The Three Lives of 1830 Washtenaw

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

Author: Grace Shackman

The stately and prestigious Women's City Club started as a simple farmhouse.

The Rise and Transformation of American Broach

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

Author: Grace Shackman

Its huge Huron Street factory is now a haven for low-budget arts groups.

Ann Arbor's Permanent Polling Places

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

Author: Grace Shackman

Dotted around the city, they were the headquarters of seven self-reliant wards.

These days, Ann Arbor's five political wards are transitory entities. Wards are redrawn every ten years to insure that they represent as equal populations as possible, and boundaries are freely adjusted by the party in power to create the maximum number of winnable seats.

Ann Arbor's Steel Houses

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

Author: Grace Shackman

Once the object of neighbors' wrath, Lustron homes have emerged as winsome modernist antiques.

Lustron homes were one of the most innovative solutions to the post-World War II housing shortage. Nine of them can still be found in Ann Arbor, in close to their original condition despite dire predictions at the time of their construction (1948-1950) that they would soon be a pile of rust.

Except for the cement slab they rest on, Lustron homes are made entirely of steel. The outside walls consist of two-foot square, porcelain-finished steel panels in either yellow or tan. The roofs are made of interlocking steel tiles. The inside walls are also of steel, as are the doors, ceilings, and the built-in furniture. A clever room layout of halls, sliding doors, and large windows makes maximum use of the space, and the 1,025-square-foot, two-bedroom houses feel much roomier than they are. Jane Barnard, owner of the Lustron at 3060 Lakeview, says, "The use of space is perfect. There is nothing I would change."

Lustron homes were the brainchild of Carl Strandlund, an industrial engineer who worked for a Chicago company that manufactured porcelainized steel panels for gas station exteriors. Strandlund's great inspiration was to use essentially the same material for housing.

For start-up money, Strandlund got a $15.5 million loan from the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation, followed by several other loans. He used the money to take over a huge, twenty-three-acre factory in Columbus, Ohio. There he set up his sheet-metal presses, high-speed welding rigs, enamel sprayers, and drying ovens. His house kits, designed to be set up like giant Erector sets, began coming off the line in 1948. Each kit consisted of 3,300 individual parts and weighed 10 tons. The original price was $7,000.

Lustrons came to Ann Arbor through the efforts of visionary businessman Neil Staebler, who heard about them while working in Washington for the Federal Housing Administration in the years just after the war. He recalls, "I thought they were a swell idea. Lustron promised to be a durable material, which it has proved to be." When he returned to Ann Arbor to live, he applied for the local Lustron franchise.

In all, Staebler was able to arrange for nine Lustron homes to be built: at 605 Linda Vista; 3060 Lakewood; 1121,1125, and 1129 Bydding; 1711 Chandler; 800 Starwick; 1910 Longshore; and 1200 S. Seventh. All but one were put up by Clarence Kollewehr, a carpenter who went on to become the business manager of Local 512 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. Kollewehr and his crew, which consisted of two other carpenters and two laborers, had some trouble erecting the first few Lustrons, but soon became so adept that they hardly had to refer to the building manual. If there were no snags, they could erect a Lustron home in less than a week.

Kollewehr has fond memories of the Lustrons, which he describes as "an engineering monument when you consider how they were built." The only problem he remembers is that the outside panels would sometimes get chipped while being pounded in. But the kit was so well designed that it even included enamel paint in the color of the model, so that the crew could do quick touch-ups at the end of the day.

The Lustrons' practical, progressive aura appealed especially to people at the U-M. But probably the best-known Lustron buyers were Ray and Olive Dolph, builders of the Dolph mansion in the Lakewood subdivision off Jackson Road. When they decided to move to a smaller house, leaving the mansion for their son, Charles, and his family, the Dolphs chose a Lustron, appreciating its nice house plan and new materials. Says Charles's ex-wife, Marge Reade, "We were liberal about those things."

Few people, it turned out, were as liberal as the Dolphs. "The city didn't care much for [Lustrons], or the neighbors either," recalls Clarence Kollewehr. "There were comments wherever we worked. The neighbors were not tickled." After selling nine Lustrons, Staebler decided to switch to more conventional prefabs, finding the opposition to Lustrons "a hornet's nest." Lustron was going out of business anyway. Although the houses were well designed, the company never became financially stable and went bankrupt in 1950.

During the Lustron bankruptcy hearings, it was revealed that Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, one of Carl Strandlund's staunchest supporters in his loan requests, had been paid $10,000 by Lustron to write a 36-page article explaining how veterans could get housing loans. Although a direct connection between payment for the article and McCarthy's support for the Lustron loans was never proved, many found it curious that McCarthy earned more per word than Winston Churchill, whose war memoirs then held the record.

In spite of the scandal and the warnings of early death by rust, ihe local Lustrons and others around the country have held up remarkably well. Ron Hin-terman, a former owner of the Lustron on Seventh, says, "It looks the same now as it ever did." Of the Lakewood Lustron, Marge Reade says, "It looks as good as it first did. It will be recorded by history as quite a little card."

Some Lustron owners have had to endure quite a bit of teasing. Rachel Massey, who recently moved from the Lustron on Chandler, says her friends dubbed it "the little Fleetwood." Richard Sears, who lives on Bydding, says his friends compare his home to a refrigerator, asking him if a light comes on when he opens the front door.

When Bob Preston moved into the Lustron on Linda Vista, his friends threw a housewarming party. Most of the gifts were magnets, plus a can opener that came with a note: "In case you forget your house key."

Owners find Lustron maintenance relatively easy once they get used to it. The outside is easily cleaned with a garden hose, while the inside walls respond nicely to soap and water. Rust is a problem only when the walls chip, and then it can be treated with a car-body product such as Rustoleum or Bondo. Over the years, owners have also taken highly divergent approaches to interior decorating. Massey had fun with Art Deco. Claire and Paul Tinkerhouse, the current owners of the Lustron on Linda Vista, have painted the walls with textured paint and decorated with antiques to downplay the shiny steel look. Jane Barnard keeps her decor clean and open so as not to let the lines dividing the steel panels make the house seem too fussy.

Jazz musician Ron Brooks, owner of one of the Bydding Lustrons, moved one of the walls to enlarge his living room and added dry wall. (Brooks was intrigued to hear of the Staebler connection, since his jazz club, the Bird of Paradise, is located in the garage that was part of Staebler and Sons car dealership, a business begun by Neil Staebler's father.) The only current owner not to sing the praises of his Lustron is artist Richard Sears. "It's not terribly efficient, hard to insulate," says Sears. "If I could afford it, I'd tear it down and donate it to the landfill." Sears has also made the most dramatic interior changes of any Lustron owner: he's removed all but the bathroom walls so he has room to stand back and view his paintings.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: The innovative all-steel Lustron kit house made the cover of Architectural Forum in June 1947. When production started in 1948, the ten-ton, 3,300-piece prefab houses sold for just $7,000.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Lustrons' diverse room layout made the small homes feel surprisingly roomy. "The use of space is perfect," says owner Jane Barnard. Barnard's Lustron in the Lakewood subdivision was built as a retirement home by Ray and Olive Dolph; they moved into it from the nearby Dolph mansion.

Walker Carriage Co./Ann Arbor Art Association

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1982,
December 1982

Author: Grace Shackman and Mary Hunt

In the nineteenth century, when industry was on a much smaller, more local scale, a good-sized county seat like Ann Arbor could be expected to have at least one carriage factory, probably more. Ann Arbor had several. The biggest was Walker and Company's Ann Arbor Carriage Works, whose legacy is the handsome red brick building on West Liberty now occupied by the Ann Arbor Art Association.

Walker and Company catered to the high-class end of the carriage trade. U-M regent and publisher Junius Beal would have nothing but a Walker carriage, and Ann Arbor Mayor Samuel Beakes, eager

Frank Lloyd Wright in Ann Arbor

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, April 2002,
April 2002

Author: Grace Shackman

Design for Living
Thanks to Frank Lloyd Wright, Bill and Mary Palmer raised their family in a work of art.

On a Saturday morning a little over a year ago, a group that included prominent local architect Larry Brink; Doug Kelbaugh, dean of the U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning; builder Bruce Niethammer; and George Colone, a heating specialist from Hutzel Plumbing & Heating, met to discuss a failing radiant heat system beneath the concrete floor of a fifty-year-old house. If it had been just any house, the solution would have been obvious: jackhammer the concrete and replace the pipes. But on hearing that suggestion, owner Mary Palmer recalls, “I nearly fainted. It wasn’t acceptable.” The reason so many people shared her concern was that the floor in question was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The group worked out a solution that would preserve the part of the radiant system that still worked, about a third of the total. Hutzel would install a new boiler and radiators to heat the rest of the house--but would hide all the new components behind couches, inside cabinets, and under beds.

