The Many Lives of 210 E. Huron

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, October 2008,
October 2008

Author: Grace Shackman

From Greek Revival to green building

The building at 210 East Huron first shows up on a city map from 1853. Although only a block from the Washtenaw County Courthouse, which was then the center of Ann Arbor’s commercial district, that stretch of Huron was still mostly vacant. The earliest picture shows the temple-like facade of a Greek Revival house.

In the 155 years since that first appearance, 210 East Huron has changed beyond recognition—not once, but three times:

it grew a commercial storefront as a nineteenth-century barbershop; housed a bakery and an auto parts store when Huron was a busy highway; and disappeared behind an avant-garde facade as an architect’s showpiece office.

By comparison, its latest renovation is almost invisible from the street. Inside, though, it’s the biggest change yet: after a just-completed half-million-dollar renovation, it’s downtown’s greenest office building.

Greek Revival was a residential style, so presumably 210 was built as a private home. By 1879, though, it housed George Stein’s meat market. At first Stein lived on the premises, but by 1888 he was doing well enough to buy a home elsewhere.

After Stein left in the mid-1890s, the building became W. F. Wanzeck’s barbershop. Wanzeck added a new facade flush with the street, hiding the original house. Albert Watson, house painter, decorator, and paperhanger, moved in by 1906 and was replaced in 1909 by shoemaker Thomas Lovell, who in turn was succeeded by—or perhaps renamed—the Wear-You-Well Shoe Company.

The little building got a big addition in 1913: its neighbor to the west, the City Bakery, built an L-shaped two-story addition that wrapped around the back of 210. (The bakery was owned by Fred Heusel, great-uncle of the late radio personality Ted.) The bakery soon took over the front of the building as well for its retail shop.

After the bakery closed in 1928, the next long-term tenant was Western Auto, which arrived in 1939. Before the days of expressways, major highways passed through downtown, and the store advertised “everything for the automobile,” including spark plugs, horns, lights, and tires. Clan Crawford, a lawyer who worked downtown, remembers the store as “nondescript. It was a double storefront, with glass windows and a door in the middle.” It also had a small sporting goods section—he and several other lawyers used to browse the fishing gear during their lunch hours.

Washtenaw County’s section of I-94 was completed in 1960, followed by US-23 in 1962. Traffic downtown plummeted, and many car-centric businesses left. Western Auto closed in 1963, and the following year the building was sold to architects Colvin, Robinson, and Wright. Houston “Tex” Colvin, who founded the firm in 1950, dealt with the public. Richard Robinson ran the office and was responsible for the specs, while junior partner Don Wright supervised in the field.

By the time CRW moved into 210 East Huron, the building was very run down and needed lots of work. It was also bigger than they needed—they were able to afford a serious renovation only after signing up a major tenant, the pioneering urban planning firm Johnson, Johnson, and Roy. JJR had outgrown its space in the Hutzel Building at Liberty and Main, where it had a view out the second-floor bay window.

The oldest part of the building, in front, underwent the most drastic change: the architects added a second story, a new roof, and of course a new facade. In the 1960s “modernizing” old buildings was still in vogue, and Don Wright designed an eye-catching slab of brown brick, boldly bisected by a recessed vertical bay.

Wright is modest about his effort. “There were two senior partners,” he says. “While they kept busy, I played with the building.” But JJR cofounder Carl Johnson thinks its “elegant simplicity” was a strong statement of the firm’s identity. “It was compatible with the direction of what they did,” Johnson says. “We thought it was pretty cool—or, as we would have said then, pretty sharp.”

“They were infatuated with the modernist movement,” says architect Rick Hermann, who rented space from CRW and was later part of a group that bought it. With its flat brick surface, gray-painted tubular columns, and framed entrance, he says, “the exterior is not unlike Mies van der Rohe.” Asked about the comparison, Wright agrees that he may have been influenced by the great German-born modernist.

