Metcalf Modern

Author: 
Grace Shackman

In the 1960s, U-M Profs sometimes waited years for architect Bob Metcalf to design their homes. Now his mid-century designs are back in fashion.

Bob Metcalf, at age eighty-seven, is adding a two-car garage to his house on 1052 Arlington. He already has a one-car garage and isn't currently driving, but he's building it now because he can't bear the thought of a later owner doing it badly. "I figure they would wreck the house by putting the garage right out in front," he explains.

The house is very special to Metcalf‹he and his late wife, Bettie, built it themselves in 1953. Using it as a showcase, he went on to design sixty-eight houses in Ann Arbor. All are in the style now known as "mid-century modem," and, after a period of being ignored, are treasured by a growing community of admirers.

Metcalf's new garage is a little south of the existing home so it doesn't interfere with the entrance. The original one-car garage on the other side of the house was the first thing that the Metcalfs built in order to have a place to store their tools during construction.

Bettie Metcalf found a large lot in the then-unsettled Ann Arbor Hills, just outside the eastern city limits. (The subdivision was laid out in 1927, but very few houses were built during the Depression and World War II.) Bob Metcalf spent a year drawing up the house plans. They started work in April 1952 and moved in just over a year later.

At the time, the U-M architecture grad was working as a draftsman for George Brigham, one of the first architects in the area to odern-style houses. Metcalf would work for Brigham from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. and then head over to the construction site. Bettie would join him at 4 p.m. after getting off from her nursing job at the University of Michigan Health Service. She would bring the supper that she had made the night before, which they would eat sitting in the car.

They did all the labor themselves except the work required by law to be done by specialists, such as electricity and plumbing. Design decisions were based on aesthetics, their skills, and what they could.afford. Metcalf didn't know how to plaster, so he made the interior walls out of cedar (relatively cheap then). He got the idea of putting in a brick floor from a friend who had done that for a project with Alden Dow in Midland‹according to Metcalf's construction journal, he paid five cents a brick.

Homes that George Brigham designed were filled with light coming in from large south-facing windows. Metcalf made his windows even larger and angled them more to the southeast‹an orientation, he says, that lets in "less sun in summer but [more] heat gain in winter." Like most mid-century modem designs, the house has a flat roof. Rainwater drained into the backyard through an interior pipe, in effect creating a rain garden long before they be- came popular.

The couple's work paid off. Before the house was even finished, Metcalf had received five commissions, all from U-M faculty members‹vindicating his belief that Ann Arbor would appreciate the type of house he wanted to build.

Metcalf was born in 1923 in the small town of Nashville, Ohio. His dad. dis- appeared when he was young, and his mother moved to nearby Canton, where she worked as a maid and later remarried. When Metcalf was six or seven, a visiting uncle saw the way he was playing with objects on the floor and told him "you ought to be an architect."

He enrolled in the U-M architecture school in 1941 but was drafted to serve in WWII. He and Bettie had dated after high school, and just before Memorial Day in 1943, he called and asked her to come down to Louisiana, where he was stationed, for the holiday. When she asked why, he replied, "Because we're going to get married." And so a three-day engagement led to a sixty-five year marriage. Metcalf returned to the U-M after the war, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1950. As graduation grew closer, Metcalf asked Brigham, a professor he thought highly of, if he could work for him. He liked the way Brigham took into account "the impact of the environment on a building," he recalls, and was also impressed that Brigham was the only member of the architecture faculty who invited students to his house. Brigham hired him as a draftsman at $1 an hour.

After four years with Brigham, Metcalf began his own business. His first commission was from physics professor Richard Crane and his wife, Florence, who wanted a house in which they could be separated from the noise and clutter of their teenage children. Metcalf obliged by designing their home at 830 Avon with an entrance on the side that led from the left into the living room and master bedroom and from the right into a kitchen and family room, with the children's rooms on the other end.

In addition to his architectural practice, Metcalf taught at the U-M. Within two years, he had so many jobs he asked two young U-M colleagues, Tivador Balogh and William Werner, to join him. "We worked in his own house, but it wasn't satisfactory and after a month we moved into his one-car garage," recalls Wemer. With only a space heater for warmth, he says, "it was so bad, it was wonderful."

Metcalf eventually moved into an office at 444 South Main, renting the first floor from builder Zeke Jabbour. Balogh did freehand drawings to give clients an idea of what their house would look like, while Wemer did many of the calculations and detailed working drawings. When Balogh left in 1960, he was replaced by Gordie Rogers, who had studied under him. Bettie Metcalf didn't work in the office but was always an important part of the operation, keeping the books, typing letters, and ordering furniture.

Some clients knew just what they wanted. The woman for whom he designed 2576 Devonshire, Metcalf recalls, wanted lots of white walls to display her art collection (he remembers her bragging that she had an original Kandinsky hanging above her washing machine‹and that she'd paid $25 for it in Paris). A home at 1329 Glendaloch has a center courtyard, because its first owner had seen that in South America. But Metcalf says most clients weren't so definite, so he would interview them for several hours to get an idea of their needs: "I'd ask them how they use a house‹if they had meetings where people talked together, if they played cards, what activities they did when they had company, if they read."

Metcalf designed houses starting from the inside. He'd block out how the rooms should be arranged, including where furniture should go. He'd figure out the best view from inside as well as how to bring in the most natural light. He often used grilles he designed to serve as room dividers. The exteriors were usually a series of boxes arranged in interesting ways, sometimes on different levels so they snuggled into the landscape. John Holland, one of the few original owners who still lives in his Metcalf house, recalls how before starting work in 1964, the architect "walked all around [the site] and thought [about] what fit naturally."

The Holland house at 3800 W. Huron River Drive sits high on a knoll with a view of the river below. Because the knoll was flat, Metcalf stepped a bedroom up half a story to give the roof a more interesting look. The house includes many of his signature features, including a big window angled southeast, lots of built-ins including a buffet, desk, and bookcases, and careful use of wood throughout cedar outside and vertical grain fir inside. "There's not a day I haven't been happy to be in this house," says Holland.

By then, the firm was so busy that another client, aerospace engineering prof Elmer Gilbert, waited several years for the architect to be available. Gilbert was single at the time; he later married Lois Verbrugge, and they still live in the house at 2659 Heather Way.

The home is more vertical than many of Metcalf's designs: taking advantage of the sloping site, it is two stories in front, three in back. Because the street side faces south, Metcalf placed his requisite big windows on the north side, but did so in a spectacular way: they're three stories high, and the top floor is a mezzanine that stops before reaching the windows, so light spills down to the first floor.

The siding is cedar, and the inside trim mahogany. The house is still filled with original top-line mid-century modem furniture‹Saarinen, Eames, Bertoia--which Bettie Metcalf ordered so Gilbert could get the 40 percent architect's discount.