Alden Dow's Ann Arbor

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, August 1998,
August 1998

Author: Grace Shackman

Inspired by a teenage trip to Japan, the Dow Chemical heir spurned the family business to devote his life to architecture. From city hall to the U-M’s administration building, he put a quirky modernist stamp on the city.

Judy Dow Rumelhart was walking down Fifth Avenue one day recently when it started to rain. Looking around for shelter, she spotted the Ann Arbor District Library, a building originally designed by her uncle, Alden Dow. “And I thought how lovely it is,” Rumelhart says. “The library is one of my favorites.”

“The library and city hall are two of the ugliest buildings in Ann Arbor, and ISR [the U-M Institute for Social Research] is right up there,” says library board member Ed Surovell, expressing a dissenting opinion on the library and two other Dow designs. “They do not have the kind of imposing presence of a public building that creates civic pride.”

Alden Dow (1904–1983) is an unlikely figure to provoke such controversy. Though Frank Lloyd Wright once called him his “spiritual son,” Dow had none of the older architect’s egotism or self-promotion. Shy and studious, Dow had to be encouraged to take on major public commissions by his devoted wife, Vada. He got much of his work through family connections; his father, Herbert, was the founder of Dow Chemical.

Alden Dow’s entree to Ann Arbor was through his sister Margaret and her husband, U-M physician Harry Towsley. His first residential commission, in 1932, was the Towsley home in Ann Arbor Hills. Over the next thirty-six years, Dow designed seventeen more Ann Arbor buildings; in the 1960s, his work was so highly regarded that both the city of Ann Arbor and the U-M hired him to design their administrative centers: the Larcom Municipal Building (1961) and the Fleming Administration Building (1964).

Like Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom he studied, Dow sought to integrate his buildings into their environment. His motto was, “Gardens never begin, and houses never end.” Especially in his residential projects, he was capable of blending building and landscape brilliantly.

The going was tougher when the commission was a civic building downtown. He sometimes attempted to domesticate these urban settings by specifying massive upper-story planters, but in Ann Arbor, most of these have long since been abandoned as impractical.

Despite the common elements he sometimes used, Dow was no assembly-line architect. His Ann Arbor buildings have evoked comparisons as diverse as “a Mondrian painting” (the Fleming Building) and a “bureau of drawers” (city hall). But especially in recent years, those characterizations have not always been flattering.

Last year, shortly after taking office, U-M president Lee Bollinger announced that he wanted to move his office out of the Fleming Building, which he called “fortresslike.” (Its slit windows, arched entryway, and looming overhangs do give the Fleming Building a defensive look, but the popular belief that Dow designed it to shut out student protesters is unfounded—the plans were completed well before the campus demonstrations of the 1960s turned violent.)

Others have since risen to the building’s defense, including Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the celebrated “postmodern” architects whom Bollinger retained to develop a new master plan for the university. But Bollinger’s comments are a sure sign of Dow’s declining stature in the city he did so much to shape.

Alden Dow was born in Midland in 1904, the fifth of Grace and Herbert Dow’s seven children. His parents had assumed that he would go into the family business, but they also encouraged his creativity by exposing him to art, historic buildings, and gardens. When he was a teenager, the whole family took a trip to Japan. “They went in a big ship and stayed for three or four months,” relates his niece Judy Dow Rumelhart. The trip exposed Dow to two of his greatest influences as an architect: the exacting simplicity of Japanese design and the striking modernism of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose newly completed Imperial Hotel the family admired.

Dow spent three years at the U-M studying mechanical engineering, but then begged his parents to let him switch careers. He transferred to Columbia’s School of Architecture and in 1930, while still a student, his father got him his first commission: a clubhouse for the Midland Country Club. Upon graduation, Dow joined a Saginaw firm and married Vada Bennet, his childhood sweetheart, in 1931. His sister and brother-in-law, Margaret and Harry Towsley, promptly hired him to design their home.

As originally designed, the Towsley house was basically a three-bedroom ranch, although much more elegant than those that would become ubiquitous after World War II. Its features included clerestory windows, a copper roof, and raised planter boxes designed to blend house and landscape.

Dow designed the interior of his houses in minute detail and even dictated the color schemes. “He loved strong colors, primary colors, and jewel tones,” recalls Rumelhart—“cherry red, cerise, emerald green, purple amethyst, ruby topaz.”

Considering Dow’s great interest in gardens, it’s ironic that his most influential innovation at the Towsley house was the way he designed the driveway: he specified an attached garage facing the street, believed to be the first in the country. “We thought the house looked like a gas station,” recalls family friend Jack Dobson.

Asked whether it was strange to grow up in such an unusual house, Rumelhart replies, “I loved the house. . . . and had a sense of pride of being in it. I thought all architecture should look like that.”

During construction, Dow fought repeatedly with city building inspectors, who he saw as trampling on his artistic license. For instance, he wanted to give the house unusually low ceilings, 7'6" instead of the required 8'. Denied, he recorded his losing battles in a series of four bas-reliefs in the front hall; one shows an architect being stomped by an authoritarian foot while another depicts him strangled in red tape.

Although the house had been planned as a starter home, the Towsleys lived there all of their lives. They just kept asking Dow to design additions, which he did in 1934, 1938, and again in 1960. Dow put his latest ideas into each revision such as a landscaped backyard viewed through a big dining room window and so many built-ins that there was little need for furniture: he provided a built-in safe, walk-in refrigerator, clothes drawers that opened on both the bedroom and dressing room sides, and even metal drawers especially designed to store Margaret Towsley’s extensive collection of linen tablecloths. The original color scheme was vividly patriotic in the main living areas: cherry-red rug and turquoise walls.

In 1933, Alden and Vada Dow spent six months at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio-home complex in western Wisconsin. While Alden studied architecture, Vada completed her own fellowship in painting, weaving, and pottery.

Dow and Wright maintained a friendship for years after the Dows’ time at Taliesin. The two architects visited each other in their homes and Dow even named one of his daughters “Lloyd.” They had a serious falling out, however, in 1949, when Wright lost a commission to design the Phoenix Civic Center because his fee was too high--and Dow agreed to take the job in his place. According to Craig McDonald, director of the Alden Dow Home and Studio in Midland, it was Vada Dow and Olgivanna Wright who finally persuaded their husbands to make peace.

After Taliesin, Dow set up his own firm in Midland. Despite the Depression, Dow Chemical was booming, and he designed homes for an ever-increasing circle of clients. As his reputation grew, he received commissions from as far away as North Carolina (a residence for the president of Duke University) and Texas (an entire company town, Lake Jackson, for Dow Chemical during World War II). But Midland always remained his base: of the 138 buildings he designed in his career, 104 are in his hometown.

Ann Arbor is second only to Midland, with eighteen Dow buildings. Surprisingly, very few are private homes; he built only two more residences here, both for doctors who knew Harry Towsley: the Sibley Hoobler house (228 Belmont Road) in 1949, and the Joe Morris house (7 Regent Drive) in 1962. Hoobler has since died, but Joe and Julia Morris still live in their Dow house and vividly remember the design process.

In the early 1960s, Joe Morris asked Harry Towsley whether he thought Dow would design him a house. Towsley suggested that he write and ask, and Dow responded by inviting Morris to Midland for lunch. During lunch, Morris recalls, the architect “talked about sailboats, about housing--he had an idea about housing for Third World countries by making plastic modular units and dropping them in by helicopter. When we returned, I told his secretary we hadn’t talked about my house. She said, ‘Wonderful. He needs to get his mind off his work.’ ”

The Morrises waited two years before Dow had time to work on their house. When they finally sat down to review the plans, they found that Dow had definite ideas about what he wanted. For instance, Joe recalls, Dow’s original plan did not include room to eat in the kitchen--“He said we would never eat in the kitchen.”

“We insisted we would,” Morris continues. “So he relented and designed a [built-in] kitchen table.” The furniture that Dow didn’t build in, he selected, including daybeds, dining room table and chairs, and the chairs and sofa in the living room. All of the built-ins and carefully coordinated furniture result in a very clean look. Morris calls it “magnificent simplicity.”

Joe Morris was one of many clients invited to visit Dow’s combined home and studio in Midland. A beautiful and unusual building, it was a good advertisement for his artistry.

Like the Towsley house, Dow’s evolved in a series of additions. It began in 1933 as a long train car–like studio. In 1935, he added its most striking feature, a room half-submerged in a pond. Officially called the “floating conference room,” but known informally as the “submarine room,” its ingenious use of water invites comparisons to Wright’s more famous Falling Water.

