Lost Ann Arbor- The Vanished City of 1900

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, October 1999,
October 1999

Author: Susan Wineberg

The vanished city of 1900

Thanks to the presence of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor consistently enjoys the lowest unemployment rates in the state and has produced an artistic, intellectual, and political environment out of all proportion to its size. But the city has paid a price for its growth and prosperity over the past century, it has lost a great deal of its architectural heritage.

If an Ann Arborite from 1900 could see the city at the turn of the millennium, she would be impressed by its growth—the vast shopping centers along the south side, the office parks lining Plymouth Road, even the tree-lined streets of Bums Park and Ann Arbor Hills would all be new to her. But she surely would be shocked as well to discover how many of downtown's most prominent and beloved landmarks have been demolished.

The city's growth was driven by the university's and nowhere was the destruction greater than on Central Campus (a future article will describe the changes there). The U-M. however, was not the culprit in the demolition of architecturally significant buildings downtown. Many losses reflected the onslaught of the automobile, and the changing patterns of housing, transportation, and work it produced. And of course the normal forces of "progress" also were at work, as brick structures replaced wooden ones, municipal facilities were torn down to make way for larger ones, and "modem" buildings replaced "old-fashioned" ones.

Here's a look at the Lost Ann Arbor of 1900: The local landmarks swept up by the onslaught of the twentieth century.

The 1878 Courthouse
Every city has at least one historic building whose loss is universally regarded as a tragedy. In Ann Arbor, that unhappy distinction surely belongs to the 1878 Washtenaw County Courthouse, shown here on a winter's day in 1916. Foursquare and formidable, capped by a limestone cupola and a soaring clock tower, the courthouse, at the northeast comer of Huron and Main, was downtown's centerpiece. The surrounding Courthouse square, with its grassy lawn and shade trees, served as Ann Arbor's town common. Though its legal functions were taken over by the present modem-style building almost half a century ago, nothing has ever replaced it as the heart of downtown.

The county's first courthouse, an unassuming brick structure built in 1834, played a pivotal role in Michigan history as the site of the "Frostbitten Convention" of 1836, which paved the way for Michigan's admission to the union. But it was outgrown during Ann Arbor's growth spurt after the Civil War, and in October 1877 workmen laid the cornerstone for a courthouse as ostentatious as its predecessor had been modest.

Designed by G. W. Bunting, the courthouse was completed the following year for a total cost of $88,000. The regal structure would preside over downtown for three-quarters of a century. Unfortunately, as architectural fashions changed and the county's legal business grew, it was gradually allowed to deteriorate by civic leaders who considered it outmoded and inadequate.

First, cars were permitted to park on what had been its marvelous lawn. Next came the removal of the clock tower—a hazard, said the building inspector. After World War II, a series of articles in the Ann Arbor News, deploring the horrific working conditions in the building, led to its destruction. In a final indignity, the new courthouse was constructed around old one, filling in three sides of the old courthouse square. In1954, the move complete, the old courthouse was demolished for a parking lot.

A Mayor's Mansion
Already an anachronism by 1900, the Maynard mansion on the northwest comer of Main and William nonetheless survived most of the twentieth century. Built in 1842 by developer and future mayor William S. Maynard, the stately home was once famous for its broad sweep of lawn and beautiful flower garden, which ran down the hill to Allen Creek (the creek now runs underground near the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks). The strutting peacocks on the grounds were a source of wonder and amusement to the townspeople.

Maynard developed most of Ann Arbor's west side and had large landholdings all over town. His memory is perpetuated today by both William and Maynard streets. By the time this postcard was made early in the century, his home had been sold to the Elks Fraternal Order, who used it as their lodge for many years. Remodeled beyond recognition by the Elks and its last owner, the Ann Arbor Civic Theater, the mansion was finally torn down in 1989; today, its site is occupied by the 350 South Main commercial and office block. The only surviving remnants of Maynard's home are the cornice brackets, which were salvaged to restore the cornice at 111 West Liberty.