Metcalf varied materials and size depending on the means of his clients but never abandoned his basic principles. For instance, in 1957 he designed an inexpensive house at 2466 Newport for anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, then a low-paid assistant professor with two kids. The siding is cement block and plywood, and the inside is finished in inexpensive materials such as tile and Masonite, but Metcalf still did amazing things with siting and light. The house sits on the western edge of the property with big windows facing east giving a view of the rest of the wooded lot.

Present owners Judy and Bob Marans, who bought the house in 1974 when it was pretty run-down, have made many improvements over the years, including enclosing the foyer, adding a garage, and modernizing the kitchen and bathrooms, but they still have kept the basic structure, which they love. Judy Marans remembers thinking when they moved into the house, "When will I get used to the beauty of this? The answer is never."

Metcalf began teaching at Michigan as a visiting lecturer shortly after he graduated. In 1958 he became an assistant professor, promoted to associate in 1963. When he was hired, he recalls, he proposed that he teach "a construction class that every student had to take. It sounds logical, but no one was doing it."

Architects Norm and llene Tyier, who took Metcalf's classes in the 1960s, recall that their most important assignment was to find an active construction site and visit it every day, jotting down observations in a journal. llene watched the building of the U-M's Oxford Houses, while Norm followed an apartment being built near the Blue Front on South State. "It was one of the best things I did as a student," he re- calls. "There was no greater respecter of Mies van der Rone's statement that 'God is in the details' than Metcalf."

In 1968 Metcalf was made a full professor and chair of the architecture department, and in 1974 he became the first dean of the newly named College of Architecture and Urban Planning. The promotions greatly reduced the time he could devote to his private architecture practice.

From 1953 to 1968, Metcalf worked on 100 jobs‹not only houses, but offices, sororities, churches (his Church of the Good Shepherd won several awards), and park shelters. Over the next twenty-three years, when he was absorbed in the work of running the architecture school, he did only twenty private commissions. "He realized he couldn't do both at once," explains Werner.

When Metcalf retired in 1991, he returned to his architectural practice. Werner rejoined him after he retired seven years later "It took the sting out of retirement," he says. But while they were busy in academia, the popularity of the mid-century modem style had waned.

The simple, uncluttered look that seemed so revolutionary to their parents struck many Baby Boomers as cold and sterile. Often built on modest budgets and with a minimalist aesthetic, many homes seemed small by contemporary standards. And there was a feeling that modern houses, with their large windows, flat roofs, and easy flow from indoors to outdoors, fit better in California's climate, where they originated, than in the Midwest.

Meanwhile, postmodernism, with its return to ornamentation, and historic preservation, which celebrated premodern styles, both grew in popularity. Though Metcalf has done thirty commissions since he retired, only three of them have been for new homes.

In the past twenty years, most of his work has involved modifying his own past designs. Holland contracted with him to build a bigger living room and later to add a bedroom and bathroom in the space between the garage and house. When Gilbert married Verbrugge, he asked Metcalf to figure out how to add a study for her on the ground floor as well as making other improvements.

Since the 1950s, home buyers have grown accustomed to more space, more bathrooms, and bigger kitchens. Over the years, many owners have remodeled their Metcalf houses. His admirers often show up at open houses when they go on the market, as does Metcalf himself. Sometimes he finds that there are no changes, but in most cases they have been modified and are often, in his words, "worse as far as I'm concerned." When people ask, he is always willing to show them the original plans and help to do new additions or undo old ones.

Nancy and David Deromedi asked him to help with their house at 819 Avon, a 1950 Brigham design that Metcalf had worked on. The house, built for famous anthropologist Leslie White and his wife, Mary, had been modified by later owners with a snout-nosed garage extension that stuck out toward the street with a porch sitting awkwardly on top of it. When David drove up to attend an open house, he didn't even want to stop, but Nancy convinced him it was worth looking inside.

They bought the house in 2005 and asked Metcalf to figure out how to undo the damage. He solved the garage problem by simply returning it to the original dimension. A second problem, dating to the original design, was a long outdoor entrance staircase, especially treacherous in the winter. Metcalf moved the inside entry outward, creating a well-lit foyer that covered about half the stairs.

Beyond keeping the respect of his clients, Metcalf also became friends with many of them. Holland often stopped in at his office to say hello, while Gilbert and Verbrugge periodically invite him to dinner. At Bettie's memorial service in 2008, the room was filled with people who felt a connection with Metcalf because they lived in one of his houses.

And he's lived long enough to see his designs appreciated by a new generation. Lois Kane, who lived in a Brigham house in Barton Hills, sees young people returning to an appreciation of the environmental and social pluses of living simply, of the "less is more" philosophy. When she and her husband, Gordie, sold their house four years ago, she says, they realized "it would appeal to people who read Dwell [a magazine celebrating modern style and simple living], not Better Homes and Gardens."

When Monica Ponce de Leon was appointed dean of the school of Architecture and Urban Planning, she and her husband, Greg Saldana, bought a Metcalf house at 715 Spring Valley in Barton Hills. Metcalf designed it for Millard Pryor in 1958. Ponce de Leon, who had been on the faculty of Harvard, knew of Metcalf's work and specifically hunted for one of his houses when moving to Ann Arbor.

When Metcalf heard of the purchase, he showed up at the couple's hotel room with his original drawings. Saldana, an architect whose specialty is architectural conservation, used the drawings to restore the house.

Saldana says they constantly get compliments on their Metcalf. "Very recently we hosted a highly accomplished artist who did not know of Bob Metcalf," Saldana emails, "and upon entering our home said, 'what a beautiful home--who designed it?'"


[Photo caption from original print edition]: Metcalf's first home design ws the house he and his lte wife, Bettie, built on Arlington in 1953, They did all the work themselves, inclduing laying the brick floor -- an idea borrowed from an Alden Dow project in Midland. The couple's work paid off. Before the house was even finished, Metcalf had five commissions, all from U-M faculty members.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: After a long wait for Metcalf to get to his house on Heather Way, aerospace engineering prof Elmer Gilbert was rewarded with this unusual vertical design.

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman

Saline's Photographer

Author: 
Grace Shackman

A Lansing exhibition features Lucretia Gillett.

Lucretia Gillett did a messy and demanding job usually performed, in her day, by men. She did it so well that for most of her career she was the only photographer in Saline.

Now some of her fascinating work—along with that of other Michigan photographers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—is on display in Lansing, thanks to collector Dave Tinder of Dearborn.

Born in 1820 in New York State, Gillett came to Saline in 1858 with her parents, George and Mary, her two younger sisters, Delia and Anne, and her brother, George, who was also a photographer.

George was a recent widower, and Lucretia never married. They worked together for several years starting in 1860, using a front room of the family home at 203 North Ann Arbor Street. In 1863 George moved to Ann Arbor, but his sister kept the Saline studio going until 1890.