In Midland, Dow was able to build the low ceilings he was denied in Ann Arbor. “I got a kick out of his studio,” recalls Fred Mayer, U-M’s director of university planning. “He was about 5'6", so the studio was designed for him. I’m 5'8", so it was okay with me.”

The low ceilings and small proportions in Dow’s house reminded Morris of “Beatrice Potter homes in Peter Rabbit. There was the same childhood comfort in his home.” Bill Reish, who visited Midland in the seventies to discuss an addition to Greenhills School, recalls the “sunken room at duck-eye level, with ducks floating by.” Former library director Gene Wilson missed that view--“The pond was leaking the day I was there, so he had it drained.”

People remember Dow’s appearance as slightly eccentric. “He was wearing different-colored shoes, I think yellow,” Wilson recalls. Adds Rumelhart, “He wore his hair longer than the conventional doctors I was used to.”

Craig McDonald, who was Vada’s assistant in the last years of her life, recalls Alden as “quiet and understated. He was somewhat shy, but expressed himself through design.” The late Guy Larcom, who oversaw construction of Ann Arbor’s city hall, remembered him as “a small man, undistinguished--but impressive when he talked about architecture.”

“He could be very intense if he got excited about something,” Rumelhart says. “He could pick a flower and be overwhelmed. He had a creative intensity.

“I loved Alden,” Rumelhart continues. “He said it was okay to be a singer. The medical world was terrified of the arts, but he told my parents, ‘She’s talented. She should be doing what she is doing.’ ”

Dow’s peak period in Ann Arbor came during the 1950s and 1960s when he built six university and three civic buildings. The U-M’s Margaret Bell Pool (1952) was his first college commission; it opened doors, and he eventually worked on nine other campuses in Michigan.

Before it was built, the U-M had two pools reserved primarily for men, while women had only the “Barbour bathtub” in the basement of Barbour gym. Margaret Bell, head of women’s physical education, had long wanted to redress this injustice. According to Sheryl Szady, who has researched the history of U-M women’s athletics, “She said, ‘Before I leave, I’m getting a pool.’ ” Bell organized bridge parties, sold tiles, and organized benefit parties to raise the necessary funds. Margaret Towsley, a friend of P.E. professor Marie Hartwig and a generous patron of progressive causes, probably contributed to the project.

The new pool was state of the art. Designed for synchronized swimming and for Michifish shows (elaborate performances with costumes, lighting, and staging), it had an air flow system that sent cool air over the spectators in the bleachers and warm air over the pool. Underwater speakers allowed the synchronized swimmers to hear the music.

According to Szady, the day before the pool opened, Bell, Hartwig, and another woman “hopped in and played around.” At first, men were allowed to swim at the pool only on Friday nights. The pool became coed in 1976 when the building was enlarged to become the Central Campus Recreational Building. Last year the kinesiology department put on another addition, but Dow’s original building is still discernible, especially the second-story planters, the only ones in Ann Arbor that are still maintained.

In 1964, Dow designing two large buildings just a half a block apart on Thompson Street: ISR, the first new building in the country dedicated solely to social research, and the administration building, later named in honor of Robben Fleming, the university’s tenth president.

The two buildings have striking exteriors, but both have been criticized as being designed from the outside in, sacrificing interior utility to achieve an exterior effect. For instance, as originally designed, the massive white aggregate panels that face ISR would have left the offices behind them with no exterior windows. According to retired psychology professor Bob Kahn, one of ISR’s founders, Dow had to be persuaded to move the panels out slightly so that small slit windows could be added.

Dow planned ISR’s interior in detail. The space was divided into modules, each with a large open area facing a window wall, with two offices on either side of the open area and two slightly bigger offices in the corners. “The offices would be almost all one of two sizes to minimize status,” recalls Kahn. Dow was proud of the egalitarian effect, noting in his 1970 book, Reflections, “All occupants have a similar relationship, through glassed area, with the outside.”

But research projects did not always divide neatly into the modules Dow prescribed. And despite his egalitarian goals in designing the faculty offices, the ISR layout also perpetuated what, in hindsight, looks like a far greater inequity: while the researchers had private offices, the female support staff was assigned to desks that sat in the middle of the central area, without a shred of private space. Room dividers were eventually added--but these in turn blocked out light to the side offices.

Maintenance on the windows also presented a problem. They were locked with special keys and pivoted open to wash. People would open the windows to let in air, then not secure them because they didn’t have the key. Once, “a person on the fifth floor was leaning against the window when it pivoted,” recalls retired ISR administrator Jim Wessell. “He almost fell out. Luckily he was caught by someone nearby.”

The windows on the Fleming Administration Building opened the same way but were arranged very differently: in geometric patterns reminiscent of a Mondrian painting. While intriguing from the outside, the design created some very curious interior spaces, with long, thin windows in unpredictable locations.
Dow’s most unusual campus building, the Fleming Building, is also the most controversial. Ed Surovell calls it “a cube in space” and says of the entrance, “you have to hunt for it like a medieval castle.” People who work in the building complain of the “mazelike” layout.

The Regents’ Room on the first floor is designed with an arched ceiling, which, according to Craig McDonald, was used “to give a feeling of being in a larger space.” Two similar arches take up the rest of the first floor: the middle arch is a corridor connecting the east and west entrances, and the other serves as offices. The cavernous look has caused people to compare the space to a beer vault or a wine cellar, and audiences at regents’ meetings often decry the absence of windows and call it “the cave.”

Rumelhart defends the design, saying, “Alden took the assignment and created a painting. He was a great fan of Mondrian and he fulfilled that feeling.” Also siding with Rumelhart is architect Denise Scott Brown. Asked about the Fleming Building, she calls it “honorable architecture” and says it is “nicely proportioned.” “Taste cycles,” adds Brown’s husband, Robert Venturi. “There was a time when Victorian architecture was thought ugly and torn down. We have to be tolerant of the immediate past.”

Changing taste is one problem with the building, but of the more utilitarian problems, many are not Dow’s fault but are the result of growth. “It was never intended to have as many people as it does now. When there was a big lobby on every floor, it was more aesthetically pleasing,” says Dick Kennedy, retired vice-president for government relations.

“You’d get off the elevator and see a bank of windows onto the plaza,” recalls Kay Beattie, who worked in the building in its early days. “You had the feeling no one worked there.” Beattie also remembers that, in vintage Dow fashion, each floor had its own vivid color theme--longtime employees describe them with names like “Howard Johnson orange” and “football field green.”

As controversial as the Fleming Building is, it could have been even more eye-popping. According to Fred Mayer, university architect Howard Hacken vetoed Dow’s original plans to finish the exterior in white stucco with blue windows and gold trim. “Very rah-rah,” Mayer laughs.

Dow left a strong mark on the U-M campus, but it was nothing compared to his impact across Division Street. In the library and city hall, he defined the two most important buildings in Ann Arbor’s public life.

The library was built first, in 1956. “After the war there was no established library architecture,” recalls Gene Wilson, then a library staff member, later director. “Dow had built the Midland library, and we thought it was grand.”
His Ann Arbor design had all of the Dow hallmarks. Even today, after two additions, one can still recognize his hand in the elevated planter faced with turquoise enamel paneling and the lovely little garden on the south side.

“I always liked it,” Wilson says of the library. “It was state of the art for its time.” But, he admits, there were problems. “Dow was more concerned with visual impact--he wanted it to be noticed, he didn’t let function get in the way. There was a circulation desk but no reference desk, and there was no clear delineation between public and private areas. We had to scramble around to make [the layout] work.”

Like many other clients, the library also found that Dow’s elevated gardens were difficult to maintain. Wilson doesn’t recall exactly when the library stopped tending the second-story planters, but says, “it would have been very early. There never was a way to get to them except by a long ladder put up by the sidewalk--any maintenance was done by the janitor climbing the ladder. One day the ladder slipped and the janitor fell and broke his leg. After that we lost enthusiasm.”

Dow’s other great downtown project, the Ann Arbor city hall, has been a conversation piece ever since it opened in 1961; in addition to a chest of drawers, it’s been compared to “an inverted wedding cake” and “an upside-down carport.” It’s also been called “a poor man’s Guggenheim,” an allusion to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous upward-spiraling museum in New York City.

The building is an inverted stepped pyramid, with the floors growing wider as they go up. The second floor is a large promenade that Dow thought might be used for public meetings or for city council members to step outside to caucus. (Rumelhart has always thought it would be a good place to perform plays.)

