The Herz Paint Store

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1995,
December 1995

Author: Grace Shackman

Behind its modest storefront was the classiest interior decorating firm in Ann Arbor

Frequenters of downtown have enjoyed watching the recent transformation of the Cracked Crab building at 112 West Washington back to its nineteenth-century appearance. William Herz erected the building about 1880 as a paint store, and his family continued in business there for more than eighty years. Under Herz's ownership, and later that of his son, Oswald, the Herz Paint Store became the premier painting and decorating firm in town.

William Herz, a Prussian, learned his trade in Berlin. Born in 1849, he began his apprenticeship at age fourteen, learning painting, frescoing, varnishing, and sign painting. He emigrated at age twenty to join his parents, who had preceded him to Ann Arbor.

Herz opened his own business shortly after he arrived. Working fourteen-hour days, six days a week, he sold paint and related supplies and also decorated many private homes and public buildings. Within ten years, he had nine employees and was able to replace his small store with the two-story brick building on West Washington. He and his wife, Sophia Muehlig, (they married in 1874) also built an impressive house at 603 West Huron, joining other prosperous Germans on that street. He served on city council for eight years, representing the Second Ward (approximately today's Old West Side). Since Ann Arbor had not yet built its first city hall, he probably hosted some of the council meetings in his store.

When William Herz died in 1913, his son, Oswald, took over. Alice Godfrey remembers Oswald Herz as "aristocratic in manner, always dressed up, and very polite and gentlemanly." Professionally, says architect David Osier, Herz was "the painter and decorator of Ann Arbor."

Herz didn't dazzle his customers with fancy displays. Bill Dettling, longtime cook at the Old German next door, says the store looked "like an old-time grocery store, with shelves on all sides." On one side, glass cases displayed paint brushes. Along the other side, rolls of wallpaper were stacked like rugs. Morrie Dalitz owned Varsity Laundry and delivered clean towels and linens to the store. He remembers it as mostly inventory, not displays; "like himself, Herz kept the place neat."

Herz didn't need to display his inventory, because he worked so well from memory. Mary Culver remembers going to the store with her mother to pick out wallpaper for the bedroom she was taking over from her brother, who was serving in World War II. After they described what they had in mind, Herz simply reached up to the shelves and brought down several appropriate samples. Angela Dobson Welsh remembers that Herz always had the latest thing, including "very modern" wallpaper designs from California.

Herz's paint, like everything else he sold, was top quality. Welch, whose parents often used Herz's services, remembers that his paint jobs seemed to last forever and could be washed without damage. Osler likens hiring Herz to buying a Mercedes. His workmen would first clean and sand the walls and then apply six or seven coats of paint.

Bill Wente, a longtime employee, supervised Herz's crews. Most of the dozen or so employees lived on the Old West Side and walked to work. The firm's single truck was used to deliver the crews and their supplies to jobs. If Herz wanted to check on them during the day, he rode his bicycle.

Home owners trusted Herz and his crews, even turning over their house keys so work could proceed while they were off on vacation. Herz, in turn, would help out in their absence by accepting packages, arranging to cut the lawn or shovel the walk, or even sending forgotten clothes.

Herz had a reputation as an autocratic interior designer. Morrie Dalitz recalls that if Herz said a red chair was needed and a customer objected to red, Herz would order a red one anyway. Welch remembers that he worked in many styles, from traditional to modem, and that the final results were "different looking, something you didn't see anywhere else." Herz was also a potter. He had a kiln on the second floor of his store and offered classes several nights a week.

Like his father, Herz did at lot of work for the U-M, and he also worked closely with Goodyear's department store. Most of his private clients were from the east side, where many professors and successful business people lived. Jesse Coller, wife of surgeon Fred Coller, had a knack for decorating and often helped her friends with their houses. According to Welch, she was a great champion of Herz and sent all her friends to him.

Herz never married. When he died in 1954, he left the business to four faithful employees, including Wente, who continued to run it. But according to Osler, the paint business was changing drastically by then. With the advent of mixing machines and ready-mixed colors, department and discount stores were moving in on the turf that had once belonged exclusively to local paint stores.

At the end of 1963, the partners closed the business and sold the building to Herman Goetz, who changed it to a bar and grill. In 1971 the Cracked Crab took over and did a major remodeling that covered the facade, added a phony first-story roof, and lowered the entrance by removing the stepping-stone with Herz's name etched in it. (It can be found embedded in the sidewalk by the Del Rio's side door.)

The Cracked Crab expanded into the adjacent storefront in 1978. Both buildings are now owned by the same partnership that owns the former Old German building at 120, now the Grizzly Peak Brewing Company. Using old photographs found by Susan Wineberg, managing partner Jon Carlson is restoring the building and recreating its nineteenth-century appearance. He has removed the Cracked Crab's facade and white paint to reveal the original deep-orange brick. In consultation with historic paint expert Rob Schweitzer, he is painting the building's non-brick details in red, yellow, green, and brown, historically accurate colors that also complement the Grizzly Peak.

Carlson's new tenant will be the Cafe Zola, run by Alan Zakalik and Hediye Batu. They chose the name because it had the sophisticated, international ring they were looking for; because the Z picked up on Zakalik's name; and because Emile Zola was writing around the time when the building was put up. They hope to open sometime in January.

—Grace Shackman, with research assistance by Susan Wineberg

Photo Captions:

(Above) Within ten years of opening his Ann Arbor paint store, William Herz built this two-story brick storefront on West Washington.

(Right) After years of neglect, it's being restored to its nineteenth-century appearance.

Growing up in the American Hotel

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

Author: Grace Shackman

Warren Staebler's boyhood neighbors were traveling salesmen and May Festival musicians

In the early years of this century, traveling salesmen would set up shop for a week at a time in the "sample rooms" of the American Hotel at Ashley and Washington. Downtown merchants would come by to order everything from liquor to dry goods for their stores. Composer Victor Herbert, one of many famous musicians who stayed at the American during the annual May Festival, claimed its dining room served the best sauerkraut between New York and Chicago. But to Warren Staebler, the hotel was home.

Staebler's grandfather, Michael Staebler, built the brick hotel (now best known as the home of the Earle restaurant) in 1885. He called it the Germania, after the Germania Society. Like the Schwaben Verein and the Greater Beneficial Union, the Germania Society sold mutual insurance to members, and it also served as a social center. The hotel's top-floor ballroom housed the society's meetings, lectures, physical drills, and concerts.

The society did not prosper, but the hotel did. In 1895, two years after Warren Staebler's father, Albert, began working there, the family divided the ballroom into additional guest rooms, added a fourth story with still more rooms, and changed the name from the Germania to the American. In 1905, the year Albert Staebler married Dora Tice, Michael Staebler retired and Albert and Dora took over the business. Warren was born in 1910.

The family had a four-room apartment on the second floor, but Warren lived in the whole hotel. As a young boy, he rode his tricycle around the terrazzo-floored lobby, sometimes detouring through the adjoining saloon. He and his sister, Bernice, ate their meals in the hotel kitchen, served by the pastry chef. The only meal the family ate together was Sunday dinner, in the hotel dining room.

Warren remembers sitting in front of the lobby fireplace talking with guests, many of them regulars whom he and his family got to know well. Most were salesmen, who arrived by train, usually on a Monday, and stayed the entire week. Many May Festival musicians returned annually for as many as twenty-five years, and the American also welcomed theater troupes performing at the Majestic Theater on Maynard.

After a big storm, gangs of repairmen from Detroit Edison and the telephone company would stay at the hotel while working to restore service. Other guests came for special events or to visit relatives—in an age when even many employed adults lived in boarding houses, they had little space to put up their visiting families.

From the beginning, the hotel also was home to a flock of Staebler family businesses. From the storefront on the building's east side, Michael Staebler sold, at various times, farm implements, fuel, sewing machines, athletic equipment, and various modes of transportation—bicycles, motorcycles, cars. The Staeblers ran Ann Arbor's first car dealership there, selling Toledo Steamers, then Reos, Oaklands, Franklins, and finally Pontiacs.

As his sons came of age, Michael Staebler turned the various businesses over to them. Albert, the fourth of six sons, was given the hotel business.

Warren Staebler recalls that his father supervised a staff of four desk clerks (often university students), two bartenders, a janitor, and a man who drove the horse and wagon to the railroad station to pick up guests. His mother supervised the chambermaids—one per floor—and had most of the hands-on responsibility for the dining room.

Located right behind the lobby, the dining room was very formal, with linen tablecloths and napkins and waitresses in starched uniforms. The food was good enough that people from town came for dinner there, especially on Sundays.

The hotel saloon also served local customers. When Prohibition was enacted, it switched to serving soft drinks, sandwiches, and light refreshments. But business dwindled, so the space was turned over to the family's car dealership (which had expanded on Ashley).

By then, the heyday of downtown hotels was over. The traveling salesmen had all shifted from trains to cars, which gave them the freedom to go directly from customer to customer, bringing their samples with them. In 1927 the American's dining room closed; its space became the Staeblers' Pontiac showroom.