In the nineteenth century, only about 5 percent of Michigan's photographers were women. Gillett used "Miss Lucretia Gillett" and later "L. A. Gillett" as her professional name. She worked with glass negatives, which had to be covered with a chemical base just before being put in the camera and then developed while still wet, so almost all her shots were done in her studio.

In the studio she also had more control over lighting. In the days before electricity, photographers posed subjects near windows and often used reflecting screens. All of Gillett's subjects look to their right, presumably toward a window.

In her early years in Saline, Gillett photographed Civil War soldiers who posed proudly in uniform. Civilian poses of the same period can be dated by stamps on the back of the picture that were required from August 1864 to August 1866 to help pay for the war. The ones on Gillett's pictures are canceled with her initials, L.A.G.

Gillett's subjects stand against a white wall, always on the same patterned rug, or sit, often on a carved wooden chair or one with a velvet seat cover and tassels. Sometimes a table is on the poser's left.

Most of Gillett's early work was in the form of cartes de visite, small photos shot with a multiple-lens camera and mounted on cardboard (eight were normally printed at a time). Originally used as business and calling cards, they soon became a fad. People collected pictures of friends, family members, and famous people, and put them in albums.

Dave Tinder has more than 100 Gillett carte-de-visite photos. He also has a pile of "cabinet cards," images about five by seven inches that were first manufactured in the late 1860s. Some of the pictures are just of faces, with the background blacked out. The subjects are people of all ages, including many children.

Tinder's Gillett collection includes a few oddities, such as a picture with two women in a boat, but the boat is sitting on top of the omnipresent rug, and a table is in the background. Another is of a sleeping cat curled up on one of her posing chairs. Tinder also owns two Gillett pictures of houses, probably ones near her home.

Gillett passed her skills on to others. F. Jay Haynes, a famous nineteenth-century photographer of Yellowstone National Park and other western scenes, studied in Saline during the years when Gillett was the only photographer there. She also trained another woman, Laura A. Greene, who worked as her assistant before setting up her own studio in Manchester.

Gillett's mother died in 1865. Her father, who had become an influential Saline citizen, lived until 1874. Gillett's sister Anne ran their home as a boardinghouse from 1870 to 1890. In 1890, the year she turned seventy, Gillett sold her business to Ypsilanti photographer George C. Waterman. Gillett and her sister moved to Long Beach, California, where she died in 1894.

One thousand photos—by Lucretia Gillett and others—from, Dave Tinder's collection are on display in Lansing through January 14. Gillett's photos can be found in numerous collections. Some are in the Saline Area Historical Society archives, others are with private owners, and a few are in the University of Michigan's Bentley and Clements libraries. But by far the most in a single place are in Tinder's collection.

Forty years ago, Tinder started collecting stereoscopic cards from around the world, but he soon began to concentrate on Michigan photographers. Most of his images date from 1840 to 1930. Tinder is coauthor of a forthcoming book about his collection from Wayne State University Press. He is also giving his collection to the Clements Library in several installments.

One thousand pictures from Tinder's collection of 100,000 photos are on display at Lansing's Michigan Historical Museum in the exhibition Michigan's Family Album, which runs through January 14. Several Washtenaw locations, including Bridgewater and Sharon Mills, are displayed in a section on forgotten villages. Images of the U-M pop up, as do pictures by Washtenaw County photographers besides Gillett, such as Lester Nichoson, who succeeded her for a short time as the Saline photographer, and E. E. Shaver of Chelsea. Prominent in the introductory section on Michigan photographers is a self-portrait of Lucretia Gillett.

—Grace Shackman

Photo Captions:

Gillett, shown here in a self-portrait, was one of Michigan's few women photographers in the ninteenth century.

One thousand photos - by Lucretia Gillett and others - from Dave Tinder's collection are on display in Lansing through January 14.

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

Freedom Township's Zion Lutheran Church

Author: 
Grace Shackman

A cosmopolitan congregation cherishes its rural German roots

Once a small, all-German country church, Zion Lutheran at Rogers Corners in Freedom Township has become a large, modern, diverse congregation. The original 1867 historic church still sits on the northwest comer of Waters and Fletcher, across the street from the current church, built in 1974.

Zion was founded in 1865 by a group that broke off from St. Thomas, a German church that still stands at Ellsworth and Haab. Zion's bylaws mandated that services and religious teachings be conducted in German. The congregation, with thirty-four men as charter members, at first met in a nearby public school. In 1867 Zion finished building a neo-Gothic brick structure, similar to churches in Germany, and topped with a bell tower. The interior was used solely for worship space—religious instruction and meetings continued to be held at the schoolhouse until 1876, when members bought another unused school building and moved it to the church site.

Zion shared a minister with Bethel Church for two years and shared another with St. Thomas for six more. By 1873 it was large enough to support its own pastor and hired Johannes Baumann. The congregation occasionally had trouble paying the pastor's salary on time but always made sure he was at least well sheltered and fed. The church bought Frederick Emminger's house, north of the church on the east side of Fletcher, for a parsonage, and members maintained and improved it. They rented Emminger's fields to farmers, who gave the minister some of the crops. When parishioners slaughtered an animal or made sausage, they would give some of it to the pastor.

In 1889 the congregation built a new parsonage for pastor Heinrich Lemster in a vernacular Gothic Revival style that matched the church. It still stands at 2905 South Fletcher. One of the two front doors opened directly into the minister's study, allowing parishioners to visit him without bothering the family.

A group split from Zion in 1890 over the question of bread or wafers for communion. Zion had a new bread oven, but Lemster preferred wafers. The breakaway group founded St. John's Church nearby on Waters Road, now affiliated with the United Church of Christ.

In 1903 Zion built a new school. It was used mainly as a general meeting place for the congregation and for confirmation classes, held each fall and spring. "We'd raise Cain when the pastor went home for lunch," recalls Norman Wenk, a lifelong member of Zion, "tease the girls, chase them around the woodshed, that sort of thing."

In 1910 a new pastor from Germany, Ernst Thieme, and his wife, Sybial, moved into the parsonage. Wenk remembers Sybial as "a jokester" and "a happy-go-lucky lady"—with a stern husband. Wenk says he was "a strict disciplinarian, who didn't allow any whispering in church. I remember him pounding on the pulpit when kids were naughty."

In 1917 the church prepared to celebrate its golden anniversary, even buying a new organ for the occasion. But less than a month before the anniversary, on June 6, at 2 p.m., a tornado struck. "It was a sad sight to see our small church without a roof and tower, and the front wall only standing in part," Thieme wrote in the church history. "The back part of the church with the altar and the pulpit remained standing... The schoolhouse was torn off its foundation and scattered all over. On the parsonage, the roof was torn off and the building could not be occupied." Miraculously, the organ and the bell tower were spared.

Starting the very day of the tornado, parishioners began to rebuild the parsonage and school exactly as they had been but altered the church by moving the tower toward the front, giving it a more elegant look. They held their delayed anniversary celebration on September 16.

