Nickels Arcade: The First 100 Years

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, July 2017,
July 2017

Author: Grace Shackman

Date: July 2017

It's a mystery why State St. butcher Tom Nickels decided to build an elegant shopping arcade. According to his family he'd never seen an arcade, yet the one he built is breathtakingly beautiful. His descendants still own it, and four generations of family members are convening this month to celebrate its 100th birthday.

Nickels' father, John, had a butcher shop at 326 S. State and an ice business directly behind it, selling ice from Traver Creek. He lived at 334 S. State with his wife, Elizabeth, and their four children.

John Nickels died in 1907 and Elizabeth in 1913. Tom inherited the meat market, ice company, and family home, and bought the land back to Maynard from his siblings. His granddaughter, Elizabeth Herbert Becker, who now owns the arcade with her brother Fred Herbert and cousin Fred Nickels, surmises that he learned about arcades from European magazines and newspapers.

Nickels hired local architect Herman Pipp, who designed the arcade in an elegant beaux arts style with three-story pillars on the State St. side and an ivory-colored terra-cotta facade. Separated by an arch, the rest of the arcade is more modest, two stories high and faced with yellow brick, but with terra-cotta windowsills decorations tie it in with the front.

Nickels didn't build the whole arcade himself: the southeast corner was constructed by the Farmers and Mechanics Bank, which bought the land from him and also gave him a loan. The bank was finished in 1915, but the rest of the arcade wasn't ready for occupancy until 1917 due to shortages of materials during World War I. There were eighteen stores on the first floor, each with a mezzanine and a basement storage area. The second floor was rented to offices or businesses. "It's a little gem box," says Gene Hopkins, an architect who worked on its 1987 restoration. "It's unique. You don't see things like it every day."

Tom's daughter, Theodora Nickels Herbert, recalled the grand opening in a 1974 interview: "There were flowers all around, and it was quite a deal." They came from the Blu Maize Blossom Shop in the arcade. There's still a florist in the arcade, the University Flower Shop. The Arcade Barber Shop now has the spot where barber Myron Baker opened in 1917.

In 1921, Peter Van Boven opened a men's clothing store in the north State St. storefront, opposite the bank. He added a shoe store on the other side of the arcade in 1933. Karen Godfrey, third generation of the Van Boven line and first woman to work in the clothing store, explains its origins: "I understand that my grandpa went into the men's clothing business because he was a dapper fellow and had an interest in men's fashions. Back in the day, the store's emphasis was on selling suits and furnishings. As times changed the store had to adapt." They continue to sell formal clothes but now also have T-shirts, golf attire, Hawaiian shirts (including a Michigan one), and blue jeans.

The Caravan Shop opened in 1927. It was the creation of Frank Karpp, who had worked for Texaco in Africa and the Far East. He used his connections there to procure unique items for his store. It too has been there ever since.

Many other stores that opened in the first decade stayed for years, including a post office substation (until 1998), Bay's Jewelers (until 1992), the Betsy Ross Restaurant (1975), and the Van Buren lingerie shop (in the arcade until 1987, and nearby on State until 1994).

Early second-floor occupants included two prominent doctors, R. Bishop Canfield and Albert Furstenberg. Clarence Fingerle's Arcade Cafeteria, upstairs from the post office, sold reasonably priced food like creamed shredded chicken and dumplings and baked Virginia ham. The late Ted Heusel remembered eating there regularly with his mother.

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When Tom Nickels died in 1933, the business passed on to his two children, Dora Herbert and her brother, James Nickels.

James' son Fred Nickels, now ninety, recalls that during the Depression, some tenants paid part of their rent in kind, including Roy Hoyer, who had his dance studio on the second floor. "I had to take tap dancing lessons for five years before being allowed to quit," he laughs.

Fred Nickels remembers accompanying his mother to the arcade when she got her hair styled at the Blue Bird Salon, and Mr. Karpp at the Caravan Shop warning him not to touch the exotic merchandise. He had a better time hanging out with janitor Zonie Steinke, his maternal uncle, while he closed up for the night, stoking the furnace and filling the coal bin under the Maynard St. entrance.

James died from tuberculosis in 1936. His half of the ownership went to his two sons, Fred and Bob, but since they were still children, a professional management group was hired. In 1965 the family bought the original bank building and now owns the whole arcade.