In 1929, Michael Staebler died, and Albert's family moved into his duplex on Liberty and Third streets. The next year, Albert retired. For a while. Warren's uncles, Walter and Herman, who operated the car dealership, also ran the hotel, but they soon leased it to a company who ran it as the Griswold. In 1954 the Milner chain took over, renaming it the Earle after company owner Earl Milner, who had grown up in Ann Arbor. In 1971, the hotel closed for good.

In 1973, four partners, Ernie Harburg, Rick Burgess, David Rock, and Dennis Webster, bought the building, opened the Earle restaurant in the basement, and began restoring the rest of the building. In 1982 they sold the building to Tom Gaithwaite and Marvin Carlson, who gutted the upper floors, which were still divided into sixty-one small hotel rooms, and made the space into elegant offices, today occupied mainly by lawyers. The eastern storefront, until recently 16 Hands, is currently vacant. The western storefront—the original hotel dining room and lobby—is undergoing conversion to the Sweetwaters Cafe (see Changes, March).

When he grew up. Warren Staebler operated the Hi-Speed gas station at the corner of Packard and Arch (today a park). Now retired, he still keeps several souvenirs of his unusual boyhood in the hotel his grandfather built: a set of chairs from the dining room and spittoons from the lobby and saloon. Asked about growing up in a hotel, he recalls, "My friends envied me because I had no grass to cut. And I envied them because they had grass to cut." —Grace Shackman

Photo Captions

(Left) The exterior and lobby of the American Hotel. Also called the American House, it was originally named the Germania in honor of the Germania Society, which met in its third-floor ballroom. (Note the very tall windows there; the lower-ceilinged fourth floor was an 1895 addition.)

Founder Michael Staebler is the bearded man behind the counter; standing next to him is his son, Albert, Warren Staebler's father.

(Above) The Earle Building today.

Landscape Architect Bob Grese

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, October 1992,
Ocrober 1992

Author: Grace Shackman

Fascinated by Ann Arbor's vanished prairies, he recreated one in his own front yard

When Bob Grese turned the front lawn of his house on Ann Arbor's west side into a prairie, his neighbors didn't know what to make of it. They had been very happy the year before to learn that a landscape architect had bought the run-down property, an eyesore on the street. And they had since become fond of the mild-mannered, smiling Grese, who brought delicious natural foods to their neighborhood potlucks. But they had expected something a little different from his landscaping efforts than five-foot-tall grasses.

Grese (pronounced GRAY-see), thirty seven, is an associate professor in the U-M School of Natural Resources and chair of the landscape architecture program. He started his prairie three years ago as a teaching tool. His small house, built in the 1920's, probably as a garage, is set back on its lot, dwarfed by a long front yard. Grese planted the area nearest the house as a woodland opening, with wildflowers. The middle section is prairie, with five kinds of grasses and an assortment of prairie flowers (black-eyed Susan and other cone Cowers, bee balm, ironweed), tapering off again into a woodland opening near the street. He put trees at the front to give it a more landscaped look, and planted the front edge of the yard with natural ground covers—wild strawberry, dewberry, and Virginia creeper.

In growing his prairie, Grese is going one step further back than his Old West Side neighbors who work to restore their houses to their original appearance. He is reconstructing a landscape that existed before Ann Arbor was settled. Looking at old survey maps, he has identified a prairie that was here when John Alien and Elisha Rumsey platted the town in 1824. It began where Slauson school is, just a few blocks from Grese's house on Charlton.

Grese started his prairie by burning (with city permission) the vegetation already in his yard. Burning suppresses European lawn grasses and woody plants and puts nutrients back in the soil to help the native plants thrive. Whenever possible, Grese likes to begin his prairie projects by burning. He never has any problem getting volunteers to help. "Burning holds a real enchantment for people," he says. "There's a primal attraction to fire."

Dark-haired and slight (though muscular, probably from biking and hiking), Grese knows his own attraction to prairies is not widely shared. "It's easier for most people to appreciate forests rather than prairies," he says. As part of a small but growing movement of prairie restorers, Grese wants to change this. He has helped schoolkids set up prairies at Thurston Nature Center and Leslie Science Center with "stomping parties," where the children themselves sow the seeds of wild grasses and flowers. He has led workshops on prairies and is active in several state and national environmental organizations.

Grese especially enjoys leading field trips to remnants of prairies past. There were once prairies and oak savannas (woodland openings) throughout this area. Alien and Rumsey reportedly picked Ann Arbor as a town site because of the oak openings along the Huron River. The southeastern part of the city was a wet prairie (which explains why basements in that area often flood). Grese has found many prairie remnants around town: along the railroad tracks between Dexter and Ann Arbor; behind the Catherine McAuley campus on Huron River Drive (called the Shanghai prairie because turn-of-the-century Chinese workers mined gravel there); on drain commission land between US-23 and Platt Road; Dow Field in the Nichols Arboretum; and in parts of Barton and Gallup parks.

Grese's serious interest in prairies began when he was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980's, where he studied and helped with an experimental prairie. But his interest in plants and nature goes back to his grade-school years, when his family lived on two and a half acres in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Neither his parents (his father was a Lutheran minister) nor his ten siblings were particularly interested in nature, but Grese loved the wooded area around his childhood home, where the grass grew wild. "I was enchanted with the place,'' he says.

At Washington University in St.Louis in 1973, Grese began studying architecture, but decided he was more interested in the grounds around the buildings than in the buildings themselves. He switched to landscape architecture and transferred to the University of Georgia, where he received his B.A. Once he began working, the job he liked best was recording the route of the trail along Pennsylvania's Lehigh Canal for the Historic America Engineering Record. Bored with-the everyday mechanics of landscape architecture and wanting to learn more about plants, he returned to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a master's in 1984. He taught two years at the University of Virginia before coming to the U-M, where he won tenure earlier this year.

Besides his interest in prairies, Grese has pursued two other specialties: children's nature education and the history of landscape architecture. The period of landscape history that Grese has focused on is, appropriately enough, the prairie landscape movement, a counterpart to Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie architecture. He's an admirer of Jens Jensen, a leader of the movement, which encouraged the use of native plants in landscape design. Grese's book, Jens Jensen: Maker of National Parks and Gardens, was recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Grese is a softspoken individual with strong convictions about local issues that touch on the environment. He thinks conservation efforts such as protection of wetlands or Ann Arbor's recently proposed natural features ordinance are steps in the right direction, but he emphasizes, "We need to protect [the environment] as a larger continuum. It makes no sense to protect wetlands and then pave right up to them, to not protect the upland."

As for the natural features ordinance, Grese worries that it could go too far and indiscriminately protect everything—including "weed trees" that he thinks should be cut down to make room for the restoration of native species. (Debate on just what the ordinance will cover is continuing.)

He would like to see the city's forestry department concentrate on planting trees indigenous to this area (white and bur oaks, chestnuts) instead of imports like zelkova trees. Although the zelkovas are meant to replace the city's vanished American elms, Grese complains that "they don't have the grace or charm" of the native species.

Grese's vocation is also his avocation. Although he likes folk music, he finds he's too busy working in his gardens (he has two besides the prairie) to go to many concerts. Part of him seems nostalgic for a slower-paced American past. After an inner struggle, he decided to give up his car, a 1980 Datsun. One day last February, he drove it to Town and Country auto recyclers on Wagner and bicycled back home.

Grese's own prairie is sometimes a shock to people who see it for the first time, bursting up above the neatly mowed lawns along the street. Former neighbor Mary Jo Gord says that when she and her husband were selling their house on Charlton recently, many prospective buyers mistook Grese's residence for an overgrown and abandoned house.

But over time, his neighbors have become accustomed to the prairie. Although no one has followed his example and begun their own, they enjoy the offerings of his—increased butterfly populations in the summer, more birds in the winter, the grasses turning various colors in the fall, and the snow making changing patterns in the winter.

The Unsinkable Mayor Brown

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

Author: Grace Shackman

Ann Arbor's car dealer-mayor masterminded the city's postwar transition from small town to urban research center.

"It's a bird--it's a plane--it's Mayor Brown!" That was the standing joke among the women who worked for William E. Brown Jr., as he made his dramatic daily entrance into his office on the seventh floor of the Ann Arbor Trust Building. In the afternoon he would walk two blocks up Huron to City Hall. There, recalls Mary Schlect, who operated the switchboard, "you could always hear him before you saw him."

Gregarious and energetic, Bill Brown served as mayor from 1945 to 1957. Jean Graf, his longtime administrative assistant, remembers him as "bouncy and exuberant. He had great rapport with anyone. Even if he didn't know you, he would say hello and shake your hand. He was fun all the time.''

Underneath the bonhomie was a man brimming with ideas and the drive to pursue them. He brought Ann Arbor into the post-World War II world, guiding its transition from small town to urban research center. Probably his most significant achievement was the creation of the city's parking system, so innovative for its time that it brought international attention and recognition to Ann Arbor--and its mayor.

