Lurie Terrace at Fifty

Author: 
Grace Shackman

Lurie Terrace, a residence for active seniors of moderate means, was a real groundbreaker when it was built fifty years ago. "There were none [like it] to the best of our knowledge" recalls Bob Chance, one of the four architects who worked on it. The designers had no template to follow, just organizer Shata Ling's vision.

Ling was a remarkable woman who was not only full of ideas but made them happen. Born in 1905 in Houston and trained as a social worker, she came to Ann Arbor with her husband, Daniel Ling, in 1943 for grad school - he in civil engineering and she in public health. She later returned to U-M to study community organizing and worked part-time for researcher Wilma Donahue, a pioneer in the new field of gerontology.

When Ling realized that local seniors lacked a gathering place, she and her husband bought an old house at 439 S. Ashley to use as a senior center, renting out a basement apartment to help cover the cost. Ling served as the unpaid director and organized activities such as art classes and choral groups. "It was almost an instant success," recalled Daniel Ling in a 1985 memoir. When they outgrew that building, a generous donation helped them buy a house at 323 Packard, again making it work by renting out apartments. One of the renters there was U-M student Bob Creal, who later served on the board of Lurie Terrace for thirty-eight years.

The seed for Lurie Terrace was planted when Ling learned that many seniors who came to the center lived in inadequate rooms or small apartments, often paying more than they could afford. The problem was compounded by the fact that many of the older homes that offered low rents were being tom down to make room for apartments in the post-WWII building boom. There were four nursing homes in Ann Arbor, but no places for active seniors except for the Anna Botsford Bach Home, which housed just seventeen women.

Learning of new federal programs that would loan money for supportive housing for the elderly, Ling in 1961 converted the senior center board into a nonprofit entity known as Senior Citizens Housing of Ann Arbor, Inc. She then put together a proposal, convincing professionals, such as architect Jim Livingston, to sign on without knowing if they would ever collect a fee or not. Daniel Ling was the structural engineer. Wanting a site near downtown, she convinced the seller of property on Huron St. to keep the land option open for two years.

In the spring of 1962, the nonprofit was approved for a $1.7 million loan, payable over fifty years at 3.375 percent interest. However, it was another year before they could break ground while they ironed out the last details, including raising funds to finish the interior. The community responded with contributions, including a lounge furnished by the Kiwanis Club.

Meanwhile, the architects went to work on the design. Chance remembers Livingston coming into the office and saying "Bob, we've got a good one. You're going to love this lady." meaning Shata Ling. He was right. Chance developed a "profound admiration and respect for her," describing Ling as "an intense, brilliant, no-nonsense, off-the-shoulder kind of gal."

Livingston, who owned the firm, dealt directly with the clients. Kip Serota was the chief designer, while Linden Pettys did the drawings. Chance's main job was to see that the design was carried out as planned when building began. But Chance says they worked as a team. "If there was a problem we'd work it out together to make it happen," he explains.

"We started with what was generally expected, but Shata pushed-she wanted something different," recalls Chance. The challenge, according to Serota, "was to create something with a modest amount of money that didn't look like a public housing project."

The size of the parcel and the number of units dictated a high-rise. But Serota made it different from most blocky low-income projects by designing two eight-story hexagon-shaped towers. The ten apartments on each floor are accessed from corridors that branch out from a central elevator, rather than a single long hall. The hexagonal walls made for wedge-shaped rooms, but Serota explained those made the small spaces seem bigger, and gave residents different views out their windows. Chance remembers doing mock-ups to make sure that furniture would fit in the unconventional rooms.

Serota's original design had balconies, but Livingston nixed them, saying that the residents would rather have more floor space. Serota still thinks they would have been a good idea: in the era before air conditioning they would have allowed residents to cool off, given an illusion of more space, and made the exterior more attractive. The section connecting the two towers contained the elevator, stairs, and a different activity room for each floor: a music room, a greenhouse, an exercise room, an arts and crafts room, and a library.

The most controversial part of the plan was locating the dining room on the top floor. Ling suggested that so all the residents, not just those living on top floors, could enjoy the view over downtown Ann Arbor and the Old Serota’s original design had balconies, but Livingston nixed them, saying that the residents would rather have more floor space. Serota still thinks they would have been a good idea; in the era before air conditioning they would have allowed residents to cool off, given an illusion of more space, and made the exterior more attractive. The section connecting the two towers contained the elevator, stairs, and a different activity room for each floor: a music room, a greenhouse, an exercise room, an arts and crafts room, and a library.

The most controversial part of the plan was locating the dining room on the top floor. Ling suggested that so all the residents, not just those living on top floors, could enjoy the view over downtown Ann Arbor and the Old West Side. She felt the bother of bringing food up and carrying garbage down was worth it. City officials disagreed. Characteristically, Ling didn't back down, and eventually they relented.

The groundbreaking took place in May 1963. Sid Woolner, head of the federal Community Facilities Administration – soon to be folded into the new Department of Housing and Urban Development – called Lurie Terrace “a remarkable, intriguing design.” When construction started, Ling resigned from her by-then-paying position at the senior center to volunteer on the site. She was given a hard hat and an office in the old house that the contractors were using as headquarters before tearing it down. “She was one of the few clients I’ve had who read the specifications,” recalls Chance. She monitored every aspect of the project, including the doors, carpeting, slate, drapery rods, kitchen cabinets, and tile. She also fought to save the trees on the site.

Daniel Ling recalled that his wife “climbed ladders to check the construction and brought coffee to the workmen on cold winter days. With such feminine supervision, some of the men wanted to be informed if she became involved in another construction project so they could apply for the work.”

As the opening date neared, there was a steady stream of applicants to live in the 142 apartments in the new building, which Ling had named after her mother, Anna Lurie. To qualify, people had [to] be at least sixty-two years old and have an income of less than $4,000 a year if single, or $5,000 a year if married. There were also federal rent subsidies for twenty people who qualified.

The official opening was October 9, 1965 – a day so cold and raw that some of the participants watched from inside. The program booklet included a quite from Donahue, from whom Ling had gotten many of her ideas: “Not only is this a ‘break-through’ in retirement housing for middle-income people, but Lurie Terrace represents the practical application of U-M’s many years of work and study.” The New York Times published an article about Lurie Terrace, and in the early years there were visitors from around the world who wanted to learn from its example.

Ling stayed involved in the new residence for the rest of her life. Louise Bale, who later became active in Lurie Terrace, recalled her first glimpse of its creator while dining there with a friend: “Ling entered, dressed in a classic brown suit, her gorgeous red hair piled high on her head. She radiated warmth and vigor. Table after table of the residents looked up to greet her as she passed. A quick remark, an inquiry about someone’s health, an infectious laugh – everyone in that section of the dining room became livelier at once.” Ling died of cancer in 1969 at age sixty-four, just five years after Lurie Terrace was completed.

Serota left Livingston’s office to work for Minoru Yamasaki, who was expanding his staff when he got the job of designing the World Trade Center. Chance spent most of his career working as an architect for the U-M. Livingston continued in private practice, where he designed a wide array of local buildings including Weber’s, Kale’s Waterfall (later Szechuan West), and Lawton Elementary School, as well as apartment houses and private homes.

If Shata Ling and Wilma Donahue were alive today, they would be amazed at how their pioneering efforts have mushroomed. Every community in Washtenaw County now has a senior center. Catholic Social Services Resource Directory lists eighteen senior residences including independent living, assisted living, and memory loss units, plus sixteen subsidized or affordable places. For seniors who wish to stay in their own homes, there are a myriad of services including Meals on Wheels, senior cab service, home sharing, and home health care.

The revolution that brought about this new order started in 1965 with the passage of the Older Americans Act, part of LBJ’s Great Society program. “It moved the needle on the needs of seniors and how to respond,” explains Henry Johnson, U-M emeritus vice president, who is a neighbor and supporter of Lurie Terrace. “As the population aged, a more informed public began advocating for better senior services, which led to both private and public development.”

