211 S. Fourth Avenue
Author: Grace Shackman
From plumbing to fiber arts
When William Hochrein first went to work as a plumber in 1890, indoor plumbing was just coming to Ann Arbor. The private Ann Arbor Water Works Company had been formed just five years before, and drains would follow three years later, when the city approved bonds to set up a municipal sewage system.
Hochrein, who was nineteen in 1890, had arrived from Bavaria with his parents just the year
before. His career choice was a good one. As Ann Arbor grew from a village to a small city, the
wells and outhouses that had served the first settlers had proved woefully inadequate. Every
summer, the alleys behind Main Street reeked from the outhouses that lined them.
As soon as they could afford to, residents and business owners hooked up to the new water and sewer lines. Plumbers like Hochrein stayed busy fashioning bathrooms in houses that were not built to include them, finding space in closets or corners, or even converting an entire bedroom. A few older Ann Arbor homes still have the odd layouts that resulted from these after-the-fact additions, such as a bathroom that also serves as a corridor to other rooms.
Plumbers moved around a lot in that period, and Hochrein was no exception. He worked for three different companies (four if you count his two stints at Hutzel Plumbing) and had his own shop at several different addresses before settling in at 211 South Fourth Avenue in 1913. The building, then just fourteen years old, had previously been part of Robison's livery.
Hochrein was briefly in partnership with another plumber, Oscar Reimold, but took over as sole owner the next year. He remained in business at 211 South Fourth for the rest of his life.
When Hochrein's two sons, Harold, born in 1897, and Erwin, born in 1900,reached working age, he
brought them into the firm, which became Hochrein and Sons. The younger Hochreins replaced the horse
and buggy their father used to make deliveries with a little Model-T pickup
truck, one of the first in the city. They would go from job to job, usually with Erwin driving, with their supplies and tools piled in the back.
When William Hochrein died in 1931, his family discovered that he had not kept good books and was way behind in collecting money owed him. "Grandfather didn't like the business end," explains his grandson, Erwin Hochrein Jr., himself a plumber. His sons disagreed on what to do and eventually decided to go their separate ways. Each went to work for other plumbing shops and continued in the field the rest of their working lives. They sold the Fourth Avenue shop to Robert Steward, a relative by marriage. (Steward's wife was Mina Kalmbach, sister of Erwin's wife, Alma.)
Steward, born in Lodi Township in 1894, had worked as a young man for Schumacher and Bachus Plumbers, 308 South Main, and as a steam fitter at Hoover Ball before building a plumbing shop behind his house on Adams Street. (The building is still there, used most recently by Robertson Morrison Heating and Cooling.) After buying the Fourth Avenue business, he converted the upstairs apartments into a tin shop. where he fabricated heating ducts and other furnace parts.
Compared to the revolution brought about by indoor plumbing, technology changed very little during the years that Hochrein and then Steward ran the business. Even today the basic principles of piping clean water in and waste water out are still much as they were a century ago. The biggest changes were in plumbing fixtures, as toilets with separate wall-mounted tanks were replaced by integrated units, and claw-foot bathtubs gave way to enclosed tubs that went all the way to the floor and were set flush against the wall.
Steward died in 1944, in the middle of World War II. His widow wanted the business to go to their only son, Robert Jr., who at that time was in England, serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But the army refused to discharge him and she had to sell the business.
211 South Fourth Avenue was subsequently occupied by a succession of owners that ran the
typically nonglamorous, utilitarian businesses found on downtown side streets: an office supply
store, an appliance mart, and a grocery store, the Capitol Market. The building was totally
renovated in 1991 along with three others (209, 213, and 215 South Fourth) by Ed Shaffran and Associates. Today the former plumbing shop is occupied by Wendy Chaiken's Fiber Gallery, a store that sellssupplies to hobbyists.
Unfortunately, the tin ceilings and wainscoting inside and the arched windows outside were long gone, but the basic brick and wood of the four buildings, constructed in stages from 1888 to 1899, were still there and in good shape. Using old photographs, Shaffran strove to restore their turn-of-the-century look. Inside, he uncovered the original brick walls and left them unplastered.
There is nothing in Chaiken's store to suggest it ever was a plumbing shop, but there is a reminder of its earlier use as Robison's livery: a metal bar embedded in the second story wall that once supported a hoist to lift supplies. Also on view is a wall sign, "Stabler's for fine art." Painted on what was originally the outside wall of 213 and is now the inside wall of 211, it promoted the art supply store which Virginia and Charles Stabler operated nearby. When the building was being remodeled, a friend of Chaiken's, Wendy Root, noticed the barely discernible letters. She did three washes to tone them out, and then Chaiken hired Edwin Simpson to replace the gold leaf. The bottom part of the sign can now be seen by anyone coming into the store; the top extends into the renovated apartment upstairs. —Grace Shackman
As the city replaced its wells and outhouses with water and sewer lines at the turn of the
plumbers kept busy fashioning bathrooms in houses that were not built to include them.
(Top left) Plumber Robert Steward poses with his service trucks outsidehis shop in the 1930's.
(Top right) Steward's predecessors, Erwin and Harold Hochrein, inside the shop in 1922 (note the claw-foot bathtub in lower left corner).
(Left and above) After a total renovation in 1991, the onetime plumbing shop is now the Fiber Gallery.