Born in 1896 and raised in Lapeer, Brown came to Ann Arbor in 1914 to attend the U-M. He interrupted his schooling to serve in World War I, advancing to the rank of second lieutenant before returning to finish his B. A. and attend one year of law school.

In college, Brown became friends with Earl Cress, and the two ambitious young men formed a business partnership in 1921. Although neither was originally from Ann Arbor, both lived in town with their families; and both of their mothers ran rooming houses--Grace Brown's on Church Street and Louise Cress's on South University.

This wasn't the rare coincidence it might seem. It was a fairly common strategy at the time for families of U-M students to move to Ann Arbor; the family could economize by continuing to live together, and mothers often took in additional roomers to help meet expenses. Since Brown's father was an attorney who worked for a railroad in Detroit, the move meant only a change in the direction of his commute.

Over their eighteen-year partnership, Cress and Brown developed a large portfolio of business interests that included bonds, loans, investments, insurance, real estate, and a car dealership. In 1939, still good friends, they decided to divide their holdings. Cress took the real estate and the Ann Arbor Trust Company (it's now part of the Cleveland-based Society Bank, but its Michigan branch is still headed by Cress's son, George). Brown kept the insurance and the car dealership.

By the time Brown became mayor in 1945, he was operating half a dozen companies, including Ann Arbor Insurance, Huron Investment, Huron Acceptance, and Washington Investment, from his office in the Ann Arbor Trust Building. His car dealership, which had originally sold Cadillacs, Chevrolets, and Oldsmobiles, was divided, at GM's insistence, into an Oldsmobile dealership, University Motors at 907 North Main, and a Chevrolet dealership, Huron Motor Sales at 209 West Huron. The Chevy dealership took up most of the block bounded by Ashley, First, and Washington. Brown also owned other real estate and a Christmas tree farm between Grayling and Kalkaska, and he was a stockholder and director of many local industries, including Argus, makers of the world's best-selling 35mm camera.

Although Brown's only prior civic service was as chair of the Selective Service board, his decision to run for mayor in 1945 was welcomed by the city's business community. Ever since the days of Mayor Edward Staebler (1927-1931), all Ann Arbor mayors had been connected with the U-M. Frank Mclntyre, who sang with Brown in a barbershop quartet, wrote a campaign lyric that predicted, "He'll let the bars down and open up the town. . . . Give the town back to the owners."

With the promise that he would "run this city like a business," Brown won the Republican primary against Glen Alt, a five-term alderman and council president, by a comfortable 500 votes (1,750-1,273). The town was so thoroughly Republican at the time that no Democrat had even bothered to run for mayor, so the primary victory insured Brown's election.

Even if Brown hadn't owned two car dealerships, he certainly would have been aware of what a pressing problem parking was when he took office in 1945. Veterans returning to town and staff of the expanding university clogged Ann Arbor's streets with cars. On-street parking was woefully inadequate, and there were only a few private parking lots.

Although very much a proponent of free enterprise, Brown quickly concluded that only government could solve the parking problem. He wrote, "I have always believed that no city or no branch of government should go into business in any form unless private enterprise fails to, and cannot, furnish a service that the public needs and must have. It has been proved in Ann Arbor that private enterprise couldn't satisfactorily furnish water service, sewer service and parking service."

Having decided the city should provide downtown parking, Brown still had to find a way to pay for it. He came up with the revolutionary idea of putting in meters for street parking, then using the revenues to build off-street lots and structures. Brown already had the authority to install meters: the city council had passed the enabling legislation in 1938, but had delayed implementing it.

In October 1945, his first year in office, Brown made a production of inviting five meter manufacturers to show their products to city council. Council members chose a model they deemed least likely to jam. When the meters were first installed, Brown hoped that they would be used only until the lots were paid for. Longtime residents don't remember much opposition.

By 1947, the first lot purchased with meter revenues opened at the corner of Washington and First. Two years later, a parking structure was built on it. (The site was considered particularly apt for a structure because it was on a hill, eliminating the need for space-consuming internal ramps.) According to the Ann Arbor News, the structure was "believed to be the first of its kind operated by a municipality anywhere on earth." While many towns claim firsts that aren't necessarily recognized beyond their own borders, this one held up surprisingly well. Brown spoke on his parking system around the country and even internationally, and no one ever claimed to know of an earlier structure.

Brown had a flair for dramatizing even seemingly dull subjects like parking, and for involving the public in them. He opened the structure with great flourish on May 26, 1949. The day included a public open house and a formal ceremony followed by a big party in the evening. The evening events were held on the roof of the structure. Dignitaries from two dozen communities joined 2,000 townsfolk for speeches, presentation of a flag by the Erwin Prieskorn VFW post, and music by the Ann Arbor High School band. The party featured square dancing and food supplied by the Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Brown continued developing the parking system, concentrating on downtown, State Street, and the university campus area. By the end of his administration, the city had five lots (South Fifth Avenue, North Ashley, Main at William, South Forest, and Packard at Main), and two structures. The second structure was built in 1953 on Maynard across from Jacobson's, on the site of the old Majestic Theater. Originally only three stories, it was dedicated to Brown, and like the first, it was opened with pomp and circumstance.

Brown became a worldwide advocate for municipal parking systems. He gave speeches on parking at such places as mayors' conferences, consulted with other communities that wanted to emulate Ann Arbor, gave numerous interviews to out-of-town newspapers, and wrote many articles.

As a result of Brown's efforts, Ann Arbor's parking setup was widely copied elsewhere. But it wasn't always popular at home. "For urging the city to go into the off-street parking business I have been called a 'creeping socialist' and some other names unprintable,'' he stated in an interview in 1954. "However, as you know, I am nothing more or less than one hundred percent Republican."

If some Republicans were confused, it was because Brown was such an active mayor. He believed that government should use its power to improve the city, not just to oversee the status quo.

Housing was another pressing postwar problem in Ann Arbor, caused by the same forces that brought the parking problem to a boiling point--returning vets and swelling university enrollment. There was no place to put them. In a speech in 1946, Brown said that between the onset of the Depression in 1929 and the end of the war in 1945, only forty homes were built in the entire city.

Brown started with a survey of existing houses to see if the owners could find temporary space for more people, particularly vets. When the survey showed that there was very little slack, Brown decided the long-term answer was to increase Ann Arbor's land area, to create space for more homes to be built.

It was a momentous decision, made more significant by Brown's practical, businesslike way of implementing it. First, he doubled the city's water and sewage capacity. Then he went to work encouraging surrounding property owners to annex themselves to the city, using city services as the bait. His strategy was extremely successful. During his term, the city doubled in land size, growing from six square miles to more than twelve. Surrounding areas incorporated into the city during Brown's administration included East Ann Arbor, North Campus, and Ann Arbor Hills.

Brown described himself as a natural salesman, and he was highly successful at promoting Ann Arbor's interests. He convinced the state to build a new bridge across the Huron on Whitmore Lake Road (since superceded by the M-14 bridge), negotiated with the federal government to make sure the new Veterans Administration hospital paid for city services, and encouraged research-oriented businesses to locate here. Many of the businesses on Plymouth Road, including Bendix and Parke-Davis, moved to Ann Arbor during Brown's administration.

One of his biggest negotiating successes was persuading the university to help defray the cost of the city services it used. The final agreement called for annual payments of $127,000 from the university to help the city improve the sewage disposal plant, plus payments for the salaries of seven policemen. Jack Dobson, a city council member and lawyer, handled most of the negotiations.

Like Ann Arbor's parking system, the university settlement aroused interest around the country, especially in college towns such as Madison, Berkeley, and Ithaca, whose leaders asked advice on how to negotiate similar agreements in their communities.

It wasn't just good salesmanship that won Brown such victories. He worked tirelessly. Jean Graf, his longtime assistant, remembers many nights staying up until ten o'clock or even midnight, doing business or writing yet another article on parking. His workload was increased by the fact that the city was operating under a charter adopted in 1889, which did not provide for a city manager or even department heads. Each of the six city departments (fire, police, public works, water, health, and parks) was run by citizens' committees appointed by the mayor. The mayor and city council operated as both the executive and legislative branches of government.

According to Jean Graf, Brown could do so much because he was very good at delegating authority. Pete Zahner, who managed the Chevrolet dealership, says that Brown "stopped by about every day to get pertinent information,'' but left the day-to-day management to him. Brown was also in a position to combine tasks. For instance, on a business trip he might also do an interview with a local paper about parking or talk to a local industry about relocating.

Brown did manage to have a good time, too. Some days, he lunched at the Town Club, located right behind the Chevy dealership on Washington, where he ran into many of the wheeler-dealers in town. Other days, he went to the Ann Arbor Club, above what is now Beth's Boutique, where he would stay after lunch to play a few hands of cards. He belonged to Ann Arbor Golf and Outing, where he played in tennis tournaments. He hosted an annual picnic for his male government associates at his cottage at Horseshoe Lake.