In spite of the newer competition, Lurie Terrace is usually full, although vacancies are not filled as fast as they once were. “It used to be that they [new residents] would move in literally the next day. They’d already have their things in the car,” recalls Mary Jean Raab, who has been a board member for twenty-two years and is now president.

Most of the original units were very small efficiency apartments ranging from 300 to 350 square feet. While a great step up from the rented rooms many of the first tenants came from, as Americans grew used to having more space, Raab says, “that was simply not the right mix of unit sizes,” and eighteen of them were combined to create nine large one-bedroom apartments. Though the efficiencies are a bargain – rents start at $546 a month, including fifteen meals in the dining room – those larger apartments are now in the greatest demand, with a wait list of several years.

Raab also notes that there used to be more couples. “Today with more options [for support] to bring into the home, couples stay [home] more often until one person passes.”

Another change is the removal of the original ban on walkers and wheelchairs – the thinking then was that the residents had to be totally independent. But as residents needed assistance walking, many just hid their devices or had others go through the food line for them. “We now realize that seniors can be active mentally and physically and still need help,” Raab says.

Last year the board paid off the fifty-year mortgage. That frees them from HUD rules but also means greater responsibility. Since 2002, the board has spent $1.2 million on major updates – installing air conditioning, replacing plumbing, and putting in new windows.

“Fifty years after the first resident, we are thriving, still around, fulfilling our mission,” says Raab. She hopes that with all the improvements, the same thing can be said at the end of the next fifty years.

Captions from images:

There were no models for a residence for active seniors when Shata Ling (at left, with husband Daniel) conceived Lurie Terrace.(Above) Jim Livingston, one of the architects, speaks at the 1964 dedication; his colleague Kip Serota designed the striking hexagonal towers.

The Lings started Ann Arbor's first senior center in a house on Ashley. When Shata realized that many seniors who attended lived in inadequate rooms or small apartments, she created a nonprofit and got a $1.7 million federal loan to build Lurie Terrace. (The name honors Shata's mothers, Anna Lurie.)

Board president Mary Jean Raab shows off the vista from the top-floor dining room. Placing it there was the most controversial part of the design, and city officials objected. But Ling prevailed – she wanted every resident to be able to enjoy the view.

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Saline's mansion

Author: 
Grace Shackman

A May fund-raiser offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see how the Davenports and Curtisses lived

The Davenport-Curtiss mansion and its grounds take up a full block of land right on Michigan Avenue in downtown Saline. The house is so impressive that someone I know assumed it must be a public building—only when he was rebuffed at the door did he learn to his embarrassment that it is a private residence. Built in 1876, the mansion has served as a home for two presidents of the Citizens Bank of Saline, William Davenport and Carl Curtiss, and is still owned by the Curtiss family.

Davenport (1826-1909), the bank's founder, built the house, hiring prominent Detroit architect William Scott to design it. (Scott, trained in England, also designed the 1882 Ann Arbor fire station—now the Hands-On Museum.) The Curtiss family still has the blueprints, which are written on linen and include the instruction that "only finest materials available will be used."

Scott designed the house in the Second Empire style (named for the reign of the French emperor Napoleon III), with a tower and a mansard roof. It was one of the first homes in the city with indoor plumbing. Quality wood—walnut, maple, tulipwood, and butternut—was used throughout, and Davenport furnished the house with pieces purchased at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, an international trade fair held the year it was built. Outside he built a matching carriage house and stable, and he landscaped the grounds with rare trees.

Davenport had earned his fortune as the owner of Saline's largest general store, which segued into a bank. His father died young, and Davenport began working when he was twelve, starting as a clerk in Caleb Van Husen's store in Saline. He was just twenty-five when he opened his own store in partnership with H. J. Miller, whom he bought out two years later. The business thrived, selling everything from sewing supplies to food to wool, and in 1863 Davenport built a new three-story store on the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Ann Arbor Street.

Since Saline's only safe was at the new store, people often asked Davenport to store their cash and other valuables. As the town thrived, especially after the arrival of the train in 1870, Davenport's financial transactions increased. In 1885 he formally organized the bank, which he initially operated out of a comer of his store. Davenport and his wife, Zilpha, were civic leaders. She helped organize the Saline library. He organized the volunteer fire brigade and donated much of its equipment, personally traveling to New York to purchase a hand-pumped fire engine that drew water from cisterns dug under the streets. Davenport "has been prominently identified with all Christian, moral and benevolent movements," a local historian wrote effusively in Charles Chapman's 1881 county history, "and is well noted for his kindness and generosity."

Davenport's son Beveriy (1852-1930) graduated from Detroit Commercial College and succeeded him as bank president after his death in 1909. In 1917, Beverly Davenport remodeled the bank's interior, hiring a New York architect who specialized in financial institutions.

Beverly Davenport died without an heir (his only son, Edward, predeceased him). But luckily there was an employee, Carl Curtiss, who was more than capable of taking over. Curtiss was born in 1883 in Camden, a small town southwest of Hillsdale; he started working at the bank as a teller in 1908, shortly after graduating from Hillsdale College. When William Davenport died, Curtiss was promoted first to assistant cashier and then to secretary of the board and cashier—the posts formerly held by Beverly Davenport. After Beverly's death, Curtiss succeeded him as president of the bank and inherited the Davenport mansion.

When Curtiss moved in, the house had been unoccupied for quite a while and still contained all of its original furnishings. (Beverly had had his own house on Henry Street, just behind his father's.) Curtiss admitted in a 1952 Ann Arbor News interview that he had been tempted to tear the mansion down when he first glimpsed the interior. It was over fifty years old by then, and the plaster was cracked, the fixtures old, and the rooms drab and dirty.

Curtiss's friend Henry Ford convinced him that the house was worth saving, and sent experts from Greenfield Village to help him figure out how to restore the building and furnishings. Curtiss didn't take all of Ford's advice, however—for example, he refused to keep the walnut bathtubs with their copper linings, preferring the convenience of a modem bathroom.

Ford also sent over some of his men to plow up the yard for gardens. In the Curtiss era the house became known for its rows of peonies, hundreds of rose bushes, and thousands of tulips. Curtiss's granddaughter, Mary Curtiss Richards, remembers that the gardeners used to dig up the tulip bulbs every year and dry them on screens for replanting.

While meticulously restoring his house, Curtiss was also earning the respect and gratitude of the community by the way he was running the bank. Though he took over at the beginning of the Great Depression, he dealt with people in a humane way, which also turned out to be good for Saline's future economy. Mary Richards tells how he survived the 1933 bank "holiday," when a panicked run on assets caused many banks to close. "He stood on the steps of the bank, cash in hand, and handed it out," says Richards. "After a few [depositors got their money], they stopped asking to take it out and started putting it back." Some area farmers remember to this day that Curtiss lent them money when their crops failed, and according to Richards, he never foreclosed on any property.

After World War II, loans from Curtiss helped start new businesses, most notably Universal Die Casting, which became Johnson Controls. Curtiss also continued the Davenport tradition of civic involvement. He served on the city council and school board and, during World War II, on the draft board. He donated to countless local projects, including the Saline Community Hospital and the Saline Methodist Church. He paid for high school band uniforms and for much of the land for Curtiss Park. He was a charter member of the Saline Rotary Club.

Curtiss and his wife, Vera, participated in the social life one would expect from a big banker. Richards remembers that they were regular attendees at the musical May Festival in Ann Arbor. "Grandma would get a new dress and dress to the nines," she recalls. "Sometimes she'd get a new piece of jewelry for that, too."

Asked whether it was hard being the granddaughter of the big banker in town, Richards laughs and says, "No, not at all. We were proud of him. We never heard anything bad about him."

Curtiss served on the National Bank Board, and when he went into Detroit for meetings, he and Vera would often take in a play afterward. They sometimes entertained in their house, often in connection with some philanthropic project. Being strict Methodists, they didn't serve anything stronger than ginger ale.