CRW and JJR shared the expanded second floor. Wright remembers that restaurateur Leo Ping was interested in renting the first floor, but the insurance people told them it would be a fire hazard. Instead they divided the downstairs into smaller offices and rented it to attorneys, who found it very convenient to the County Courthouse and City Hall.

The modern facade may have been the most innovative design CRW ever did. They were very well regarded by their clients but were best known for practical designs that worked. Retired U-M planner Fred Mayer describes them as “a journeyman architectural firm. We’d hire them to do renovations and routine projects that didn’t involve sophisticated design, such as remodeling a lab. We knew we’d get the work we wanted from them, but they were not big on the glamorous.” At the Michigan Union, they redesigned the basement cafeteria. “We were told to make it ‘nookier’—more like a nightclub,” recalls CRW architect Bob Chance. That project turned out to be “too successful,” Chance adds: “The students came to study and wouldn’t leave.”

CRW did the same kind of work for another big client, the Ann Arbor Public Schools. “We’d get a call—‘Tex, we need two more rooms at Dicken. Can you do it?’—and we would,” recalls former CRW architect Bob Pierce. Pierce says that some of the younger staff members, himself included, wanted to branch out into more interesting work but that Colvin preferred to stay with what he felt they did best. Pierce eventually left CRW to work for the schools.

When the architecture firm A3C bought the building in 1997, one of the first things they did was alter the front facade, by then more than thirty years old. “We wanted a bit of a contemporary look,” explains Dan Jacobs, principal of the firm along with Jan Culbertson. “In the sixties they were creating austere simple panels; we gave it more level of detail. We wanted the building to have more presence.”

The new owners turned the central recess into a bay window, allowing more light into their second-floor lobby. They softened the monolithic look of the front by adding four rows of lighter brick, and changed the entrance.

Then, last year, they decided to do a state-of-the-art greening of the building. Jacobs was inspired to undertake the renovation after hearing William McDonough, the nation’s leading proponent of green buildings, speak at the 2006 American Institute of Architects Convention in Los Angeles. (In 1999 McDonough had similarly inspired an ecosensitive renovation of the U-M’s Dana Building—one of the pioneer instances of greening an older building.) Jacobs saw the renovation as a way to reduce A3C’s carbon footprint, to introduce green technology to their clients and the general public, and to improve the working environment for their staff.

A3C has maximized the use of natural light by installing skylights wherever possible. The lights are all ultra-efficient LEDs, sensor operated so that no energy is wasted. Dual-flush toilets and sensor faucets conserve water, a passive cooling system draws heat out through two “solar chimneys,” and when heating or air-conditioning is needed, it comes from a geothermal heating and cooling system whose pipes are buried under the alley in back.

To minimize remodeling waste, doors were shuffled from one place to another, and walnut panels removed from the front area went into offices. When the firm used new materials, they chose—whenever possible—either recycled or rapidly renewable ones, such as cork and bamboo. The building has insulation made from old blue jeans, rugs woven from the fiber left at the ends of spools, and wallpaper that’s really paper. When the chairs wear out, the manufacturer will take them back and rebuild them. Although most of these details are invisible in the finished building, they’ve earned 210 East Huron a LEED-CI Gold Certificate from the U.S. Green Building Council—the first downtown Ann Arbor building to be so honored.

The part of the greening anyone can enjoy is a rooftop garden, as aesthetically pleasing as it is earth friendly. Although the post-and-beam construction of the building was strong enough to hold the garden, the roof wasn’t, so A3C’s architects had to add steel beams. They are experimenting with three types of plantings—meadow, arctic ground cover, and a more cultivated, parklike look.

The garden can be enjoyed outside from deck chairs (which were made from old telephone poles) or from the “UrbEn Retreat”—a conference room set in a small, glass-walled penthouse. Made with recycled materials, including wood salvaged from ash trees killed by the emerald ash borer, the retreat is available for use by government and nonprofit groups.