With his family, Brown was more likely to go to another cottage at Bear Lake, near the Christmas tree farm. He had been married since 1920 to his college sweetheart, Eleanor Shartel, the daughter of Missouri congressman Cassius Shartel. Eleanor Brown was by all accounts the antithesis of her husband--quiet and dignified. Tall and always impeccably dressed, she was a formal but gracious hostess.

The Browns had four children and thirteen grandchildren. Every August the whole family spent a week at Camp Newton, a hunting and fishing lodge in the Upper Peninsula, which Brown owned with a group of sportsmen from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. (Jack Dobson remembers that though Brown was an enthusiastic sportsman, he was a very impatient fisherman.) In the winter, the Browns usually went to Florida, staying in a hotel owned by a friend. Mrs. Brown would often stay there all winter, with the mayor joining her when he could.

In spite of his great will to succeed and his indomitable energy, Brown did not always get what he wanted. The main obstacle was lack of money. During his tenure, city voters turned down a suggested millage increase and several bonding proposals. He thought of imposing an amusement tax but could not get the support of the city council. Whenever possible he found alternative ways of funding: parking meters for structures, state money for the Whitmore Lake bridge, increased user fees to finance the water and sewer extensions--but his ideas always outran his ability to find financing.

When the city bought the fairgrounds at Jackson and Maple and turned it into what we today call Vets Park, the visionary in Brown again went to work. He suggested setting up areas for every sport imaginable--golf, badminton, handball, shuffleboard, horseshoes, archery, roller-skating--building a football stadium, and erecting a community building. Only a fraction of what he planned was accomplished.

The grandest plan of all was Brown's proposal to build a four-block civic center to house city and county offices and a myriad of other community services, including the post office, an auditorium, swimming pool, fire and police, social agencies, library, gym, and offices of the civic orchestra. Touted as a war memorial (presumably in a pitch for vets' support), it was supposed to include underground parking and a rooftop heliport.

At one point, Brown actually had the support of fifty organizations for the plan, including the county board of supervisors. But the supervisors later changed their minds, building a new county court house where the old one had stood. Meanwhile, support from the city waned after community leaders, including city council president Cecil Creal and schools superintendent Otto Haisley, convinced Brown that the new Ann Arbor High School should have first funding priority (see p. 32). Even then, Brown did not totally abandon the idea, instead suggesting the center could be built in stages as money became available.

A results-oriented person, Brown worked to bring the city's infrastructure up to modern standards to meet the needs of a growing population. He was less open to change in the structure of government and in social issues. "Brown believed city government policy should deal with sewer, fire, and water, and that social issues were for other levels of government," Jack Dobson explains. Brown helped private charities but initiated no public solutions to social problems. He hired blacks and the poor in his own businesses and did not interfere when city treasurer Bill Vernor hired Rosemarion Blake and Tom Harrison, the first two blacks to work in City Hall. But he did nothing to address the serious inequalities blacks often faced elsewhere in the city: not being served in restaurants, not being allowed to try on clothes and shoes in stores, or finding it difficult to get home loans.

Brown also resisted the movement for charter reform that had been growing among concerned citizens of both parties, including many of his closest associates, such as council president George Sallade and council member Lawrence Ouimet.

Charter proponents argued that reform was needed to make city government more efficient and fair. They advocated setting up departments for accounting and personnel, hiring a professional manager to run day-to-day operations, redistricting wards on the basis of population, not geographic area, and merging the office of mayor and council president.

Brown saw no need for a city administrator--why pay for one when the old system worked? He also favored the system of appointing citizens' committees to oversee departments, on the grounds that it was more democratic. Those who disagreed argued that the old system depended too much on volunteer labor and that the city might not always be lucky enough to have a mayor who could give as much time to the job as Brown did.

Despite his doubts, Brown refrained from outright opposition to charter revision, saying he could work under either system. He kept his promise: when the new charter was approved in 1956, Brown worked very closely with the first administrator, Guy Larcom, throughout what would be his last year in office.

Given his record and his outgoing personality, it seemed to most contemporaries that Brown could be mayor as long as he wanted. His Democratic opponents got 29 percent of the vote in 1949, 41 percent in 1951, and 35 percent in 1953. But in 1957--to everyone's surprise--Brown was defeated by Democrat Sam Eldersveld, a young political science professor who was running only because he could persuade no one else to do so.

There had been signs that Brown's popularity was waning when Dominick DeVarti mounted a Republican primary challenge, coming close enough (2,032-2,950) that he thought it worthwhile to run as a write-in candidate in the general election. And Eldersveld, whose specialty was local politics and political parties, was a former city party chair who had worked with a group of reformers--in an effort similar to the one Neil Staebler and Martha Griffiths were making on the state level--to open up and liberalize the Democratic Party. Taking heart from the fact that Brown's share of the vote in 1955 had slipped to 55 percent, Eldersveld waged an aggressive campaign, combining strong precinct organization with tough issues.

Eldersveld ran on a platform of more recreation, less spot zoning, a master plan for growth of the city, a human relations commission, and more citizen involvement. He also addressed the issues of housing, employment, and the treatment of blacks. Eldersveld won 53 percent of the vote (the final tally was 6,077-5,269).

There are several theories about why Brown lost. According to Eldersveld, "he had good ideas for development but ignored the human development dimension" -- the voters' increasing interest in social as well as physical progress.

In Jack Dobson's opinion, Brown "should have worked more closely with the Republicans. He ignored their choices for commissions, instead appointing his friends. He was a popular mayor but he didn't help the party.''

Democratic activist Libby Davenport agrees. "You remember Bill Brown, not the Republican party. He was not bound by the organization." As for appointments, Jean Graf says, "He would appoint anyone he felt would be good. He didn't care about politics, he just wanted the job done." But Dobson criticizes Brown for not appointing younger people and not rewarding those who had worked in the party. Sallade, also critical, describes Brown's appointments as "an overemphasis on the business community--government by crony.''

In Sallade's view, Brown lost because "he was too long in office. It was time for a change--the community had changed.'' He came into office interested in the physical problems of the city and had trouble adapting when social issues came to the fore.

Stung by his loss, Brown never congratulated Eldersveld, nor did he return to City Hall. He sent an employee over to empty his desk. "I've worked hard for twelve years, but I guess the people decided I wasn't good enough for them,'' he said to a Detroit News reporter.

Jean Graf recalls, "It must have hurt; but he didn't say. The next day he was at the Ann Arbor Club playing cards. He didn't sit around moaning and groaning and complaining."

Brown died in 1970 of bone cancer. Graf, who remained his administrative assistant to the end, says he kept working. When he became too weak to come into his office, she brought papers to his elegant and spacious home in Ann Arbor Hills.

Brown's legacy of civic improvements is recognized even by his opponents. Says Eldersveld, "Bill Brown, immediately after the war, perceived the changes that had to be made here in land acquisition, housing construction, and economic development. He had long-range goals and worked hard to accomplish these." Says Sallade, "Brown was ahead of his time."

When he was first elected mayor in 1945, Brown vowed, "I am not going to make the mistake of sitting around doing nothing." That is certainly the last thing anyone could accuse him of.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: Bill Brown owned Huron Motor Sales (now the Brown Block parking lot) and half a dozen other businesses. Even though his only civic experience was running the local draft board, he handily beat a five-term alderman in 1945 to begin the longest mayoral tenure in Ann Arbor's history.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: According to the Ann Arbor News, the city parking structure at Washington and First streets was "believed to be the first of its kind owned by a municipality anywhere on earth." Some complained it was creeping socialism, but when it opened in 1949, 2,000 people showed up for an open house, dedication ceremony, and a party catered by the Jaycees.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: side with two of his thirteen grandchildren. An engaging natural salesman, he persuaded Ann Arbor Hills, East Ann Arbor, and the North Campus area to become part of Ann Arbor.

History: Calvin Fillmore

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, August 2009,
August 2009

Author: Grace Shackman

A president's brother in Dexter

In July 1873, a family reunion in Scio Township merited coverage in the New York Times. That's because former president Millard Fillmore attended the gathering at the farmhouse on Dexter-Ann Arbor Road where his brother Calvin lived with his wife, Maranda.

Millard actually held the mortgage on the 100-plus-acre spread where Calvin eked out a living from the land after constructing some of Dexter's most significant early buildings, including Gordon Hall. But aside from getting occasional financial help, Calvin never was able to capitalize on his brother's fame.

The brothers' parents, Nathaniel and Phoebe Fillmore, were tenant farmers in upstate New York; they had nine children in all. Millard, their oldest son, went on to become a successful Buffalo lawyer and political leader. He had already served a term in Congress when Calvin and Maranda (nee Waldo--she was a second cousin of poet-sage Ralph Waldo Emerson) arrived in Dexter in 1835. They were both twenty-five and had been married five years.