Inside, Dow put elevators, stairs, conference rooms, and department head’s offices near the building’s core. The space around the periphery of the building was kept open. “The idea was that there were to be no prestige offices, no best windows,” recalled Guy Larcom in an interview before his death last winter. “It was all open to public view.”

Kathy Frisinger, then the city’s assistant director of central services, oversaw the move into the new building. She remembers that although employees were glad to be together after being scattered at seven different locations, many didn’t like the open floor plan. “You could see from one end to the other,” she explains. “If you talked to someone, everyone could see you talking, see which office you went into.”

The promenade never got much use, and there were serious problems with roof leaks. Switchboard operator Mary Schlecht recalls that when it rained, the police department downstairs had buckets all over the place. The planters Dow specified on the second and third floors also leaked. “The plants grew well on the north side, but it got too hot on the south and you had to water almost every day,” a former employee recalls. City hall’s maintenance people, like their counterparts at the library, eventually gave up on the planters; they’re now filled with rocks.

Dow ordered the building’s furnishings with his characteristic eye for vivid color. “I’ll never forget that day when seven Steelcase trucks came. Big semi trucks drove up with turquoise and orange furniture,” laughs Frisinger, who supervised the unloading. “I saw mine were to be orange and I said, ‘I don’t think so,’ and did a quick switch.” Nonetheless, she says, “I basically enjoyed the building. I liked the big offices, the open spacious feel in the building. Dow was ahead of his time.”

As city hall has become more crowded, its once open spaces have given way to a warren of cubbyholes. Furniture and curtains have been placed in front of most of the big windows in the inner offices to give more privacy. The top floor, recently remodeled after the district court moved to the county courthouse, today comes the closest to the spacious feeling Dow originally intended.

Dow worked up to his death in 1983, but the debate continues on his rightful place in architectural history. The question of whether or not his buildings look good comes down to personal taste, and there can be no global or permanent answer. Setting that aside, a study of his Ann Arbor work shows that while many have serious practical problems, there were always reasons for what Dow did.

Near the top of the list of problems would have to be his flat roofs, a distinction he shared with his mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright. “Talk with any person about an Alden Dow building and they will sing its praises and then remember the trouble they had with the roof,” says Greenhills’ Bill Reish. Dow’s elevated planters were another recurring source of trouble. The only one still in use in Ann Arbor, at the U-M’s kinesiology building, supports a few scraggly plants. Ann Arbor has apparently tended its Dow buildings less carefully than his hometown. Craig McDonald reports that numerous examples of Dow’s elevated plantings are still flourishing in Midland.

Lighting could be listed among Dow’s greatest failures but also among his greatest successes. It was obviously a lifelong obsession and when it worked, it worked gloriously, as in the big windows that both let in light and created splendid views in his private homes. When his plans went astray, however, people worked in dark caverns such as those in the Fleming Building and ISR.

It could be argued that these failures were not so much design errors as a misreading of human nature, especially the need for privacy. “Human nature will confound you if you fight it too much, even with a good idea,” comments Fred Mayer.

Dow seems to have been the most successful in his smaller projects, particularly the private residences where he could think out the use of every inch of space. In the larger buildings, he was most successful in the ones built for a specific use, particularly those associated with family members such as Greenhills or the medical education building.

Some of Dow’s critics complain that he received the Ann Arbor jobs only because of his connections with the Towsley family. Certainly some of his work came directly through his sister and her husband, or as a result of friendships or community contacts made through them. Fred Mayer defends Dow on this score. “Having connections will give you a chance,” he says, “but if you don’t do something good, it won’t save you.”

Most of the serious criticism of Dow is aimed at his multistory buildings. Architects don’t like to speak ill of other architects, even dead ones, but off the record, several express doubts about Dow’s “bulky, boring” multistory designs.

“Nothing is related to human scale in ISR. It’s just a big white space,” says one architect--who goes on to describe the Fleming building as “weird.” But Mayer again comes to Dow’s defense. “He was a talented architect,” he says. “I don’t know if he will make it in the ranks of the great, but talent and creativity are evident in his best buildings.”

Dan Jacobs, who’s designed several additions to Greenhills, agrees. “I’m a great admirer of Dow. I admire the simplicity of his structural system.”

Despite the complaints, it should be noted that all of his Ann Arbor designs, except for one razed gas station, are still being used for their original purpose. Even the Fleming building, threatened during Bollinger’s term with a changed use, is still the administration building. Asked about Bollinger’s dislike of her uncle’s building, Judy Dow Rumelhart lets out a good-humored laugh--but then admits that she has chided Bollinger for his criticism of the building. “He can move out, but I hope he uses it for something else, maybe English classes,” she says. “Let it be used by someone to enjoy.”

An Alden Dow Chronology:
Between 1932 and 1970, Dow designed eighteen Ann Arbor buildings. Details are given only for buildings not described in the main story.
1932: Towsley home, 1000 Berkshire.
1949: Hoobler home, 228 Belmont.
1952: Margaret Bell Pool (U-M).
1956: Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave.
1958: Ann Arbor Community Center, 625 N. Main. Dow designed the building at the request of his sister, Margaret Towsley. Towsley not only contributed most of the cost, she also paid for many of the buildings furnishings--even dishes and towels.
1959–1965: Matthaei Botanical Gardens, (U-M). The gardens’ offices and conservatory are instantly recognizable as Dow’s work thanks to the turquoise-faced second-story planters (long since abandoned). Herb Wagner, professor emeritus of botany, remembers fighting to include a lobby and meeting room in the plans; more than thirty years later, Wagner says, it remains “one of the best university botanical gardens in the nation.” Dow also designed the garden superintendent’s house.
1960: Leonard gas station, 2020 W. Stadium. Possibly conceived as a prototype for Michigan-based Leonard, this simple, well-landscaped gas station was Dow’s first commercial work in Ann Arbor. It is the only Ann Arbor Dow building no longer standing.
1961: Guy J. Larcom Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave.
1962: Morris home, 7 Regent.
1962: Conductron headquarters, 3475 Plymouth. Keeve “Kip” Seigel, founder of the high-flying Conduction conglomerate, was a friend of the Towsleys. The low-slung brick building is currently the headquarters of NSF International.
1963: University Microfilms, 300 N. Zeeb. Dow met University Microfilms founder Gene Power, a U-M regent, through the Towsleys. To recycle water used in processing microfilm, he included a moat on the south side of the building, creating what he called “a reflecting pool for office and cafeteria.”
1964: Institute for Social Research (U-M).
1964: Fleming Administration Building (U-M).
1964: Michigan District Headquarters, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, 3773 Geddes. Dow built some lovely churches in Midland, but this is his only church-related structure in Ann Arbor. Its four wings are grouped in the shape of a Greek cross; the teepee-like dome on top symbolizes the church’s early Indian missions.
1966: Towsley Center for Continuing Medical Education (U-M). Dow’s last major job for the university was arguably his most successful. One of Harry Towsley’s specialties was continuing education, and the brothers-in-law collaborated closely on a simple, straightforward building marked with Dow trademarks such as long corridors filled with windows and plants. “It’s state of the art, designed for traffic flow, with an auditorium and four break-out rooms, a huge lobby,” facilities coordinator Robert Witte says. “If I was ever asked to design a medical education building, I would design it off the Towsley Center.”
1967: Greenhills School, 850 Greenhills. Judy Dow Rumelhart was a member of the original planning committee for this private north-side school, and Margaret Towsley was on the first board. Dow laid out the building as a series of clusters, each with classrooms around the edge and a court in the middle. In the middle of each court is a common space called a “forum”; in the corners are areas for quiet activity, called “alcoves.”
Starting in 1968 with grades 9–12, Greenhills gradually expanded to accommodate grades 6–12. By opening alcoves and linking them to new clusters, Dow designed additions that felt as if they were part of the original. Over the years, the brown walls and curiously colored carpets Dow specified have been toned down, and doors have been added to control noise. Still, Bill Reish says, “It works wonderfully as a school.”
1970: 2929 Plymouth. After Gene Power stepped down from University Microfilms, he commissioned Dow to build this small office building just east of Huron Parkway. “I was glad I selected Alden, because my site presented a difficult design problem,” Power recalled in his autobiography, Edition of One. “The zoning regulations stated that floor space could not exceed 40 percent of the land area. There had to be one automobile parking space available for every 110 square feet of floor space, and the structure could be no more than three stories high. Dow met these requirements by raising the building on columns, with only a small entrance lobby and elevator area extending down to the ground-floor level. Most of the area on that level formed a parking lot beneath the rest of the building.”

Power’s son, U-M regent Phil Power, recalls the office as “a lovely place to work. It had a beautiful view of North Campus. It had a fireplace, shelves with Eskimo art, orchids, a nice sitting area, and was lined with bookshelves.” The building—which always reminded Rumelhart of “a giant toadstool”—is now rented to a number of small tenants.


