The Country Estate of Christian Eberbach

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, January 1994,
January 1994

Author: Grace Shackman

Woodlawn Avenue was once his driveway

The majestic towered mansion on Woodlawn just north of Packard has piqued the curiosity of passersby for decades. What is it doing in this modest residential neighborhood?

Named Woodlawn, it was the country estate of Christian Eberbach, Ann Arbor pharmacist, businessman, and politician. He built the house between 1861 and 1866, when this stretch of Packard was still an unpaved country road. Today there are three houses between the mansion and Packard, set on what was originally Eberbach's front lawn. An orchard, flower gardens, and a working farm stretched back behind the house, across where Forest and Olivia now run, filling the entire area bracketed today by Wells and Granger as far as Burns Park Elementary School.

Born in Stuttgart, Eberbach emigrated to America as a young man. When he arrived in Ann Arbor in 1838, Eberbach was just twenty-one. But he had already apprenticed for three years with an apothecary and stud≠ied chemistry for two at the Stuttgart Polytechnicum, making him Ann Arbor's first trained pharmacist.

He found his first job here at William Maynard's general store on the corner of Main and Huron, working as a clerk and preparing medicines prescribed by local doctors. By 1843 he was ready to go into business for himself. He opened Washtenaw County's first drugstore in a small frame building on Huron across from the courthouse. He quickly outgrew the space and joined with confectioner Herman Schlak to build a commercial block on Main Street between Huron and Washington.

Just three years later, Eberbach took a partner, his cousin, Emanuel Mann, son of Jonathan Mann, one of Ann Arbor's original German settlers. The two built a store next door at 112 South Main Street (now Mayer-Schairer office supplies) and remained together for twenty-eight years. Open to new kinds of medicine, Eberbach knew about homeopathy because of his work in Germany. He also was a customer and advocate of Dr. Alvin Wood Chase.

Eberbach did not limit himself to his pharmacy; he had many other business and civic interests. In 1857 he and Mann and another relative, August Hutzel, started the Hutzel plumbing company next door to the pharmacy at 114 South Main (now also part of Mayer-Schairer). He was among the founders of the Ann Arbor Savings Bank and of Bethlehem Church of Christ and a member of the relief fire department. He was a musician and singer. (His son and grandson would become active in the University Musical Society.) But his greatest interest was Republican politics.

Eberbach started out as a Whig, supporting presidential candidate William H. Har-rison in 1840. After the demise of the Whig Party, he took part in the 1854 convention in Jackson that formally launched the Republican Party. Local Republicans began hanging out in a little room behind Eberbach and Mann's pharmacy to discuss the issues of the day. In 1864, Eberbach was a member of the Electoral College that re-elected the nation's first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln.

In 1868, Eberbach ran for office himself. He was elected mayor of Ann Arbor but lost his bid for re-election the next year. According to a memorial talk given after his death, he was rejected after "a gallant fight to drive the hogs and cows from the streets but the people believed that the experience was contrary to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution." Eberbach was paid a gold dollar for his year's service. His great-grandson, Robert Eberbach, still has it.

The same year Eberbach opened his store, he married Margaret (sometimes referred to as Margaretha) Laubengayer, who had been born near Stuttgart and immigrated with her family to a farm in Scio Township.

During the years Eberbach was establishing his business, the family lived in a brick house on West Washington in a spot now part of the Brown Block parking lot. In 1861, he decided to move to the country, where the air was better. He chose the site on Packard because it was still close enough to town that his children (he had eight, five of whom lived to adulthood) could go to Ann Arbor schools.

The grand house, solidly constructed with 15-inch walls, took more than five years to build. (The builders spent one year just waiting for the basement to settle after replacing a bed of quicksand with lime and cement.) The house was in the Italian Villa style and included a high tower reminiscent of German castles. It was said that you could see Ypsilanti from it on a clear day. Eberbach used the tower as an observation post to oversee his farm workers and also as a playroom for his children.

