The Unsinkable Mayor Brown

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, May 1990,
May 1990

Author: Grace Shackman

Ann Arbor's car dealer-mayor masterminded the city's postwar transition from small town to urban research center.

"It's a bird--it's a plane--it's Mayor Brown!" That was the standing joke among the women who worked for William E. Brown Jr., as he made his dramatic daily entrance into his office on the seventh floor of the Ann Arbor Trust Building. In the afternoon he would walk two blocks up Huron to City Hall. There, recalls Mary Schlect, who operated the switchboard, "you could always hear him before you saw him."

Gregarious and energetic, Bill Brown served as mayor from 1945 to 1957. Jean Graf, his longtime administrative assistant, remembers him as "bouncy and exuberant. He had great rapport with anyone. Even if he didn't know you, he would say hello and shake your hand. He was fun all the time.''

Underneath the bonhomie was a man brimming with ideas and the drive to pursue them. He brought Ann Arbor into the post-World War II world, guiding its transition from small town to urban research center. Probably his most significant achievement was the creation of the city's parking system, so innovative for its time that it brought international attention and recognition to Ann Arbor--and its mayor.

Born in 1896 and raised in Lapeer, Brown came to Ann Arbor in 1914 to attend the U-M. He interrupted his schooling to serve in World War I, advancing to the rank of second lieutenant before returning to finish his B. A. and attend one year of law school.

In college, Brown became friends with Earl Cress, and the two ambitious young men formed a business partnership in 1921. Although neither was originally from Ann Arbor, both lived in town with their families; and both of their mothers ran rooming houses--Grace Brown's on Church Street and Louise Cress's on South University.

This wasn't the rare coincidence it might seem. It was a fairly common strategy at the time for families of U-M students to move to Ann Arbor; the family could economize by continuing to live together, and mothers often took in additional roomers to help meet expenses. Since Brown's father was an attorney who worked for a railroad in Detroit, the move meant only a change in the direction of his commute.

Over their eighteen-year partnership, Cress and Brown developed a large portfolio of business interests that included bonds, loans, investments, insurance, real estate, and a car dealership. In 1939, still good friends, they decided to divide their holdings. Cress took the real estate and the Ann Arbor Trust Company (it's now part of the Cleveland-based Society Bank, but its Michigan branch is still headed by Cress's son, George). Brown kept the insurance and the car dealership.

By the time Brown became mayor in 1945, he was operating half a dozen companies, including Ann Arbor Insurance, Huron Investment, Huron Acceptance, and Washington Investment, from his office in the Ann Arbor Trust Building. His car dealership, which had originally sold Cadillacs, Chevrolets, and Oldsmobiles, was divided, at GM's insistence, into an Oldsmobile dealership, University Motors at 907 North Main, and a Chevrolet dealership, Huron Motor Sales at 209 West Huron. The Chevy dealership took up most of the block bounded by Ashley, First, and Washington. Brown also owned other real estate and a Christmas tree farm between Grayling and Kalkaska, and he was a stockholder and director of many local industries, including Argus, makers of the world's best-selling 35mm camera.

Although Brown's only prior civic service was as chair of the Selective Service board, his decision to run for mayor in 1945 was welcomed by the city's business community. Ever since the days of Mayor Edward Staebler (1927-1931), all Ann Arbor mayors had been connected with the U-M. Frank Mclntyre, who sang with Brown in a barbershop quartet, wrote a campaign lyric that predicted, "He'll let the bars down and open up the town. . . . Give the town back to the owners."

With the promise that he would "run this city like a business," Brown won the Republican primary against Glen Alt, a five-term alderman and council president, by a comfortable 500 votes (1,750-1,273). The town was so thoroughly Republican at the time that no Democrat had even bothered to run for mayor, so the primary victory insured Brown's election.

Even if Brown hadn't owned two car dealerships, he certainly would have been aware of what a pressing problem parking was when he took office in 1945. Veterans returning to town and staff of the expanding university clogged Ann Arbor's streets with cars. On-street parking was woefully inadequate, and there were only a few private parking lots.

Although very much a proponent of free enterprise, Brown quickly concluded that only government could solve the parking problem. He wrote, "I have always believed that no city or no branch of government should go into business in any form unless private enterprise fails to, and cannot, furnish a service that the public needs and must have. It has been proved in Ann Arbor that private enterprise couldn't satisfactorily furnish water service, sewer service and parking service."

