Crescent Corset Factory

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

Author: Grace Shackman

The whole town gasped with pleasure a year ago January, when the stark white panels covering the former Kline’s storefront were removed, revealing ornate terra-cotta decorations around the windows and across the top of the building. The striking detail work, damaged when the panels were applied to the facade in Kline’s 1961 remodeling, dates to the construction of the building in 1896. Called the Pratt Block, it was built to house the factory and headquarters of the Crescent Corset and Clasp Company.

The Crescent Corset and Clasp Company was incorporated in 1891. The September 24, 1891, Ann Arbor Register reported that the firm had raised $10,000 in capital and that “seven or eight men will be employed at the outset.” The company’s first president was publisher Junius Beal, and its first location was a rented space on the third floor of Beal’s Courier building on the corner of Main and Miller (now Dobson-McOmber insurance).

The Court Tavern

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

Author: Grace Shackman

With the repeal of Prohibition, Gust Sekaros turned his cafe into a bar

Ann Arbor Buick

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

Author: Grace Shackman

In 1930, Ella Prochnow quietly made history as the nation’s first female car dealer

109 East Madison

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, January 2000,
January 2000

Author: Grace Shackman

A former factory in floodway limbo

The fate of the former furniture factory at 109 East Madison, a key building in the debate over the use of local floodways, has been delayed. The present owner, the University of Michigan, tried to sell it but took it off the market after failing to receive any offers that were close to its appraised value.

Schlanderer's on Main Street

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, October 1993,
October 1993

Author: Grace Shackman

Four generations of selling watches and jewelry

In four generations of selling watches, jewelry, and silver, the Schlanderer family has seen jewelry sales go up, silver sales go down, and watch sales remain steady. The need to know the time evidently remains a constant in most people's lives, regardless of economics or fashion.

Rentschler Photographers

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, February 1993,
February 1993

Author: Grace Shackman

When studio photography was king

Today, when the slightest family occasion is recorded with simple pocket-size cameras, and major events bring out the camcorder, it's easy to forget that just yesterday major life events were commemorated in the photographer's studio. Births, confirmations, graduations, team membership, army enlistments, marriages--all, if the family could afford it, were recorded for posterity at the local studio.

Studio photographers, masters of the bulky, tripod-mounted cameras and fragile glass negatives of the day, were the unoffiocial portraitists of the city. From 1890 to 1971, Fred Rentschler and his son and successor, Edwin Rentschler, took pictures of mayors, businessmen, service organization officers, and ministers. Their Rentschler Photographers, primarily at 319 East Huron, had almost a monopoly on U-M subjects: they memorialized every U-M president from James Angell on, photographed the leading professors, and took all the major team pictures.

Fred Rentschler was born in Ann Arbor on June 3, 1868, a few years after his parents immigrated from Wurttemberg, Germany. The 1906 Past and Present of Washtenaw County described the family as "prominent in social circles of the city"--connections that no doubt helped Fred get customers.

After a two-year apprenticeship in photography with the firm of Lewis and Gibson, Rentschler established his own studio in 1890 at the corner of Main and Huron, on the second floor of Brown's Drugstore. His darkroom was across the alley, reached through a covered catwalk. He would take a picture in his studio, run across the alley to develop the glass negative before it faded, then return to take the next shot.

In 1904, when the drugstore was about to be demolished to make way for the Glazier Building, Rentschler bought an old house at 319 East Huron, on land now part of City Hall, to use as his studio. To capture as much natural light for sittings as possible, he built a room on the back of the house with a two-story glass wall. Next door Rentschler built a house for his family. He had married Jessie Doane, a schoolteacher from Dexter, in 1898, and the couple had three children.

Fred Rentschler's grandson, Jeff Rentschler, a recent retiree from the Ann Arbor Fire Department, was a small boy when his grandfather died. He heard from those who knew Fred that he was friendly and outgoing, but also that he ran the studio with an iron hand. At his death the Ann Arbor News wrote, "He had a great deal of patience . . . and thus was able to wait for that fleeting twist of the mouth, or that expression of eyes that delighted his heart when he squeezed the bulb to flash the human countenance onto a film."