At the time, Richards lived with her parents, Bliss and Vera (her mother had the same name as her grandmother), and her brother Carl in a house her grandparents had built when they first came to Saline. But Richards says she was invited to the Davenport-Curtiss mansion "all the time." Most of her memories of the house are of family events, such as watching movies in the basement (Curtiss had his own projection room, and Richards's family still has some of his movies), or eating her grandmother's waffles on the maid's night out.

Curtiss never retired from the bank; he continued working until his death in 1967 at age eighty-four (Vera had died ten years earlier). In 1964, he oversaw the replacement of William Davenport's original bank building with a new Citizens Bank facility. While in the hospital for his last illness, he was worried that he would spoil his perfect Rotary attendance, so his fellow Rotarians offered to meet in his hospital room. He. died before the time of meeting, leaving his record intact.

Richards's parents moved into the mansion after Carl Curtiss died. A few months later she married, and her parents hosted the reception on the grounds. "It was the last big event [held there]. There was a band, a tent. They went the whole nine yards," says Richards. Her mother kept the house immaculately clean, and even though they regularly hired cleaning help, she insisted on cleaning the Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier herself, still climbing on a stool to do it until she was well into her nineties.

Bliss and Vera Curtiss opened the house to one homes tour in the 1970s. But since then the family has maintained strict privacy, except for letting Saline fourth-grade teacher Audrey Barkel bring students through on tours. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those kids to be in there," says Barkel, who has been taking kids through for about twenty-four years.

This spring Bliss and Vera's son Carl, with his sister Mary's help, will open the house to the public again for a very special event: a garden party to benefit Arbor Hospice, which took care of Vera so that she was able to die at home in 1998 (Bliss had died in 1977). The fund-raiser will be held May 21 from 1 to 4 p.m. Docents will explain the history of the home and garden, and refreshments and a booklet about the house will be available. Tickets, limited to 250, will cost $50, and will be available at Arbor Hospice and various Saline merchants, including the Calico Cat. For more information, see Events, p. 53.

—Grace Shackman

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

The Fountain-Bessac House

Author: 
Grace Shackman

Architectural one-upmanship in Manchester

The Fountain-Bessac house, the majestic residence just west of Manchester's main shopping block at 102 West Main, is a monument to the rivalry between two of the town's earliest leaders.

According to Annetta English, a chronicler of Manchester from the 1930s, rich mill owner Jabez Fountain (1819-1901) built the home's Greek Revival first floor about 1842. Fountain's ambition, English wrote, was to outshine the nearby residence of John Kief, Manchester's first banker.

Kief's home was behind Fountain's, across the street on Madison. "It stands on a rise of ground, with ample grounds around it, and fine old trees, and an exquisite view is afforded to the west and to the north," wrote English. At the time English wrote, the house was still occupied by a Kief descendant and filled with fine old furniture.

The Fountain house was built, and no doubt also designed, by William Carr, who constructed many of Manchester's early houses and commercial buildings. Carr probably used Asher Benjamin's 1830 pattern book The Architect, or Practical House Carpenter. Katherine McKibben, present owner of the house, has noticed in a reprint of Benjamin's book that two of her fireplaces exactly match Benjamin's suggested designs. Although originally just one story high, the Greek Revival design still must have looked impressive, standing back on a deep lot with six Ionic columns across the front. Old photos show a majestic horse chestnut on the front lawn and vines growing up the columns.

In 1850 Fountain sold the house to Dr. William Bessac and moved to an even grander home on the comer of City Road and Furnace. Bessac (1809-1885) added a smaller second floor topped by a third- floor cupola, both designed in the then fashionable Italianate style. The pyramidal outline he created led some to compare the home to a wedding cake or Chinese lantern. Bessac's family moved upstairs, while the first floor became his medical examining rooms and drug dispensary.

According to Bessac's obituary, "He prided himself in mastering not only the principles of science but the minute details of the practice, and a faithfulness in remembering names and faces followed him to his latest days." But his medical practice evidently was insufficient to support his family, because Bessac also ran a general store on the south side of the commercial block, selling drugs, groceries, and dry goods.

The house was threatened but not destroyed by a fire in 1853 that leveled much of downtown Manchester. The fire began at the mill and was spread by the wind to the north side of the main shopping block, where it burned all the wooden buildings in its path until it reached the hotel across the street from the Fountain-Bessac house. The hotel's barn burned, but the people fighting the fire were able to bring it under control before it went farther.

Interestingly, Bessac himself was not home at the time, because he was on a shopping trip with his neighbor—Fountain's old rival, John Kief. An account of the fire reported that "Doctor Bessac and John D. Kief were in the East, purchasing new goods for their stores."

After Bessac's death, the home passed to his daughter, Mary, and her husband, George Haeussler. A pharmacist, George bought the Van Dyne and Calhoun drugstore in 1876. The Haeusslers had one son, Raynor, who followed his father into the business. (After passing through several subsequent owners, their store is now the Manchester Pharmacy.) Raynor married Marjorie Kingsley, and the young couple built a Colonial Revival home behind his parents' house. Mary Haeussler continued to live in the big house after her husband's death, but when climbing stairs became difficult, Raynor and Marjorie added a first-floor bedroom to her house and brought meals over to her every day.

In 1947, after Mary Haeussler had died and the house had been either vacant or rented for some years, Raynor Haeussler sold it to Mary and Tom Walton. A young couple recently married, they had moved to Manchester to be near the onion and potato farm that Tom's family owned. Tom worked on the farm but lived in town. They rented an apartment until, as Mary remembers it, "One day I went in the drugstore, and someone said, 'Why don't you buy the place on the corner? It's run down and no one's living in it.'" The house was over 100 years old and was falling apart when the Waltons moved in. "There was old plumbing, an old steam furnace," recalls Mary Walton. "It was rough."

To restore the house, the Waltons were fortunate to have the help of Emit Lorch, retired dean of the University of Michigan architecture school. Lorch had become acquainted with the house in the 1930s when he headed the Historic American Building Survey Project in Michigan; at that time, the house had been entered in the secretary of the interior's list of important historic structures. The Waltons met Lorch when he asked to include the house in a tour for the Washtenaw County Historical Society.

The Waltons worked with Lorch and an architecture student to create a plan to modernize the house while keeping all the historic features. The Waltons lived in a trailer in the street for the first year of the three-year project. "We were young and could do those things," recalls Mary Walton. They removed the tacked-on first floor bedroom and the back kitchen wing, which they replaced with a breezeway and two-car garage. Inside, they opened up the downstairs—still divided into tiny rooms from Dr. Bessac's time—and relocated the staircase to the center of the house. Outside, they replaced the front columns, which were falling apart, with exact copies. As Lorch explained in a letter to the Waltons, the columns "are the chief features of the front and like our Sunday clothes need to be 'according to Hoyle,' as they say."

The Waltons lived in the house forty-seven years, raising two children and playing an active role in the community, especially in their church and the historical society. Tom served on the village council. Their large, beautifully landscaped front lawn, located so near downtown, was a convenient as well as gracious place to hold community events. By 1988 the home was listed on both the state and national registers of historic places.

Katherine McKibben bought the house from the Waltons in 1990. She has made changes but has been careful, as the Waltons were, to keep its historic character intact. She divided the living room in two and opened up the kitchen to include the space where the Waltons had an office. A portrait of Dr. Bessac hangs in a place of honor in the dining room. The painting had belonged to Raynor Haeussler, Bessac's grandson. Raynor and Marjorie had no children; after they died, their heirs gave the picture to the Waltons. They in turn gave it to McKibben, feeling that it should stay in the house.

In the "contest" that inspired the house, Fountain wins hands down—at least if one considers the test of time. Kief's house, while still standing, had its top floor removed in 1950, and most of its old features are now hidden; one can hardly guess its age or former elegance. Meanwhile, the Fountain-Bessac house is the one that everyone who comes to town notices and admires.