[Photo caption from book]: Dow was proud of his egalitarian design for the faculty offices at the ISR. But he also perpetuated what, in hindsight, looks like a far greater inequity: while the researchers had private offices, the female support staff was assigned to desks in the middle of the central area, without a shred of private space.

Ann Arbor's Oldest Apartments

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, January 2004,
January 2004

Author: Grace Shackman

Eighty years later, they’re back in the spotlight.

Ann Arbor’s oldest surviving apartment houses, built between 1923 and 1930, were glamorous affairs designed by the area’s leading architects. Many included such amenities as doormen, on-site maids, cafes, and beauty parlors. Even so, they drew mixed reactions: some Ann Arborites welcomed them as elegant and cosmopolitan additions to the city, while others deplored their size and their effect on existing neighborhoods.

Now they’re back in the political spotlight. Since 1994 the city has been fighting to protect the buildings, one of which was demolished by the U-M in 2003. Meanwhile, as city planners look for ways to expand downtown housing, they’re confronting many of the same issues raised by the original apartment-building boom eighty years ago.

In the nineteenth century the U-M campus was surrounded by student rooming houses. Apartment buildings as we know them today, where each unit has its own kitchen and bath, didn’t arrive in significant numbers until after World War I.

As the U-M’s enrollment and employment swelled in the 1920s, multistory apartment buildings were a good solution to the housing crunch. But the idea took some getting used to.

Photograph of the Cutting apartment
building

The 1906 Cutting, corner State and Monroe, was the first apartment building in Ann Arbor.

The city hired the Olmsted Brothers, son and stepson-nephew of the famous landscape architect and city planner Frederick Law Olmsted, to make recommendations for Ann Arbor’s future development. Besides encouraging street improvements, more parks and playgrounds, and scenic drives, the Olmsteds’ 1922 report urged the city to enact a zoning ordinance. Council responded by dividing the city into four zoning categories: single residential, residential, local business, and industrial. Apartment buildings were permitted only in the “residential” district near campus.

That zone included one existing apartment building: the twenty-unit Cutting, built in 1906 on the southeast corner of State and Monroe. “For its time the Cutting was a remarkable structure, one of very few apartment buildings in the city, where rich people lived and where elegant old ladies sat looking out on the world through lace-curtained plate-glass windows,” recalled Milo Ryan in his 1985 memoir View of a Universe. “A carriage was usually to be seen waiting at one of the three entrances.”

Florence Mack, widow of department store owner Walter Mack, lived in the Cutting with her son Christian. Broadcaster Ted Heusel, who as a boy lived nearby, recalls that Christian “was so spoiled he used to take a cab home from the Blue Front, two blocks away.” The Cutting was torn down in 1962 for a parking lot. “People lived there forever,” recalls veteran Ann Arbor real estate agent Maynard Newton. “When it was to be torn down, they tried to sue, saying they had a proprietary right because they’d been there so long.”

The 1920s apartment houses followed the example of the Cutting: they were elegant buildings designed in the latest styles, mainly Tudor and Spanish Revival. And, as in the Cutting, their tenants made up a who’s who of Ann Arbor.

The Anberay, built in 1923 at 619 East University, was the first of the postwar apartment buildings. U-M architecture professor J. J. Albert Rousseau designed it in a U shape around a court. The light brick, zigzag roof, and balconies on each of the three levels, often filled with flowers, give it a Spanish flavor.

Early Anberay tenants included grocery heiress Elizabeth Dean, whose bequest to the city continues to bankroll the tree-planting Dean Fund; Palmer Christian, U-M organist; and Francis Kelsey, the archaeology professor whose finds from the Near East make up a large part of the Kelsey Museum’s fabulous holdings. This illustrious tenant mix continued into the 1960s, when then-tenant Ray Detter recalls his neighbors included Herbert Youtie, an expert on the Dead Sea scrolls; Renaissance scholar Palmer Throop; and Jacob Price, a U-M history professor who ran for city council.

Washtenaw Apartments, at 322 East William, dates from 1925. Although a simple red-brick building, it has elegant touches, such as a decorated stone entrance and stone wreaths on top. Carl Wurster, who grew up on Division Street around the corner, remembers his dad saying that the place was being constructed from very shoddy materials and would never last--but almost eighty years later, it still stands. When finished, the building didn’t impinge very much on the lives of Carl and his sister, Elizabeth. Carl delivered papers there, and tenants occasionally rented spaces in the Wursters’ garage. The only person Elizabeth and Carl knew in the building was their math teacher, a Miss Shipman.

The 1926 Hildene Manor, at 2220 Washtenaw, looks from the outside like an English manor house with classic Tudor details--dormers, half-timbering, nine-over-nine windowpanes, and heavy wooden doors. Inside are eight six-room apartments, plus common areas and a three-room caretaker’s flat. Set back on a wide expanse of lawn, “it was the apartment in Ann Arbor--the most expensive and the best,” recalls Ted Heusel.

The Wil-Dean, 200 North State, and Duncan Manor, 322 North State, are perfect mirror images of each other, except the first is faced with light brick and the second with red brick. Harold Zahn and Dugald Duncanson hired recent U-M architecture grad Gardiner Vose to design the buildings, and construction on both started in 1928. Zahn took ownership of the Wil-Dean, which he named after his son Dean William; Duncanson claimed the other, naming it Duncan Manor. Asymmetrical, with balconies, tile work, and casement windows, the buildings fit in with the best of the Tudor apartment houses.

The 1929 Kingsley Post, at 809 East Kingsley, a Spanish/Moorish Revival design by R. S. Gerganoff, is nothing like the architect’s most famous Ann Arbor building, the Washtenaw County Courthouse. With its elaborate ornamentation--tiles, rounded windows, wrought-iron decorative balconies, arched entrance--the Kingsley Post stands in striking contrast to the comparatively drab post–World War II apartment buildings flanking it.

In the early 1950s, when they were first married, Ted and Nancy Heusel lived in a third-floor efficiency in the Kingsley Post. Jimmy Murnan, manager of the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater, lived on the same floor but in a more luxurious apartment overlooking the river valley and the railroad tracks. Murnan, a big circus fan, would invite the Heusels over to watch circus trains unload.

Photograph of the Planada apartment
building

The Planada, because of its location on Ann Street, was an attractive place for people employed at University Hospital to live. But its location worked against it when it was torn down to provide parking for the Life Sciences complexes.

The Planada, at 1127 East Ann, opened in 1929. It catered to employees at the then new University Hospital a block east--the 1931 city directory lists nurses, therapists, interns, and research assistants among the residents. Like the Kingsley Post, it was a Spanish/Moorish Revival design, but less symmetrical. The Observer’s Eve Silberman, who lived in the Planada in the 1980s, recalls that “the apartment definitely had more character than any I’ve rented before and after.” Silberman particularly liked the gargoyles in the lobby. She moved, however, because she did not like sharing her apartment with a mouse.

Forest Plaza, 715 South Forest, was built the same year as the Planada. Although there had already been a number of successful apartment projects and its site was in the “residential” zone, the original plan for the building set off a storm of controversy. The older apartment buildings were three and four stories high; Forest Plaza’s developers wanted to go up nine stories--a sketch that appeared in the Ann Arbor Daily News shows an elegant tower that would have looked at home on New York’s Park Avenue. The “Spanish Renaissance” design was expected to cost $400,000, including the land.

Presaging future controversies, neighbors led the fight against the new building while real estate agents and businessmen defended it. U-M professors Frederick G. Novy and Charles Cooley, who lived in houses on either side of the site, argued that the new structure would block their light and air and would increase congestion in the neighborhood.

After much discussion, a compromise was reached: Forest Plaza was scaled down to five stories and set far back on the lot. The resulting building, while not as ornate as originally proposed, still has many attractive details, including Spanish tiles, terra-cotta decorations, and rounded windows. The increased setback actually adds to its elegance, making it reminiscent of glamorous apartments on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C.

Like other apartment houses of the era, Forest Plaza provided homes for many upper-level university people. A 1930 Michigan Alumnus photo essay mentions that Forest Plaza was the home of Harry Kipke, football coach and later regent. Mark Hildebrandt recalls being taken there as a child to visit his parents’ friends Jan Vandenbroek, a U-M engineering professor, and his wife. Hildebrandt remembers Vandenbroek’s apartment as “classy but comfortable, with soft dark-red carpeted floors, Spanish irregular plaster, wrought-iron sconces.”