"You could survive at the arcade with everything you needed," recalls Dora's daughter, Elizabeth Herbert Becker, who was born in 1936. "You had a post office, restaurant, a bank, and ladies' and men's stores. Everything but groceries, and you could get those at White Market" around the corner on William. As a teenager, Elizabeth worked for her aunt, Bee Nickels, who lived in the Nickels house on Maynard (site of the Collegian building) and owned a store that specialized in baby and children's clothing imported from Europe. As a young adult, she worked at Bay's.

Elizabeth's brother, Fred Herbert, born in 1941, recalls how important the arcade was to their mother: "It was a vital, essential part of her life. She patronized it two or three days a week. She was friends with the tenants." His childhood memories include "the aroma of grilled pecan rolls from the Betsy Ross wafting up from a vent into the concourse."

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Van Boven's two stores made it through the Depression and World War II. In 1973 the family hired Robert Frost to manage the shoe store, which he later bought. Frost remembers those as the golden years of the arcade, when Jacobson's department store and then Borders books drew a high-end clientele to the area. "We thought it would never end. We had such pride to be on State St.; it was the place to be."

In 1990, U-M student Rich Bellas started working in the shoe store part time. He stayed on after graduation, and became Frost's partner. In 2014 they sold the store to Roger Pothus, the owner of Renaissance clothing. Bellas still works there, but Frost runs shoe stores in Petoskey and Traverse City.

After the Nickelses and the Van Bovens, the arcade's other great dynasty began in 1963, when Jim and Augusta Edwards opened Maison Edwards. Augusta, from Italy, based the inventory on things in European stores such as leather goods, scarves, perfume, chess sets, and pens. In 1964 the couple bought the store next door and turned it into a tobacco shop. From then on Jim ran the tobacco store and Augusta the original store. In 1965 the Edwardses bought the Van Buren shop, and in 1973 they bought the Caravan Shop from the Karpps.

"When they sold to Jim Edwards, they charged him full price for every item in the store, even some damaged things," recalls Fred Herbert. Even so, as the Karpps were childless, the Edwardses helped them out in their declining years. "When the Karpps died," Herbert adds, "they left them more money than they'd paid for the shop."

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The Edwardses hired Linda Liechty to manage the Van Buren shop and eventually sold it to her. They also helped Liechty's daughter, Rhonda Gilpin, buy the arcade's antique shop when she was just nineteen. She'd asked Jim for advice, and when she couldn't get a bank loan, he lent her the money himself. She opened the Arcadian in 1983, and ten years later, when Edwards was ready to retire, bought the Caravan Shop, too.

Gilpin's children grew up in the arcade, just as she did. "Most kids learn to ride their bikes on the sidewalk in front of their house. I learned riding down the arcade," explains her daughter Bailey, who works with her mother in the Arcadian. Son Steve is working on a master's at U-M but still works with his mother in the summer.

Chuck Ghawi also got involved in the arcade at a young age. As a student at U-M in the 1980s, Ghawi walked into Maison Edwards Tobacconist and asked for a job. He remembers that "three men in three-piece suits all said 'no' at the same time." But he kept coming back, and they finally relented and hired him part time. After graduation Ghawi kept in touch with the Edwardses, and in 1991 they sold him the store. Although he only occasionally smokes a cigar or a pipe, he still loves the business and the chance to visit with customers. "I don't get to travel because I have to be in the store, but the world comes here," he says.

In 1987, when the arcade was seventy years old, it received National Register of Historic Places designation. Architects Four was hired to do a restoration. They repaired or replaced terra-cotta that was cracked or damaged, repaired the skylight, designed consistent signage, moved the AC units, and removed the asphalt tile covering the glass-block floors.

The biggest retail tenant now is Bivouac, which sells outdoor gear and clothing from the former bank and several neighboring State St. storefronts. But owner Ed Davidson says that when he first talked to the arcade's management company about renting space, they turned him down. "They said, 'You look like a bum off the street, and you want to rent a clothes store?'" he recalls.

Davidson argued that the jeans and army surplus he sold were the new trend, but his long hair and brief credit history--he'd only been in business a year and a half--worked against him. So he phoned Dora Herbert to plead his case, offering to put up as many months' rent as she wanted in escrow. To his surprise, she asked only for two months' rent--and came to his grand opening in her wheelchair.

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Today, Nickels Arcade is a mix of new and old stores. Entering the tobacco store is like being in a time warp, while Comet Coffee and Babo provide a hip European look. Many tenants have left the floor bare with the original maroon, gray, and white tiles. Some have also kept the mezzanines, usually for offices. The original bank safe and vault are still in the basement of Bivouac, used for storage.