The response to the tornado was typical of the hands-on congregation. Members called special meetings to decide things like lighting for the church (in 1923 they bought a Delco generator) or putting a bathroom in the parsonage (in 1936). Wenk recalls they had work "bees" to collect firewood for the minister, and the minutes refer to cemetery bees to clean up the graveyard.

Although the congregation was fond of Thieme, his lack of English was a problem for younger members who wanted occasional English sermons. In 1926 he returned to Germany. His successor, Moritz Brueckner, was bilingual. Like many of his parishioners, Brueckner had been born in America to German parents. After his arrival the congregation changed the bylaws to allow children's religious classes to be taught in English. In 1930 Brueckner began preaching one English sermon a month. By the time he retired in 1954, the ratio had reversed, and he was down to just one German sermon a month.

Until 1931 men sat on the pulpit side of the church and women on the organ side. Martha and Harold Eiseman changed all that by sitting together the first Sunday after their honeymoon. "Three weeks later another couple sat together, then another. Soon they were all sitting together," Martha Eiseman recalls.

In 1940 Zion decided to build a parish hall, but World War II put the project on hold. As the congregation had done in World War I, members sent food and supplies to German civilians, including Jell-0 to the Thiemes. Ernst Thieme later wrote that he didn't know how he would have survived without this help.

After the war the church bought the Beuerle property on Waters Road directly across the street. The members finished the parish hall in 1949 and added a new parsonage in 1954. Brueckner stayed in the old parsonage until he retired in 1955; afterward the congregation gave him the old school, which he moved north of the parsonage and converted into a house, where he lived the rest of his life. The house still stands.

In 1974 the congregation built a new church next to the parish hall. Pastor Theodore Brueckner, son of Moritz Brueckner, was guest preacher at the last service in the old church. Zion still uses the old church for weddings and funerals and one service every summer. In 1979 it was entered on the State Register of Historic Places. A board that includes some people who are not Zion members, such as Angie and Jack Lewis, who live in the old parsonage, now oversees the old church.

Zion has grown to more than 400 members. Current pastor David Hendricks notes that the congregation now includes people of Scandinavian, Japanese, and Hispanic descent as well as a good number of Germans, and that members are coming from Chelsea, Manchester, Dexter, Ann Arbor, and Grass Lake. Instead of serving only local farming families, Zion now counts many professionals among its members. But the same closeness survives. Lifelong membership is common. It is not unusual at funerals for the pastor to cite the deceased's confirmation verse.

New members are attracted by this connectedness. Susan Wiley, the church secretary, recalls being impressed with the church's "feeling of history and ties to the community." Martha Eiseman, who joined in 1931 as a young bride, recently moved to the Chelsea Retirement Communities but still attends Zion. "My daughter comes and picks me up," she explains. "It's always nice. I see so many people I know."

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: The original Zion was destroyed by a tornado in 1917, shortly after the photo at right was taken. The rebuilt church has its steeple at the front.

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

Housing the Homeless

Author: 
Grace Shackman

How Avalon Housing helps people out of the shelter and onto the road to a normal life.

In English legend, Avalon is the island paradise to which King Arthur was borne after his death. In Ann Arbor, Avalon is something almost equally miraculous: a non-profit organization that in just five years has developed eighty-one rooms and apartments for low-income people, most of whom were previously homeless.

Avalon Housing's hundred-plus residents may not think they are in heaven, but they are certainly much happier than they were on the streets or in temporary shelters. They are free to develop their skills, pursue career interests, and lead more normal lives. Because of Avalon, Larry Morris has time to read the Constitution and the Book of Mormon, Ron Yarrington to entertain friends in his home, "Sandra" to write and go back to school, and Ron Brumbaugh to play his guitar and go swimming at the Y.

Morris, forty, dressed in maroon sweats, sits on the front steps of an Avalon house on South Division and recalls his troubles over more than a decade in Ann Arbor. "I came from Detroit in 1984 to go to school, Washtenaw Community College to study liberal arts, but ended up at Ypsi State with schizophrenia. I had the symptoms before, but they were unidentified. When I got out I worked at restaurant jobs—Wendy's, Kroger's. I would lose apartments because of code violations. In between [apartments], I was in and out of the shelter."

Morris heard about Avalon at Full Circle, an Ypsilanti clubhouse for mental health consumers. He signed up, and after a year's wait, moved into his new apartment. With a place to live, Morris began to work, first as a volunteer at the VA Hospital, then in a paid job in the hospital's mail room as part of a transitional employment (TE) program sponsored by Trailblazers, the Ann Arbor clubhouse. He plans to work in several more TE placements and then hopes to return to college.

Like Morris, many Avalon residents have never before had permanent housing. Yet his is just one of Avalon's many success stories. The group's achievement is even more remarkable considering that Avalon is housing a population that has baffled housing experts around the county.

Avalon, which started as an offshoot of the Homeless Shelter of Washtenaw County, now houses people at eleven sites around Ann Arbor. Its staff of six works out of a three-room office at 404 West Washington, in front of the Performance Network. It is filled with odds and ends of furniture, bright posters, ringing telephones, and a hubbub of activity. The day I visit, tenant Ron Brumbaugh drops in and excitedly tells site manager Maggie Camacho that he has a new job doing maintenance at the Y. Camacho, formerly of Ozone House, is the staff member who works most directly with Avalon tenants, and her popularity, with a group accustomed to seeing landlords as the enemy, is legendary.

In the next room, Michael Appel, formerly of the U-M housing reform project and a member of the original Avalon board, arranges the complicated funding for future projects. His zeal prompts fellow staffers to ask him to slow down so that he won't acquire new property faster than they can manage it.

Executive director Carol McCabe leads me into her office in the back in a futile attempt to find a quiet spot. McCabe directed Avalon as part of the shelter until they separated. Her conversation is filled with words like "challenge" and "struggle," but there are rewards, too, in seeing the improvements Avalon can make in the lives of its tenants.

McCabe organized Avalon with the backing and advice of former shelter director Jean Summerfield. Summerfield, who now works in Chicago, says, "The best thing I did when I was in Ann Arbor was letting Carol do Avalon."

Avalon was born in 1991 when the city offered to give away a house on William Street that was in the path of a proposed parking structure behind Kline's. The house, occupied by squatters, had become a focal point for housing activists. "The town was talking about housing, but no one stepped in," McCabe recalls. "[Summerfield] was willing to move the shelter that way."

"We got into it because nobody was doing housing development for these folks," Summerfield recalls. "Nationally, most of the low-income, special needs housing did a lot of screening out. We wanted to focus on screening in."

The shelter had experimented with transitional housing and group homes, but the temporary nature of the former and the lack of staff oversight of the latter prevented either option from becoming a permanent solution. McCabe, at the time director of WIT House, the shelter's transitional home for women, saw firsthand the need for permanent low-income housing. Without it, "the women could get sober, could get their kids back, could get the right medication, could leave an abusive relationship—and still have no place to go."