The Fillmores came to Dexter because "it was the thing to do and land was cheap," their great-great-grandson Nathaniel Charles Fillmore told Dexter historian Norma McAllister in a 1973 interview. Calvin was a carpenter, and the young village had plenty of work. A few months after arriving, he wrote to his brother Darius in Buffalo: "Buildings are very scarce and rent very high, that is dwellings suitable for houses. I have now on hand about $350 worth of work and have had offers enough to reach $1,000, but help is very scarce here."

Besides houses, Fillmore built at least two churches. In 1839 he put up a frame building at Fifth and Broad, now long gone, for Dexter's Baptist congregation. In 1841 the Methodists hired him to build a church on Central Street, complete with a partition to divide the sexes. That church was replaced in 1925 after being struck by lightning.

But Fillmore's most impressive legacy is Gordon Hall. Between 1841 and 1843 he collaborated with the village's founder, judge Samuel Dexter, on the twenty-two-room house, which had nine fireplaces and nine-foot-tall sliding pocket doors. "The most elaborate of mansions of this period in Michigan with the general character of the large estates in the south," a 1934 edition of the Historic American Buildings Survey called it. The house is now being restored by the Dexter Area Historical Society.

Two of Calvin's sisters--Julia, who marred Charles Harris, and Olive, who married Henry Johnson--followed him to Michigan. Sylvester Newkirk, who was apprenticed to Calvin and went on to work with him, married Olive's daughter Julia.

In 1845 Calvin and Maranda bought more than 100 acres in Scio Township.

"It's a timbered opening with a beautiful spring brook [Honey Creek] running directly through it," he wrote to Millard. "I have cleared about 30 acres and split about 2,500 rails to fence with in the spring intending to put in a crop of wheat next summer health permitting."

The Greek Revival house still standing at 4350 Dexter-Ann Arbor Road is almost certainly the Fillmore farmhouse. The original front part, four rooms downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs, has the wide floorboards of the period and the original hardware. Setting up a farm cost more than Calvin expected, however, and he had to ask his brother Millard to assume the mortgage.

In 1849 Millard Fillmore, a Whig Party stalwart, was inaugurated as vice-president under Zachary Taylor. Calvin evidently was not flourishing as a farmer, for he began besieging his brother with requests for government jobs, including lighthouse keeper and customs collector. He asked that his son Waldo be named postmaster of Dexter.

The appointment went instead to lawyer Alexander Crane. Millard's unresponsiveness may have been due to intraparty squabbling that limited his powers of patronage. But even after Millard became president in 1850 on Taylor's sudden death, his brother remained a struggling farmer. In a letter to the president, an Ann Arbor friend hinted courteously at one possible reason Calvin did not prosper. The writer described the younger Fillmore as "evidently a genius in his way, a sort of original character, strongly marked with the family characteristic of thinking, achieving, and acting what he pleases without let or hindrance from saint or sinner."

Eventually Calvin stopped writing letters asking for help getting a job. The Whigs did not nominate Millard for the presidency in 1852, and he lost a third-party run in 1856 as the nominee of the American (Know-Nothing) Party.

Despite their various disappointments and their widely scattered residences, the Fillmore family kept in close touch. Their letters were filled with family news. In an 1867 letter to Millard, Calvin reported that his sister Olive had moved from Dexter into his house. The Newkirk branch of the family still has a letter from Millard thanking his Michigan relatives for the Thanksgiving turkey they sent to him in New York.

Calvin had always complained about his health, and as he aged his physical problems made farming harder. In 1873 he reported that he had three cows, three horses, and three acres of corn but that the cold weather was aggravating his diabetes. "I would like to go to a mild climate if it were possible," he added, "but I do not know but I shall have to live and die here after all."

The five surviving siblings gathered at the Scio Township farm on July 16, 1873. Calvin and Olive were joined by Julia Harris, who had moved to California; Cyrus, from Indiana; and Millard, who was seventy-three. The New York Times reported that "all were in good health, hale and hearty, and to all appearances bade fair to yet see many years of enjoyment and happiness. Besides the above there were present eight or ten others, and the gathering as a family around the festive board was an occasion of joy and happiness, not wholly unmingled with sad memories."

In a letter sent shortly after Millard left Michigan, Calvin wrote, "We regret that you did not stay a little longer with us but feel very happy for the reunion and hope it [did] not make you sick." He also thanked his brother for a gift of $50. In his next letter Calvin enclosed five copies of a photo of the family taken by Sam Revenaugh, who ran a photography studio on East Huron Street in Ann Arbor.

In September 1873 Calvin wrote, "I am nearly worn out with my harvest and other work." In October he asked Millard to redeem some bonds so that he could fix up the house for winter. In the rest of his letters from fall 1873 he explained that he was working on the house, plastering and painting. "I have an offer for my farm, but not what I want for it," he added. Yet he soon sold the house and land and moved to Ann Arbor.

On March 8, 1874, Millard Fillmore died after suffering a stroke. In his will, Millard canceled all of Calvin's debts to him and bequeathed his brother $500.

Calvin survived five more years. In January 1879 the Ann Arbor Courier-Weekly reported on his last trip: "On a recent visit to his brother, who lives in Indiana, they rode fourteen miles one very cold day, and the deceased froze his feet very badly. As a direct result gangrene set in, which soon poisoned his blood, causing his death." He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Dexter, along with his wife and his sisters Julia and Olive.

Besides the buildings he constructed, Dexter retains one other Calvin Fillmore souvenir. When Pat and Paul Cousins were running Cousins Heritage Inn, Nathaniel Charles Fillmore often ate there. He told them that Calvin had built the house the restaurant occupied (it's now Terry B's).

A few years ago, when Nathaniel was moving to a nursing home, he called Paul Cousins and arranged to give him an old toolbox. "It was the toolbox that Calvin put on his wagon and moved from spot to spot," says Cousins. "You can see where the tools fit in, where the planes were." The toolbox is now in the Dexter Area Historical Museum.

Location is Everything

Author: Grace Shackman

Mills, roads, and trains shaped Washtenaw’s towns

In 1824 thirty-eight-year-old Orange Risdon and thirty-two-year-old Samuel Dexter spent four months on horseback exploring mostly uninhabited land in southeast Michigan. At the end of the 2,000-mile trip, they settled within a few miles of each other.

The Pumas

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, May 2007,
May 2007

Author: Grace Shackman

Carleton Angell's beloved sculptures return to the Natural History Museum

The two pumas that guarded the Ruthven Museums Building on North University for sixty-six years are missing. Generations of kids had clam­bered over the stylized black cats, and countless museum visitors had posed for pictures standing in front of them. But last July, a hole was noticed in the head of one of the pumas.

Officials first sus­pected vandalism. "They've been hit with paintballs. They were once trimmed with masking tape to look like zebras. And they've been painted green (probably in deference to a certain Big Ten ri­val)," writes museum employee Dan Madaj. But a more careful look made it clear that the real culprit was years of exposure to the ele­ments. The big cats were removed for restoration and replace­ment—the first time they'd left their perches since museum sculptor Carleton Watson Angell put them there in 1940.

A farm boy from Belding, in west Michi­gan, Angell overcame great obstacles to build a career as an artist. Born in 1887, he got his first art lessons as a child from a customer on his father's milk route. But then his father died, and his mother moved back to her hometown of Hion, New York, where Angell worked for seven years to save up for art school. He finally enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1909, at age twenty-two. Afterward he worked at the American Terra Cotta Company in nearby Crystal Lake, making decorative panels for building facades but lost that job dur­ing an economic downturn. He returned to Illinois, worked in his brother's grocery store, and married Gladys Thayer.

But Angell continued sculpting and drawing, and in 1922, when he was thirty-five, his persistence finally paid off: he got an offer from the U-M to be a half-time instructor at the College of Architecture and Design. By then he and Gladys had three children, so to supplement his income, they ran a boardinghouse at 1438 Washington Heights (about where the new School of Public Health building is today). Their daughter, Jennett Angell Hamilton, re­members watching her dad strip the sheets from the beds and bring them down for her mother to wash.

In 1926 Angell was offered additional work at the U-M Museum of Natural His­tory, which was preparing to move from State Street to North U. Celebrated indus­trial architect Albert Kahn designed the V-­shaped building, but Angell contributed many decorative details, including the bronze front doors and the limestone bas-reliefs of animals and naturalists on the facade. And even after the building opened in 1928, he continued to produce busts of important people connected with the museum, both living and dead. They were placed in alcoves around the rotunda as he finished them during the 1930s.

The pumas were his last major contri­bution to the decoration. In an article in the August 17, 1940, Michigan Alumnus, Angell explained that although lions are often chosen to guard public buildings, he preferred Michigan's native cats. After building scale models to check the propor­tions, he constructed full-size figures of wood, wire, plaster of Paris, and clay. From these he created plaster molds, which were used to cast the final versions in terrazzo, a stone aggregate. Sixty-six years later, the terrazzo finally began to show its age.

