From humble garage to elegant office
Many buildings are changed as new uses are found for them, but the building at 109-113 Catherine has gone through a more dramatic transformation than most. The simple tile block structure was built around 1918, and in its first four years was used as an auto livery, junk store, agricultural implement store, and harness factory. In 1922 it became the City Garage, and for the next forty years, it bore the stamp of its energetic, promotion-minded owner, Ed Kuhn. Kuhn's own life was rife with career changes—he was variously a policeman, a mechanic, the owner of a taxi service, a restaurateur, and a mail contractor—and he found uses every bit as varied for his building.
Ed Kuhn was born in Ann Arbor in 1882. According to his son, Bob, and his widow, Josephine, he was an inveterate tinkerer who became involved with automobiles early in his career. In 1910, he joined the Ann Arbor Police Department, where he was the first police officer to drive a patrol car. He pursued and caught up with Robert W. Kempfert, whom he suspected of surpassing the ten-mile-per-hour speed limit. The case never got to court because the chief of police, Frank Pardon, refused to believe that the REO Kempfert was driving could surpass eight miles an hour.
In 1917, Kuhn left the department to become a partner at the City Garage, then at 300 North Main. He kept the name when five years later he bought the building next door at 109-113 Catherine. Kuhn evidently had a taste for promotion; the motto on his business letterhead was "Comes In All Shot/Goes Out 'Red Hot.' " The City Garage offered "general automobile repairing and storing" as well as oils and supplies and tire and tube repairing. Kuhn also operated a Dodge taxi service out of the shop. In 1927 he remodeled the building, adding a second story to be used as living quarters.
During the Depression, Kuhn started to diversify. He began in 1935 by leasing some of his garage space to the post office to store their vehicles. He also worked out a contract with them to deliver mail to the Ann Arbor and New York Central railroad stations and to make special runs to the Ann Arbor Airport to pick up and deliver the airmail that was transported in open cockpit planes.
In 1936, Kuhn turned part of the front of the building into a small restaurant, which he named "Bob's Lunch" after his son. He himself was the manager and dishwasher. Josephine waited tables, with her sister, Helen Roy. Bob Kuhn was the all-around helper. One of his jobs was delivering meals, by foot, to people who could not get away from their jobs. Bob's Lunch had its own matchbooks that urged people to come "for a light lunch" of "tasty . . . toasted sandwiches" and bragged about the "delicious coffee."
In the 1920s and 1930s, Catherine Street was closer to the nub of downtown Ann Arbor than it is today. Lunchtime customers were mainly people who worked in the area as employees of the post office across the street, the Ann Arbor Dairy next door, the White Swan Laundry, Godfrey Moving and Storage (until recently the Workbench), and nearby stores on Main Street, as well as customers from Hickey's Service Station, the City Garage's successor at 300 N. Main. Farmers' Market days would bring additional diners.
By 1939, Kuhn had given up the garage operation entirely. He rented the remaining street frontage to Charles J. Morgan for a barbershop known as Charlie's. It remained in operation until 1970 and then the space was occupied for a few years by Marti's Card and Candy Shoppe, run by Bob Kuhn's wife, Bobbie, and daughter, Marti. The rear garage area was successively rented to Ben Burkhardt Typesetting, Stern's Printing Service, Ann Arbor Glass, Wolverine Glass, Arbor Lite, and Hohlenkamp Plumbing. In the front of the building, Kuhn continued running Bob's Lunch until 1946. Kuhn retired after the war, but continued to keep busy. He was a deputy sheriff and a member of the Ann Arbor Elks. He died in 1959.
The restaurant was run by others under various names until 1975, when the whole building was transformed into the Cafe Creole. The cafe's owner removed the wooden siding and cedar-shake awning that had been added in the 1960s and covered the front and sides of the building with a putty-colored coat of stucco. After working more than a year on the transformation, they opened in 1979, only to close two years later and replaced in 1983 by Lovejoy-Tiffany Travel. Since 1991 the building has been occupied by Q Ltd, a design and communications firm, further expanding the diversity of one modest building.