The Rise and Fall of "Power Laundries"

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

Author: Grace Shackman

Varsity Laundry and the Federal Building block

The first washing machine was reputedly built in 1851 in an Oakland, California, gold-mining camp. A Mr. Davis used barrels with a plunger affair to keep the clothes stirred up, and an old donkey engine to furnish the power. He used his machines to set up a business washing miners' clothes commercially. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, similar "power laundries" sprang up all over the country.

The Ann Arbor Steam Laundry, Ann Arbor's first power laundry, was started in 1888 by Edward Servis and Milton Steffey. It didn't last long: by 1898 Steffey had moved to St. Paul and Servis was working as a tinner. But in 1905 Herbert Tenny opened the Varsity Laundry at the same address, 215-217 South Fourth Avenue.

Tenny chose the name because he was an avid U-M football fan. The name was always painted in blue and gold. His sixteen-person staff included several partners (originally Bert Cook, later Clarence Snyder and Fred Lantz), drivers for the horse-drawn delivery wagons, a coal man to feed the steam boiler, a maintenance man to keep the machinery going, a bookkeeper (for many years Elsa Hochrien of First Street), men to run the washing machines, and a crew of women to do the pressing, sewing, and hand touch-ups.

In about 1913, Tenny replaced the horses and wagons with Dodge trucks. Two years later, he moved the laundry to the corner of Liberty and Fifth Avenue. Though for many years it had been the site of Christian Schmid's lumberyard, the block was known as Jail House Square, because it had originally been set out by the town's founders for that purpose. George Scott, a local architect who designed the Schwaben Hall as well as many houses in town, drew the plans for the new laundry, which took three years to build.

Brothers Nate and Barney Dalitz bought Tenny out in 1924. Nate's son Morrie first saw it that fall, when his parents picked him up from summer camp and told him that they had bought the laundry and moved from Detroit to Ann Arbor. Compared to the rough Detroit neighborhood where the family had lived, Ann Arbor struck the thirteen-year-old as a sissy town: he went two whole weeks without getting into a fight. But he learned to love Ann Arbor.

Herbert Tenny was often around even after the Dalitzes took over. "Like all ex-owners, he couldn't stay away," says Morrie Dalitz. He'd even written into the sales agreement that he retained parking privileges--handy when he played pool at the Masonic Temple around the corner on Fourth Avenue.

The Dalitzes repaired and modernized the business as they had the time and money. The laundry's old wooden washing machines were replaced with larger ones that held 400 pounds of dry laundry at a time. Each load weighed 1,200 pounds when wet; they had to use a crane to lift the laundry into a big centrifugal extractor. From there it went to a flatwork ironer, called a mangle. Dalitz remembers how two women would feed laundry into the ironer, while two at the other end would remove and fold it, moving so fast they looked as if they were dancing.

The 1920's were a good time to be in the laundry business. People were enjoying the respite after World War I and wanted to dress well and have a good time. In 1927, Varsity diversified by adding rental linens for restaurants, barber shops, doctors and dentists, drugstores, fraternities, and professional offices.

As a teenager, Morrie Dalitz worked summers as a "jumper" on a delivery truck that covered cottages on the many lakes northwest of Ann Arbor. There was enough business to justify the run, he recalls, since "no one wants to spend their summer washing clothes." For those who couldn't afford Varsity's full washing and pressing service, there was unpressed "fluff dry" service (the clothes could be dampened and ironed later) or "wet wash," delivered damp and ready to iron.

As a young man, Daiitz began work≠ing full-time at the laundry, starting with two years as a jumper on the linen supply trucks. Often there would be five or six stops on a block. While the driver sat in the truck, Dalitz would run in with the delivery. To speed things up, he took the door off the old Dodge truck, leaping out at each stop, without touching the running board. (He shakes his head, remembering that after a day of jumping in and out, he still had the energy to play softball.) Later, his father put him in the plant, where he learned all aspects of the laundry business; he could repair any machine, figure out the chemistry, or work as a salesman.

In the 1930's, the Dalitzes replaced Tenny's 1913 vehicles with a fleet of Chevrolet trucks, for which they paid $3,000. They also expanded the plant, tearing down two houses to the south to add a receiving and marking room, garage, and drive-in area. They put up a neon sign, the second in town. (Mack's department store had the first.)

But by then the development of better home washers and dryers began to cut into the power laundry business. After Morrie Dalitz returned from World War II (he enlisted in the field artillery, but was transferred to the quartermaster corps because he knew laundry), he took a more active role in management and began buying out his uncle's share. Varsity diversified into supplying industrial linens, such as uniforms for garages and gas stations, and in the late 1950's it began to distribute paper products as well.

In 1964, after his father and uncle died, Dalitz sold the laundry to Bill Schumer, who moved it to Ypsilanti. Dalitz himself started a second career in real estate, where he is still active, using the knowledge of the town he gained during all his years with the laundry.

The entire block of Liberty Street where the laundry was located was torn down in 1973 to make way for the present Federal Building. The casualties included several rooming houses, the laundry, the Eberbach Building, and the Masonic Temple. The wreckers had a tough time with the Eberbach Building and the Masonic Temple (which was demolished merely to make room for a parking lot). But though the former laundry was still a good looking building, Dalitz recalls, it didn't put up much of a fight. Weakened by years of moisture and temperature extremes, it came down at almost the first tap.


[Photo caption from the original print edition]: (Above) Varsity Laundry from the Liberty Street side in the 1930's, showing the new delivery trucks and neon sign. Morrie Dalitz is the young man standing in the middle. (Right) The entire block was demolished in the 1970V to make way for the Federal Building, and Tower Plaza has transformed the skyline. Only the houses on the other side of Fifth Avenue confirm that it's the same scene.