Angell's main job was to make mod­els for dioramas, miniature re­creations of natural and historic scenes. He worked with scientists to mod­el extinct animals from fossil skeletons, and with anthropologists to show how people in different cultures lived. He often depicted American Indians, whom he typi­cally showed at work—making pottery, drilling, carrying things.

None of Angell's Indian dioramas are still on display, but it's interesting to wonder how he would have reacted to the recent protest by art students who charged that the museum's current repre­sentations of Native Americans are racist. Angell worked hard to create accurate de­pictions. Jennett Hamilton recalls how the family traveled to a reservation in Missaukee County, where her father spent nine hours sculpting an Ottawa chief named Henri. When the chief died soon afterward, the Angell family went back north for the funeral.

His work at the museum led to com­missions from other university depart­ments, community groups, and individu­als. Angell eventually completed hundreds of local projects, including a bronze bas-relief of philanthropist Horace Rackham in the Rackham Building and a plaque at An­gell School depicting the school's name­sake, U-M president James B. Angell (the two Angells were believed to be distant relatives).

By 1936 Carleton Angell was earning, enough that he and his family were able to leave the boardinghouse. They lived at 933 South State Street and 1217 Lutz before building a home at 3125 Hilltop in the early 1950s. Angell created Arborcrest Memorial Park's Four Chaplains monu­ment in the family room at the Hilltop home. It depicts four clergymen—two Protestants, a Roman Catholic, and a Jew—who died after giving up their life jackets to others when their ship was tor­pedoed during World War II. He complet­ed another commission—relief panels for the Washtenaw County Courthouse depict­ing local life—in the home's garage. Daughter Jennett remembers how when he was done her father enlisted her husband and brothers, along with every other able-bodied relative and friend he could find, to help him deliver the massive artwork.

Angell died in 1962 from a massive heart attack. Though he was seventy-four, granddaughter Barbara Gilson says that his death came as a shock, since he seemed in good health and was by then taking care of Gladys, who had suffered a stroke. Dariel Keeney recalls, "The last thing my grandfather said to me on my last visit to him in the hospital, hours be­fore he died, was 'Take care of your grandmother. She is so precious to me.'"

Since their installation, Angell's pumas have served as symbols of the museum, standing out in all weather. Over the years various small repairs were made, but last July's discovery made it clear that the time had come for a com­plete overhaul.

This time the museum is taking a twor pronged approach. The Fine Arts Sculp­ture Centre in Clarkston made molds from the original figures and then cast replicas in bronze. The Venus Bronze Works in Detroit has added a black finish to the bronzes, and also has restored the original terrazzo figures.

The pumas are expected back around the middle of May. The bronze cats will take over the plinths outside the doors, while the terrazzo originals will be placed in a yet-to-be-determined location inside the museum. On June 2, the museum will celebrate their return with a Puma Party, including a display of Carleton Angell's work in the rotunda.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: Farm-boy-turned-artist Carleton Angell created much of the ornamental detail on the Ruthven Museums Building, including the ornate bronze doors and the bas-relief sculptures on the facade. The two pumas guarding the entrance were the final touch—Angell chose Michigan's native cats instead of the customary lions.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: Bronze replicas of the pumas were cast at the Fine Arts Sculpture Center in Clarkston. The Venus Bronze Works in Detroit has since added a black finish to match the terrazzo originals.


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415 West Washington

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, February 2007,
February 2007

Author: Grace Shackman

The garage at the center of the greenway debate

When the Washtenaw County Road Commission built a garage at 415 West Washington in 1925, no one dreamed that its future would ever be so hotly contested. But today, the Arts Al­liance of the Ann Arbor Area, Downtown Kiwanis, and the Allen Creek Task Force have all taken an interest in the crumbling masonry structure.

The Buried History of Barton Hills

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, June 2005,
June 2005

Author: Grace Shackman and Lois Kane

Ann Arbor's first suburb recalls the golden age of landscape architecture.

Barton Hills Village is a 140-home enclave set on rolling hills between the Huron River and Whitmore Lake Road. Ann Arbor's first suburb was a financial dis­aster for its developers, but a century af­ter it was conceived, it remains a master­piece of the landscaper's art. Designed by the Olmsted Brothers, whose father created New York's Central Park, it was carefully planned to preserve and em­phasize the land's natural forms. Today, its winding lanes and thoughtfully sited homes recall a moment in American his­tory when landscape architecture was an important cultural force.

Apparently, the area has always been recognized as special. In 1998 a builder working on a new home uncovered human remains at a site on Barton Shore Drive. He called the Washtenaw County sheriff's office, which called the U-M Museum of Anthropology. Archae­ologist John O'Shea came to investigate.

In a subsequent talk to Barton Hills residents, O'Shea recalled that he and his colleagues at first doubted whether the site was of archaeological interest: the remains seemed too fresh, and the bones seemed too long to be pre­historic. But further analysis of the bones, soil, and arti­facts established that the first recorded person at the site of what is now Barton Hills was a tall, slim young woman who lived more than 1,000 years ago. She must have been something of an aristocrat, because when she died, she was buried in a stone-lined grave instead of being left ex­posed to birds, insects, and weather, the usual practice at the time.

Even after white settlers cleared the trees from the hills early in the nineteenth century, the 1,000-year-old grave lay hidden and forgotten. Then, a century ago, the land­scape underwent another dramatic change.

In 1905, Detroit's Edison Illuminating Company pur­chased Washtenaw Light and Power, which had been fur­nishing electricity to Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti from a hydroelectric plant on Dixboro Road. Edison also bought other properties along the Huron where hydropower could be developed or improved, including the river be­low Barton Hills.

In Kilowatts at Work, a 1957 history of Detroit Edison, author Raymond C. Miller writes that the company wanted the sites mainly to eliminate competitors like Washtenaw Light and Power. Even then, it was clear that hydropower couldn't meet the area's demand for electricity. Nonethe­less, Edison went on to build the dams and generating stations that still define the river all the way from Belleville to Barton Hills.

The company's president at the time was Alex Dow (1862-1942), a Scottish immigrant who taught him­self science. According to Miller, Dow was a well-read man with many interests. "No one could ignore the fact that the introduction of dams and power plants would as­suredly alter the scene," Miller writes. "Dow himself was too much a lover of nature to do unnecessary violence to natural beauty, and the contemporary national emphasis on conservation and the protection of natural resources at­tracted his approval and interest."

Miller's book, commissioned by Detroit Edison, wasn't likely to portray Dow in any but a flattering light. But there's no question that Dow was a visionary. To ob­tain the property for its dams and flowage area, Edison of­ten had to buy larger parcels, including entire farms. In 1913 the company combined all the excess property, total­ing 2,000 acres, into one entity, the Huron Farms Compa­ny, and hired William E. Underdown, a 1904 Cornell graduate, to manage it.

The original idea had been to sell off the excess land, but soon Dow was full of plans to use it. He created a demonstration farm on Whitmore Lake Road, opened a resort for the company's women employees on Huron River Drive, and donated land on Argo Pond to the city for a boathouse and municipal beach. But his most lasting impact came when he hired the nation's leading landscape architects, Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts.

Frederick Law Olmsted and his then partner, Calvert Vaux, were the first people ever to describe themselves as "landscape architects." Their signature creation was the vast and innovative design of New York City's Central Park. The park's "natural design" was not natural at all: it was a carefully engineered replacement for what was then a swampy lowland. Beginning in 1857, Olmsted and Vaux changed it to a glorious centerpiece of the city by adding hills and meadows, massive plantings, curving pathways, and stone walls and bridges.

Olmsted founded his own firm in 1883. Driven by the conviction that beautiful settings would improve the health and welfare of ordinary people, he and his associ­ates shaped such beloved American landscapes as Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.; Detroit's Belle Isle; the spacious grounds of Stanford University; and Boston's "Emerald Necklace" of linked parks. The firm even con­tributed early designs for Yellowstone National Park.

Under Olmsted's son and stepson, who took over in 1895, the firm continued to win high-profile assignments, including the National Mall and the White House grounds in Washington. (In 1918 Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. ex­cused himself from a Barton Hills trip, writing that he was "continuously employed in Washington upon government work.") But during the "City Beautiful" movement of the early twentieth century, many smaller communities also sought guidance from the prestigious firm. Before World War I, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and the U-M all commissioned master plans from the Olmsteds. The firm's list of Ann Ar­bor projects also includes plans for nine east-side sub­divisions and landscapes for an equal number of individual property owners. (Its landscape plan for Harry and Carrie Earhart's mansion on Geddes has been re-created by the building's present owner, Concordia University.)

Edison president Alex Dow oversaw construction of the company's power dams on the Huron River. Dow's wife, Vivienne, chose the site for their sprawling shingle-style home for its view of Barton Dam.

Dow sought the firm's advice on the entire Huron Fa^ms project. But its biggest contribution was its design for Barton Hills. Dow envisioned stately homes, a country club, and even a hotel on the rolling hills north of the newly created Barton Pond.