The arcade does show its age. Tenants note that there are no elevators to the second floor, uncertain heat, and no central air. And as beautiful as it is, it's a landmark mainly to people who spend time on campus. "I have people come in and say they've lived in Ann Arbor for twenty years and never knew this existed," says Rich Bellas.

Still, the overwhelming opinion of the tenants is that they love the arcade. Graphic artist Mike Savitski, who designed the concourse banners announcing the 100th birthday, has had an office upstairs since 1998. He says he especially appreciates the location during Art Fair, when he can work quietly, then walk out to "find the place packed like sardines," and at Christmas, when the arcade becomes "a Dickens-looking scene with greens hanging, lights glowing, troubadours singing, and the cold outside."

Architect Lincoln Poley, a tenant since 1987, loves "the architectural style, the openness of the building, the fenestration, and the decorative elements." Landscape designer Norm Cox (1995) appreciates "the sense of community combined with the cool factor of working in a pedestrian arcade located across the street from the Central Campus and all of its energy."

"I'm an architecture and history buff from way back," Savitski says. "The arcade embodies both these things. To walk through it several times a day is a real treat."

The Roy Hoyer Dance Studio

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, February 1994,
February 1994

Author: Grace Shackman

A taste of Broadway in Ann Arbor

Performers tap dancing on drums or flying out over the audience on swings, women in fancy gowns and plumes floating onto the stage to the strains of "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." A Busby Berkeley musical on Broadway? No, it was right here in Ann Arbor at the Lydia Mendelssohn theater: "Juniors on Parade," a Ziegfeld-style production created by Broadway veteran Roy Hoyer to showcase the talents of his dance students and to raise money for worthy causes.

Hoyer came to Ann Arbor in 1930, at age forty-one. With his wrap-around camel hair coat, starched and pleated white duck trousers, open-necked shirts, and even a light touch of makeup, he cut a cosmopolitan figure in the Depression-era town. For almost twenty years, his Hoyer Studio initiated Ann Arbor students into the thrills of performance dancing as well as the more sedate steps and social graces of ballroom dancing.

Born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Hoyer appeared in many hometown productions before a role as Aladdin in a musical called "Chin Chin" led him to a contract with New York's Ziegfeld organization. His fifteen-year Broadway career included leading roles in "Tip-Top," "Stepping Stones," "Criss Cross," "The Royal Family," and "Pleasure Bound." Movie musical star Jeanette MacDonald was discovered while playing opposite Hoyer in "Angela." But Hoyer himself by the end of the 1920's was getting too old to play juvenile leads. When the Depression devastated Broadway--in 1930, fifty fewer plays were produced than in 1929--Hoyer, like many other actor-dancers, was forced to seek his fortune elsewhere.

Hoyer came to Ann Arbor because he already had contacts here. In the 1920s he had choreographed the Michigan Union Opera, a very popular annual all-male show with script and score by students. His Roy Hoyer Studio taught every kind of dancing, even ballet (although the more advanced toe dancers usually transferred to Sylvia Hamer). On the strength of his stage career, he also taught acrobatics, body building, weight reducing classes, musical comedy, and acting.

His sales pitch played up his Broadway background: “There are many so-called dance instructors, but only a few who have even distinguished themselves in the art they profess to teach," he wrote in his program notes for "Juniors on Parade." "Mr. Hoyer's stage work and association with some of the most famous and highest paid artists in America reflects the type of training given in the Roy Hoyer School."

Pictures of Hoyer on the Broadway stage lined his waiting room, and former students remember that he casually dropped names like Fred and Adele, referring to the Astaire siblings. (Fred Astaire did know Hoyer, but evidently not well. When Hoyer dressed up his 1938 "Juniors on Parade" program with quotes from letters he'd received from friends and former students, the best he could come up with from Astaire was, "Nice to have heard from you.")

Hoyer's first Ann Arbor studio was in an abandoned fraternity house at 919 Oakland. He lived upstairs. Pat Bird Allen remembers taking lessons in the sparsely furnished first-floor living room. In 1933 the Hoyer Studio moved to 3 Nickels Arcade, above the then post office. Students would climb the stairs, turn right, and pass through a small reception area into a studio that ran all the way to Maynard. Joan Reilly Burke remembers that there were no chairs in the studio, making it hard for people taking social dancing not to participate. Across the hall was a practice room used for private lessons and smaller classes.

Back then, young people needed to know at least basic ballroom steps if they wanted to have any kind of social life. John McHale, who took lessons from Hoyer as a student at University High, says that for years afterward he could execute a fox trot or a waltz when the occasion demanded. Dick DeLong remembers that Hoyer kept up with the latest dances, for instance teaching the Lambeth Walk, an English import popular in the early years of World War II. (DeLong recalls Hoyer taking the boys aside and suggesting that they keep their left-hand thumbs against their palms when dancing so as not to leave sweaty hand prints on their partners' backs.)