Forest Plaza’s current manager, Chris Heaton, says long-term residents have told him that the building used to have a doorman who would park cars for the few residents who owned them, and a maid living on the first floor, who was available to do housework.

Photograph of the Wil-Dean apartment
building

At the Wil-Dean, 200 North State Street, and its near twin, Duncan Manor, corner of State and Lawrence, tenants still enjoy the elegant Tudor styling.

The debate over Forest Plaza led to new ground rules for apartment construction. Part of the compromise allowing it to be built was an agreement that city council would revisit the zoning law, which it did. At a public hearing, a speaker called for more limits on apartment buildings, citing several instances in which “the homes next door to apartment houses have stood vacant since the construction of the larger building, being of value neither for a single home nor for another apartment house, as the one apartment is usually enough to care for the district.”

On May 5, 1929, city council voted that future apartment buildings could be no more than three stories or forty-five feet high. Clothier and theater owner J. Fred Wuerth dissented, protesting that “the growth of the city would be held up by discouraging outside capital.” Supporters answered that the law would encourage developers to construct a larger number of smaller buildings, and so would help preserve the city’s residential character.

Neither side realized that the apartment boom was already essentially over. Only one more apartment house, Observatory Lodge, was built before the Great Depression, followed by World War II, virtually halted construction in the city.

If Observatory Lodge was the last apartment house of its generation, it at least was a spectacular expression of the best of the age. Built in 1930 at 1402 Washington Heights, Observatory Lodge, like the Planada, was just a few steps from the 1925 University Hospital. One admirer calls its design “a feast of Tudor Revival details,” including oriel windows, heavy Tudor-style doors, half-timbering, and a quirky squirrel weathervane. Inside are stained-glass windows, beautiful tile work, and a lobby fireplace. Residents in its thirty-four units also enjoyed the services of a beauty parlor and barbershop. And it must have been approved before the 1929 height limit went into effect: it’s four stories high.

Apartment construction resumed in the 1950s and 1960s, when U-M enrollment more than doubled. This time around, apartment developers created buildings catering to U-M students as well as staff.

Maynard Newton recalls that when he came back from the Korean War in the mid-1950s, students still rented rooms in boardinghouses--“big, comfortable houses, run by a landlady usually called ‘Ma’ something, such as Ma Guenther on Oakland or Ma Jeffries on Monroe. These ladies thought the value was in the house,” Newton recalls. “But savvy Realtors realized the land was what was valuable.”

Developers began buying up old houses around campus and downtown, demolishing them, and building modern-style apartments on the lots. A few, like the Nob Hill complex off South Main, were thoughtfully designed and integrated into their neighborhoods. Most, however, were bare-bones cubes derisively dubbed “cash boxes”--both because of their flat roofs (unlike the peaked roofs of the surrounding older houses) and because they were built to squeeze as many rental units as possible onto their lots.

In 1963 city council amended the zoning ordinance to limit apartments to bigger lots, and to require that they be set farther back from their lot lines. These two provisions, followed by the formation of historic districts in and around downtown, virtually eliminated teardowns of existing structures to build apartments.

The 1963 zoning change also abolished the height restriction for apartment buildings, instead setting limits on the “floor-to-area ratio” (FAR). Two high-rise apartment projects, the eighteen-story University Towers on South University, finished in 1965, and the twenty-six-story Tower Plaza, at William and Maynard, approved in 1965 and finished in 1969, were built under the new regulations. Tower Plaza was particularly controversial.

The Tower Plaza debate echoed the one nearly forty years earlier over Forest Plaza. Proponents saw the high-rise as an asset to the city, opponents as an affront to downtown’s existing scale. Eunice Burns, who was on council when Tower Plaza was approved, recalls that she and the other three Democrats were called antidevelopment because they voted against it. (With the backing of council’s Republican majority, it passed anyway.)

In classic Ann Arbor fashion, council then appointed a study committee and hired a consultant. The resulting report, Central City High-Rises and Parking, suggested a system of premiums, allowing developers more height in their buildings if they added amenities such as public space in front, parking, or landscaping. These changes, plus further increases in minimum apartment lot size and setbacks, were enacted in 1967.

It would be impossible to build a high-rise like Tower Plaza under the current FAR limits. Still, residents who have arrived since the 1960s take Tower Plaza for granted. Some even admire its clean lines and appreciate that the landlord included a cutaway first story and shopping arcade, even before the system of premiums was enacted.

Photograph of Kingsley Post apartments

Kingsley Post, 809 East Kingsley, was designed by R. S. Gerganoff in Spanish Moorish style.

The 1923–1930 apartments, also scoffed at by some when they were new, today look very elegant next to the cash boxes abutting the Kingsley Post, or the monolithic Mary Markley dorm near Observatory Lodge. “They are a good example of apartments of that era,” says Heather Edwards, Ann Arbor’s historic preservation coordinator. “They gave people the chance of living in the downtown vicinity in buildings pleasing to look at that also met all their needs.”

Four are already in historic districts: the Wil-Dean, Duncan, and Kingsley Post are in the Old Fourth Ward, and the Washtenaw is in the East William Street district. The historic district commission has worked to preserve the other five, but the process has been slow. In 1994 city council voted to designate 120 buildings as “individual historic properties” (IHPs), a classification intended to protect historic buildings that are outside of historic districts. Included in the list were the An¬beray and the Planada, both then owned by the Draprop Corporation.

Draprop sued, claiming the city had no legal right to designate buildings as IHPs without the owners’ permission. The circuit court upheld the city’s right to do so, but in 2001 the Michigan Court of Appeals declared Ann Arbor’s IHP district invalid. “They said it didn’t meet the definition of a historic district—that it didn’t hold together geographically or thematically,” explains Louisa Pieper, historic preservation coordinator at the time.

At the recommendation of the state historic preservation office, the HDC divided the original IHP list into thematic sublists—apartments, of course, but also churches, early homesteads, industrial and commercial structures, landmark homes, schools, and transportation—and appointed study committees to research each area and decide which properties were the most significant.

The apartment committee recommended protecting all five surviving early apartment buildings that weren’t already in historic districts—the Anberay, Forest Plaza, Hildene Manor, Observatory Lodge, and the Planada. Any city restrictions would not apply to the last two, however, since the university owned them.

Photograph of Observatory Lodge apartment
building

The 1930 Observatory Lodge, 1402 Washington Heights, was the last apartment built before the Depression put a stop to most construction.

Observatory Lodge, in need of repairs, was closed several years ago but is now being converted into offices. A sadder fate awaited the Planada: when the university bought it, the report to the regents warned that “the building will be demolished and the site integrated into the adjacent campus.” It was torn down in fall 2003, and the U-M plans to build a parking structure on its site.

While the legality of the IHP is being investigated, the issue of height of buildings is also part of an on-going discussion. The eight-story Corner House Lofts on the corner of State and Washington is the tallest new residential building in the city in more than thirty years. And like its predecessors in the 1920s, it has been controversial. The city planning commission voted against approving the project, only to be overruled by city council.

The passage of the greenbelt measure November 2003 gave even more impetus to the height debate. A number of people--even some who had been no- or slow-growth advocates--began asking whether preserving more green space around the city obliged Ann Arbor to accept greater population density within its boundaries. Mayor John Hieftje enthusiastically supports the idea of more downtown density, although he says he began thinking about it independently of the greenbelt.

Noting that only about 200 new residents moved into downtown Ann Arbor in the 1990s, Hieftje says he’d like to see 1,000 more arrive in the next decade. He argues that an increased downtown population would provide the economic base for the return of practical stores, such as food markets, and would ease parking and congestion problems, especially if the new residents also worked downtown. While this increased density would obviously require more multifamily dwellings, Hieftje says they would probably be condominiums rather than apartments.

Does Hieftje mean Ann Arbor will see a new generation of high-rises? “Taller buildings would upset the delicate pedestrian balance downtown,” Hieftje replies. “I’m protective of Main Street and a block or so off it, as well as State Street. But I can see them maybe on Thompson, Maynard, or Huron.” Eighty some years after Ann Arbor’s first apartment-building boom, the town is still debating how and where future generations of downtown residents will live.

The Remarkable History of the Kempf House

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

Author: Grace Shackman

Following brass bands around Basel turned Reuben Kempf's career from the ministry to music

The Kempf House, at 312 South Division, a nationally recognized gem of Greek Revival architecture, is now a city-owned center for local history. It is named for Pauline and Reuben Kempf, the husband-and-wife music teachers who lived in it from 1890 until 1953. The Kempfs were guiding lights in the local music community who often loaned the Steinway in their front parlor—Ann Arbor's first grand piano—to the university. It was played in the May Festival, by such luminaries as Victor Herbert and Ignace Paderewski.