Having decided the city should provide downtown parking, Brown still had to find a way to pay for it. He came up with the revolutionary idea of putting in meters for street parking, then using the revenues to build off-street lots and structures. Brown already had the authority to install meters: the city council had passed the enabling legislation in 1938, but had delayed implementing it.

In October 1945, his first year in office, Brown made a production of inviting five meter manufacturers to show their products to city council. Council members chose a model they deemed least likely to jam. When the meters were first installed, Brown hoped that they would be used only until the lots were paid for. Longtime residents don't remember much opposition.

By 1947, the first lot purchased with meter revenues opened at the corner of Washington and First. Two years later, a parking structure was built on it. (The site was considered particularly apt for a structure because it was on a hill, eliminating the need for space-consuming internal ramps.) According to the Ann Arbor News, the structure was "believed to be the first of its kind operated by a municipality anywhere on earth." While many towns claim firsts that aren't necessarily recognized beyond their own borders, this one held up surprisingly well. Brown spoke on his parking system around the country and even internationally, and no one ever claimed to know of an earlier structure.

Brown had a flair for dramatizing even seemingly dull subjects like parking, and for involving the public in them. He opened the structure with great flourish on May 26, 1949. The day included a public open house and a formal ceremony followed by a big party in the evening. The evening events were held on the roof of the structure. Dignitaries from two dozen communities joined 2,000 townsfolk for speeches, presentation of a flag by the Erwin Prieskorn VFW post, and music by the Ann Arbor High School band. The party featured square dancing and food supplied by the Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Brown continued developing the parking system, concentrating on downtown, State Street, and the university campus area. By the end of his administration, the city had five lots (South Fifth Avenue, North Ashley, Main at William, South Forest, and Packard at Main), and two structures. The second structure was built in 1953 on Maynard across from Jacobson's, on the site of the old Majestic Theater. Originally only three stories, it was dedicated to Brown, and like the first, it was opened with pomp and circumstance.

Brown became a worldwide advocate for municipal parking systems. He gave speeches on parking at such places as mayors' conferences, consulted with other communities that wanted to emulate Ann Arbor, gave numerous interviews to out-of-town newspapers, and wrote many articles.

As a result of Brown's efforts, Ann Arbor's parking setup was widely copied elsewhere. But it wasn't always popular at home. "For urging the city to go into the off-street parking business I have been called a 'creeping socialist' and some other names unprintable,'' he stated in an interview in 1954. "However, as you know, I am nothing more or less than one hundred percent Republican."

If some Republicans were confused, it was because Brown was such an active mayor. He believed that government should use its power to improve the city, not just to oversee the status quo.

Housing was another pressing postwar problem in Ann Arbor, caused by the same forces that brought the parking problem to a boiling point--returning vets and swelling university enrollment. There was no place to put them. In a speech in 1946, Brown said that between the onset of the Depression in 1929 and the end of the war in 1945, only forty homes were built in the entire city.

Brown started with a survey of existing houses to see if the owners could find temporary space for more people, particularly vets. When the survey showed that there was very little slack, Brown decided the long-term answer was to increase Ann Arbor's land area, to create space for more homes to be built.

It was a momentous decision, made more significant by Brown's practical, businesslike way of implementing it. First, he doubled the city's water and sewage capacity. Then he went to work encouraging surrounding property owners to annex themselves to the city, using city services as the bait. His strategy was extremely successful. During his term, the city doubled in land size, growing from six square miles to more than twelve. Surrounding areas incorporated into the city during Brown's administration included East Ann Arbor, North Campus, and Ann Arbor Hills.

Brown described himself as a natural salesman, and he was highly successful at promoting Ann Arbor's interests. He convinced the state to build a new bridge across the Huron on Whitmore Lake Road (since superceded by the M-14 bridge), negotiated with the federal government to make sure the new Veterans Administration hospital paid for city services, and encouraged research-oriented businesses to locate here. Many of the businesses on Plymouth Road, including Bendix and Parke-Davis, moved to Ann Arbor during Brown's administration.

One of his biggest negotiating successes was persuading the university to help defray the cost of the city services it used. The final agreement called for annual payments of $127,000 from the university to help the city improve the sewage disposal plant, plus payments for the salaries of seven policemen. Jack Dobson, a city council member and lawyer, handled most of the negotiations.

Like Ann Arbor's parking system, the university settlement aroused interest around the country, especially in college towns such as Madison, Berkeley, and Ithaca, whose leaders asked advice on how to negotiate similar agreements in their communities.