Edwin Rentschler, born in 1900, was trained from an early age to be his dad's successor. He officially entered the photography business in 1926, after graduating from the U-M with a business degree. (Jeff wonders if his dad resented going right into the business and if that is why he, in turn, wasn't encouraged to take it over.) The same year Edwin Rentschler joined the business, he married Lois Gates, the daughter of Dr. Neil Gates. As his father's health declined, Edwin handled more and more of the business, taking over completely a few years before Fred died in 1940.

Edwin retained the customers and used the same technology as his fa≠ther had. Jeff Rentschler remembers him standing behind the big camera or hurrying to bring out props--chairs, stools of various sizes, tables. Like his father, he was a perfectionist and a careful craftsman, good with details and very patient. Jeff remembers him as a sterner man than his grandfather; but he could also be very charming. Even with children, who can be a real challenge for a photographer, he would talk and wisecrack until they relaxed and he could get good pictures.

Jeff describes his father as a workaholic who perfected the system of photography he had been taught and changed nothing unless absolutely necessary. Long after good-quality 35-mm film cameras appeared--including the Ann Arbor-made Argus--Edwin Rentschler stayed with glass negatives and a large view camera so heavy it could be moved around the room only on casters.

Because the equipment was so heavy, all work was done in the studio, never on-site. Weeks before their weddings, brides would come to the studio to pose in their gowns. Whole crowds would arrive for group pictures. Even the athletic teams came. Jeff remembers it was a tradition for the U-M football team to come at the end of each season and pose for a group picture. Then they would elect the next year's captain and his picture would be taken, too. (Rentschler didn't charge teams for the pictures, but made money selling them to others.)

Edwin Rentschler's studio was a one-man operation; he even made frames himself. The only help he had was a receptionist and a college student who got a room in exchange for chores such as light cleaning and snow shoveling. During World War II, though, he had to hire extra help to take care of all the servicemen who wanted their pictures taken before they left, possibly forever.

As the studio era waned, Rentschler could have stayed busy by moving about, doing weddings or photographing industrial sites. But he preferred the studio. For the last ten years of his career, he shared space in the Talbot Studio on Main Street and continued taking formal portraits. The only time he ventured from the studio was for the football team pictures. He was willing to take those on-site because, when he moved out of his Huron Street studio, the athletic department had taken all his staging to Yost and would set it up for him every year. Rentschler retired in 1969 and died two years later.

Rentschler took home movies of his own family, but never casual photographs. Asked when he retired if he would take pictures of his family, he replied, "My wife takes candids. I'm strictly a studio man."

[Photo caption from the original print edition]: For decades, mayors, U-M presidents, ministers, and even the entire U-M football team made pilgrimages to Rentschler Photographers (above left) to have their pictures taken for posterity. It was undoubtedly founder Fred Rentschler who photographed his son Edwin and bride Lois Gates in 1926. The Rentschler studio and home on Huron were demolished in the 1960's to make room for City Hall.

[Photo caption from the original print edition]: Long after good-quality 35-mm film cameras appeared--including the Ann Arbor-made Argus--Edwin Rentschler stayed with glass negatives and a large view camera so heavy it could be moved around the room only on casters.

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The Short Life of the Royal Cafe

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, January 1993,
January 1993

Author: Grace Shackman

Guy Bissell and the early years of Ann Arbor's restaurant trade

Between 1905 and 1909, the number of restaurants in Ann Arbor doubled--all the way from eight to seventeen. One of the newcomers was the Royal Cafe, opened in 1909 by Guy Bissell at 316 South Main.

Restaurants weren't a big deal early in the century. "People didn't go to restaurants like they do now," recalls Elsa Goetz Ordway, whose family owned the Goetz Meat Market on Liberty. "As a child I can't remember ever going to a restaurant." Bertha Welker, who was a teenager growing up on Sixth Street when the Royal Cafe opened, never went to a restaurant as a young woman, either. Frieda Heusel Saxon, whose family owned the City Bakery on Huron, remembers that they might run out for a quick bite at lunch, but they didn't eat in restaurants for enjoyment.

In 1909, saloons still far outnumbered restaurants in the city. (There were thirty-seven in 1909.) But they were mainly men's hangouts. Families who wanted to socialize around eating entertained at home or, as a special treat, went out to an ice cream parlor. Ordway remembers that the favorite spots for Sunday afternoon ice cream treats were Trubey's and Preketes's, both on South Main.

