When the Salvation Army Marched Downtown

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

Author: Grace Shackman

Its headquarters on Fifth Ave. attracted hoboes and passersby alike

Saturday night was once the busiest time of the week for Ann Arbor merchants, because that was when farmers would drive to town to do their weekly errands. As families milled about, shopping and catching up with the news, the Salvation Army brass band would march from the army's headquarters at Fifth and Washington up to Main Street, playing hymns and summoning the crowds to open-air services.

"It was part of Saturday in Ann Arbor," says John Hathaway, who grew up here in the 1930's. He remembers that when he attended Perry Elementary School as a child, Salvation Army kids were always eager to enroll in the music program so they could prepare for playing in the band.

Mary Culver recalls that when she was in college, the band would stop outside bars frequented by students. After a few hymns, a band member would come through the bar with an upside-down tambourine, collecting money as the students sang, "Put a nickel in the drum, save another drunken bum." Culver remembers it as a good-natured scene, but doubts that the Salvation Army got much money, since the students of that era had little to spare.

Virginia Trevithick, a retired Salvation Army employee and a former band member, recalls, "It was a nice little band, about fifteen members, all good musicians. On Saturday when the stores stayed open late we held street meetings in front of Kresge's at Main and Washington [now Mongolian Barbeque]. There would be a big crowd."

William and Catherine Booth held the first Salvation Army street meetings in England in 1865. Designed to attract people who would not attend more conventional churches, the Booths' services combined elements of the English music hall and religious evangelism. Finding that it was hard for people struggling to survive to even think about religion, the Booths also began the Salvation Army's social ministry, providing food and shelter for those in need. They organized along military lines to establish clear lines of command, and in an age characterized by a love of the military, the style appealed to many recruits.

The Salvation Army arrived in the United States in 1880, and the Ann Arbor branch was founded in 1896 by a Captain Gifford and a Lieutenant Handicott. An Ann Arbor News article forty years later reported that one of their original recruits, William Hatfield, was still active, especially at meetings held at the County Farm (the poorhouse). Services were also held at the county jail. It took a while, both nationally and locally, for the Salvation Army to be appreciated for the good work it did, and in the early days members were frequently abused. Ann Arbor lore includes stories of their being pelted with stones, rotten eggs, and tomatoes. According to one account, a businessman once drove his horse and buggy right through a band of Salvation Army soldiers.

In its first three decades, the army met in various rented quarters downtown. By 1926, after a fund drive, it was able to build a permanent headquarters downtown. A 1940 paper in the Bentley Library, written by one of Emil Lorch's architecture students, Beth O'Roke, attributes the design to a Chicago architect, A. C. Fehlow, who was a friend of the district commander. According to this paper, Fehlow went on to design many other army headquarters in the Midwest.

Fehlow put the main entrance right on the corner, accessible from either Washington or Fifth. The office was just inside and up a half-flight of stairs, easy for transients and people in need to find. Beyond that was the sanctuary, which held 150. The floor above was used for Sunday school, Bible classes, and youth activities; the lower level was a caretaker's apartment and a room for donated clothes and household goods.

Originally, the local Salvation Army took as its province family welfare. When the United Way was formed in 1921, the army, as a charter member, agreed to concentrate on offering emergency help. Local families hit with unexpected misfortune might be given food and clothing, furniture and dishes. The army also ministered to transients seeking help. Trevithick remembers that the "hoboes" who rode the rails during the Depression would get off at Ann Arbor and walk up to the Salvation Army, where she would give them vouchers good in certain restaurants. She sent those needing a bed for the night to a boardinghouse at 501 North Main. "They were never a bother, just once or twice," she says of the transients.

In addition to people in need, the central location drew passersby. For instance, Marion Lutz was walking by one day and, hearing the music, went in and was warmly welcomed. She eventually became very active. Later, her husband, William Lutz, a Methodist minister, became a counselor at Arbor Haven, the Salvation Army's shelter for homeless families.

After fifty years, the army outgrew the downtown space, and like many other churches, moved to where there was space to expand and to park. In 1978 they dedicated their new citadel on West Huron at Arbana. Paul Wilson, commander at the time, explains that the new facility was about double the size of the old one and handicapped-accessible, so they could offer a fuller senior program, serve meals rather than send people off with vouchers, provide office space for six social workers, and offer craft space and a gym.

The Salvation Army still has a band, but it no longer plays on street corners. That ended in the 1940's, Wilson says, the victim of increased traffic and the high cost of insurance.

The army's social service has become more sophisticated over the years. Says the current local co-commander, Gary Felton (who shares the office, literally and figuratively, with his wife, Karen Felton), "Where it used to be a bag of groceries and God bless you, now we try to figure out why they come in week after week." But in many ways the Salvation Army is the same as always. Members still visit hospitals and nursing homes. They still give toys to needy children at Christmas and clothes at Easter. And they still collect money in kettles at Christmas. The kettle drive, begun in 1892 in San Francisco, provides half of the local budget. The rest is supplied by United Way, contributions, and money from their congregation.

The army sold its downtown building to Dr. Michael Papo, who redid the inside and built an addition on what had been the parking lot on Fifth Avenue. The only reminders of the building's first use are the cornerstone, which states "Erected to the Glory of God in 1926," and the Salvation Army logo on the top of the center tower.

Four stained-glass windows that originally graced the tower were moved to the new sanctuary in 1979. Up where two of the windows once were, Jeffrey Michael Powers takes advantage of the natural light to use the space as a makeup area in his beauty spa. Although his use is entirely different, Powers says he appreciates the building's history: "A rental point was that the building was graced by the presence of God for a moment."


[Photo caption from original print edition]: The only reminders of the building's first use are the cornerstone, which states "Erected to the Glory of God in 1926," and the Salvation Army logo on the top of the center tower.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: From 1926 to 1978, the Salvation Army worshiped God and ministered to the poor from the corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington Street.