The problem of finding rooms and apartments affordable for people with minimum-wage jobs or on public assistance was nothing new to shelter employees. And even when a place was found for them, shelter residents often weren't together enough to live on their own; like Morris, they kept coming back. "Some ran through every landlord in town," says McCabe.

While the Kline's lot house was being moved to 201 West William and rehabbed, Avalon's founding group worked on strategy. Says McCabe, "There had not been a lot of managing. We felt, because of the target population, this was the reason most hadn't been successful in rental housing. We developed 'enhanced management,' where we put human needs first. We use eviction only as a last resort."

Avalon's founders wanted to make mental health and other support services available to its residents. But, McCabe stresses, "we're not a residential [treatment] program, but permanent housing." Those Avalon tenants who need help with day-to-day problems beyond what their mental health case workers are able to provide can get it through CHIL, the Cooperative Housing and Independent Living Initiative. Staffed by Synod Residential Services and funded by Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (CMH), CHIL is part of an ongoing effort to treat CMH clients in the least restrictive setting—in this case, by allowing clients who would once have been housed in group homes a wider choice of housing.

Avalon works to avoid evicting clients by negotiating individual contracts with them beforehand to anticipate known problems. With mental health consumers, CHIL and the caseworkers are also involved. Most tenants are on month-to-month leases, which gives Avalon leverage in enforcing the contracts. Avalon staffers meet weekly with tenants' caseworkers and CHIL.

A condition of some of the leases is that the tenant must accept the help of a "representative payee," a person authorized to help manage their money, paying bills for them or doling out the money in small amounts, and teaching them money management. Says McCabe, "We negotiate this before they move in or if they bounce checks regularly." The representative payee helps people who have enough income to afford a room but can't keep their money long enough to pay rent.

Some of the returning shelter guests had been ousted from past apartments because of housekeeping problems (including spoiling, uncovered food), fire hazard-level hoarding, and plumbing problems. At Avalon, McCabe says, plumbing problems have included "putting food down the toilet and overflowing the bathtub or sink. Many wash a lot; one woman dyes her hair every day."

Avalon inspects regularly, both formally and informally, to catch hygiene problems before they get out of hand. CHIL helps by organizing cleanup days and educating tenants, while caseworkers refer people to clinics and work to get them on the best medications.

Another problem, according to McCabe, is that many of the Avalon tenants are fine on their own, but vulnerable to exploitation. "They'll bring in whole families or drug-using buddies or put up with abusive boyfriends."

One tenant was in danger of being evicted because her drug-using ex-husband would come and make a fuss at her place late at night. Finally, after nine months of discussion, she was persuaded by CHIL to let Legal Aid obtain a restraining order against him. In another case, a person on probation was bothering an Avalon tenant. McCabe went to the probation department and managed to have the person barred from Avalon property.

Drug users account for most of Avalon's failures. Working closely with CHIL, they have persuaded some tenants to go into treatment or into more structured settings. In half a dozen cases, however, Avalon has evicted tenants, McCabe says, "when we couldn't work anything out" to resolve substance abuse by tenants or their friends.

Tenant Mary Beth Matthews witnessed one such case. "There were three crack heads in the house. They had guys in their room. Avalon got them out, slowly, giving them every chance to mend their ways."

"We've learned our limitations," says McCabe. "We're currently screening out 'dually diagnosed'—people with both mental illness and chemical dependency. They're the hardest to treat; there are very few treatment alternatives." Avalon also refuses to house people known to be violent. But unwilling to completely admit failure, McCabe says, "We would always consider rehousing people, other than those with major violence, if they came back after x number of months of being clean."

Just as Avalon has been learning as it goes how to deal with the problems of its target population, the group also has been discovering what kinds of housing work best. After finishing the William Street house in the fall of 1992, they purchased two older houses on North Main (532 and 618), one of them previously run by the shelter. Both were suitable for single room occupancy (SRO), with private bedrooms and shared bathrooms and kitchens. Next they bought three houses of the same vintage on South Division (518, 520, 522), setting a pattern they would follow with future purchases: involving the city and the county, both of which have given direct grants, in-kind assistance, and help in finding other sources of revenue—HUD through the city and human services through the county.

Avalon concentrated on SRO's initially because they were the cheapest units. But they soon discovered that people preferred the privacy of an apartment. There were also fewer interpersonal problems when tenants didn't have to share bathrooms and kitchens. So when a fourteen-unit apartment complex at 211 Davis came onto the market, Avalon bought it. Next was an apartment complex on Stimson, near South Industrial, which had larger apartments suitable for families. The most recent purchases are a house at 610 West Summit with six apartments, and two duplexes on Allen Street for single mothers, a joint endeavor with Safe House.

None of these projects proceeds until funding is arranged that allows rents affordable to the people Avalon is trying to serve. Most of its tenants have incomes of around $450 a month. SSI (Social Security benefits for people on disability) is about $450 a month; a single mother with one child gets $401 from AFDC; while minimum-wage jobs bring in about $680. Avalon rents range from $204 for an SRO room to $375 for a two-bedroom apartment. To keep its units affordable, McCabe explains, "we do the opposite of for-profit groups. They decide on rent based on their costs. We decide on the highest rent we can charge and still make the project worth doing and then work backward." To get money to fill the gaps, they appeal to multiple agencies, private and public, for grants and low-interest loans. At the opening ceremonies for the Stimson Street property last spring, there were seven speakers, all representing agencies that had loaned or given money for the project.

When a project is being considered, McCabe visits with a delegation. Among the people she calls on are Larry Friedman and Glen Ziegler of the city's community development department; Mark Robey from CMH; Realtor Doug Smith; and Terry Alexander, an architect who volunteers as an advisor on project feasibility. Because of all the groups involved and all the steps needed, the projects often take a long time to complete; but once they have been decided on, Avalon sticks with them until they work out.

Despite the slow process, McCabe has found an increasing willingness among sellers to work with Avalon. Some come back with a second offering after selling them one project. "They're calling us more," says McCabe. "They know we always get our reports in on time, that they are accurate. We have earned their respect."

Once Avalon acquires a property, they rehab it to the highest level they can afford, often doing "twenty years of deferred maintenance," says McCabe. "We never will sell the properties, so we do as much as we can at first. We get a lot of scrutiny from neighbors. We improve the physical structure and grounds. We spend more than a landlord who will sell in a few years."

McCabe thinks this investment may be one reason Avalon has experienced so little opposition. "Neighbors are often our best supporters. They see the same tenants, but with more maintenance. They've offered to talk to new neighborhoods. When an unwanted friend broke a window [at one of the houses], the neighbors helped board it up." Avalon gives neighbors a twenty-four-hour beeper number and encourages them to call with any problems.