—Grace Shackman

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Dexter's Vinkle-Steinbach House

Author: 
Grace Shackman

The American Legion Hall was originally the home of an eccentric cabinetmaker

Henry Vinkle, original owner of the historic Vinkle-Steinbach House, is said to have built his own casket, and napped in it every day until he died and was buried in it. His house, built in 1840, is now the headquarters of Dexter's American Legion.

Vinkle, a trained cabinetmaker, set up business sometime before 1832 on the west side of the millpond, near Dexter's two mills and the main shopping area. For his shop, he used a barn that town founder Samuel William Dexter had built in 1826. Like other nineteenth-century cabinetmakers, Vinkle not only made coffins, he also doubled as an undertaker. Prior to the Civil War, funerals were held in homes, and the undertaker's job was to take the casket to the family and lay out the body. Soon Vinkle was handling funerals for miles around Dexter.

By 1840, Vinkle's business was prospering and he built an elegant Greek Revival home. "The house was built back in the time when there were very few nails," said Leon Agan, son-in-law of one of the home's later owners. The builders used "big logs," Agan said, and did the foundation and flooring by hand.

According to Agan, the three pillars in front of the house—which he always found "rather pretentious"—were "the outstanding edifice as far as the people going by were concerned." The year after Vinkle built his house. Judge Dexter built a very similar house not far away—with six pillars.

From the time the Vinkle family lived in the house until the time the American Legion occupied it, the home had only three other owners, all related: first Henry Jones; then his sister Helen Laney and her husband, Zerah Burr; and lastly Helen's daughter Mary Laney and her husband, Henry Steinbach. (Agan was married to the Steinbachs' daughter Frances.) Two weddings took place in the mansion: Adeline Vinkle to William Boston in 1869 and Mary Laney to Henry Steinbach in 1902.

Zerah Burr farmed on land that ran south of the property. His son-in-law, Henry Steinbach, worked as a traveling salesman, selling leather belting and leather supplies, mainly to steel mills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Steinbach always traveled by train because he hated car travel. Although the train tracks went right by his house, he had to board the train at the station, four blocks away. (Once, though, the train stopped in front of his house because of an obstruction, and he just got off there.)

The Steinbachs built a swimming pool between the house and Mill Creek. Their children, Frances, Charles, and Burr, all enjoyed it, as did their friends, including the children of the Bates family, who lived just up the road. Harry Bates (now a member of the American Legion) and his sisters, Dorothy Bates and Jeanette Bates Turner, remember Mary Steinbach giving them cookies and milk after school.

The Bateses remember that Henry Steinbach, a small man, "a bantam rooster," liked to relax with a cigar in his leather reclining chair in a nook in the living room. Mary Steinbach and her mother hosted many Methodist church functions, including quilting bees. It was a large enough home to set up the quilting frame and to lay out a potluck lunch inside.

Dexter war veterans organized a chapter of the American Legion in 1948 and bought the Vinkle-Steinbach house for their headquarters the next year. They filled in the pool and tore down the barn, replacing it with a picnic pavilion. Two additions to the house were built: a meeting room to the east in 1957, and an enlargement of the lounge on the west in 1984. The additions are placed far enough from the front house line so as not to obscure the pillars nor alter the majestic look of the house. The inside, however, has been totally remodeled with an open room plan, wood paneling, a new fireplace, a bar, ceiling fans, and three televisions.

Today 290 members enjoy the house, relaxing in the lounge, attending meetings in the hall, and working on a wide variety of service projects for the community and for other veterans. "We're proud of what such a small community can do," says Legion adjutant Larry Stalker. The old Vinkle-Steinbach House not only serves all their needs, but is much more homey and cozy than a new building would be. According to Legion member Harry Bates, "This is about as good as Dexter has to offer."

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: Henry Vinkle's colonnaded home aroused the envy of Judge Dexter himself.

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Rescued from the Scrap Heap

Author: 
Grace Shackman

New owners are restoring the digs of Chelsea's most notorious figure—and villagers are pitching in.

For almost a century after Frank Glazier left Chelsea in 1910 to serve a term in Jackson State Prison, his huge house at 208 South Street went downhill. Despite Glazier's notoriety in local history, Chelsea residents did nothing to save it beyond occasional complaining.

Last January Todd and Janice Ortbring bought the twenty-one-room mansion, complete with tower, despite an eleven-page inspection report that mentioned termites, foundation cracks, and faulty wiring, among other problems. "We're probably crazy for doing it," says Todd Ortbring. "But we saw the opportunity to save a house that needed saving pretty darn quick." A lifelong resident of Chelsea, Ortbring appreciated Glazier's importance. His great-grandfather played in Glazier's band, and his grandfather owned the drugstore that Glazier had inherited from his father.

Glazier is without doubt the most important person in Chelsea's history after the founding Congdon brothers. In 1895 he started a company that manufactured cooking and heating stoves, and he was soon selling stoves worldwide. A civic leader, Glazier benefited Chelsea in countless ways—bringing electricity and water to town, providing jobs, and erecting landmark buildings that still define Chelsea, including the Clock Tower, the Welfare Building, the Methodist church, and a bank that is now 14A District Court. He was also a leader in state and local politics; in 1906 he was elected state treasurer and was being mentioned as a possible governor.

But at this peak of his prominence, his financial shenanigans were exposed: putting state money in his own bank, and taking out separate loans from banks all over the state using identical collateral from his stove company. Forced to resign as treasurer, Glazier spent two years in Jackson Prison before his sentence was reduce for good behavior. He spent the last ten years of his life at his cottage on Cavanaugh Lake.

Even today, reactions to Glazier are mixed. Some condemn him. Others excuse him by saying that what he did was common practice in those days and that he was being squeezed by the nationwide financial panic of 1907.

Glazier's house was divided into four apartments. For a long time it still looked beautiful from the outside; in the 1970s, however, an owner put up an ugly concrete-block addition for a fifth apartment, totally obscuring the elegant wraparound porch held up by fluted pillars.

The Ortbrings aim to make the house a single-family home again. Years of use as apartments obscured its original functions; it now appears that the house is actually two houses pushed together. The Ortbrings found a treasure trove of elements in a basement room—front porch columns, wooden doors with metal hardware, leaded glass windows, banisters, wooden benches, and two boxes of wooden pieces for the disassembled parquet floor—that are all elements of the puzzle.

Exactly when Glazier built his house is not clear. In 1895 a photo of it as a smaller house without a tower appeared in the Chelsea Headlight, a publication of the Michigan Central Railroad. Graffiti in the tower, written by Glazier's daughter Dorothy, are dated 1899. Ortbring believes the front was added to the back, but others say the back, the tower, and the front porch might have been the additions.

The Ortbrings have assembled a group of experts to help them, such as builder Bob Chizek and Chelsea architect Scott McElrath. Their strategy is to first replace the roof and paint the exterior. They plan to attack the inside apartment by apartment. The Ortbrings are living in the second-floor rear apartment and renting out three units while working on the apartment below them, which contains the original dining room. Taking off paneling and dropped ceilings, they found pocket doors, parquet floors, ceiling moldings, and a fireplace.

Restoring a house is almost like living with an original tenant. Todd Ortbring pictures the dining room as it was in Glazier's time. "Glazier was a man who liked to eat," he says. "The dining room would have been the most important room in the house, the site of many parties." Ortbring also imagines many meetings of civic and business leaders there. "They'd close the doors, smoke cigars, eat, and plot."

The Ortbrings hope to be done with their restoration by the time their sons, eight-year-old Blake and seven-year-old Grant, graduate from high school. They haven't ruled out someday turning it into a bed-and-breakfast or renting out a part of it.

Lots of Chelsea residents have offered to help in various ways, with information, labor, and even money. Recently the Ortbrings hosted a community open house. The huge turnout on a rainy day suggests that the people of Chelsea are prepared to forgive, or at least forget, Frank Glazier's misdeeds and celebrate all that he brought to the village.

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: Todd and Janice Ortbring, with builder Bob Chizek (right), are restoring the Glazier home, which has changed a lot since 1895.

