Ann Arbor's Oldest Buildings

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, August 1989,
August 1989

Author: Susan Wineberg

Out of 1,000 or so Dwellings in Ann Arbor in 1837, Less than 20 Survived the City's Subsequent Growth. Far from Being Gentrified Treasures, Most of Them Sit Unnoticed in Neglected Backwaters.

Ann Arbor was an exciting place in 1837. Barely thirteen years old, it was party that year to two milestones in Michigan history. First, it was home to the "Frostbitten Convention'" in January 1837. Held at the County Courthouse at Main and Huron, the convention set the terms by which Michigan would enter the Union later that year. Second, it was announced in March that the University of Michigan would be located in Ann Arbor.

The coming of the railroad—an economic shot in the arm to nineteenth-century cities hoping to grow—was also being eagerly anticipated (it arrived the next year). The development-minded Ann Arbor Land Company even hoped that Ann Arbor's role in Michigan's entry into the Union would make it a logical place for the new state capital. The company commissioned J. F. Stratton to produce a map to stimulate land sales, optimistically showing a "'State House Square'' on State Street.

The true economic picture, however, was just the opposite of those promising portents. Ann Arbor didn't get the state capital. (Neither did any of the other cities clamoring for the honor: it remained in Detroit until 1847, when it was moved to the obscure town of Lansing.) In a stroke of genius, the company offered the land set aside for the state house as part of the forty-acre grant that attracted the U-M. But even that coup appeared to be a disappointment. While the coming of the U-M was indeed the long-term making of the city, it would be twenty-five years before it had a substantial impact on property values.

Meanwhile, the real estate speculation that had energized towns like Ann Arbor in southeastern Michigan began coming apart in the Depression of 1837. The founder of Ann Arbor, John Alien, was financially ruined. He returned to Ann Arbor from Wall Street in 1837 without a penny to his name. Simultaneously, many of the wildcat banks that had been fueling the land speculation folded, which created a land panic. By 1838, the country was in a Depression, and land values dropped sharply.

The Lost Village of 1837
When the Depression struck, Ann Arbor was barely beyond being a wilderness. It had been incorporated as a village in 1833 (it officially became a town in 1851), and according to an 1840's newspaper account, had a population of 2,000. In addition to a courthouse, it contained a jail, four churches—Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopalian, and Universalist (Methodist)—two printing presses for weekly newspapers, a bookstore, flour mill, saw mill, wool factory, iron foundry, two tanneries, seventeen dry goods stores, eleven lawyers, nine doctors, and an academy with seventy students. This civic infrastructure probably supported about 1,000 dwelling units. Today, fewer than twenty of those buildings remain—including that first Presbyterian Church, long ago moved and converted into a commercial structure.

The fact that even a few buildings remain from 1837 and earlier comes as a surprise. With all the demolition that has occurred with the expansion of both the university and the central business district in all directions, is miraculous that any survive. Some were located in quiet backwaters away from the main paths of development; most of the others had parsimonious owners who decided to move them out of the way rather than see them demolished.

Not unexpectedly, a large cluster are on the north side of the Huron River. Lower Town, as it was called, was not even officially part of Ann Arbor until 1851. Centered along Broadway, Wall Street, Maiden Lane, Pontiac Trail, Traver,Wright, and Kellogg, it began as a rival to John Alien's original settlement at Main and Huron. (Lower Town residents called inhabitants of the main part of town Hilltoppers.) Lower Town started strongly, but slowly faded into a backwater after the death of its most ardent promoter, Anson Brown, in 1834 at the age of thirty-two. That is why many buildings from the 1830's and 1840's have survived, primarily along Broadway and Pontiac Trail.

Most of these structures were built by the original developers of Lower Town—Anson Brown, his wife, Desire, her brother Edward Fuller, and her second husband Caleb Ormsby. South of the river, many of the houses still standing were built by the other group of developers operating in 1837: the Ann Arbor Land Company. Many of its members' names—Thayer, Ingalls, Maynard, Thompson—are familiar to us as the names of streets around the campus.

My search for buildings that remain from Michigan's statehood year began with a few local histories. One of the most valuable is a manuscript by Miss Cornelia Corselius, written in 1909 and illustrated with photographs by Miss Lucy Chapin. Both women were the granddaughters of pioneer settlers.