Bob Barackman is another reason the neighbors are so cooperative. As Avalon's director of maintenance and rehab, Barackman works hard to create good relations, doing things like shoveling neighbors' walks when doing an Avalon property. A retired Wayne County sheriff's deputy, Barackman finds the people skills he learned in nineteen years as a cop are handy in Avalon.

Gruff and sometimes inclined to tease the idealistic young Avalon staff, Barackman is as concerned about the residents as anyone. "I enjoy the job," he says. "It's not just the ordinary landlord-tenant relationship. Whatever the problem, we'll solve it. We juggle people around when we have tenants who don't get on."

On a warm fall day, Barackman drives me around in his truck, showing me the Avalon properties. At the home of "Susan," the woman who finally had the restraining order placed on her ex-husband, he becomes worried when she doesn't answer his knock. "She's truly a victim, but we've seen her turn around," he explains. "She divorced her husband, got her sponging daughter out. She lost her key, which had the address on it, so I made replacing the lock the first priority that day." Susan doesn't answer the door, but Barackman learns from another Avalon employee that she was up late the night before.

Barackman proudly shows me another Davis Street apartment he is working on that had been untouched for years before Avalon came in. "The previous landlord couldn't get [the tenant] to move. Finally he agreed to move down the hall while we fixed it up."

A corner unit at Davis Street is used for the CHIL offices. Soon after my morning with Barackman, I spent an afternoon there, talking to Peggy Plews, the CHIL coordinator. Plews, a slight blond woman with an impish grin who often wears bib overalls, is assisted by a young, enthusiastic staff of seven, two of them part-time. All have social service backgrounds.

Plews came to CHIL from Washtenaw Interventions, where she worked as a shelter outreach worker, matching people with services and housing. (She found that mentally ill people often resisted services until they had a place to live.) CHIL works with tenants to keep them in Avalon housing, responding to middle-of-the-night crises and mediating conflicts as well as taking people shopping or to appointments, helping with laundry or budgeting, reminding people to take their medicines, and organizing recreational activities.

The CHIL office still looks like an apartment, with a functioning kitchen and furnished dining room and living room. There's even a cat, Casey, whom the staff is watching until his owner feels ready to care for him. The day I visit, a CHIL employee is sitting at the dining room table talking to "Sandra." A little while later, another tenant comes by, wearing a wig and dressed in a pink evening gown, to borrow the vacuum cleaner.

CHIL began operating in January of 1994. Plews recalls, "Substance abuse was a big issue when we started. We had to do serious crisis intervention, kicking people out of hallways, working with the police, focusing on making it a safe place. We ultimately had to get rid of some [tenants], but not to just throw them back in the shelter. Those who didn't make it went into more supported housing or a treatment center."

After six months of working through the worst problems, CHIL could then turn to helping the rest of the mental health consumers. "Mental illness can be treated, but not cured," say Plews. "Needs change over time. There may be periods when they don't need a lot of support, but they know CHIL is here."

Beyond helping Avalon's mental health consumers deal with everyday life, CHIL tries to help them reach personal goals and to become integrated into the community. "We encourage them to do something as a community member rather than a mental health consumer, like go to the Top of the Park or play monopoly or chess at coffeehouses. But they're used to doing things like going to the movies or Dairy Queen with other consumers. When I first started and would say, 'What would you like to do?' clients would answer with things they've done before,... like 'Go to McDonald's.' It takes a long time to start to build a life outside; their lives have been defined by their illnesses."

Although the differences between Avalon, the landlord, and CHIL, the service provider, are easily defined on paper, they are often blurred in reality. Many tenancy issues are related to mental illness, and tenants talk to whomever they feel most comfortable with. CHIL and Avalon work closely together. "Maggie [Camacho] does this stuff as second nature," praises Plews. "She treats every tenant with kindness, she's not fazed by delusional behavior, hallucinations... Some think only professionals can manage with someone psychotic. But all you have to do is listen for the person behind the psychosis, because they're always there."

Tenant Mary Beth Matthews is just as grateful for CHIL, saying "I owe my life to CHIL." She is not exaggerating. Plews, finding Matthews ill, rushed her to the hospital, where she was found to have a life-threatening blood clot in her lungs. Without CHIL, she could easily have been one of the homeless people we read about in the newspaper who are found dead because no one noticed they needed help.

Originally from the Detroit area, Matthews came to Ann Arbor in the 1970's to take part in an obesity study and stayed on, working mainly in hotel housekeeping. She became homeless after she returned to Ann Arbor after living with her sister in Florida. "I thought I could get jobs like I did before, but I'd gained three hundred and fifty pounds and was using two canes to walk with," she recalls. "I was not in shape to work." She was also suffering from severe depression, although she didn't know it—"I thought it was just my philosophy of life."

Matthews ended up living at the shelter for five months, an experience she describes as "the hardest thing I ever did." The worst part of being homeless, she says, was that "there was no place to sit and be left alone. Most want you to drop dead and go away. You're as valuable as a piece of shit. I was tired all the time. They kick you out at seven in the morning and you can't come back until six. I wanted to be alone. The only place I could be alone was the police station. I would go up there and read books."

Finally the shelter found Matthews a place in a house on Ingalls, where she lived with a group of other mental health consumers. The main drawback of the place was that the shelter couldn't afford to provide the level of oversight needed. Matthews says the more capable tenants had to look after the others. Experience with this house was one reason the shelter decided they needed to set up something, like Avalon, with enhanced oversight. Today, most of the Ingalls residents live in Avalon housing.

Matthews now lives in a two-bedroom apartment, which she shares with a friend from Ingalls Street. In the downstairs of an older house, with a fireplace and original woodwork, the apartment has been furnished by Avalon with a comfortable old couch and other used furniture. Sitting on the couch, wearing a yellow housedress, Matthews apologizes that her apartment is not neater, although it looks good to me. She is recovering from her hospital stay; when she regains her strength, she hopes to do volunteer work with seniors and maybe go back to school. "At forty-nine, I'm an old person at the beginning of life."

"Sandra" is an Avalon tenant who heartily agrees with CHIL's philosophy that encourages integration into the community. Looking like the U-M student she once was, with her long hair and Indian-print dress, she meets me at Amer's for coffee.

"Getting where I am was a miraculous accomplishment," Sandra tells me. She suffers from auditory hallucinations, which means she hears voices. Though she cannot be cured, she is learning to live with it, "learning to make the best of the best times."

When her illness first manifested itself, Sandra left school to live nearer her parents. She returned to Ann Arbor as soon as soon as she thought she could manage it. When the money she had to tide her over until she found a job was stolen, she ended up in the shelter, an experience she describes as "terrible. There were a lot of streetwise people there. I didn't have the skill. It was frightening. When I was in Ann Arbor before, I was in school, working, and living on the west side. Now I was in the shelter. It was an emotional blow."

After five days at the shelter, a staff member moved her to Acute Services House, a CMH emergency treatment center in Ypsilanti. Once her condition was stabilized, she moved to the Y, then finally found her way to Avalon. "The first year I was filled with gratitude," she recalls. "I felt safe. It gave me time to recover, but now I want to get back in the community."