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Goetz Meat Market

Author: 
Grace Shackman

When home was upstairs

In December, the DDA Citizens Advisory Committee hosted a loft tour to get people interested in living upstairs over downtown stores. When Elsa Goetz Ordway was a girl, it was common. From 1905 to 1913, when the Goetz family ran a meat market at 118 West Liberty (now the Bella Ciao restaurant), they were just one of many families who lived downtown where they worked.

Ordway's parents, George and Mathilda Goetz, were born in Wurttemberg, Germany, and came to the United States in 1899. After five years working for a relative who owned a hotel in Niagara Falls, New York, they moved to Detroit, where George Goetz worked as a butcher. A year later they came to Ann Arbor with their sons, Willie and George. They opened the Goetz Meat Market on the street level of the Liberty Street building and moved into the top two stories. Daughter Elsa was born there a year later, with a Dr. Belser in attendance.

The Goetz's family life was intertwined with the store. Mathilda Goetz prepared the family's meals in the workroom behind the shop where her husband made bologna and other meat products. The family's dining room was on the first floor, too, so that they could take care of customers who came in while they were eating. The Goetzes worked long hours—until almost midnight on Saturdays. In those days before refrigeration, people shopped on Saturday night for Sunday dinner. On Sundays the shop was closed, but it was not unusual for a customer to phone and say they were having unexpected company and could they please come over and get some meat?

Ordway's brother Willie, who eventually took over the business, helped his dad make the products then considered standard fare for butcher shops—lard, breakfast sausage, bologna, knockwurst, and frankfurters. Ordway remembers, "My dad would slice the bologna and look at it to see whether it was done right—like a person at a fair looking at cake texture." He made his frankfurters with natural casings, "just so," and was upset when people overcooked them and they burst.

Brother George, in delicate health because of a congenital heart defect (he died at twenty-two), was a photographer. He took pictures of excellent quality despite the slow film and glass negatives then in use. Many of his photos are reproduced today in local histories. He was also knowledgeable about electricity; the family had the first electrically lighted Christmas tree in Ann Arbor. To help his dad, who often carried heavy things up and down the cellar stairs, he wired the cellar lighting to switch on and off when someone stepped on the upper stair tread. When the light began to be on when it should have been off, and vice versa, they finally discovered the culprit: the family cat.

Ordway was too young to work in the store, but she kept busy. She played on the roof of the back room, which was reached from the second-floor living quarters. Her friends in the neighborhood included Bernice Staebler, who lived in her parents' hotel, the American House, now the Earle building, around the corner (Then & Now, May 1993). Riding her tricycle up and down Liberty, Ordway got to know all the store owners, buying penny candy at the grocery store or a ribbon to put around her cat's neck at Mack and Company. She recalls that "an employee of Mack and Company made me a set of large wooden dolls, one of the Ehnises gave me a hand-tooled leather strap for my doll buggy, and Miss Gundert, the principal of Bach School, taught me how to make outline drawings of people and animals when she came to buy meat.

Store owners even knew their customers' pets. Dogs were given free bones, and in those days before leash laws, some came in by themselves to pick them up. Ordway's cat was well known, too - fortunately. As she explains, "One afternoon a customer who worked for the Ann Arbor Railroad came into the store after work and said, 'I see your cat is back.' We hadn't known she'd been away. He told us that he had seen my cat in a boxcar in Toledo and - as that train had been headed for a very distant place - he had carried her over to a boxcar headed [back to] Ann Arbor."

The Goetz family took good care of their customers, too. The meat was never prepackaged, but hung in quarter sections, to be cut to customers' exact specifications. Children who came in with their parents were usually given a slice of bologna. In those days before cars were common, many customers phoned in their orders, which were delivered by the horse-drawn wagons of Merchants Delivery, a company that served the smaller stores that didn't have their own delivery services.

In 1913, wanting a break from the store, the Goetz family moved to a house they had built at 549 South First Street and rented the store out, first to Weinmann Geusendorfer, then to Robert Seeger. They rented the upstairs living quarters to relatives. George Goetz kept a hand in the meat business, filling in at other butcher shops and helping out their owners by making bologna. He also supplied veal to meat markers, traveling around in a horse and buggy to buy the calves from farmers. He died in 1929. Willie, called Bill as an adult, took over the store about 1923. He renamed it Liberty Market and ran it until he retired in 1952. Since then the building has housed restaurants—first Leo Ping's, then Leopold Bloom's, Trattoria Bongiovanni, and now Bella Ciao. The former living quarters are now used as a banquet room (second floor), offices, and storage (third floor).

A return to the practice of living above one's own business will probably not happen in these days of chains, franchises, and large corporations. But the upstairs lofts over downtown businesses can still be made into very desirable apartments. Proponents point out that using downtown's upper stories in this way can keep the area both more vibrant and safer (with more people out and about around the clock). And downtown residents have the advantage of being within easy walking distance of shops, restaurants, and entertainment. Children's author Joan Blos, a member of the DDA advisory council and herself a downtown resident, says of downtown lofts, "Their somewhat eccentric charm appeals to many persons of quite different lifestyles and requirements. Renovated lofts have the potential to provide a useful socioeconomic bridge between the upscale housing of newer buildings and the affordable housing often associated with the downtown area."

—Grace Shackman

Photo Captions:

About 1923, Bill Goetz (far left, next to partner Frank Livernois) took over the former family store and renamed it Liberty Market. He ran it until he retired in 1952; after passin through many uses, the building today is the Bella Ciao restaurant.

Elsa Goetz (later Ordway) about 1910. Born upstairs from the family meat market, she grew up with Liberty Street as her playground. She bought penny candy and ribbons from nearby stores and one of the Ehnises contributed a leather strap for her doll's buggy.

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Chelsea Retirement Community

Author: 
Grace Shackman

The Heritage Room recalls a time when the residents worked for their keep

The Chelsea Retirement Community is one of the oldest retirement centers in the state. It was founded by the Detroit Annual Council of Methodists as a home for "aged saints of the church" in 1906.

"They wanted a decent place for people who didn't have family to care for them," explains administrator Connie Amick. 'The only alternative was the poor farm."

The organizing committee looked at several sites in the Detroit area, but decided on Chelsea after Frank Glazier, a local banker and stove manufacturer, donated the land and a generous amount of money. When Glazier ran into financial troubles a few years later, the Old People's Home (as it was originally called) took in his mother, Emily Glazier. Today two of his granddaughters live there.

In 1907, after a year in a single-family home, the community moved into a new building large enough for thirty-six. There were only ten residents at the time of the move, and it took six years to fill the new building, because the idea of living in a retirement home was so new. Most residents could afford only low fees, so donations from churches and individuals supplemented the cost.

The first administrator. Rev. Seth Reed, had started his career as a Methodist circuit rider. Tall and of seemingly poor health, he was nicknamed "death on stilts" - a rubric he defied by living to be 100 years old. While Reed raised money for the home, his wife, Henrietta, handled day-to-day operation.

The way of life in the home's early years and the look of some of the rooms have been reconstructed by the organizers of the Heritage Room, a museum at the retirement home. Exhibits include a reconstruction of an early bedroom, with a water pitcher, washbowl, and bedpan; a dining room table set for a meal; and a fourteen-foot wagon once pulled by Fred, the home's sole horse. Fred did the heavy work during the years when the home's residents raised much of their own food.

Many of the items in the exhibit were donated by residents. Antiques appraiser Gary Kuehnle dated and authenticated the items, while Dana Buck of the U-M's Kelsey Museum created the design. "He broke up a narrow room to utilize the space," explains head docent Polly Monroe.

During the community's early years, residents helped with the chores if they were able: men in the gardens and on the farm, women in the kitchen and laundry. "All the help had to live in, and work for their room and board," recalled Lelah Knickerbocker in a 1996 interview with Kathy dark of the Chelsea Standard. Knickerbocker, who started working at the retirement home in 1923, recalled, "Each girl had a floor to live on and take care of. The home had one floating nurse who also lived in. When someone got sick, they stayed right in their own room. Sometimes when the nurse got awful tired and needed a rest, she'd call on me to sit up at night with the patients."

