When Ann Street Reigned Supreme

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

Author: Susan Wineberg

Once a Street of Grand Houses, it's Slowly Reclaiming its Former Respect

Twenty years before the Civil War, wealthy citizens built their houses near the center of town, often at street intersections. From the County Courthouse east along Ann Street, elegant Greek Revival structures stood at successive corners: a bank president lived at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Ann; an attorney at Fifth Avenue and Ann; a judge at Division and Ann; and a founder of the U-M medical school at State and Ann.

After the Civil War, during the building boom that occurred all over the U.S., the blocks between the corner buildings on Ann Street were filled in. In 1866 James F. and Rhoda Royce paid $900 to the heirs of George Danforth for "a strip of land off the east side of Lot 2" and built the house tthat still stands at 311 East Ann Street.

The house is a perfectly preserved example of what is known as an Italianate cube. The cube part comes from the fact hat the roof is not a pointed gable but a four-sided hip roof, which sits atop a square structure. (Houses in previous periods had been more rectangular.) Italianate refers primarily to decorative details:pairs of carved ornamental brackets under the roof eaves; long, narrow windows, often with rounded tops (here only the door is rounded); and the exuberant scroll-sawn decoration on the porch.

James Royce was an old pioneer, having arrived in Washtenaw County in 1830 from New York. He was a skilled cabinet- and chair-maker who later owned a carriage manufactory. Those endeavors evidently did not leave him wealthy: in later years, he worked as a clerk in the Bach and Abel dry goods store at the comer of Main and Washington (later B. E. Muehlig's and today the law offices of Hooper Hathaway Price Beuche & Wallace).

Bach had been Royce's son-in-law (his first wife was Royce's daughter), so it seems appropriate that he provided work for Royce in his old age. Bach later became mayor (Bach School is named after him). In 1878, when Royce was seventy-two, Bach purchased the house at 311 East Ann and allowed the Royces to stay there for as long as they lived. This may have been a form of pension for a good employee, a dodge to avoid creditors left over from Royce's business ventures, or even a gift for a former father-in-law.Whatever the reason, the Royces were able to live in the style to which they were accustomed until their deaths. James died in 1883 and Rhoda died in 1889.

In 1892 the house came into the possession of two unmarried half-sisters, Harriet and Electa Knight, daughters of early Washtenaw County pioneer Rufus Knight,whose cobblestone house still stands at 4944 Scio Church Road. Harriet was sixty-three years old when she moved from the cobblestone house to 311 East Ann. She remained there until her death in 1910 at eighty-one. Electa was kicked by a horse in 1901 and was thereafter confined to a wheelchair and forced to rely on her sister, who was nearly twenty years older. Despite their afflictions, they "bore their suffering with fortitude," according to Electa's obituary in 1919.

By 1907, the sisters began taking in boarders. The first were children of relatives who took advantage of the sisters' Ann Arbor residence to send their children to the esteemed Ann Arbor High School, which at the time functioned as almost a prep school for the U-M.

In the early 1970's, when I lived at 311, a managed to find and interview one of these boarders, Edith Knight Behringer. Mrs. Behringer lived at 311 from 1907 to 1915. She was the great-niece of Harriet and Electa Knight, and the house passed to her mother, Clara Knight, when Electa died in 1919. Mrs. Behringer remembered seeing her first car when a suitor came to call on Miss Gertrude Breed, who lived next door. Her aunts preferred to take the air with their Shetland pony and pony cart.

Later on, her aunts' lodgers tended to be doctors and nurses working at University Hospital, then located on Catherine near Glen. Three bedrooms upstairs and one downstairs were rented out. Despite depending on roomers to make ends meet, the Knight sisters never lost their pride in their fine home. While Mrs. Behringer lived at 311, a U-M professor built a house next door at 305. Her aunts dismissed it as a "little snot of a house" because it seemed so small compared to theirs.

By the 1920's, the automobile had taken hold in America, and many in the middle and upper classes moved to the suburbs, away from the decay that they saw throughout the central city (by then over fifty years old). The Ann Street neighborhood was no longer fashionable, and the area went into a decline. Both the bank president's house at Fourth and Ann and the attorney's house at Fifth and Ann became hotels. The former building survives (its biggest tenant is now Wooden Spoon books), but the latter—in its last years the Town House Hotel, catering to immigrants arriving from the South—was demolished in 1971 after part of the rear end collapsed on a neighboring house.

The doctor's house at Ann and State was moved across the street to 712 East Ann in the 1920's to make way for the Wil-Dean apartments. The judge's house at Division, now known as the Wilson-Wahr house, survived to become one of Ann Arbor's favorite historic buildings. Though less lovingly cared for, the Royce house at 311 also endured almost intact. It became a rooming house for U-M students in the 1960's: a rent roster from that era shows tenants from Thailand, Egypt, and Pakistan, as well as from all over the U.S.

Ann Street has begun to win back some of the respect its name once commanded. Beginning in 1977, a group of residents of the area began studying ways to protect the historic houses in the area. Eventually, two city ordinances were passed, establishing the Ann Street Historic Block (between Division and State) and the Old Fourth Ward Historic District, an association of owners of historic houses in the area east of Fifth Avenue to Glen and north from Huron Street to the river. Today, renovation is occurring all along Ann Street, from Main to Glen, and both owners and renters take pride in the rebirth of their historic neighborhood.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Above) In 1866, the neighborhood around tourney George Danforth's Greek Revival Mansion at Ann And Fifth began to fill in, starting with a fine "Italianate cube" at 311 E. Ann St.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Below) In this century, a much plainer house (at left) was shoehorned in at 305. The Danforth house was demolished in 1971, but the newer buildings both survive.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Harriet (left) and Electa Knight shared 31 with student roomers to make ends meet.