5 Rms, Riv Vu

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 2000,
December 2000

A barn next to the Broadway Bridge is being turned into luxury apartments.

!n the past few years apartments or condos have been built in an old department store on Main, a battered National Guard armory on Ann, and even a former church on Fourth Avenue. But the most remarkable tribute to Ann Arborites' sudden desire to live downtown may be Mike Kessler's project to build apartments in a barn on the comer of Depot and Beakes—just a few feet away from the constant traffic of the Broadway Bridge.

The barn was built by the Ann Arbor Gas Light Company to house its delivery wagons and horses, probably in 1907. (The wagons hauled coke, a coal gasification by-product that the company sold as a home heating fuel.) After the first natural gas pipeline reached the city in 1937, the barn was used for maintenance operations. James 0. Morrison, who worked in the barn in the 1950s, recalls that he and his coworkers unofficially dubbed it the "Ditch Digging Department," since their main job was to hand-dig ditches for gas lines and gas mains. "It was home away from home," Morrison recalls. "We were paid there. We reported there. If it rained we stood in there."

In the mid-1950s the maintenance crews moved out, and the building was used for storage. In 1969 it was sold to activist Charles Thomas, whose Black Economic Development League (BEDL) had been raising money from churches by demanding reparations for past injustices against blacks. He used the money to offer courses for black youths in such upcoming technologies as computers, TV and radio production, solar heating, and photography. In 1973 architect David Byrd and his students built a modem cinder-block building to serve as BEDL's headquarters; the barn was again used for storage.

BEDL's programs petered out as Thomas's health failed. When he died in 1994 both the BEDL building and the barn went to his heirs, who rented and then sold the property to Realtor Thomas Stachler. Stachler found evidences of Thomas's paranoia about government spying, including wire-laced security windows and lead-lined walls. Last March he sold the property to Mark Pfaff, a sales rep for Allied Enterprises, which makes electromechanical and electronic components.

Pfaff has moved his sales office into the front of the new building and has rented the rest of the space to several other businesses. He sold the barn to Mike Kessler, a carpenter, who has also worked as a teacher and in sales. Although Pfaff had inquiries about the barn from people wanting to set up a wine bar, an art studio, or a flower shop, he says he chose to sell it to Kessler because "I didn't want to lose the barn-ness." Says Kessler, "I want to maintain the rustic feel of it all."

Working with architect J. D. Phillips, Kessler is carving out three apartments. Two will be mirror images, using the first floor for a bedroom, studio, and bath and the second floor for a living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bath. Kessler is leaving the beams exposed and keeping the original wood to "keep the feel of the barn."

The urban barn is just a stone's throw from two heavily traveled streets and the busy Norfolk & Southern railroad tracks, not to mention a bridge that's about to be torn down and rebuilt. But all that doesn't scare Kessler and his wife, Serena—they plan to make their own home in an efficiency apartment in the former barn loft. "You can see the river valley, " he says of
the view. "You can see the train making a curve at Main Street."

Photo Captions:

Home on the range: the former gas company barn on Depot in midconversion.