The biggest difference between the early years and today is "the attitude change," says Amick. "It used to be very paternalistic. Now the residents run it. We have a strong resident council." There is no longer any religious qualification, and the community has grown to include about 360 residents, with a 120-room addition planned for residents suffering from memory loss. The Heritage Room, which has won several prestigious awards, can be toured by appointment.

—Grace Shackman

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Ann Arbor's Kit Homes

Author: 
Grace Shackman and Rob Schweitzer

Linda Feldt knew she wanted to buy her house on Keppler Court the moment she saw it six years ago. It's strong and well made, she says—even the original plaster is holding up well for a house built in the 1920's. She works at home as a holistic health practitioner, and she says, "Every time I walk up to my house, I just love it."

The one thing Feldt didn't like about her house's layout was the way the refrigerator was placed in a little dead-end hallway off the kitchen. A handy, practical woman, she decided to incorporate the hallway into the kitchen. Getting ready to move the doorway, she recalls, "I took off the baseboards—and it said on the back, 'Montgomery Ward.' "

Feldt had just discovered that her dream house was a kit home. In about 1927, Albert Jedele (his name was on the baseboard, too) and his wife, Elsa, picked the house out of a Ward's catalog. Ward's shipped everything needed to build the Norwood, as the model was called, to Ann Arbor by rail: lumber already cut to size, roofing, flooring, plaster, even nails and paint. The Jedeles, too, seem to have been delighted with their house: the 1928 "Wardway Homes" catalog includes this testimonial from Mrs. Jedele: "We saved $1000 and got better materials by buying a WARDWAY home from you. We have lived in it for three years, and we like it better every day."

The catalog also explained the mystery of the refrigerator in the hallway. The house was built before the days of electric refrigerators, and the catalog boasted that the Norwood's floor plan allowed deliveries to the icebox without having the ice man track through the kitchen.

The kit home industry flourished between 1906 (when the Aladdin Company started making home kits in Bay City, Michigan) and World War II. An important but, until recently, overlooked part of America's architectural history, it is only now beginning to get serious attention. Many companies, including Ward's and Sears, the best-known kit home seller, no longer have their records, and can only estimate how many homes they actually sold. A conservative guess puts the number at over half a million across the country.

Ann Arbor was an ideal market for kit houses: it had a growing population, good shipping access via two rail lines, and a location near the industry's center in Bay City. In addition to Sears and Ward's, there were four large manufacturers of kit homes. One of the four, Gordon-Van Tine, was in Davenport, Iowa. But the other three manufacturers—Aladdin and two later competitors, Sterling and Lewis—were based in Bay City.

The son of Aladdin's founder, W. F. Sovereign, thinks that his father got the idea for kit houses from a Bay City company that made precut kits for wooden boats. Whatever the inspiration, Bay City early in this century was the ideal place for the industry to spring up: its boat-building industry used mechanized wood-cutting technology that could be adapted for homes, and it had all the facilities needed to ship lumber, a legacy of Michigan's late-nineteenth-century timber boom.

In 1906, when Aladdin was founded, it was just becoming possible to sell and ship products in large volume nationwide. New national magazines made it easy to advertise all over the country, and the 1893 Rural Free Delivery Act made it possible to mail catalogs everywhere. At the same time, the nearly universal spread of railroads put most towns on a line for easy shipping.

Home builders of the era, however, still worked entirely with hand tools. By taking advantage of the efficiencies of mechanized mass production, kit house makers were able to offer fancy detailing—for instance, porches with elaborate pillars, and overhanging eaves with knee brackets—while undercutting the prices local carpenters had to charge to cover all that labor. Some firms built entire company towns of kit houses. Kits were shipped to every state in the union, to Canada, and even to England.

Construction of kit homes in Ann Arbor peaked in the 1920's with the growth of the university and the expansion of the city's industrial base. It slowed during the Depression and stopped completely during World War II when materials were needed for war production.

Kit houses can be found all around the city, but are concentrated in neighborhoods developed during the early years of this century: the outer edges of the Old West Side, lower Burns Park, and East Ann Arbor. They are found in all the predominant styles of the time—bungalow, semi-bungalow, craftsman, Tudor, box (four-square), Dutch colonial, and Georgian. Most are modest homes of less than 1,200 square feet, but some elegant models were built, too. The best known is former Ann Arbor News publisher Tim White's southern mansion at 2030 Hill. The founder of American Broach, Francis LaPointe, lived in an elegant Sears home (since torn down) at 4158 Washtenaw, so big it included a ballroom in which Henry Ford once danced.

We have identified Ann Arbor area kit houses through reminiscences of people involved in the building or buying of them, from physical evidence found in the houses themselves, or from information gleaned from the sellers' original catalogs. So far, we have positively identified thirty-one homes as kit houses; twenty-five others are strong possibilities, while countless others are suspected.

Collier's, Better Homes & Gardens, and the Saturday Evening Post all carried kit home ads. Interested readers could send in a coupon to receive the company's latest catalog. The catalogs changed yearly and included about seventy models. Each model had a name, often one intended to evoke the aura of a style or an era—Hathaway or Birmingham for Tudor-style models, Rembrandt or Amsterdam for Dutch colonials, San Jose for a Spanish-style house, Magnolia for a southern mansion. Other models were named after contemporary heroes, including actress Mary Pickford and General John J. Pershing.

The catalogs had pictures and floor plans of each model, along with a "bill of materials" and forms for ordering the house or requesting further information. The catalogs also included details about such optional extras as lighting fixtures, wallpapers, furniture, and even window screens.

The Aladdin Company proudly advertised that its catalog was its only salesman. Both Sears and Ward's, on the other hand, had local agents in many areas. In 1930, Sears had kit house sales offices in seven Michigan cities, including Ann Arbor, Detroit, Jackson, and Port Huron, and in Toledo, Ohio. A 1928 Sears catalog lists an office in the Washtenaw Heights subdivision between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The agent could help buyers decide on design options, such as roof variations or different sidings. He could also direct buyers to similar models already built in town.

To compete with the local agents, Aladdin sent its customers lists of Aladdin homes built in their area and paid these home owners a dollar for each potential customer they allowed to tour their houses. This method proved quite effective; testimonial letters show that some new Aladdin home owners made several hundred dollars within a year from the tours. No such list has yet surfaced for southeast Michigan, but we know of ones from Ohio and Pennsylvania.

If the testimonials in the 1926 Gordon Van Tine catalog can be trusted, the average kit house cost 30 percent less than a similar conventionally built house. According to Ann Arborites who built them, other attractions of kit houses included easy financing, style, convenience, and the challenge of building one's own home.

Financing was the lure for the late Frank Braatz, a trained carpenter who could just as easily have built a house from scratch. "My credit was no good," he recalled in 1988. "I was just a kid. I didn't want to work for someone else, so I borrowed from Sears." In 1922 Sears gave him a $500 advance plus the lumber to build the Rodessa model, a small two-bedroom bungalow. He lived there for several years, sold it, then used the profit to build another house. "After I built enough, I could go ahead on my own."

Cost was the major factor in Reuben Rose's decision to build a Sears house at 1472 South Boulevard. "In 1927 money was scarce," he recalls. "I was an apprentice electrician not making much money, but I only needed two hundred dollars down to build a Sears house."

Rose and his wife, Ruth, remember looking through the catalog at the office of a Sears agent. They chose a California style bungalow called the Somers to match the other one-story homes in their neighborhood. Now, sixty-three years later, Rose is glad of that—he doesn't have to go up and down stairs in his retirement years.

Charles Winfeld Good, a professor of mechanical engineering at the U-M, built a Sears Rembrandt model at 622 South Seventh in 1925. "He was a young man with little income and a lot of energy," says his eldest daughter, Martha Good Vibrans. "This was the only way he could get a house for his family."