The Royal Cafe wasn't intended for the sweet tooth or the drinking crowds. Despite its fancy name, it was what Guy Bissell's daughter, Eleanor Gardner, describes as a "casual restaurant," with a quick-service counter, a few wooden tables, and a simple menu. The bill of fare offered nothing stronger than coffee (five cents), and the only sweet item was griddle cakes (ten cents).

Bissell ran the restaurant himself, doing the cooking with the help of his father, Ira, whenever he was in town. (He divided his time among his three children.) Bissell's wife, Marie, stayed at home with their small children, Eleanor and Clarence, and also cared for her mother, Frederica Bernhardt.

Bissell was just twenty-six when he opened the Royal Cafe. He was born in Ludington, Michigan, the son of an English father and a German mother, and raised in Ypsilanti. He left school after the eighth grade and moved to Ann Arbor when he was eighteen. He worked as a bellboy at the American Hotel (now the Earle Building) where he also slept, and held short-term jobs, including positions as a laboratory technician and a clerk at Overbeck's Book Store. He and Marie Bernhardt were married in 1904.

Bissell's only professional cooking experience before opening his own restaurant was a short stint as a baker for Bigalke and Reule, grocers and bakers, at 215 E. Washington. Gardner says her father learned cooking from his mother, who taught him German specialties.

When the Royal Cafe opened, most of the city's restaurants were on campus or clustered around the courthouse. For a time, it was the only eating place on Main Street other than the tearoom at Mack and Company, Ann Arbor's big department store, at the corner of Main and Liberty. Workers at nearby businesses were probably the nucleus of its customers. The biggest business in the vicinity was the Crescent Works Corset Manufacturers (where Kline's department store is now); others on the block included meat and grocery stores, dry goods and millinery shops, a plumber, a hardware store, an ice company, and an undertaker.

One year after the Royal Cafe opened, five more restaurants were listed in the city directory. The cycle of growth continued, and by 1911 there were twenty-five. That year, the Royal Cafe moved across the street to 331. A year later, Bissell moved it across town to 609 Church Street to serve the college crowd.

The frequent moves were typical of the period. Restaurants had a fast turnover rate and rarely lasted long enough to pass down to the next generation. (The longest-lasting of the 1909 restaurants was Preketes's, later named the Sugar Bowl.) After two years on Church Street, Bissell was bought out by the university. He never again ran a restaurant.

By then the city had twenty-seven restaurants. Eleanor Gardner says her father quit because "the restaurant business got too big for him." It's hard to imagine what he would think of the city today, when the Observer City Guide lists more than 200 restaurants, half a dozen of them in the 300 block of South Main. The original Royal Cafe is not one of them; it's now part of Fiegel's Men's and Boys' Wear.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Gardner was born the year the Royal Cafe opened, and has no firsthand memory of it. But this old interior photo reveals that the menu was heavy on protein: steak, bacon, pork chops, salmon, and sardines. It offered no fruit and only one vegetable: baked beans. Prices ranged from five cents for drinks, to five and ten cents for sandwiches, to fifteen to forty cents for dinners, which included coffee, potatoes, and bread and butter.

The Rise and Fall of "Power Laundries"

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1992,
December 1992

Author: Grace Shackman

Varsity Laundry and the Federal Building block

The first washing machine was reputedly built in 1851 in an Oakland, California, gold-mining camp. A Mr. Davis used barrels with a plunger affair to keep the clothes stirred up, and an old donkey engine to furnish the power. He used his machines to set up a business washing miners' clothes commercially. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, similar "power laundries" sprang up all over the country.

The First National Building

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, September 1992,
September 1992

Author: Grace Shackman

It recalls the ebullient optimism of the 1920's

On February 21, 1929, the First National Building, the tallest and most lavish office building yet built in Ann Arbor, was opened amid great fanfare. More than 5,000 people attended the grand opening of the ten-story building at Main and Washington.

Ehnis and Son

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, May 1992,
May 1992

Author: Grace Shackman

From harness making to work clothes

Soon after Herman Ehnis opened his harness shop at 116 West Liberty, he realized he had gone into a dying field. But by adroitly shifting his focus from horses to the workmen who cared for them, Ehnis created a business that is still here eighty-two years later.

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