It wasn't just good salesmanship that won Brown such victories. He worked tirelessly. Jean Graf, his longtime assistant, remembers many nights staying up until ten o'clock or even midnight, doing business or writing yet another article on parking. His workload was increased by the fact that the city was operating under a charter adopted in 1889, which did not provide for a city manager or even department heads. Each of the six city departments (fire, police, public works, water, health, and parks) was run by citizens' committees appointed by the mayor. The mayor and city council operated as both the executive and legislative branches of government.

According to Jean Graf, Brown could do so much because he was very good at delegating authority. Pete Zahner, who managed the Chevrolet dealership, says that Brown "stopped by about every day to get pertinent information,'' but left the day-to-day management to him. Brown was also in a position to combine tasks. For instance, on a business trip he might also do an interview with a local paper about parking or talk to a local industry about relocating.

Brown did manage to have a good time, too. Some days, he lunched at the Town Club, located right behind the Chevy dealership on Washington, where he ran into many of the wheeler-dealers in town. Other days, he went to the Ann Arbor Club, above what is now Beth's Boutique, where he would stay after lunch to play a few hands of cards. He belonged to Ann Arbor Golf and Outing, where he played in tennis tournaments. He hosted an annual picnic for his male government associates at his cottage at Horseshoe Lake.

With his family, Brown was more likely to go to another cottage at Bear Lake, near the Christmas tree farm. He had been married since 1920 to his college sweetheart, Eleanor Shartel, the daughter of Missouri congressman Cassius Shartel. Eleanor Brown was by all accounts the antithesis of her husband--quiet and dignified. Tall and always impeccably dressed, she was a formal but gracious hostess.

The Browns had four children and thirteen grandchildren. Every August the whole family spent a week at Camp Newton, a hunting and fishing lodge in the Upper Peninsula, which Brown owned with a group of sportsmen from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. (Jack Dobson remembers that though Brown was an enthusiastic sportsman, he was a very impatient fisherman.) In the winter, the Browns usually went to Florida, staying in a hotel owned by a friend. Mrs. Brown would often stay there all winter, with the mayor joining her when he could.

In spite of his great will to succeed and his indomitable energy, Brown did not always get what he wanted. The main obstacle was lack of money. During his tenure, city voters turned down a suggested millage increase and several bonding proposals. He thought of imposing an amusement tax but could not get the support of the city council. Whenever possible he found alternative ways of funding: parking meters for structures, state money for the Whitmore Lake bridge, increased user fees to finance the water and sewer extensions--but his ideas always outran his ability to find financing.

When the city bought the fairgrounds at Jackson and Maple and turned it into what we today call Vets Park, the visionary in Brown again went to work. He suggested setting up areas for every sport imaginable--golf, badminton, handball, shuffleboard, horseshoes, archery, roller-skating--building a football stadium, and erecting a community building. Only a fraction of what he planned was accomplished.

The grandest plan of all was Brown's proposal to build a four-block civic center to house city and county offices and a myriad of other community services, including the post office, an auditorium, swimming pool, fire and police, social agencies, library, gym, and offices of the civic orchestra. Touted as a war memorial (presumably in a pitch for vets' support), it was supposed to include underground parking and a rooftop heliport.

At one point, Brown actually had the support of fifty organizations for the plan, including the county board of supervisors. But the supervisors later changed their minds, building a new county court house where the old one had stood. Meanwhile, support from the city waned after community leaders, including city council president Cecil Creal and schools superintendent Otto Haisley, convinced Brown that the new Ann Arbor High School should have first funding priority (see p. 32). Even then, Brown did not totally abandon the idea, instead suggesting the center could be built in stages as money became available.

A results-oriented person, Brown worked to bring the city's infrastructure up to modern standards to meet the needs of a growing population. He was less open to change in the structure of government and in social issues. "Brown believed city government policy should deal with sewer, fire, and water, and that social issues were for other levels of government," Jack Dobson explains. Brown helped private charities but initiated no public solutions to social problems. He hired blacks and the poor in his own businesses and did not interfere when city treasurer Bill Vernor hired Rosemarion Blake and Tom Harrison, the first two blacks to work in City Hall. But he did nothing to address the serious inequalities blacks often faced elsewhere in the city: not being served in restaurants, not being allowed to try on clothes and shoes in stores, or finding it difficult to get home loans.

Brown also resisted the movement for charter reform that had been growing among concerned citizens of both parties, including many of his closest associates, such as council president George Sallade and council member Lawrence Ouimet.

Charter proponents argued that reform was needed to make city government more efficient and fair. They advocated setting up departments for accounting and personnel, hiring a professional manager to run day-to-day operations, redistricting wards on the basis of population, not geographic area, and merging the office of mayor and council president.