Some skeptics had trouble imagining the transformation Dow proposed. Be­cause the area had been cleared for graz­ing long before, they jokingly dubbed the planned community "Barren Hills."

On December 22, 1915, Underdown reported to the Olmsteds that he was surveying the hill land north of Barton Pond and "would like to arrange with you to lay this out for [a] subdivision ... for fairly high class private homes." By April 1916 the firm had delivered a preliminary plan. The lots were large, from one to eight acres, and a cover letter explained that each had been laid according to "impor­tant views, and with the shape of the land."

The letter noted that the country club was sited high on a hill, "in a most com­manding position" on Barton North Drive. Deceptively rustic, the roads were actually carefully engineered for optimal grading and drainage. The Olmsteds added that Barton Shore Drive, which roughly paral­leled Barton North Drive at a lower eleva­tion, would "undoubtedly prove the most attractive when built as it will follow com­paratively near the water and will command an uninterrupted view over the pool."

"It's that drive along the shore that does it," comments Realtor Ed Surovell, who lives in Barton Hills. "On most of the recreational lakes in this area (and almost everywhere else for that matter) roads have been placed behind the houses (usually seasonal cottages) so that there is no road between cottage and water; here, the mo­torist or pedestrian gets the benefit."

The site was not entirely empty. While the dam was being constructed, several unassuming, traditional houses had been built on the shore for Edison employees; they are still there, now used for Barton Hills staff. During World War I a few grander homes were built by individuals with Edison connections. Underdown, the Huron Farms manager, began work on a house for his family in 1916. He consulted with a "Mr. G. Gibbs" of Olmsted on the construction of the access road, later named Underdown.

Infrastructure work began in earnest af­ter the war. In 1919, by special action of the Huron Farms board, Dow's wife, Vivienne, was given her choice of any lot in the subdivision for $1. She chose a centrally located sixteen-acre site, halfway between the high road and the shore road, that had an excellent view of the pond, so her hus­band could look out and see his dam.

Designed by U-M architecture dean Emil Lorch (who probably also did the Underdown house), the Dow home was started in 1921 and occupied by 1922. It is large, with twenty rooms, but feels com­fortable and homey. In the manner of the British rural gentry, the Dows gave it a name, "Brushwood." (According to their granddaughter, the name came from one of Vivienne's favorite poems.)

After the house was completed, Alex Dow commuted to Detroit, sometimes staying the night or part of the week. For many years Vivienne continued to consult the Olmsted firm, asking about such things as where to locate the rose garden, the configuration of the path to the beach, and how to add a stone wall in front. In Febru­ary 1927, Ferris Smith, who had replaced Gibbs as the Olmsted representative, visit­ed the Dows and reported, "Met Mrs. Dow at 10 o'clock, also Mr. Dow. He left after a few minutes and said that Mrs. Dow was boss of the place."

According to a reminiscence written by former resident Ole Blackett in 1974, the developers first focused on selling multi-acre sites to buyers seeking "large houses suitable for country estates." But if Dow had hoped to lure other Detroit executives to Barton Hills, he was disappointed— most of the early buyers came from Ann Arbor. "For several reasons, among which are the rapid expansion of the University and the great amount of heavy traffic along Washtenaw Ave., it seems that sev­eral people have already decided that they wish to move further out," Smith reported in June 1922. "And while I was in Ann Ar­bor, among those who came out to Barton Hills to look at property were the Dan Zimmermans, Dr. R. Bishop Canfield, Dr. and Mrs. [Breakey], and Dr. and Mrs. Loree." Drs. Breakey and Loree both lived near Central Campus, while Canfield and Zimmerman, a businessman who had in­vestments in everything from artificial ice to ball bearings, were neighbors on Wash­tenaw. (The Canfields' home later became the Women's City Club.)

As lots were sold, architects began con­tacting the Olmsted firm for site informa­tion. For instance, a July 1922 letter from Cuthbert and Cuthbert (William and Ivan, local architect and engineer respectively) asks for specifics for lots 7 and 8. Because each site plan needed detailed drawings, the Olmsteds suggested hiring a full-time architect; they recommended George Babson, who had done similar work for them at Forest Hills Gardens on Long Island.

Detroit Edison completed the first nine holes of Barton Hills Country Club in 1919. In 1922 the clubhouse was built and the course extended and redesigned. "The idea of the country club was to embellish the subdivision," explains Edmond DeVine, who today lives in the Underdown house and as a boy often came to the golf course with his father. The club's original mem­bers constituted a who's who of the com­munity; among them were U-M regent Junius Beal and Walter Mack, owner of the town's largest department store. (Member­ship is not linked to residency—of the 540 current member families, only fifty-six live in the village.)

The first two houses, Underdown's and the Dows', were in the shingled Arts and Crafts style. In the 1920s the English Cot­tage style was popular, with its steeply pitched roofs, casement windows, stained-glass windows, and curved entrances. Cuthbert and Cuthbert excelled at this style, winning an honorable mention in an architectural magazine for the Vernau home on Underdown.

According to Ole Blackett, however, "suddenly the sale of lots stopped....Ap­parently the demand for expensive country estate had run out and Edison was forced to alter its sales policy." Blackett believed that Edison then subdivided larger lots to produce more affordable parcels. How­ever, even the earliest Olmsted maps show many relatively modest homesites of an acre or so. More likely, the developers simply changed their focus from multiple-lot blocks to individual sales.

The first clue that Edison might be lowering its sights came in 1924, when Under-down asked Frederick Olm­sted Jr. his opinion of Henry Flagg houses, which, Underdown ex­plained, were "built low to the ground without cellars." Olmsted was out of the office when the letter arrived, but his staff answered, "We know that Mr. Olmsted has been more or less acquainted with the 'Flagg' house for some time, and while we cannot quote him we understand he is not enthusiastic over them." Nonetheless, three Flagg houses were built near the east end of the development.

Edison's hopes for Barton Hills peaked in 1925, when the company had Olmsted sketch out a possible extension of the de­velopment all the way west to the Foster Bridge on Maple Road. But there weren't enough buyers to fill the original subdivi­sion, much less the extension. Edison stopped consulting the Olmsted firm after 1927, presumably to rein in expenses.

The 1931 advertising brochure empha­sized that "homes need not be pretentious" and invited future buyers to "notice the di­versity of architecture and to see how har­moniously the smaller homes blend with the larger residences." Even many of those larger houses seem relatively normal to­day. "The houses that I remember were not fancy," says Sarah Riggs Taggart, who as a child spent a lot of time at Barton Hills because her grandparents on both sides, Henry and Emma Riggs and Grace Walzer, and her aunt Lizzie Oliphant all lived there. "I remember the Breakey house as comfortable, the Riggs house likewise. Gram [Walzer]'s big house was the fanciest, and the fact that subsequent owners haven't tampered with it suggests that everyone has loved it as it is."

Barton Hills grew slowly but steadily even through the Depression. Instead of executives, many of the new arrivals in the 1930s were U-M faculty, such as Bill Haber and his wife, Fanny; William and Louise Trow; and Ole and Ruth Blackett. Helen Underdown built a smaller house on Juniper Lane after William was killed in a car crash in 1930.

In 1941 Dr. Howard and Cecilia Ross built a multipillared house that neighbors sarcastically dubbed "Tara," after the man­sion in Gone With the Wind. That same year, at the opposite end of the architectur­al spectrum, Otto and Eleanor LaPorte built the first Modern-style home in Barton Hills. Designed by U-M architecture pro­fessor George Brigham, "it was so modern, Otto and Eleanor had a difficult time get­ting financing," reports Adele LaPorte, Otto's second wife. "It was so outre, the bank said they'd never get their money out of it." A year later Gene and Sadie Power also built a Modern house, designed by Birmingham architect Wallace Frost.

Home building stopped during World War II, when materials were needed for the war effort. That may have been the final straw for Detroit Edison. As early as 1931, financial people at the company were com­plaining that Huron Farms, as the develop­ment was still called, had cost roughly $234,000 and produced only $22,000. There were also ongoing costs, with Edison employees often siphoned off to do chores at Barton Hills and the other properties.

So in 1944 the company essentially gave the property to the residents. "They contacted the people who lived here and wanted them to take it over," recalls Walter Esch, the village's maintenance superintendent. But according to Esch, "the people didn't have any money, and they didn't want to take it over. So Edi­son put ten thousand dollars in the bank for them to take it over and left Charlie Gallagher, one of their employees, to stay on the premises."

According to Blackett, who was in­volved in the negotiations, the transaction was carefully crafted to allow Edison to write off its losses on the development without creating any new tax liabilities for the residents. Edison sold out to the newly formed Barton Hills Improvement Associ­ation for just $20,000 —and gave the group a mortgage for the entire amount. Though Blackett was on the U-M faculty, he writes that after the transfer, "I went on the road myself and sold lots in order to meet our mortgage payments and our share of the employment payrolls."