Another is the 1881 History of Washtenaw County, which has a section of reminiscences by the old pioneers. Some are quite specific as to dates and locations of buildings. But since their memories were no doubt clouded by age, I needed a way to verify the information. The Lawyer's Title Company generously allowed me free access to all their materials for research on deeds to all the properties the histories mention.

Deeds are not a perfect source, however. They can suggest when a building was constructed, but it is not conclusive, since a deed refers only to land. (Once in a while there is reference to a property known as such-and-such an address.) Sometimes deeds can be problematic, especially those from the halcyon days of 1836-1837, when speculators were driving prices through the roof. Supplementing the deed research is of course the building itself, if it isn't too terribly altered.

In all, I found eighteen buildings that were standing in 1837. Only two, both on Broadway, are strictly commercial, while one (201 East Ann) was built to be a house and a bank. One was built as a church but has been so altered by conversion into commercial space that nothing remains on the exterior of its original form. The rest are all houses that continue to be used as houses today.

The I-houses of Lower Town
In the 1930's, Louisiana geographer Henry Kniffen was struck by strong resemblances among houses he saw as he drove through the Midwest. Many of the oldest homes shared a common configuration: they had two full stories, their roof gables paralleled the street instead of facing it, and they were just one room deep, with mirror-image rooms on opposite sides of a central hall and stairway.

Since Kniffen first noticed them in Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, he called them "I-houses." Unlike the various home designs that passed in and out of fashion later in the nineteenth century, he realized, they represented a folk form transmitted by builders, not a consciously chosen style. Kniffen later traced his I-houses back to the East Coast, and even to England.

Virtually all of the surviving 1837 houses in Lower Town are I-houses or some variation on the form. They include two houses on Wall Street (947 and 1015), two on Broadway (1300 and 1324), and three on Pontiac Trail (1317, 1416, and 1709). So it appears that one distinguishing element of an 1830's house is the parallel orientation and the I configuration: two stories high, two rooms wide, and one room deep.

All these houses were built by settlers from upstate New York (we don't always know precisely what part). Absalom Traver, whose name is perpetuated in Traver Creek and Traver Road, but about whom very little is known, built 1300 Broadway. He bought a large acreage in this part of town in 1830 and in 1837 platted Traver's First Addition to the city of Ann Arbor. It consisted of sixty-seven lots along both sides of Broadway beginning just north of Traver Creek. Just north of this juncture Traver had his grist mill, which is clearly identified on the 1874 Washtenaw County Map. In 1856 he added Traver's Second Addition to the city, which consisted of much of the land north of Maiden Lane that is now Neilsen's Greenhouse. Not much more is known about Traver. He died about 1870.

1300 Broadway is a typical New England I-house. It was two rooms wide and probably one room deep, and it probably had a central hall. The end chimney is from the twentieth century. The entrance and sidelights were noted by Emit Lorch in the research he did for the Historic American Buildings Survey in the 1940's, and the house was photographed by Lucy. Chapin in 1909.

More is known about the builders of the other houses. The builder of 1324 Broadway, Zerah Pulcipher, arrived in Ann Arbor in 1833 from Jefferson County, New York. He apparently helped Samuel Doty, later his father-in-law, build the house in 1834. Doty, an immigrant from Connecticut via New York, had also arrived in 1833. Zerah married Samuel's daughter Caroline, purchased the house from him, and lived there almost fifty-five years. This house is almost identical to 1300 Broadway.

The builder of 1709 Pontiac Trail, Josiah Beckley, came to Ann Arbor from New England by 1827, when he purchased seventy-three acres in Lower Town. Its floor plan matches 1300 and 1324 Broadway, but the house is made of brick rather than wood. According to deeds and family histories, Josiah Beckley's house was built in either 1834 or 1836.

Yet another similar structure was built in 1842 by Beckley's brother, the Reverend Guy Beckley, at what is now 1425 Pontiac Trail. Just across the street stands 1416 Pontiac Trail, recently shorn of its asbestos siding to reveal the old I-house hidden underneath. Housenoving was once much more common than it is today, and many of the 1837 survivors have been relocated. But this home's wanderings are impressive even among this well-traveled group: it was built at 217 South First Street, and was moved over a mile to its present site in 1947.

