Landmarks: Space Pod Replaced

"It always reminded me of the space pod from The Jetsons," says Carol Uhal, who handles public relations for Great Lakes Bank.

Uhal was referring to the Great Lakes branch on the corner of Stadium and Pauline, built in 1962 and torn down in April. A hexagonal structure with giant umbrella-like wings forming a six-pointed star, it did have a definite space-age flavor.

The architect, Walter Anika, was a member of the board of directors of the bank, then known as Ann Arbor Federal Savings and Loan, and "was free to do what he wanted," recalls retired vice-president Robert Reiff. Many believe that he was inspired by the space race, which had started in 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite.

Architect Denis Schmiedeke calls the branch "a fun-type building for the time." Others are less complimentary. "A Chinese Dairy Queen," is how one former employee describes it. "A few good friends suggested, 'Why not open a hamburger shop?' " recalls Reiff, while retired bank secretary Gertrude Wenger opines, "It was unusual, let's say that."

Raised in New York State, Anika rode the rails to Ann Arbor during the Great Depression and somehow managed to get enough money to attend architecture school. "Anika started at Gill Lumber drawing up house plans for people for twenty-five dollars," recalls U-M architecture dean emeritus Bob Metcalf. He also sold house plans to magazines and newspapers.

Anika's fortunes improved after World War II, when he began designing schools. The onset of the baby boom "left the schools short. There [had been] no building taking place for a long time," explains architect Wes Lane, who worked for Anika. Starting with an elementary school in Milan, Anika received more than 100 commissions all over the state, including Carpenter and Stone schools in Ann Arbor.

The Stadium-Pauline area was just beginning to be developed when the bank chose the corner for its first branch. "It was filled with customers immediately," Reiff recalls. But while the west side flourished, the growth was not good for the building. The hexagonal shape left no convenient way to put on an addition. After tearing down the "space pod," Great Lakes is now building a bigger, much more conventional bank, which should be finished by late summer.

By the time Anika designed the bank, he was living in Connecticut, though he still flew into Ann Arbor for board meetings. In the late 1960s he changed careers, moving to Japan to make movies. Anika didn't live to see his Jetsonesque flight of fancy demolished: retired to Florida, he died in 1992 at age eighty.