.

Martin lured Merrill Lynch back to town, and today they occupy their former quarters. Other tenants are the same kinds of genteel business services that occupied the building in its heyday--from Michigan National Bank at street level to Beacon Investment on the tower's top floors.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Left) Built at the height of the 1920's boom, the First National Building was the tallest, most lavish office building in Ann Arbor's history. But the Depression killed plans to expand the wings on either side upward to match the main tower, and the building lost its namesake bank shortly after this picture was taken in the mid-1930's. (Below) During the 1980's, local developer Bill Martin re-created the two-story arched entryway and other obscured original details as part of a comprehensive restoration. But Martin, too, cautiously decided against completing the long-delayed expansions--a smart move that anticipated the present glut of office space downtown.