1317 Pontiac Trail was built in 1836 by William R. Perry. Perry operated a bookstore in Lower Town and was an avid Abolitionist, often taking out ads in his friend Josiah Beckley's Abolitionist newspaper. The Signal of Liberty. Nothing is known about Perry's background, but it's probably safe to guess that he, too, was a Yankee from upstate New York.

Two houses on Wall Street illustrate the variety to be found among these New England I-houses. The house at 947 Wall, built of brick, with a twentieth-century porch addition and second-story window alteration, has quite a history—most of which appears to be wrong. Many histories say the house was built by one Charles Kellogg, but his name never appears in any deeds connected with this property. Lawyers Title's records show that this property sold to a Nathan Burnham by Fuller and Ormsby (who platted the area in 1834) in June 1837 for $600, a price which suggests the house. already built. Charles Kellogg's name does appear in the records of a nearby house of similar vintage, 1015 Wall. The two-story frame house, built high on a brick foundation, has a very ornate doorway. (A similar doorway may have been obscured at 947 by later porticos and additions; 1015's seems more in keeping with doorways of the period than the Colonial Revival additions at 947.)

1015 Wall's future is uncertain. The U-M has purchased the building and will eventually need the land for expansion of the medical campus. Efforts to give the house to the city have been unsuccessful.

Sources differ on whether the last building in this group was built in 1837 or 1838. This is the asphalt-shingled but once elegant home on the hill at 723 Moore Street (originally Brown Street). It also has been associated with the name of Kellogg, but it appears to be a different family. A beautiful drawing of the house in 1874 is in the County Atlas of that year. It is completely different from the other houses of the 1830's: it is a hip-roofed, almost square building, verging on the Italianate with its brackets. This was originally an I-house, expanded in the 1860's when Dr. Kellogg operated his very successful practice from here.

Research indicates the house may have been built by pioneer Caleb Ormsby, since he sold the house and five lots to Joseph Waite in 1838 for $1,500. Shortly thereafter, it was sold to one of the owners of the paper mill for $3,000 and a year later it was sold again for an amazing $5,000. But speculative bubbles like the one in the 1830's seldom last. They endure only as long as new buyers with ready funds can be persuaded that prices are inevitably going up. The bank failures triggered by the 1837 Depression, coupled with Ann Arbor's failure to attract the state capital, depleted investors' confidence as well as their funds.

By the next time it was sold in 1842,723 Moore's price fell back to $3,000.

The Mobile Survivors of the Upper Village

Lower Town's slow growth after the death of Anson Brown helped spare at least a few of its original buildings from redevelopment. The Upper Village, which won the U-M and the growth that eventually followed it, had no such protection. As the commercial district grew outward from its nucleus at Main and Huron, and as prosperous residents built successively newer and grander homes on its borders, many of the original home sites occupied in 1837 were built over later in the nineteenth century. Of the few buildings that do survive, most had to be moved out of the way of developments.

Several of the houses that did endure resemble those in Lower Town. The one at 317 East Ann, which may be the oldest house still standing in Ann Arbor (it appears to have been built in 1832). It is a typical wood frame I-house with central door and hallway and end chimneys.

In the 1984 Field Guide to American Houses, Virginia and Lee McAlester comment that I-houses did not become popular in the Midwest until the arrival of the railroads. Cornelia Corselius writes, however, that this house was lived in by men helping to build the railroad in Michigan, suggesting an earlier arrival. The builder of 317 East Ann is unknown, though a deed refers to it as being occupied by a Doctor Randall in 1834. A Sylvester Mills and a Willard Mills were owners from 1829 to 1831, and it was perhaps this family that actually built the house.

U-M architecture professor Emil Lorch studied and drew this house for the Historic American Buildings Survey in the 1940's. Its past tenants and owners include a congregational minister, the Reverand Breed and his two daughters, one of whom was a well-known Latin teacher at the Ann Arbor High School.Before that. Henry Bower, newspaper editor, publisher, and real estate developer, lived there from 1846 to about 1860. It has unfortunately had aluminum siding and shutters added, but still manages today to retain the quality of its previous form.

