Foster's Art House

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, February 1996,
February 1996

Author: Grace Shackman and Susan Wineberg

State Street’s hidden “Venetian palace”

"The prettiest building in town” is the way Elizabeth Dusseau remembers Foster’s Art House at 213 and 215 South State. Today the two original buildings are thoroughly obscured by later additions, and few passersby ever notice that lurking behind the slate-roofed first floor are a Prairie-style storefront on the north and an Italianate house on the south.

From 1914 to 1941, the elegant structure of Dusseau’s memory was a favorite shopping destination for Ann Arbor’s cultured elite. Owners Clarice and James Foster sold pictures and frames, pottery, statuettes, jewelry, stationery, leather goods, and, as their letterhead boasted, “rare odd things.” They imported brass from India and dishes from England, Japan, and Germany. “People took out-of-town guests to see it,” Dusseau recalls. “They didn’t have anything cheap. Everything was a treasure.”

“Even though I was strapped for money, I loved to go in,” Augusta Dillman recalls. She still remembers purchases she made there: a sixteen-piece set of Blue Willow china from England and a piece of jade, which she still has. Dusseau remembers that her sister fell in love with two brass lamps--a table lamp and a floor lamp. She kept an eye on them until they went on sale, bought them, and kept them her whole life. Jesse and Emily Dalley, who worked in the store and became lifelong friends of the Fosters, still have several pieces of Rookwood pottery they bought there.

The Fosters came to Ann Arbor in 1903 and a few years later moved into an Italianate house at 215 South State. Built about 1872, the house was originally the home of the Benjamin Brown family. At the time the Fosters moved in, that section of State Street, between Liberty and Washington, was still partially residential, and the main shopping area was on the west side of the street closer to William.

James Foster, the son of a Methodist minister in Moore Park, south of Kalamazoo, was in his thirties when he came to Ann Arbor. Jesse Dalley recalls him saying that although he was a Yale graduate, “he had no job” before arriving in Ann Arbor. “He sold things door to door--flatirons--but he never did well. He set up a lending library at the back of his house for two or three years. It wasn’t until he started selling art goods that he was really successful.”

Former customers credit Foster’s wife, Clarice, with much of the art store’s success. Dillman describes her as “a lovely, gracious, refined lady.” Jesse Dalley concurs, saying, “She was a lady of the first order and very artistic.” Clarice Foster worked in the store, helped select the merchandise (the main buying trip was a fall visit to Chicago to order for Christmas), and was responsible for the displays. “Things were not just piled up,” Dusseau recalls. “They were one of a kind, maybe on a polished surface, like one demitasse cup.”

The Fosters started the art store across the street from their house on the corner of State and Liberty (where Discount Records is now). In 1913, they hired Emil Lorch, dean of the U-M School of Architecture, to design a store on the north side of their house. Lorch, who was responsible for the U-M School of Architecture (now Lorch Hall) and many private residences, was an admirer of the Prairie style of architecture. He designed an elegant, simple building with clean lines that fit surprisingly well with the Italianate house. In a thank-you note to Lorch, Foster wrote, “It stands as peaceful and well-balanced as a Venetian palace, in spite of surroundings and the turmoils attending its erection.” (He doesn’t say what the turmoils were.)

The first floor of the new building was the main sales area, while the second floor sold furniture. The Fosters kept the second floor of their home as living quarters, but the basement and first floor were given over to store functions. Former customers remember fondly the elegant tearoom on the first floor of the house. A Miss Betts was the hostess, while Katherine Schaible cooked, helped by Jean Jacobus, who made the salads in the family’s kitchen. When the store closed at 5 or 5:30 p.m., the Fosters, along with several student boarders who lived with them, ate dinner in the tearoom, where they also had breakfast.

Jesse Dalley was one of the student boarders from 1925 to 1931. A Utah native, he followed his older brother’s footsteps in finding employment at the art house. “From the first, it felt like a home away from home,” he recalls. “It was a joy to sit at the table for meals. There was great conversation--no frivolity. Mrs. Foster was very bighearted and genteel. She set a high standard.”

Dalley did whatever was needed. He stoked the two furnaces, unpacked incoming shipments and packed outgoing ones (the Fosters had a large mail order business, mainly among U-M alumni). He also made frames for the artwork sold in the store, and turned out the front display lights every night at ten o’clock. He remembers that many shipments came in big wooden barrels, packed in grass hay. James Foster thriftily instructed him to save all the packing materials to reuse.

Dalley met his wife-to-be, Emily Benson, when she started working at the store, clerking and helping in the tearoom. When Dalley finished his degree, he couldn’t get a job because by then the Depression had hit. Foster told him, “You have a home here,” so Dalley stayed and earned a master’s in education. Even after he and Emily married and moved out of town, they remained friends of the Fosters.

Before retiring, Foster added a third architectural style to his building: Tudor. He hired a young architect, Ward Swarts, to design a single-story addition that filled in the remainder of the lot around the house and store. Swarts’s wife, LeRea, worked as a saleswoman in the store.

In 1939, when Foster was seventy-two, he sold both buildings to Goodyear’s, which wanted to open a campus branch of its well-established Main Street apparel shop. Foster continued running his art store in the north building for a few years longer, retiring entirely in 1941. Dalley remembers that Foster gave up the store “reluctantly.” Goodyear’s did some remodeling before moving in, but they kept the tearoom as it was--in fact, Clarice Foster continued to run it for a while.

James Foster died in 1949, Clarice in 1962. Goodyear’s stayed there through the 1950’s, after which the building saw a variety of uses: children’s clothing store, restaurant, drugstore, bookstore. Today the building is owned by the Big Market’s Mohammed Issa and functions as a sort of mini-mall, with three street-level storefronts: Mr. Greek’s on the north, Route 66 in the middle, and Kaleidoscope Books on the south. Hinodae restaurant is at the back, and the upstairs rooms of the house, including the attic, are used for several other small stores. Issa has remodeled the building since he bought it in 1994, carefully keeping what remained of its original elegance, such as the banister on the stairs to the second-floor stores and the fancy ceiling in the former tearoom (Route 66). Lorch’s geometric windowpanes can still be seen at the tops of the first-floor windows.

(-Grace Shackman, with research help from Susan Wineberg)