She hopes to return to school to finish her degree in anthropology and art, do more writing (poetry and articles about mental illness), and to make friendships beyond the circle of mental health consumers. She says, "I'm trying to create a different place to fulfill a different need, a different level of life, not just get off the street."

One-half to one-third of Avalon tenants are mental health consumers. The percentage varies because when Avalon buys a new property, the people already there are allowed to stay until their leases run out, or to stay permanently if they meet the income guidelines. Depending on the funding source, an individual's income must be under 30 percent or under 50 percent of the area's median income to qualify. Avalon tenants have no trouble meeting those requirements—their incomes are all under 30 percent of the area's median (the SRO tenants' are under 15 percent). Although a lot of the Avalon tenants are doing better financially, none so far has had income surpassing the limit that allows them to stay. Besides the mental health consumers, tenants include single mothers, disabled, and the working poor.

Ron Brumbaugh, brown-haired and energetic, the tenant who told Camacho that he had a job at the Y, is an example of the last group. Before Avalon, he was in and out of the shelter, although, as he explains, "I always had a job. I was never on welfare. I worked and worked; it's just that I couldn't afford rent of six or seven hundred plus electricity. There was not enough left for food."

Originally from Pennsylvania, Brumbaugh came to Ann Arbor ten years ago while hitchhiking to California. He liked it. "I like the diversity, the huge anti-racist stand. It's clean, and low crime, not like Detroit where you hear guns go off." And now, because of Avalon, he can afford to stay. "Thanks to Avalon, I have a normal life. I have a place to go when I get off work. I have food in the refrigerator, and I have a car, now that I can afford insurance."

Unlike Brumbaugh, Ron Yarrington, forty-seven, always had relatives who were willing to put him up. But like the other tenants interviewed, his story is also one of climbing his way back up to self- sufficiency. He's used a wheelchair since 1983, when, he says matter-of-factly, "I came home to find my roommate drunk. Ten minutes later he shot me. I didn't see him pull out the gun."

Yarrington had come to Ann Arbor from Louisiana to go to the U-M but, short of funds, left school to work in construction. That he was in good physical shape when he was injured helped him recover, although it still took three years of physical therapy for him to become mobile. He returned to school and earned a degree in architecture. Learning of Avalon in one of his classes, he signed up.

"It was a chance to live on my own," he explains. "I have privacy. I can have friends over." He now works part-time at the U-M in computer graphics, drives a car, and takes care of himself with a little help with housecleaning. A member of Avalon's board of directors, he helped Bob Barackman design a handicap-accessible unit at Davis Street. He tells young people, "Don't wait until what happened to me before you realize there's more to life than partying."

Dorothy Brown, the mother of two children ages thirteen and eighteen, came to Avalon from the rotating homeless shelter run by the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a coalition of churches and synagogues that put up families in their basements. Reluctant to talk about her marriage, Brown says simply, "I left home because it was not a good place to be; it was not working out." Although grateful to the hospitality network for giving her refuge, she says, "It was hard to go week to week, building to building, just living in a curtained-off square with everyone breathing on each other. It was particularly hard on the kids, to live a well-to-do life and then wake up one morning and find it all changed." Now happily settled in a two-bedroom Avalon apartment. Brown says, "I'm starting to enjoy life again."

In three years, Avalon has successfully found ways to house a wide range of people, learning as they go. But there are still challenges ahead. The waiting list was reopened briefly at the end of last year, but had to be closed again after it reached 200 names. As federal and state social service benefits are cut, the need for housing will continue to grow. To meet the demand, Avalon will need bricks-and-mortar money (HUD, its most consistent funder, is itself likely to be drastically cut by Congress) and operating money, which is even harder to find. Rents cover basic costs but not the labor-intensive enhanced management that makes Avalon so successful. Still, McCabe believes, "it is more cost-effective for the community to support Avalon than to keep people in the shelter."

At a recent retreat, Avalon's board discussed a number of fund-raising options. Assuming the group can continue to find the money it needs, the biggest challenge will be to continue its enhanced management, handling problems on a person-by-person basis, as the organization grows larger. Right now, Avalon has few enough tenants to deal with them individually, which is no doubt one reason for its success. The first tenant death came last year, that of an eighty-three-year-old alcoholic, who had few friends and died with very little known about him. Michael Appel, who found the man's body, has been researching his life in an effort to give his death some dignity.

Avalon tenants have become part of Ann Arbor. They work at Dominick's, the Y, the VA Hospital. They hang out at coffeehouses (where one of them beats all comers at chess), the Fleetwood, the Top of the Park, at poetry readings, and the Michigan Theater. Their lives attest to the fact that these people are more able to enjoy and contribute to the community when their living arrangements are not a constant worry.

"Maggie and Carol are like friends, not money-grubbing landlords," comments tenant Mary Bern Matthews. "Other landlords, when they hear you are mentally ill or homeless, say 'Forget it,' or 'We just rented it.' But people like us need to live somewhere."

Photo Captions:

Crucial to Avalon's success is its close collaboration with the county's Cooperative Housing and Independent Living Initiative (CHIL). Based in an Avalon unit, CHIL staffers provide whatever mental health and support services residents need to live independently.

Avalon head Carol McCabe saw the need for "enhanced management" to help people escape the shelter permanently.

Kurt Gardiner and Bob Barackman at work. "It's not just the ordinary landlord-tenant relationship," says Barackman, a retired Wayne County sheriff's deputy who oversees maintenance and rehab at all eleven Avalon properties. "Whatever the problem, we'll solve it."

Avalon site manager Maggie Camacho and resident Dorothy Brown. Before coming to Avalon, Brown and her two children had been moving from place to place in the rotating shelter run by the Interfaith Hospitality Network. Now, Brown says, "I'm starting to enjoy life again."

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

Gunther Gardens

Author: 
Grace Shackman

A motionless windmill marked the gardens of a renowned landscape architect

For many years, a huge deserted windmill north of Saline puzzled those who passed by it on Ann Arbor-Saline Road. Neighborhood children said it was haunted.

The windmill never ground grain. It was actually built as a tearoom for the Gunther Gardens, a formal garden and nursery that operated from 1927 to 1939. Developed by Edmund Gunther, a brilliant but eccentric landscape architect, and his hardworking wife, Elsie, the gardens covered 160 acres.

The "windmill" was an inspired piece of recycling: it was built around the remains of an old silo. The tearoom's sixty-five-seat dining room, which occupied an addition around the base, was furnished with Arts-and-Crafts-style handmade furniture and wrought iron lantern-style lamps. The silo itself contained the kitchen, bathrooms, and a stairway that led to a balcony. From the balcony, visitors could see the gardens spread out below them and the vanes of the windmill rising above them.