Hoyer's assistants were Bill Collins and Betty Hewett, both excellent dancers. Burke remembers that when the two demonstrated social dancing, their students were "just enchanted." Several ballroom students remember the thrill of dancing with football star Tom Harmon. As a performer in the Union Opera, Harmon came up to the studio for help in learning his dance steps and while there obliged a few of the female ballroom students. "I'll never forget it," says Janet Schoendube.

While ballroom dancing was mostly for teens or preteens, tap and ballet students ranged from children who could barely walk to young adults in their twenties. (Helen Curtis Wolf remembers taking her younger brother Lauren to lessons when he was three or four.) Classes met all year round, but the high point of the year was the annual spring production, "Juniors on Parade."

The show was sponsored by the King's Daughters, a service group that paid the up-front costs and then used the profits for charity—medical causes in the early years and British war relief later. The three evening performances and one matinee were packed, and not just with the parents of the performers. During the drab Depression, people looked forward to Hoyer's extravaganzas all year long. Hoyer "jazzed us up when we needed it," recalls Angela Dobson Welch.

"Juniors on Parade" was a place to see and be seen. In 1933 the Ann Arbor News called it a "social event judging by the list of patrons and patronesses and the list of young actors and actresses whose parents are socially prominent." But the show's appeal wasn't limited to high society. Even in the midst of the Depression many less well-to-do families managed to save the money for lessons or worked out other arrangements in lieu of payment. Allen's mother helped make costumes; senior dance student Mary Meyers Schlecht helped teach ballroom dancing; Rosemary Malejan Pane, the acrobat who soloed in numbers that included cartwheels and splits, was recruited by Hoyer, who offered her free lessons when he learned she couldn't afford to pay.

The first act of the show featured younger children, wearing locally made costumes, while the second act showcased the more advanced students, who wore professional costumes. Every year Hoyer and Collins traveled to Chicago to select the dancers' outfits. For one 1935 number, the girls wore gowns that duplicated those worn by such famous stars as Ruby Keeler, Dolores Del Rio, and Carole Lombard. Live piano music was provided either by Georgia Bliss (on loan from Sylvia Hamer) or Paul Tompkins.

Sixty-some years later, students still remember such Hoyer-created numbers as "Winter Wonderland," a ballet featuring Hoyer and Betty Seitner, who stepped out of a snowball; "Floradora," six guys pushing baby buggies; "Sweethearts of Nations," eight girls in costumes from different countries, including red-haired Doris Schumacher Dixon as an Irish lass and Angela Dobson Welch as a Dutch girl. In "Toy Shop," dancers dressed like dolls; in another number, five girls, including Judy Gushing Newton and Nancy Hannah Cunningham, were done up in matching outfits and hairdos as the Dionne quintuplets.

"Juniors on Parade" ended with a high-kicking Rockettes-style chorus line of senior students. Then the stars returned home to their normal lives. Although some of them became very good dancers, none went on to careers in dance. (Doris Dixon later worked at Radio City Music Hall and was offered a job as a Rockette, but turned it down when she saw how hard it was.)

The last big show was in 1941. When the war started, Hoyer cut back on his studio schedule and went to work at Argus Camera, where they were running two shifts building military equipment. He worked in the lens centering area and is remembered by former Argus employee Jan Gala as "a lot of fun, full of jokes." Another employee, Catherine Starts, remembers that "he was so graceful. He took rags and danced around with them."

After the war Hoyer kept his studio open, but people who knew him remember he did very little teaching in those years. His health was failing, and his former cadre of students and stars had moved on to college and careers.

In 1949 ill health led him to move back to Altoona. He worked as assistant manager at a hotel there, then as a floor manager and cashier at a department store. He was still alive in 1965, when an Altoona newspaper reported that he was back home after a nine-month hospital stay.

Although it has been forty-five years since Hoyer left Ann Arbor, he is not forgotten. Hoyer Studio alumni say they still use their ballroom dancing on occasion, and even the tappers sometimes perform. Angela Welch remembers a party about ten years ago at which the Heath sisters, Harriet and Barbara, back in town for a visit, reprised their Hoyer tap dance number. And years after the studio closed, accompanist Paul Tompkins worked as a pianist at Weber's. Whenever he recognized a Hoyer alumna coming in, he started playing "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody."

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