One block to the east stands the white frame I-house at 511 East Ann. The date of this house is unknown, since it was moved to this site sometime in the early 1860's after the area was platted and the street extended from Division to State. The doorway is more elaborate than that of 317, consisting of sidelights and a glass transom (etched in the 1970's). It has a central hallway with a large staircase ascending to the second floor and curving around to a landing on the street side. A previous owner told the present owner that the house was moved from Packard Street, but early maps show similar houses at Ann and Division that also could be this one (for example, a house at 208 North Division, where the Wells-Babcock House is today).

In the vicinity of these houses are two connected with the family of James Kingsley, an early Washtenaw County pioneer. Both of the houses, one at 412 North Division and the other at 335 East Kingsley, have been moved a short distance from their original locations. The house at 335 East Kingsley, if it is the Kingsley house referred to in Corselius's paper, was built in 1829 at the northeast corner of Detroit and Kingsley (then called North). Kingsley was an ambitious attorney and developer who over the years served as mavor. state representative and senator, probate judge, and U-M regent. He married Lucy Clark in 1830 and took her to this home, but by 1835 they had decided to move to the more fashionable address on Division Street at Lawrence, two blocks away. The Kingsley Street house was split up, with the rear "moved up front on Kingsley Street and made into a square house that is still standing," according to Corselius. She may be referring to 335 East Kingsley, which in plan looks like a small I-house with central doorway. Unfortunately, the house is so altered by twentieth-century additions and siding that the original details are obscured.

The other Kingsley house, at 412 North Division, is the first house in this group to break from the I-house form. It appears to be a variant on what architectural historians call a "gable-fronter," with a side hallway. It is the only house I've found from this period still standing in Ann Arbor with such a floor plan. This house, too, was moved. It originally stood at the northeast corner of Lawrence and
Division and was moved to the back of the lot (now 412 North Division) in 1890 when the new owner constructed the Queen Anne house that now stands on that corner. The only clue to the antiquity of this house is the doorway, which has sidelights, and the steep staircase immediately behind it.

The only brick structure in this part of town known to be this old is 201 East Ann Street. It was built in 1835-1836 as both the First Bank of Washtenaw and the home of its first president. The building was probably constructed for William S.Maynard or William R. Thompson, whoever was the bank's first president (sources disagree). According to Corselius, the banking rooms were on the west and consisted of two large rooms and a vault. This was one of many banks that unfortunately failed during the Panic of 1837. However, until 1847, when it was purchased by the Chapin family (they lived here from 1847 to 1876, and it is often referred to as the Chapin House), it was always called "the Bank Building."

The original house, now obscured by later additions, was built of brick and then stuccoed to resemble large blocks of stone (and hence a Greek temple). The use of stucco at this date is unexpected, since it has long been held that the U-M buildings, built around 1840, started this trend in Ann Arbor. Alterations for commercial uses have completely obliterated its original Georgian floor plan, two rooms wide and two rooms deep.

Two other houses on the fringes of the Upper Village complete the survey of 1830's houses. The first, at 724 West Washington, is yet another I-house. It too was moved from its original location, one block to the north on West Huron Street. The 1854 map of Ann Arbor calls it the home of J. T. Allen, who may be James T.Allen, the brother of John Allen, Ann Arbor's founder. If that James Allen built the house, it may date back as far as the 1820's. James arrived from Virginia in the fall of 1824, bringing the rest of John Allen's family with him—their parents, John's wife, and his children. Unfortunately, the house was totally gutted recently and remodeled into a two-unit
condominium, but care was taken to keep as many of the original details as possible.

Finally, there's the small gable-front house at 450 South Fifth Avenue. Like the Allen house, it appears to have been constructed just outside the city limits in this early period. (John Allen and Elisha Rumsey's original 1824 plat of the city stopped at Jefferson.) Deed records show an increase in value from $25 in 1835 to $100 in 1836. This may or may not mean that the house was constructed during this period. But it is very similar to a house that once stood on Ashley at Liberty and was believed to have been built in 1826.