"It didn't rotate; it was just for looks," explains the Gunthers' son, also named Edmund.

Why did Gunther build it?

"When you live in Europe, you have different ideas," says Gunther's daughter, Viola Hall.

The tearoom was not open to the public but was used for special events. Groups such as garden clubs or university organizations would book special events at the tearoom. They'd come for a catered meal, a talk by Gunther, and a tour of the gardens.

Because of the windmill, many assumed that Gunther was from the Netherlands, but actually he and Elsie were born in Germany. He studied landscaping in Zurich before immigrating to the United States and attending theology school in Rochester, New York, to become a Congregational minister.

"During World War I, he couldn't preach," says Hall. "They thought he was a German spy. So he moved lo East Lansing and got a degree in the [MSU] landscape program." Gunther worked at a botanical station in Florida and then moved to Ann Arbor to work as a landscape architect.

In 1926 the Gunthers bought a dilapidated farm outside Saline and developed their gardens. They filled in a swamp with loads of dirt. Elsie Gunther, who had learned gardening from her father, supervised the crews and selected the plants. Edmund was the dreamer. "His head was always up in the clouds," recalled Elsie in a 1976 interview.

Edmund Gunther's specialty was wild gardens, so his showpiece featured plants native to the area. Artesian wells on the property fed a kidney-shaped pool with a waterfall in front of the teahouse, and an artificial lake behind Gunther's office. He created rock gardens and sunken gardens, to give potential buyers ideas of what could be done with the plants he specialized in. He increased the variety in his designs by changing the temperatures in his greenhouses, forcing plants to bloom early or holding them back. He went to Indiana to collect dogwoods, to the Carolinas for rhododendrons, and to northern Michigan for cedars.

Gunther's unusual designs brought him awards and wealthy customers. He landscaped factory sites, Hillsdale College, a park in Adrian, and residences in most of southeast Michigan's affluent suburbs. In 1927, he won first prize at the North American Garden Show with a wild garden exhibit. He won again the next year, this time with an octagonal garden. He created a ten-acre flowering meadow for Detroit industrialist William Knudson, and a lavish garden to set off a display of new Chryslers. He also worked for Henry Ford—once designing a rose garden for Ford's wife, Clara—and Ford visited periodically to talk about soybean farming.

Gunther Gardens was a critical success, but not a financial one. During the Great Depression, landscape gardening was a luxury few could afford. The Gunthers tried every way they could to keep the business afloat, including renting out some of the land to farmers. The younger Edmund Gunther recalls that at the end, his dad was working with a religious group in Cleveland to re-create the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, trying to develop a synthetic rubber out of milkweed (in anticipation of World War II), and building dormitories behind his house in hopes of offering classes on landscaping.

But the Gunthers couldn't make the payments on their land contract, and their endeavor ended inelegantly. The sheriff's deputy evicted them, throwing all their possessions out on the road.

The Gunthers were devastated. Their marriage ended, and they both went through hard times for a while. Edmund remarried and returned to the ministry at a small church in Gibraltar, south of Detroit. Elsie moved back to Ann Arbor and ran several boardinghouses, with the financial help of Clara Ford. She showed her gratitude by baking Clara coffee cakes.

After the Gunthers left, the gardens became overgrown, but the windmill remained standing until 1965, when it fell over in a storm. About five years ago, Ann Arbor's Guenther Building Company—no relation to the Gunther family—bought the land and developed it into a subdivision. It was also named Gunther Gardens in honor of the family. In a touch that Edmund Gunther himself would surely have appreciated, the company built a faux-historic covered bridge at the entrance.

—Grace Shackman

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

The Legacy of Judge Dexter

Author: 
Grace Shackman

The village's broad avenues reflect his ambitious vision

Samuel William Dexter arrived in Michigan from New York in 1824. A Harvard graduate and a practicing lawyer, Dexter came from a prominent eastern family (his father was a U.S. senator, secretary of war under Adams, and secretary of treasury under Jefferson). He chose to settle on the Michigan frontier. Dexter wrote to a cousin, "to get rid of the blue devils, or to speak more politely of the ennui which like a demon pursues those who have nothing to do."

Dexter spent the first four months exploring southern Michigan, traveling 2,000 miles on horseback with Orange Risdon, a surveyor and the founder of Saline (see p. 60). He finally chose the spot where Mill Creek runs into the Huron River. After buying a large amount of land in the area that would become Dexter Village, Dexter dammed Mill Creek and built a sawmill on one side of the creek and a grist mill on the other. He was appointed the village's first postmaster, and in 1826, when Washtenaw was formally organized as a county, he was chosen its first chief justice. From then on, he was known as "Judge Dexter."

Dexter Streetscape

"Dexter, Michigan, 1930/1940 (ca.)

The earliest houses in the village were clustered along the river; it was not until 1830 that Dexter laid out the town's streets. Years later, John Doane, who assisted in the project, wrote that Ann Arbor and Central streets were both laid out without instruments: Dexter simply pointed out which trees should be taken down for the center of the street, then had Doane pace out three rods on each side. Soon, both sides of the street were filled with stores; but being constructed of wood, with wooden sidewalks in front, all were eventually destroyed by fire. In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, the original stores were replaced by the brick storefronts that still form Dexter's main shopping area.

In 1839, Judge Dexter donated land for a Baptist church. Soon afterward, he also donated land to the fledgling Michigan Central Railroad. The railroad reached town in 1841 amid great rejoicing. The trains not only made it easier for the agricultural products of the surrounding area to reach market, but they also brought hordes of prospective immigrants, often more than there were seats on the train. The first train depot, on the north side of the tracks, was replaced in 1886 by one on the south side. It is still there, now owned by the Huron Valley Railroad Historical Society.

When he first arrived, Dexter shared a log cabin with another family, but soon he had a large house built on what is now Huron Street. After the railroad cut through that property, he built a mansion just west of town, which he named Gordon Hall, after his mother's family. It still stands today, now divided into apartments. (The Huron Street house was torn down in 1939 despite efforts of historic-minded citizens to save it.) Another elegant early house, the present-day American Legion, was built in 1840 by Henry Vinkler, the village's first cabinetmaker and undertaker. Vinkler reportedly napped regularly in one of his caskets, and when he died he was buried in it.

Dexter peaked in the nineteenth century. According to Dexter historian Bruce Waggoner, the town was "really more of a farming community in the twentieth century." Today, he says, "Dexter is developing into a bedroom community. Around a thousand new residents, in apartments, condos, and private homes, have been annexed into the village." But although only nine miles from Ann Arbor, Dexter has kept its separate identity. Its downtown is still filled with stores providing necessities to residents, including Hackney Hardware, Dexter Pharmacy, and the Dexter Bakery. And the village still has a strong core of active citizens concerned about its future, 250 of whom recently contributed to install an antique-style clock at the comer of Main and Broad streets.

—Grace Shackman

Rights Held By: 
Grace Shackman
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