Grandeur at Fourth and Huron
At the turn of the century, two substantial structures faced each other across the intersection of Huron and Fourth Avenue. The Allenel Hotel, on the southwest comer, was important enough to rate a tinted photographic postcard (undated, but mailed in 1914). Built in 1871 to replace an earlier hotel, the Allenel was remodeled after a 1910 fire and lasted until 1964, when it was replaced by a modem eleven-story building. After decades of intermittent financial trouble, the Ann Arbor Inn closed in 1990; its building is now the Courthouse Square apartments for seniors.

Kitty-comer across the intersection was the Comwell Block. It was built in 1882 by Charles Manley and Joel Hamilton, who had visions of selling it to the federal government as a post office but lost out to a rival site at Main and Ann (see p. 36). By the time this photo was taken in 1910, it was the headquarters of the Comwell Coal Company; signs also reveal the presence of a basement bowling alley and an Odd Fellows lodge. In the 1920s and 1930s, the building was also the last home of Joe Parker's Cafe, a favorite hangout of U-M students and alumni.

The Cornwell Block, like many other ninteenth-century buildings on Huron, fell victim to the automobile: it was demolished in 1936 to be replaced by a gas station. More than sixty years later, the station itself has become an object of historic interest. After the city rejected a recent proposal to tear it down for a parking lot, it's now rented to Vault of Midnight Comix.

The Lost Blocks
Ann Arbor's first "blocks," or groups of storefronts built as a unit by one investor, appeared on Main Street in the 1830s. Fire quickly proved wooden blocks to be impractical, so beginning around the time of the Civil War, they were rapidly replaced with more durable brick buildings. Happily, many of these blocks are still standing—but many are not.

Perhaps the most dramatic loss occurred on North Main directly across from the courthouse (below). Starting at right in this 1892 streetscape, the lineup began with a true architectural gem. Hill's Opera House on the comer of Ann. Constructed in 1871 by G. D. Hill, a local entrepreneur who, among other things, gave his name to Hill Street, it was the center of the city's cultural life in 1900. Renamed the AthensTheater in 1901 and the Whitney Theater and Hotel in 1908, it managed to survive until 1955, despite serious fire code violations that eventually resulted in its demolition. Today this once impressive comer is a surface parking lot.

At the south end of the block, a triangular pediment tops another imposing structure: the Masonic Block, formerly the Gregory House hotel. Later known as the Municipal Building, in the 1950s it was wrapped in blue and white enamel paneling that had already begun to look outdated by the time the building burned in 1972. Most of the block was demolished after the fire. The rest—that last remnant of this once proud lineup—was removed in the mid-1980s to make way for the One North Main office building

A Magnificent Post Office
The lavishly detailed post office on the northeast comer of Main and Ann was a busy social hub when it was built in 1882. At the time, mail still had to be picked up in person—a daily ritual that annoyed many university students but also made the building a respectable meeting spot for the sexes.

In 1886, however, home mail delivery was introduced in Ann Arbor. By the time this photo was taken, around 1892, the post office was no longer such an important meeting place. Replaced after the turn of the century by a new building just to the north (today the Washtenaw County administration building), the 1882 post office and the neighboring Ann Arbor Daily News printing plant were demolished in 1940 to make way for a Kroger supermarket. Subsequently abandoned as Kroger continued its migration to the fringes of town, the new building was a Salvation Army Red Shield store before being bought by the county and demolished in 1989. A five-story county office building is now under construction on thesite—a handsome postmodern design that promises a presence worthy of its Victorian predecessor.

From Church to Newspaper Office
A number of historic downtown churches are still standing, including St. Andrew's, First Baptist, and the First Unitarian Church (now the offices of the architectural firm Hobbs & Black). But others have been lost over the years to growth pressures within downtown, or to the growing needs of their own congregations.