It is a tiny house, 1 and 1/2 stories, now covered by aluminum siding but known to be walnut. It has a central doorway (unlike the house on Ashley, which had a side doorway) and probably was a simple one- or two-room floor plan. (The side addition was probably added in the 1860's.) Although long associated with the Dietz family (who were German), the original house was probably built by Paul Minnis, most likely one more Yankee from upstate New York.

Public/Commercial Buildings
By far the best known of Ann Arbor's earliest buildings is not a house but a commercial structure. Shortly after platting the area where two Indian trails met at the Huron River (now Pontiac and Broadwvay), Anson Brown constructed what is generally accepted as Ann Arbor's oldest surviving building, 1001-1007 Broadway. Originally known as the Exchange Block, the brick structure is believed to have been built in 1832. It housed many businesses, including the Post Office, until Brown's untimely death in 1834. When the U-M located in the Upper Village in 1837, the fate of this part of town was sealed: no expansion of any importance took place for almost fifty years, and then it focused on manufacturing rather than retail development.

Next door and across the street were other buildings constructed in the 1830's. Still standing, but reduced to two stories, is the Chester Ingalls block at 1009-1111 Broadway, built in 1834 or 1836. Across the street until I960 was another brick block, known as the Ludholtz estate but probably built for Brown or Fuller. The builder was Asa Smith, one of the first pioneers to arrive in Ann Arbor in the early 1820's.

Smith was an itinerant carpenter who made his living building houses during the day and making bedsteads at night. He constructed thirteen houses between 1825 and 1831. He is referred to as a "mechanic" who made a good living building houses, frequently selling the one he was living in and building another for himself. Smith was a native of Boston, but was married in Gates, New York, and his first child was born in Rochester, New York.

The upstate New York building tradition Smith represents influenced most of the earliest buildings constructed in Ann Arbor. All three of these buildings on Broadway were built in a style with stepped gables at the parapets. This was a common style in upstate New York, where the Dutch influence was quite prevalent. The Exchange Block, or Anson Brown Building was financed by Brown and perhaps built by Smith. The Chester Ingalls Block, built in 1834, was also perhaps constructed by Smith.

Old photographs indicate the buildings looked very similar when constructed and were remarkably intact even until the twentieth century. In her 1962 book, Ann Arbor Yesterdays, Leia Duff recalls that the group of buildings "always used to give me a feeling of having been dropped down suddenly in a village of the Old World. On the left, ... the stately white [no doubt painted white in the twentieth century] brick building remains. . . . Just beyond it, the less pretentious little red brick storebuilding seems to have been transplanted from some old street in Baltimore or Philadelphia or Greenwich Village."

The last building on the list, 213 East Washington, was built in either 1829 or 1837 to house the First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, we have no photographs of this church before it was moved and altered for commercial use in the 1860's. However, an old photograph from the 1930's shows a two-story building that resembles a typical I-house, with central entry and side gables. The Presbyterian Church, which has occupied four buildings in its long tenure in Ann Arbor, believes this is the church built in 1837, but it may possibly be the one constructed in 1829. Duff writes that the first church was built at Huron and Division in 1829 and was a one-room frame building only 25 by 35 feet, later extended 20 feet forward and crowned with an uncovered belfry.

This meeting house soon became inadequate with the rapid settlement of Ann Arbor, so the second church was built halfway between Fourth and Fifth avenues, facing Huron but far back from the street. With its ample gallery, it was for years the largest gathering place in town and was the scene of the first U-M commencement in 1844. By 1849, however, it was already being used as a commercial building. A February newspaper of that year contains an advertisement by Andrew DeForest that inadvertently captured the speed with which the village of 1837 was being transformed and reused by the growing town. DeForest gave his address as "The Old Church, just east of Cook's Hotel."


[Photo caption from original print edition]: 511 East Ann Street

[Photo caption from original print edition]: 1324 Broadway Street

[Photo caption from original print edition]: 723 Moore Street

[Photo caption from original print edition]: 947 Wall Street

[Photo caption from original print edition]: 201 East Ann Street

[Photo caption from original print edition]: 450 South Fifth Avenue

[Photo caption from original print edition]: 1001 -1007 Broadway Street