The Kempf House was actually built in 1853 by Mary and Henry DeWitt Bennett. The Bennetts came from Stephentown, New York (southeast of Albany), where they had doubtless seen numerous examples of Greek Revival architecture. Henry Bennett, described by contemporaries as a genial and warm-hearted man, served as postmaster and, later, as steward and secretary of the U-M. After Bennett retired, they moved to California.

The house was sold in 1886 to a neighbor, who rented it out for a few years. Then in 1890, Pauline and Reuben Kempf, married seven years and the parents of a daughter, Elsa (Paul was born six years later), moved into the house. They lived there for the next sixty-three years.

Pauline, Rueben, and Elsa Kempf with
neighbor on porch steps of Kempf House

Pauline and Rueben Kempf enjoy sitting on their porch with daughter Elsa, right, and a woman thought to be a neighbor.

Both Pauline and Reuben were raised in Ann Arbor's large German community, and both showed early musical promise. Pauline was the daughter of Karl Widenmann, the German consul for Michigan and owner of a hardware store on the northeast corner of Main and Washington. The family lived in a big house on Fourth Avenue until Pauline was fourteen, when her father was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. He sold his business and moved his family to Whitmore Lake, where he died eight years later. The family could not afford to send Pauline to music school to study singing, but two professors at the university, impressed with her talent, arranged for her to give a recital in the Athens Theater (later the Whitney) at Main and Ann. The proceeds were enough for one year at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

Reuben Kempf, born in 1859, a year before Pauline, grew up on a farm in the area now occupied by Briarwood. According to his daughter-in-law, Edith Staebler Kempf, "he learned to play the organ at the Bethlehem Church school, and by the time he was a teenager played the pipe organ quite well. But this didn't impress his parents. They said ‘You will study for the ministry.' In those days they didn't ask you."

Reuben was sent to Basel, Switzerland, in 1877, to the same theological seminary that had graduated Friedrich Schmid, the first German pastor in Michigan and a hero to the local German community. But Reuben had been there only a few months when his parents received a letter from the principal, recommending that they not force him to be a minister but let him follow his own wish to be a musician. Evidently he had been following brass bands around Basel. Edith Kempf says it broke his parents' hearts, but they allowed him to transfer to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stuttgart, where he studied organ and piano and was a classmate of Victor Herbert.

When Reuben returned to Ann Arbor, he opened a studio on the corner of Main and Liberty, on the third floor above what is now Occasionally Gifts. He supplemented his income playing the organ at St. Thomas Church. In 1883 he married Pauline Widenmann, their common music interests forming an obvious bond. When they moved to Division Street from their first home on the corner of Main and William, they set up a studio in the front parlor where they could both give lessons.

The Kempfs' house was conveniently located: children could walk to their lessons from all over town. The front door was left unlocked so that students could walk in without knocking. If a lesson was still in progress, they would wait their turn on the red sofa. Geraldine Seeback, who was a student of both Kempfs, remembers them as warm and caring, but also very strict. Once, when she did not have her piano lesson prepared, Reuben hit her on the knuckles.

Seeback was a musical prodigy who first sang publicly at age five, standing on three Bibles in church. Her mother paid for her voice lessons by doing the Kempfs' laundry. Seeback still has the metal-wheeled child's wagon, which originally belonged to Paul Kempf, that she used to carry the laundry back and forth. When Seeback finished high school, Pauline Kempf helped arrange for her to go to the Cincinnati Conservatory.

Group portait of Lyra Male Choir

Rueben Kempf organized the Lyra Male Choir to bring town and gown together through the universal language of music. Elsa Kempf served as the group’s mascot.

Besides giving lessons in their studio, the Kempfs were very active musically in the community. Pauline was the first choir director of the Congregational Church, and Reuben was the first organist and choir director at St. Andrew's. He was also music director of the University Glee Club and the Michigan Union Opera, and organist of the Ann Arbor Masonic groups. Because Reuben had connections in both the town and university communities, U-M president James Angell asked him to form a singing society in an attempt to bridge the gap between town and gown. Under Rueben's direction, the group, first called the Beethoven Society and then Lyra Gesangverien (singing society), gave regular concerts for the next thirty-five years.

The Kempfs often entertained, hosting diverse groups from students to dignitaries. A former maid remembers being extra busy during May Festival buying food needed for the many guests. There was always a live-in maid (the present office at Kempf House was the maid's room), and Pauline's mother, the widowed Mrs. Widenmann, also helped with the cooking. She particularly excelled at baking and noodle making. Edith Kempf remembers that “there was lots of good food, all made from scratch."

Reuben Kempf died in 1945 at age eighty-six. Pauline stayed on until her death in 1953, when the house was sold to Mr. and Mrs. Earl V. Parker. When Earl Parker died in 1969, the newly created Historic District Commission spearheaded a movement to convince the city to buy the house.

Today, thanks mainly to the efforts of Edith Kempf, the music studio has been almost entirely re-created, complete with the famous grand piano (which has only eighty-five keys, three less than the modern ones), the red couch, the two mirrors that Pauline's voice students used to check their posture and their mouth formations, Reuben's desk, a music stand, and the Lyra flag. Even the prints of Germany on the walls were there during the Kempfs' occupancy.

The sitting room, decorated to be contemporary with the studio, holds a horsehair couch from Reuben Kempfs parents' farm (in perfect condition because only the minister was allowed to sit on it) and an Ann Arbor Allmendinger organ.

The Broadway Bridge Parks

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, August 1996,
August 1996

Author: Grace Shackman

The area around the Broadway Bridge was once home to factories, junkyards, and hoboes. Its transformation into three riverfront parks is one of the city's longest-running sagas of civic improvement.

The Broadway Bridge, connecting the central part of Ann Arbor with the north, spans the Huron River at a historically busy spot. Potawatomi Indian trails converged to ford the river there. When John Allen and Elisha Rumsey came west from Detroit in 1824, looking for a place to found a town, they, too, crossed the river at this spot. The first bridge was built just four years later. Replaced and widened several times since, it was most recently redone in 2004.

In 1830, Anson Brown, a pioneer who settled in Ann Arbor after working on the Erie Canal, dammed the river upstream from the bridge. Brown, his brother-in-law, Edward Fuller, and Colonel Dwight Kellogg used the flow from the dam to power a flour mill located just west of the bridge. Brown had grandiose ideas about turning the north side into the center of the city, but he died in the cholera epidemic of 1834, before his dreams could be realized. In 1839 William Sinclair purchased the property, repairing the mill and installing new machinery. His new setup worked so well that after the 1841 harvest he shipped to New York, via the Erie Canal, 8,112 barrels of flour--a record for Ann Arbor up to that time.

Sinclair's mill was destroyed by a fire in 1860, but he quickly rebuilt it and was back in business the next season. The next owners were the Swift family, first Franklin, then his son John Marvin. In 1892 the mill became part of a conglomerate. The Ann Arbor Milling Company, later called the Michigan Milling Company, bought it, along with several other mills in the area, and renamed it Argo. In 1903 they improved the mill and built a new dam, but again, fire claimed the mill. They rebuilt the mill, but with the development of cheaper steam power, water mills were increasingly hard put to compete. The dam and mill were sold in 1905 to the Eastern Michigan Edison company (later Detroit Edison), which was buying up all the water power along the river to generate electricity. Edison built a generating station that is still there; though it no longer produces power, it is still used as a transmission substation.

Beginning in 1866, the Sinclair Mill also powered the Agricultural Works, on the east side of the bridge (power was transmitted through a tunnel under the bridge). Founded by Lewis Moore, the Agricultural Works made all kinds of farm implements--plows, seed drills, mowing machines, hay tedders, rakes, straw cutters, corn shelters--and shipped them all over the country.

Finding a ready market in the days when most of the country's population was farmers, the Agricultural Works expanded throughout the century until it covered three acres, with a main building, wood shop, machine shop, painting building, lumberyard, and a foundry near the river. As it grew, it supplemented water power with steam power; by 1896, the promotional Headlight magazine declared it "one of the most important manufacturing enterprises of the city." But national manufacturers gradually took over the agricultural market, and the company closed in 1903. The Ann Arbor Machine Company, which made hay presses, occupied the premises for the next twenty years, using the same buildings. In 1924 Detroit Edison bought the site to build the garage and storage yard that are still there today.

Mills and factories weren't the only industries drawn to "Lower Town," as the area north of the river was known. In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, six slaughterhouses were built on the floodplain between the river and Canal Street. (Canal, although called a street, was "really an alley," according to Thelma Graves, who grew up nearby on Wall Street; residents of Wall used Canal to reach their back entrances.)