Among the casualties was First Presbyterian, which occupied the southwest corner of Huron and Division for more than a century. In 1829, the congregation built the first church in Ann Arbor on the comer, replacing it in 1860 with this fine red-brick edifice (shown in an undated postcard). But in 1935, as parking became more of an issue and more congregants moved to new residential neighborhoods east of campus, the Presbyterians moved out to their present location on Washtenaw. The Huron Street church was sold to the Ann Arbor News, which tore it down to build an office and printing plant designed by the celebrated Detroit architect Albert Kahn.

A Private Library
At the turn of the century, this homey Romanesque building at 324 East Huron was a privately operated library. It was designed by Irving and Allen Pond, the Ann Arbor-bom architects who would later plan the Michigan Union and Michigan League, and was operated by the Ladies Library Association, which made its collection available to members by subscription.

Ann Arbor's first public library was built in 1906. Financed by a donation from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, it was on Huron next to the new Ann Arbor High School on State (today the U-M Frieze Building). The ladies held out for a decade before donating their collection to the public library in 1916. Their building served as the local headquarters for the Boy Scouts in the 1930s, but was demolished in 1945 to make way for a Michigan Bell Telephone building and associated parking. A newer Ameritech building occupies the site today.

Perils of Modernity
Two major buildings at the corner of Main and Washington succumbed to the pressures of modernization, but in different ways. The high-ceilinged three-story building on the southwest corner—Hangsterfer's confectionery when the top photo at left was taken in 1869—had by 1900 been acquired by the Kresge national dime store chain. In 1912, both Hangsterfer's and the building next door were demolished to make way for a new, two-story Kresge store (today BD's Mongolian Barbeque and Cafe Felix).

Few living Ann Arborites will recognize the building with the candy-stripe awnings (middle photo), even those who see it every day. Home of the State Savings Bank when this photo was taken in 1910, it later became the local branch of the National Bank of Detroit (now Bank One). The original building is still there, buried under several generations of remodeling.

The Last Homes on Main
A century ago, much of what we now consider the central business district was still a residential area. Streets such as South Fourth and South Fifth avenues and Liberty, Washington, and Maynard streets were filled with houses, many of them quite stylish and boasting large lots with extensive gardens. There were even a few home owners on Main Street.

Two of the last holdouts were the Muehlig houses (bottom photo), which stood side by side at 311 and 315 South Main. An old Ann Arbor business family (Muehlig funeral parlor, B. E. Muehlig dry goods), the Muehligs had homesteaded on the site. They were apparently not sentimental about the property, however—in 1928, they demolished the home on the left to build a brick business block.

Bertha Muehlig's namesake dry goods store occupied the northwest corner of Washington and Main (now the Hooper Hathaway law office) for most of this century. Muehlig walked to work from her Greek Revival home until her death in 1955. In 1962, the house was sold and demolished for a Glidden paint store (the building now shared by M Den, Au Courant opticians, and Collected Works).

Miss Muehlig's generosity to local schoolchildren had made her a popular figure, and the Christmas creche on her lawn was a favorite seasonal landmark. The loss of her home prompted a public outcry. "The whole town grieved, not only at the passing of a beautiful and historic landmark, but at the loss of a visible reminder of the noble and gracious woman who had lived there all her long life," local historian Leia Duff wrote in her 1965 book Ann Arbor Yesterdays.

The loss of the Muehlig home led to creation of the first local historical commission. In 1973, city council took advantage of a new state preservation law to designate Ann Arbor's first historic district, preserving nine scattered buildings from destruction or inappropriate exterior alteration.

Today, most citizens recognize the value of historic buildings and appreciate the character, charm, and sense of historical continuity they provide. Ann Arbor now has fourteen different historic districts, protecting a total of more than 1,600 structures.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: The Cornwell Block in 1910

[Photo caption from original print edition]: North Main between Ann and Huron, 1892.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Hangsterfer's Hall (above, in 1869) and the State Savings Bank (left, in 1910) sat kitty-corner from one another at the intersection of Main and Washington. One was demolished, the other remodeled beyond recognition. The loss of Bertha Muehlig's Main Street home (right, reflow) helped launch the historical preservation movement).