Brown saw no need for a city administrator--why pay for one when the old system worked? He also favored the system of appointing citizens' committees to oversee departments, on the grounds that it was more democratic. Those who disagreed argued that the old system depended too much on volunteer labor and that the city might not always be lucky enough to have a mayor who could give as much time to the job as Brown did.

Despite his doubts, Brown refrained from outright opposition to charter revision, saying he could work under either system. He kept his promise: when the new charter was approved in 1956, Brown worked very closely with the first administrator, Guy Larcom, throughout what would be his last year in office.

Given his record and his outgoing personality, it seemed to most contemporaries that Brown could be mayor as long as he wanted. His Democratic opponents got 29 percent of the vote in 1949, 41 percent in 1951, and 35 percent in 1953. But in 1957--to everyone's surprise--Brown was defeated by Democrat Sam Eldersveld, a young political science professor who was running only because he could persuade no one else to do so.

There had been signs that Brown's popularity was waning when Dominick DeVarti mounted a Republican primary challenge, coming close enough (2,032-2,950) that he thought it worthwhile to run as a write-in candidate in the general election. And Eldersveld, whose specialty was local politics and political parties, was a former city party chair who had worked with a group of reformers--in an effort similar to the one Neil Staebler and Martha Griffiths were making on the state level--to open up and liberalize the Democratic Party. Taking heart from the fact that Brown's share of the vote in 1955 had slipped to 55 percent, Eldersveld waged an aggressive campaign, combining strong precinct organization with tough issues.

Eldersveld ran on a platform of more recreation, less spot zoning, a master plan for growth of the city, a human relations commission, and more citizen involvement. He also addressed the issues of housing, employment, and the treatment of blacks. Eldersveld won 53 percent of the vote (the final tally was 6,077-5,269).

There are several theories about why Brown lost. According to Eldersveld, "he had good ideas for development but ignored the human development dimension" -- the voters' increasing interest in social as well as physical progress.

In Jack Dobson's opinion, Brown "should have worked more closely with the Republicans. He ignored their choices for commissions, instead appointing his friends. He was a popular mayor but he didn't help the party.''

Democratic activist Libby Davenport agrees. "You remember Bill Brown, not the Republican party. He was not bound by the organization." As for appointments, Jean Graf says, "He would appoint anyone he felt would be good. He didn't care about politics, he just wanted the job done." But Dobson criticizes Brown for not appointing younger people and not rewarding those who had worked in the party. Sallade, also critical, describes Brown's appointments as "an overemphasis on the business community--government by crony.''

In Sallade's view, Brown lost because "he was too long in office. It was time for a change--the community had changed.'' He came into office interested in the physical problems of the city and had trouble adapting when social issues came to the fore.

Stung by his loss, Brown never congratulated Eldersveld, nor did he return to City Hall. He sent an employee over to empty his desk. "I've worked hard for twelve years, but I guess the people decided I wasn't good enough for them,'' he said to a Detroit News reporter.

Jean Graf recalls, "It must have hurt; but he didn't say. The next day he was at the Ann Arbor Club playing cards. He didn't sit around moaning and groaning and complaining."

Brown died in 1970 of bone cancer. Graf, who remained his administrative assistant to the end, says he kept working. When he became too weak to come into his office, she brought papers to his elegant and spacious home in Ann Arbor Hills.

Brown's legacy of civic improvements is recognized even by his opponents. Says Eldersveld, "Bill Brown, immediately after the war, perceived the changes that had to be made here in land acquisition, housing construction, and economic development. He had long-range goals and worked hard to accomplish these." Says Sallade, "Brown was ahead of his time."

When he was first elected mayor in 1945, Brown vowed, "I am not going to make the mistake of sitting around doing nothing." That is certainly the last thing anyone could accuse him of.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: Bill Brown owned Huron Motor Sales (now the Brown Block parking lot) and half a dozen other businesses. Even though his only civic experience was running the local draft board, he handily beat a five-term alderman in 1945 to begin the longest mayoral tenure in Ann Arbor's history.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: According to the Ann Arbor News, the city parking structure at Washington and First streets was "believed to be the first of its kind owned by a municipality anywhere on earth." Some complained it was creeping socialism, but when it opened in 1949, 2,000 people showed up for an open house, dedication ceremony, and a party catered by the Jaycees.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: side with two of his thirteen grandchildren. An engaging natural salesman, he persuaded Ann Arbor Hills, East Ann Arbor, and the North Campus area to become part of Ann Arbor.