Osias Zwerdling's Art Deco Sign
Author: Grace Shackman
From 1915 to 1943, Osias Zwerdling ran a fur store at 215-211 East Liberty. Sometime in the 1920s, he had an Art Deco sign—a twilight scene of a wolf baying at the moon—painted on an exterior wall. Zwerdling always took pride in the fact that the sign was painted by a professional artist, and its "painterly quality," says architectural conservator Ron Koenig, is probably the reason no one ever painted over it. But the main reason a group of people recently raised $12,000 to restore it is Zwerdling's role as patriarch of Ann Arbor's Jewish community.
Born in Brody, Austria (now part of Ukraine), in 1878, Zwerdling attended a yeshiva taught by his grandfather. His grandfather hoped he would become a rabbi, but Zwerdling's father died when he was three, and he had to work to help support his family. At age thirteen, he was apprenticed to a tailor.
As a young man, Zwerdling's dream was to immigrate to America. At age twenty-two, he got as far as Paris, where he worked for a year to save money for a steerage ticket and an English dictionary. (He studied the dictionary during the twelve-day voyage.)
Arriving at Ellis Island, he soon got a tailoring job in Buffalo. There he met Charles Schrain, an employee of Mack and Company, Ann Arbor's big department store, who convinced him to come to Michigan. Zwerdling moved to Ann Arbor in 1903 to work at Mack's as a ladies tailor, eventually creating his own line of women's clothes. He also worked with furs and so gained the distinction of being the first furrier in Ann Arbor.
In 1907 Zwerdling left Mack's to start his own store at 333 South Main. The same year he married Hannah Kaufman of Manchester, England, whom he'd met on a business trip. (Like Zwerdling, the Kaufmans were originally from what was then Austria.) In 1915, he built the store on Liberty.
Originally Zwerdling sold ladies clothes. But by 1918 his city directory ad mentioned "a full line of furs," and by 1926 he was dealing in furs exclusively. It was then considered the height of fashion for a woman to own a fur coat, and raccoon coats were the rage among college students. In a 1944 paper for the Washtenaw County Historical Society, Zwerdling recalled, "Not long ago I would swear there were 5,000 coonskin coats walking about on the campus!"
When Zwerdling arrived in Ann Arbor, the city had just three Jewish families—too few to hold religious services. For his first decade here, he traveled to a synagogue in Detroit. But then on one Jewish holiday, according to Zwerdling's grandnephew, Marc Halman, a Detroit rabbi was hospitalized in Ann Arbor. He asked Zwerdling to gather a minyan, the quorum of ten Jewish men required to hold a service. To his surprise, Zwerdling succeeded—and realized that Ann Arbor's Jewish community had grown enough to support a congregation.
After meeting informally in Zwerdling's home for several years, Beth Israel Congregation was formally organized in 1916 by Zwerdling and five others: William Bittker, David Friedman, Israel Friedman, Philip Lansky, and David Mortsky. Zwerdling was elected the synagogue's president—a position he would hold for the next thirty-two years.
At first the congregation met in borrowed quarters, including the Schwaben Halle and the Ladies Library Association. The first building the synagogue owned was a small house on North Main, about where the Greek Orthodox church is today. As the congregation grew, Beth Israel moved to North Division, to Hill Street, and finally to its present location at 2000 Washtenaw Avenue.
Jewish college students from all over the country arrived at the U-M with Zwerdling's name as a resource. He might help them find a room, or a job, or simply invite them home for Friday dinner. He helped found Hillel in 1926—it was only the second such center for Jewish students in the country—and always insisted that Beth Israel's location be within walking distance of campus.
Zwerdling retired in 1943 at age sixty-five. He sold his business to Jacobson's, but most of his employees moved to Nagler's, the other Jewish furrier in town. The store was rented by Max Deess, owner of Master Furrier, whose specialty was mink. Deess ran his store until the early 1970s, when he sold it to an assistant, who moved it to Lamp Post Plaza. Today, when there is nothing more politically incorrect than owning a fur coat, the only fur store listed in the Ann Arbor Yellow Pages is in Detroit.
Zwerdling lived for thirty-three years after retiring, and continued to be active in community affairs, serving on the boards of the Ann Arbor Federal Savings and Loan (now Great Lakes), the Boy Scouts, the Family Services Agency, the Community Chest, and the YMCA. He died in 1977, at the age of ninety-eight. Zwerdling was as "sharp as a tack until the end," says Helen Aminoff. She remembers him attending a board meeting where someone was giving a report on a piece of property the group was considering for a community center. Zwerdling, then in his late nineties, "sat, lips quivering. Suddenly he looked up and said, 'Go back four pages. There's a mistake in the calculations.' And there was!"
During his lifetime, Zwerdling retained ownership of the Liberty Street building, so the sign remained intact. But over the years it gradually deteriorated, and although the sign had been designated an individual historic property by city council in 1988, no one had the money to restore it.
Jean King, whose law offices are upstairs in the Liberty Street building, became concerned about the sign and started working with Fay Woronoff. They enlisted the aid of Marc Halman and another Zwerdling grandnephew, John Weiss, as well as Louisa Pieper, staff director of the city's historic district commission. The group met over a five-year span in Woronoff's living room, first researching the best way to preserve the sign and then raising the necessary money from family members, foundation grants (Buhr and Taubman), and the community, especially from members of Beth Israel and Beth Emeth, the Reform temple that split off from Beth Israel in 1966.
The restoration was done by the Seebohn Company, a firm that has worked on five state capitols, plus important buildings in London and Washington, D.C. Project director Ron Koenig, formerly of Greenfield Village, re-created the sign, using paint samples from the original to match colors. After repainting, he and his crew covered it with a glaze to soften it, distressed it so it would look older, and put on a "sacrificial cover," which allows graffiti to be removed without damaging the painting. A dedication reception will be held at Kempf House on Sunday, August 3, at 4 p.m.; afterward, participants are invited to walk over to the sign for a viewing.
An enthusiastic preservationist, Koenig was delighted when he first started working on the sign and passersby approached him, saying things like, "You're not going to paint over the sign are you? I've been looking at it since I was a kid."
Painted when the coonskin coat was the height of campus fashion, this sign has been restored to honor Beth Israel's founder.