By 1949 Gallagher needed help in maintaining the subdivision's 500 acres. He talked Walter Esch, then twenty-three, away from his family farm on North Terri­torial to take the job. Walter and his wife, Mary, moved into one of three three-bedroom employee houses, where they raised ten children. One of those children, David, and his wife, Jan, now live in one of the houses, too. David is the village's assistant maintenance superintendent, and Jan is the village's assistant clerk.

Walter Esch recalls that one of the more colorful postwar residents was Edgar Kaiser, son of the industrialist Henry Kaiser, who had taken over the Willow Run bomber plant to build Kaiser Frazer cars. Edgar enlarged the Riggs home and added a swimming pool. Every year he put up 3,500 outdoor Christmas lights that drew viewers from all around, and ended the hol­iday season with a big New Year's party. "If they [the guests] had too much to drink, Mr. Kaiser would come and say, 'Walt, take one of the cars'—he always had five or six cars from the factory sitting there—'and take them home,' " remembers Esch.

When he started, Esch says, there were still only about thirty homes in the village. The Detroit Edison people were all gone, and most of the residents were profession­als—doctors, dentists, and professors. But the postwar construction boom was start­ing, and after thirty years of delays, Barton Hills was about to fill up.

In the 1950s and 1960s, many new homes were Modern designs by forward-looking U-M professors, such as Brigham and Bob Metcalf. Architects Fran Quarton and Herb Johe built houses for themselves, and Johe designed four others. David Osler, son-in-law of Emil Lorch, also built sever­al Modern houses, and the Colvin Robin­son firm designed a home for George and Elizabeth (Libby) Langford. Generally, these were flat-roof designs that blended in with the landscape and made economi­cal and respectful use of such materials as glass, wood, and concrete. They probably averaged about 2,800 square feet—consid­erably smaller than the mansions that had preceded them.

Multitalented Walter Esch became, de facto, the landscaper of Barton Hills. Olm-sted had laid one-lane gravel roads. Over time, Esch oversaw their widening to two-lane asphalt roads that retain the Olmsted contours. "Oh, Juniper Lane was gravel," he recalls. He and another employee "blacktopped it by hand because they [the residents' association] didn't have any money." Using rubble from city of Ann Arbor demolitions, he widened the shoul­ders where the river sometimes washed out the road.

Over the years, Esch has also been, de facto, fire chief, chief of police, water commissioner, road maintenance adminis­trator and crew, garbage department head and crew, mailman, rescue squad for household emergencies, and bus driver. "Because Walter came at the time the community was just finding its identity," his daughter-in-law Jan says, "many of the current traditions were his idea, and the two just grew up together."

From 1944 to 1975, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. every day, the Barton Hills bus was available for trips to and from Ann Arbor. "We picked up the maids and everything," Esch says. "There was a family, we had to sit there until the maid had the dinner on the table before we could take her to town, and the board backed her [the lady of the house] up. Charlie and I, we used to argue with the board all the time about that."

The older Esch children went to the two-room Hagen School on Dhu Varren Road. As the district grew, the younger ones went to various elementary schools.

"I think most Barton Hills kids went to University School," Mary says. Walter re­calls that the Barton Hills bus delivered kids to seven schools, including, besides the now defunct University School, St. Thomas, Angell, Tappan, and eventually Greenhills. Ann Arbor school buses now take kids to Wines, Forsythe, and Pioneer.

In 1973 Barton Hills became the first home-rule village in Washtenaw County. This status protected the subdivision from what residents saw then as potential incur­sions of other governments that might ne­cessitate difficult and expensive water and sewage linkups.

"My two best friends," says Libby Langford, a critical player in establishing the village, "were Conrail and the Foster Bridge"—the high-speed tracks and single-lane bridge discouraged traffic from Ann Arbor. "Nobody bothers us; we do our own thing; we love it."

The village has its own well on a cleanaquifer. Each home has its own septic sys­tem, and the village requires periodic in­spections. Residents pay taxes to both the village and Ann Arbor Township, currently totaling about 13.5 mills. (The correspon­ding rate in Ann Arbor is 16.9 mills.) One curious legacy of the village's past is that the Barton Hills Maintenance Corporation owns the roads and therefore is able to limit access to the village—signs at the en­trances announce "No thoroughfare" and "Private road."

Only a few empty lots remain, and most of those belong to families who own two. So, for the most part, if a new house is to be built, an old one must come down. In the past ten years the village has seen about half a dozen "teardowns." The long-forgotten stone grave was discovered during one of these projects, for Domino's Pizza president and U-M regent David Brandon.

These new homes vary in architectural style, but all of them are several times larger than the buildings they replaced.

That's become an issue for the mainte­nance corporation, which must approve all building plans. "As I look to the future," says president Chuck Bultman, "one of the struggles of the corporation is to find a way to work with the larger house typical today, sited on lots designed for a more modest house size."

The first generation of residents were, like Alex Dow himself, wealthy white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But unlike some developments of its era, Barton Hills never had restrictive deed covenants that barred minorities. Today, residents include African American, Middle Eastern, Indian, Kashmiri, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and East Asian families.

Prosperity, however, remains a require­ment. According to the 2000 census, Bar­ton Hills' median household income was $149,000, more than triple Ann Arbor's $46,000. And while Ann Arbor posted a healthy median home value of $181,000, it paled next to Barton Hill's $710,000. Real estate agent Nancy Bishop, who lives in the village, estimates that house values start at about $600,000 and run all the way up to $5 or $6 million.

Since 1949, Walter Esch has done whatever needs doing in Barton Hills. His wife, Mary, raised ten children in a bungalow originally built for workers on Barton dam. Now their son David and daughter-in-law Jan work for the village, too, and live in another of the houses.

There have been a few minor adjustments over the years, but overall, Barton Hills' layout remains remarkably faithful to the parklike de­sign worked out by the Olmsteds more than eighty years ago. The biggest change is that hills once barren are now almost covered with trees.

The Olmsteds recommended trees as early as 1916, and the U-M forestry school oversaw plantings in the 1920s. The firm was never commissioned to develop a maintenance plan for the village, but to judge by its work elsewhere, it would al­most certainly have provided for glades, dells, and long clear views between group­ings of well-tended trees. Instead, coveted and cosseted, the trees have multiplied into a thick forest that presents a major challenge to the Olmsted plan.

The original country club building nes­tled into the landscape yet offered a lovely view of the river from its long covered veranda. Over the decades, however, trees grew and blocked the river view. In the late 1980s the original clubhouse was torn down and replaced by a large, traditionally columned building placed right up against Country Club Road. The site described by Olmsted Brothers as the best in Barton Hills is now occupied by a parking lot.

Knowledge of Dow's Olmstedian vi­sion died out with the first generation of residents. Many present residents inter­viewed for this article hadn't even known of the Olmsted connection when they bought their houses. As the years went by and trees continued growing, people living away from the shore forgot about the views and instead enjoyed the closeness to nature and privacy that the trees provided.

"When the view died, the plan died. Views only exist for the fortunate few," says Ed Surovell, adding that people today are attracted by the trees instead. "It was a change in social values. Trees were good, positive. City folks can't tell good trees from bad."

They're trying to learn. In 2003 the vil­lage's board of trustees hired Clark Fores­try to conduct a study of the state of the woods. (Though the firm is based in Bara-boo, Wisconsin, owner Fred Clark grew up in Barton Hills.) Commissioning of the study "is an indication of the awareness that the trees need to be managed and plans made for the future," Jan Esch says. "It has been supported by consistent, if limited, budgetary funding. Some funds were spent last year on garlic mustard control and ash tree removal, with contin­uing efforts under way for this year." There are other environmental issues as well, such as plant growth in Barton Pond and the village's resident deer herd, which has grown so large that it has to be man­aged by professional sharpshooters under a state permit.

Although it has acquired more and big­ger houses, Barton Hills hasn't become a mere house museum. The rolling hills, al­luring roads, and general focus on the pond remain intact. A century after Alex Dow started buying up property along the Huron, the Olmsted Brothers' work has held up well.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Above) An Olmstead Brothers blueprint shows the signature stone pillars at the entrance. (Left) The country club was set on the hilltop overlooking Barton Pond - one of the many views lost as woods grew up throughout the subdivision (below).

[Photo caption from original print edition]: As early as 1931, Edison's financial people were complaining that the development had cost roughly $234,000 and produced only $22,000. There were also ongoing costs, with Edison employees often siphoned off to do chores at Barton Hills and the other properties.

David Byrd Chapel

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

Author: Grace Shackman

The stone which the builders rejected

When architect David Byrd was building the chapel that bears his name, he put a quotation from Psalm 118:22 over the front entrance: "The stone which the builders rejected." Joe Summers, vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, which now occupies the building, finds the message very apt, since the church was built from discarded construction materials and by people who were in danger of being passed over because of their race. "It's a metaphor for all the outcasts that society rejected," explains Summers.

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