Though the last slaughterhouse closed in 1915, the floodplain remained heavily industrialized. In the 1920's, it was home to a concrete company, David A. Friedman's junkyard, a wire products company, the Leever and Leever lumber company, and Otto Earth's tin and upholstery shops.

Meanwhile, the south bank of the river was dominated by the railroad. The Michigan Central reached Ann Arbor in 1839, and the first train station was built on the west side of the bridge, near the present Amtrak station. In 1886 a new stone station, now the Gandy Dancer, was erected on the east side. But the handsome station had some less-than-attractive neighbors. In 1898, the land between the river and the original railroad station was purchased by the Ann Arbor Gas Company to build a new plant and storage tank. The plant heated coal (or, in later years, oil) in a vacuum to create a flammable gas that was piped into homes for cooking and lighting. The foul-smelling gasworks remained in operation until natural gas pipelines reached Michigan in 1955. Purchased by MichCon in 1938, the gas plant site is now the company's service center for Washtenaw County and parts of Wayne and Oakland counties.

By the turn of the century, manufacturing industries were being replaced by power industries, but all four corners around the bridge were still given over to commercial and industrial uses. By then, however, Ann Arborites were beginning to think that parks would be a more enjoyable use of the riverside--and present a better picture to the outside world.

Mayor Royal S. Copeland, in a 1902 address to city council, bemoaned the fact that "to enter Lower Town it is necessary to cross the smoky Detroit Street bridge [today the Broadway Bridge], [and] traverse a long dusty street with the gas tanks on one side and foul smelling dump heaps on the other."

The junk-strewn field east of the bridge was a particular sore point, because it was the first view of Ann Arbor to greet passengers arriving at the train station. Calling it "a blot upon an otherwise fair page," Copeland went on to paint a more attractive alternative: "How different it would be if the ground east of the street were a green sward, garnished with flowers and shrubs! How much more convenient for the Fifth Ward [Lower Town] if they could follow a gravel footpath through that Riverside park, climb a flight of steps to a narrow bridge over the tracks and find themselves at the foot of State Street."

Copeland appointed a committee, including the city attorney, empowered to negotiate with the property's owners. He also announced that an anonymous donor had offered to pay half the costs of condemnation and purchase of the land. The donor, he said, "believes our city is damaged in the eyes of the traveling public by the unsightly and disgraceful outlook from the [train] car windows." Copeland was confident that the $1,000 appropriated in city funds would finish the job and the rest could be used to improve the park.

The committee had meetings, met with property owners, and had the city attorney write letters; but in three years it did not make much progress in obtaining the land, which was owned by eight different people. In October 1905, the committee reported that "some of the persons interested in said lands refused to name any price for the same and others have placed a value upon their lands far in excess of what your committee is willing to recommend the council to accept. Your committee is of the opinion that said lands can only be acquired by condemnation proceedings." With the exception of some land near the station that the Michigan Central Railroad donated, the properties were obtained by condemnation. Pleased with their work, the committee reported that "by removing the unsightly and ill-smelling dump heap of tin cans and dead cats, the traveling public will form a better opinion of our city." On April 30, 1907, the site was formally named "Riverside Park."

Photograph of Riverside Park
looking toward the Huron River

The original Riverside Park all cleaned up.

Although the acquisition of Riverside Park was touted as a major accomplishment, little was done to develop it. Ann Arborites who were around before World War II say that Island Drive Park and West Park were the places to go; they remember using Riverside Park only as a cut-through, especially from Lower Town to campus. Jack Bauer Sr., who grew up in Lower Town, scoffs at the idea that it was ever even a park, saying, "No one ever went there. It was nothing but an opening." Indeed, it was so little used that when the park across the river on the north side was developed, it appropriated the name "Riverside Park," and Mayor Copeland's creation became known as "Hobo Park."

Hobo Park got its name because, as the closest public land to the railroad station, it was a favorite place for hoboes to hang out. Hoboing--riding the rails without benefit of a ticket, looking for work--probably started as early as railroading itself; but it became a real phenomenon in the 1890's and peaked in the Depression. Hoboes separated themselves from tramps by their willingness to work. Ann Arbor was a likely destination because the presence of the university meant work was somewhat easier to find here than in most Michigan cities.

Hoboes arrived by train, mostly in the warmer months, and fanned out all over the city. Older Ann Arborites, wherever they lived, remember hoboes coming to their doors and being given some food, sometimes in exchange for odd jobs, such as shaking out rugs, cleaning out furnace ashes, spading the garden, or mowing the lawn. Although some hoboes were tough characters, many were well mannered and clean. Some reportedly even had college educations. They were rarely invited inside, but ate their food on the back steps or in the backyard.

Jack Bauer recalls that when he visited his aunt on Swift Street in the 1930s, he saw the police come to break up fights among the hoboes camped along the overgrown millrace between the Argo dam and powerhouse. Hoboes also slept farther east at Dow Field--the bottom of what is today the Arboretum but was then a university dump--and, of course, at Hobo Park. Bauer cut across the "park" in the 1930s to get to St. Thomas School, and he was often chased. He was young and strong and could run fast, but if he was worried, he would go into the railroad station and ask Mr. Mynning, a friend of the family who worked in the mail office there, to escort him to the bridge.

World War II put a stop to most hoboing, since able-bodied men who weren't drafted could enlist or find a factory job. When Betty Gillan Seward began working at the train station in 1941, there were only a few hoboes left, she recalls, and "they slept, whenever they could, in boxcars, but never in the station. Usually they slept on the banks of the river behind the station."

The hoboes never left altogether. In 1976, when photographer Fred Crudder took his now wife, Sally, on their first date, he suggested going to Hobo Park, by then officially called "Broadway Park." She thought he was kidding, but when they arrived, sure enough, there were some people sleeping under newspapers there. For years after that, early morning walkers sometimes found homeless people camped in Broadway Park, and one latter-day hobo maintained a wood-and-canvas shack in the woods above the Argo millrace in the 1990s.

The new Riverside Park north of the river was started for the same reasons as the original one: to clean up a blighted area that by then was being used as an unofficial dump. The new park, too, was pieced together parcel by parcel, although in this case city officials were more successful in persuading people to sell or donate their property. In a nine-year period from 1925 to 1934, the parks commission, under the leadership of Eli Gallup, acquired sixteen parcels of land totaling eight acres located between the river and Canal Street.

During the Depression, Gallup enlisted workers from the federal WPA jobs program to clean the site, remove piles of rubbish, and tear down old buildings. To fill in the low, marshy floodplain, Gallup used waste material from construction projects, like ashes and rubbish. He had the WPA workers remove the topsoil--which was of good quality though quite stony in places--throw it into ridges, and fill in the resulting trenches with any available material. After the land was raised, the topsoil was replaced and the park developed. Gallup put in a regular supervised playground--much appreciated by residents on the north side of the river--two tennis courts, and a baseball field. For drinking water, he ran a pipe out from the Donovan School.

The third park abutting the Broadway Bridge, Argo Park, was the last to be completed. In 1907 the city bought the land just north of the present Argo Pond canoe livery for a municipal beach. The rest of the tract, including the dam and the millrace, was not acquired until 1963. Detroit Edison first invited the city to buy its holdings along the Huron River, including the Argo, Barton, and Geddes dams, in 1959, but the purchase had to wait until 1962, when voters approved a bond issue to finance it.

Today DTE (Mich Con and Detroit Edison) is the last industrial user remaining near the Broadway Bridge, although they no longer produce power there. What will replace their building when, or if, they choose to sell is a topic of lively speculation. Housing is one perennial favorite suggestion. Though the idea would have seemed ridiculous a century ago, the gradual transformation of the surrounding area into attractive parks makes housing a very real possibility.

Riverside Park, once slaughterhouses and factories, is now the "green sward" that Copeland envisioned. During the school year, St. Thomas and Gabriel Richard schools use the park as a practice field, while in the summer numerous teams enjoy the baseball diamond. Argo Park, linked with Riverside by a pedestrian bridge, provides an attractive hiking area right in the city with the river on one side and the millrace on the other.

As part of the recent Broadway Bridge project, the city cleaned up the original Riverside Park on the south side of the river and put in benches, plantings, walks and lights. Finally, a hundred years later, Mayor Copeland’s vision is coming true.


[Photo caption from book]: A hobo cooks dinner near the Broadway Bridge during the Depression. For years, the city park behind the rail¬road station was known as "Hobo Park." “Courtesy Bentley Historical Library”

[Photo caption from book]: Before Eli Gallup created Riverside Park in the 193O's, the river’s north bank was a maze of small work shops and impromptu dumps. “Courtesy Al Gallup”

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