Style and convenience were also strong selling points. Each maker's catalog offered scores of choices every year, and included catchy innovations like the Norwood's icebox hallway. The Burkhardts in Chelsea, according to their daughter, Olive Burkhardt Wiseman, saw a house in Ann Arbor that they liked. On learning that it was a Kit house, they ordered the same one, hiring local barn builder Chris Koch and his son Roy to build it. The house still stands at 12345 Jackson Road near Stivers.

Esther Schwartz, who still lives in a Ward Kenwood model on Eighth Street, remembers that she and Elmer, her husband-to-be, selected that particular model from the catalog because it had a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor. (Two-story houses traditionally had the bathroom and all the bedrooms on the second floor.)

Kit houses were shipped by rail. Frank Braatz received a postcard from the Ann Arbor Railroad notifying him when his Rodessa arrived at the station on Ashley. The boxcar containing the materials was put on a side track until Braatz could arrange with Si Elsifor's trucking firm to unload it and bring it to the site at 802 South First Street, where he had already dug a basement.

The kit contained blueprints, a building instructions booklet, and everything needed to construct the house, including numbered precut lumber, plaster, a furnace, radiators, nails, stair pieces, white paint, gutters, downspouts, and storm windows. Sears first shipped the items needed to frame in the house; a second shipment had the finishing materials, such as casings, finish floors, windows, and doors. The Rodessa wasn't a top-of-the-line model; the kit included neither kitchen cabinets nor a fireplace. Fancier plans had these extras and more. For instance, Tim White's Hill Street house came with glass paned French doors and elaborate porch pieces already made up.

After he lived in his house for two years, Frank Braatz built a larger Sears house at 812 Miner, a Dutch colonial model called the Puritan. (Another Puritan, owned by Polly Varhol, can be found at 3055 Lakewood.) Braatz later built several more houses, but they weren't kit houses. Once he could afford to borrow on his own, he chose to build from scratch, with more freedom to make changes in a design.

The late Roy Koch remembered his work on the Burkhardt home in a 1987 interview. Each piece of lumber had a code number on it that tied it to the blueprints and assembly instructions. Koch complained that it was more trouble to keep track of the numbered lumber than just to go straight to work.

Frank Braatz solved that problem by laying out the materials in order of use. "The wood came with perfect cuts, tied with steel straps. The main thing was to keep the piles separate." At first, Braatz laid the piles out on the ground. Later, when the roof was in place, he brought the remaining material inside for protection.

Reuben Rose, who hired Godfrey Moving to haul his kit house from the railroad station, was lucky that his parents lived around the corner on Packard. He stored the materials for his home in his father's barn, where they stayed safe and dry until he was ready to use them.

Testimonial letters to the Gordon-Van Tine Company in Iowa tell of numerous farmers and their hired hands completing kit houses unaided. But even though Ann Arbor buyers of kit houses were often handymen or jacks-of-all-trades, they usually hired a trained carpenter to help them build the house. Kit houses saved their owners the trouble of buying each individual part and of sawing the wood into the right sizes, but they still took considerable skill to erect.

Rose's house was built mainly by his carpenter uncle, although he and his father helped. Esther Schwartz's house was built by a carpenter named Otto Tony, who lived across the street, with help from her husband. Clarence Steffey, who lives in a 1929 Sears Westly model at 602 Soule, reports that his dad, retired farmer Frank Steffey, built it, working side-by-side with a carpenter from Stockbridge named Whit Holmes. Bob Truby, who grew up in a Sears Clyde bungalow at 905 South Fifth Street, remembers that his father, ice cream manufacturer Harold Truby, hired a contractor to build their house. The Good children remember that a large group of people—neighbors, friends, relatives, colleagues—all helped with their Seventh Street house.

The Ann Arbor area homes we know of took about six months to build. Guila Baries, whose husband, Fred, and father-in-law, Jacob, built a Sears Wilmore model at 3101 Dexter Road (an identical house is at 2625 Dexter), remembers that they started work in the spring of 1937 and were finished in time to celebrate Thanksgiving in their new home.

Both Steffey and Rose report that their houses took longer to complete than they'd expected, forcing the families to live temporarily in their garages. Steffey's father had rented a house on Eighth Street to live in while the new house was being built. But that lease ran out in the fall of 1929 while the new house was still unfinished, and the family was forced to move into the garage. They lived there about a month, where, Steffey remembers, "it got kinda cold."

Reuben Rose remembers that, tiring of garage living, he and his wife decided to move into their house, although it meant having the bed in the kitchen for awhile.

Sears and Ward's financed the houses they sold, often on better terms than buyers could get from local banks. That backfired in the Depression, when, like every other financial institution, they were forced to foreclose some of the mortgages and suffered bad publicity as a result. Rose recalls, though, that Sears helped him to hold on to his house. When he was short of money during the Depression, he wrote Sears and asked if he could pay just the interest on his loan for awhile. The company agreed, and Rose continued to do that until World War II, when he got a good job at the Willow Run bomber plant and was able to pay off his mortgage.

Sears' policy of helping owners to retain their houses if at all possible is confirmed by commercial broker Peter Alien. His grandfather, Amiriah Alien, worked for Sears in Chicago, buying homes that were due to be foreclosed and then selling them back to the owners with longer-term loans. Even so, it was probably adverse publicity about foreclosures that led Sears to abandon the kit house business in 1940.

The next year, World War II shut down almost all residential building. Though some of the kit companies revived afterward (Aladdin survived into the early 1980's), they were never again the force they had been before the Depression. Probably the big reason was the postwar introduction of affordable portable power tools that, along with panelized building materials like plywood and drywall, drastically cut down the labor needed to build a house from scratch. Rather than kit homes, postwar efforts at mass housing production instead focused on prefabricated structures like the winsome, all-steel Lustron (Then & Now, March 1989).

All of the kit house owners we talked to reported that their homes have held up well, requiring repairs because of age but not because of poor quality or bad workmanship. In fact, the high standards of the ready-cut housing companies probably raised the all-around quality of lumber throughout the nation. (Aladdin offered to pay a dollar for any knot found in its siding materials. Ward's offered to replace free of charge any piece the customer was dissatisfied with.)

When kit houses changed hands, the new buyers didn't necessarily know that they were buying a kit house, since they were built in the styles of the day and constructed so that assembly markings didn't show. Current owners who do know the origin of their houses, like Linda Feldt, frequently made the discovery while working on their houses. Turalee and Dudley Barlow, who live in a Sears Dover, a Tudor-style cottage, at 1316 South Seventh (very similar to Esther Schwartz's Kenwood), first learned that they had a Sears house while removing insulation from the attic. They found Sears labels on their attic beams and "Sears" stamped on the floorboards. Gretchen Preston and Greg Meisner found Sears labels glued to the back of their living room baseboards when they removed them to install wall-to-wall carpeting. Their home at 1706 Jackson Road proved to be a Sears colonial bungalow, the Columbine. Bob and Katherine Vernon, on hearing from former owners that their home at 814 Third was a Sears house, searched for marks, which they found on beams in the attic and in the basement.

The Vernons then identified their house as a Hathaway model by looking through a book called Houses by Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The book pictures many of the homes once offered by Sears but gives little additional information about the ready-cut house industry itself or Sears' involvement in it. Another aid for people wanting to identify a kit house is Aladdin Homes, 1918-1919, a reprint of an Aladdin catalog, published by American Life Books (Box 349, Watkins Glen N. Y. 14891); it describes a hundred homes offered by the pioneer Bay City company.

Even with these two books, there are still hundreds of Sears and Aladdin models, plus homes from all the other companies, which the general public has no way of identifying. Author Schweitzer has been collecting kit house catalogs from around the country, and now has about 55 percent of pre-World War II catalogs of the six major companies. He and Michael Davis have co-authored a book, America's Favorite Homes: Mail Order Catalogs as a Guide to Popular Early 20th Century Homes, based primarily on research from his collection. It's possible to identify many kit houses just by being familiar with the catalog illustrations. Driving by one day, Schweitzer spotted a Lewis kit house, the Lancaster, at 1113 South State. He has been able to confirm many suspected kit homes by looking through his extensive catalog collection to find a match.