The interior of the house boasts the finest 1860's craftsmanship: carved woodwork, fireplaces, and four-over-four windows. Upstairs were five bedrooms (one since converted into a bathroom) and downstairs the kitchen, pantry, dining room, and library, and a parlor large enough to be divided into two rooms by folding wood doors. The basement included a large vaulted brick storeroom and a smokehouse. Except for the former servants' quarters, usually rented out as a separate apartment, the house has remained a single-family home since it was built.

In 1874 Emanuel Mann retired and Eberbach's oldest son, Ottmar, became his father's partner. Ottmar was well prepared, having studied science and pharmacy in Stuttgart and Tubingen in addition to working in the drugstore. He convinced his father to expand the business to supplying, and sometimes manufacturing, chemicals and lab equipment. That business continues to this day.

Germany at that time was the leading manufacturer of scientific instruments. Since Ottmar spoke German and had both scientific training and good connections there, he was in a perfect position to be an importer. Eberbach and Son grew to serve industrial labs, schools, and hospitals all over the world.

Christian Eberbach stayed active in the firm until six months before he died in 1901 at age eighty-four. He remained a loyal Republican to the end. As he lay on his deathbed, wracked with pain from spinal problems caused by lower-body paralysis, his doctor told him that he himself would almost be willing to assume the pain if it would relieve Eberbach. Eberbach replied that he wouldn't want anyone else to suffer so. Then, after thinking a minute, he reconsidered. "Yes, I would too. If you could only take it away and give it to that rascal Czolgosz, I would be glad." He was referring to Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who had fatally shot President McKinley earlier that month.

Margaret Eberbach remained in the house until her death in 1908. The year before she died, the surrounding prop≠erty was subdivided into eighty-one house lots and annexed to the city. In 1913 the school board bought the property on the corner of Wells and Forest for a new seventh ward school, to be named after Ottmar, who had served for twenty-one years on the school board. (The school was later replaced by what is now Burns Park school; the building on Wells and Forest burned down in 1971.)

Ottmar Eberbach held on to his parents' house until his own death in 1922, but he didn't live there. Back in 1883, he had built himself a house downtown at 402 South Fourth Avenue (now part of the Beer Depot). Until World War I, the Eberbach estate was looked after by a resident caretak≠er. The war cut off the Eberbach company's supply of glass beakers, all of which were made in one village in Germany. Before the U.S. entered the war, Ottmar brought one of the German glassblowers to America to make the beakers here, housing him and his family in splendor in the vacant house.

After Ottmar died, the house was sold to state senator George McCallum, who did a major remodeling, putting in a new furnace, modern plumbing, electricity, and hardwood floors. The business stayed in the Eberbach family through two more generations, passing to Ottmar's son Oscar and then to Oscar's son Robert, both of whom studied chemistry at the U-M. Gradually the lab equipment supply and manufacturing business became bigger than the retail pharmacy. As Robert Eberbach put it, "The tail began to wag the dog."

In 1909 they had moved from Main Street to a four-story building on Liberty at Fourth. By the time that building was demolished in 1971 to make way for the Federal Building, the three parts of the business had already been separated, in what Robert Eberbach calls a "reverse merger." Eberbach Corporation, the manufacturing division, had moved in 1951 to 505 South Maple. It's still there under the same name, although Robert, the last Eberbach in the firm, retired in 1980. The supplier division was sold to Will Scientific in 1961, and the retail pharmacy was sold in 1969.

The Eberbach mansion is today owned by John and Christa Williams. After they bought it in 1987, they did a major restoration to bring it back to its former glory, adding a garage designed to look like an old carriage house. The house is basically the same inside as in Eberbach's day, albeit with modern amenities. During the Eberbach occupancy, the house was a wonderful place for holiday gatherings and musical evenings. The Williamses continue the tradition: last year they hosted a Robert Burns evening for forty people in the double parlor.


[Photo caption from original edition: Christian Eberbach, pharmacist, businessman, and politician. He built his home outside the city limits in the 1860's, when Packard was still an unpaved country road.]

[Photo caption from original edition: Christian and Margaret Eberbach celebrating their fiftieth anniversary with the family in 1893.]

[Photo caption from original edition: The Eberbach estate was so large that it provided eighty-one additional home sites when it was subdivided and annexed to the city in 1907.]