It was with his catalogs that Schweitzer was also able to correctly identify Tim White's house at 2030 Hill as a Sterling Vernon model. An Associated Press article on kit homes, which appeared in the Ann Arbor News in 1982, showed a house identical to White's in Aurora, N.Y. (now used as a funeral home), which it identified as a Sears Magnolia. Local history buffs accepted this designation until Schweitzer examined White's original blueprints. They were labeled "International Mill and Timber," Sterling's early name. A tour of the house confirmed its origins—blue chalk markings were found on the beams in the attic, and the floor plan and French doors matched the Sterling Vernon catalog entry.

The Jedele-Feldt house on Keppler Court is one of two local houses that can be identified through testimonials in Ward's catalogs. The other, a Tudor revival Devonshire model at 1601 Pontiac Trail, belongs to Anne Marie and Don Coleman (she's a city councilwoman, and they're both ministers at Guild House). In a 1931 Ward's catalog, "Mrs. Wm. A. Parker" wrote to say how pleased she and her husband were at owning their new Wardway home, which she said lowered their monthly house payment from $75 to $43.89. (According to the 1929 city directory, William and Martha Parker owned the Broadway Pharmacy.)

Not all identifications are so easy. Besides the fact that assembly marks are hidden, there were countless models, not all yet documented, and some houses were significantly altered during construction or in the years since. For instance, Fran Steffey reports that his father enclosed half of the front porch as part of the dining room. Reuben Rose changed the windows on his. Others reversed floor plans or altered porches.

Historic kit homes seem to be attracting more public interest lately. The Coldwell Banker real estate agency illustrated its 1990 calendar with reprints from Sears' first kit house catalog. A scale model of the 1908 Sears Home Number 102, designed for model railroad layouts, is available at Rider's Hobby Shops. Real estate companies in recent years have become more likely to mention kit house status as a plus in their advertising. Melissa and Edward Van Dam's house at 401 Berkley, which was on the market last fall, was advertised as an "original Sears home." A visit confirmed it to be a Barrington. (The Van Dams knew it was a Sears house because the original plans had been passed on to them by a former owner.)

Once you become aware of these homes, they seem to show up everywhere. Both authors' families have become adept at spotting them. Schweitzer's ten-year-old daughter recognized a Gordon-Van Tine Brentwood on Wells Street after seeing it on the cover of the company's 1928 catalog. Shackman's teenage daughter has become very good at spotting Dovers and their look-alikes. After Ann Arbor News reporter Tom Rogers wrote up America's Favorite Homes, he too began to see kit houses on every corner. Even Rogers's own Dutch colonial at 111 Kenwood, he noticed, was close to a Liberty-Lewis Victoria pictured in the book. Subsequent comparison with the floor plan provided by Schweitzer showed it was "slightly different, but too close to be a coincidence," says Rogers. "My guess is that it is either a kit house or is modeled after one."

Owners are often able to find houses identical to their own. Clarence and Lucille Steffey know of two Westlys in Saline. The Vernons have identified several other Hathaways, including 1334 Hutchins, 117 West Hoover, and 112 Collingwood. Sears colonial bungalow Crescent models have been spotted at 709 West Stadium, 2504 Hawks, and 431 Parkwood, while additional cottage-Tudor Dovers (or similar models) can be seen at 2006 Dexter, 916 Hutchins, 510 Potter, and 407 Pauline.

Although many of the original purchasers and builders of kit homes are no longer alive, and many of the missing catalogs are probably permanently lost, it is still possible to identify a large number of these houses using available clues. If anyone knows of any kit houses in the area, or has plans, blueprints, or catalogs, please let us know. (Write us in care of the Observer.) With the exception of company towns that were built entirely of kit homes, Ann Arbor may soon have the most extensive list of identified kit houses in the country.

Photo captions:

A lot of the city's coziest houses were ordered out of a catalog early in this century. Sears was the best-known seller, but the industry's real center was in nearby Bay City.

"Every time I walk up to my house, I just love it," says Linda Feldt, with her Wardway Norwood and (inset) its original catalog listing. Feldt discovered she had a kit home when she removed a baseboard and found a Ward's label—and shipping information to original owner Albert Jedele.

Greg Meisner, Gretchen Preston, and their Sears Columbine. Elaborate porch treatments like this were an attractive feature of kit houses—the highly mechanized manufacturers could produce them much more cheaply than local carpenters working with hand tools.

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman and Rob Schweitzer

5 Rms, Riv Vu

A barn next to the Broadway Bridge is being turned into luxury apartments.

!n the past few years apartments or condos have been built in an old department store on Main, a battered National Guard armory on Ann, and even a former church on Fourth Avenue. But the most remarkable tribute to Ann Arborites' sudden desire to live downtown may be Mike Kessler's project to build apartments in a barn on the comer of Depot and Beakes—just a few feet away from the constant traffic of the Broadway Bridge.

The barn was built by the Ann Arbor Gas Light Company to house its delivery wagons and horses, probably in 1907. (The wagons hauled coke, a coal gasification by-product that the company sold as a home heating fuel.) After the first natural gas pipeline reached the city in 1937, the barn was used for maintenance operations. James 0. Morrison, who worked in the barn in the 1950s, recalls that he and his coworkers unofficially dubbed it the "Ditch Digging Department," since their main job was to hand-dig ditches for gas lines and gas mains. "It was home away from home," Morrison recalls. "We were paid there. We reported there. If it rained we stood in there."

In the mid-1950s the maintenance crews moved out, and the building was used for storage. In 1969 it was sold to activist Charles Thomas, whose Black Economic Development League (BEDL) had been raising money from churches by demanding reparations for past injustices against blacks. He used the money to offer courses for black youths in such upcoming technologies as computers, TV and radio production, solar heating, and photography. In 1973 architect David Byrd and his students built a modem cinder-block building to serve as BEDL's headquarters; the barn was again used for storage.

BEDL's programs petered out as Thomas's health failed. When he died in 1994 both the BEDL building and the barn went to his heirs, who rented and then sold the property to Realtor Thomas Stachler. Stachler found evidences of Thomas's paranoia about government spying, including wire-laced security windows and lead-lined walls. Last March he sold the property to Mark Pfaff, a sales rep for Allied Enterprises, which makes electromechanical and electronic components.

Pfaff has moved his sales office into the front of the new building and has rented the rest of the space to several other businesses. He sold the barn to Mike Kessler, a carpenter, who has also worked as a teacher and in sales. Although Pfaff had inquiries about the barn from people wanting to set up a wine bar, an art studio, or a flower shop, he says he chose to sell it to Kessler because "I didn't want to lose the barn-ness." Says Kessler, "I want to maintain the rustic feel of it all."

Working with architect J. D. Phillips, Kessler is carving out three apartments. Two will be mirror images, using the first floor for a bedroom, studio, and bath and the second floor for a living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bath. Kessler is leaving the beams exposed and keeping the original wood to "keep the feel of the barn."

The urban barn is just a stone's throw from two heavily traveled streets and the busy Norfolk & Southern railroad tracks, not to mention a bridge that's about to be torn down and rebuilt. But all that doesn't scare Kessler and his wife, Serena—they plan to make their own home in an efficiency apartment in the former barn loft. "You can see the river valley, " he says of
the view. "You can see the train making a curve at Main Street."

Photo Captions:

Home on the range: the former gas company barn on Depot in midconversion.

The Country Estate of Christian Eberbach

Author: 
Grace Shackman

Woodlawn Avenue was once his driveway

The majestic towered mansion on Woodlawn just north of Packard has piqued the curiosity of passersby for decades. What is it doing in this modest residential neighborhood?

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman
Syndicate content