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The Remarkable History of the Kempf House

Grace Shackman

Following brass bands around Basel turned Reuben Kempf's career from the ministry to music

The Kempf House, at 312 South Division, a nationally recognized gem of Greek Revival architecture, is now a city-owned center for local history. It is named for Pauline and Reuben Kempf, the husband-and-wife music teachers who lived in it from 1890 until 1953. The Kempfs were guiding lights in the local music community who often loaned the Steinway in their front parlor—Ann Arbor's first grand piano—to the university. It was played in the May Festival, by such luminaries as Victor Herbert and Ignace Paderewski.

The Kempf House was actually built in 1853 by Mary and Henry DeWitt Bennett. The Bennetts came from Stephentown, New York (southeast of Albany), where they had doubtless seen numerous examples of Greek Revival architecture. Henry Bennett, described by contemporaries as a genial and warm-hearted man, served as postmaster and, later, as steward and secretary of the U-M. After Bennett retired, they moved to California.

The house was sold in 1886 to a neighbor, who rented it out for a few years. Then in 1890, Pauline and Reuben Kempf, married seven years and the parents of a daughter, Elsa (Paul was born six years later), moved into the house. They lived there for the next sixty-three years.

Pauline, Rueben, and Elsa Kempf with neighbor on porch steps of Kempf House

Pauline and Rueben Kempf enjoy sitting on their porch with daughter Elsa, right, and a woman thought to be a neighbor.

Both Pauline and Reuben were raised in Ann Arbor's large German community, and both showed early musical promise. Pauline was the daughter of Karl Widenmann, the German consul for Michigan and owner of a hardware store on the northeast corner of Main and Washington. The family lived in a big house on Fourth Avenue until Pauline was fourteen, when her father was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. He sold his business and moved his family to Whitmore Lake, where he died eight years later. The family could not afford to send Pauline to music school to study singing, but two professors at the university, impressed with her talent, arranged for her to give a recital in the Athens Theater (later the Whitney) at Main and Ann. The proceeds were enough for one year at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

Reuben Kempf, born in 1859, a year before Pauline, grew up on a farm in the area now occupied by Briarwood. According to his daughter-in-law, Edith Staebler Kempf, "he learned to play the organ at the Bethlehem Church school, and by the time he was a teenager played the pipe organ quite well. But this didn't impress his parents. They said ‘You will study for the ministry.' In those days they didn't ask you."

Reuben was sent to Basel, Switzerland, in 1877, to the same theological seminary that had graduated Friedrich Schmid, the first German pastor in Michigan and a hero to the local German community. But Reuben had been there only a few months when his parents received a letter from the principal, recommending that they not force him to be a minister but let him follow his own wish to be a musician. Evidently he had been following brass bands around Basel. Edith Kempf says it broke his parents' hearts, but they allowed him to transfer to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stuttgart, where he studied organ and piano and was a classmate of Victor Herbert.

When Reuben returned to Ann Arbor, he opened a studio on the corner of Main and Liberty, on the third floor above what is now Occasionally Gifts. He supplemented his income playing the organ at St. Thomas Church. In 1883 he married Pauline Widenmann, their common music interests forming an obvious bond. When they moved to Division Street from their first home on the corner of Main and William, they set up a studio in the front parlor where they could both give lessons.

The Kempfs' house was conveniently located: children could walk to their lessons from all over town. The front door was left unlocked so that students could walk in without knocking. If a lesson was still in progress, they would wait their turn on the red sofa. Geraldine Seeback, who was a student of both Kempfs, remembers them as warm and caring, but also very strict. Once, when she did not have her piano lesson prepared, Reuben hit her on the knuckles.

Seeback was a musical prodigy who first sang publicly at age five, standing on three Bibles in church. Her mother paid for her voice lessons by doing the Kempfs' laundry. Seeback still has the metal-wheeled child's wagon, which originally belonged to Paul Kempf, that she used to carry the laundry back and forth. When Seeback finished high school, Pauline Kempf helped arrange for her to go to the Cincinnati Conservatory.

Group portait of Lyra Male Choir

Rueben Kempf organized the Lyra Male Choir to bring town and gown together through the universal language of music. Elsa Kempf served as the group’s mascot.

Besides giving lessons in their studio, the Kempfs were very active musically in the community. Pauline was the first choir director of the Congregational Church, and Reuben was the first organist and choir director at St. Andrew's. He was also music director of the University Glee Club and the Michigan Union Opera, and organist of the Ann Arbor Masonic groups. Because Reuben had connections in both the town and university communities, U-M president James Angell asked him to form a singing society in an attempt to bridge the gap between town and gown. Under Rueben's direction, the group, first called the Beethoven Society and then Lyra Gesangverien (singing society), gave regular concerts for the next thirty-five years.

The Kempfs often entertained, hosting diverse groups from students to dignitaries. A former maid remembers being extra busy during May Festival buying food needed for the many guests. There was always a live-in maid (the present office at Kempf House was the maid's room), and Pauline's mother, the widowed Mrs. Widenmann, also helped with the cooking. She particularly excelled at baking and noodle making. Edith Kempf remembers that “there was lots of good food, all made from scratch."

Reuben Kempf died in 1945 at age eighty-six. Pauline stayed on until her death in 1953, when the house was sold to Mr. and Mrs. Earl V. Parker. When Earl Parker died in 1969, the newly created Historic District Commission spearheaded a movement to convince the city to buy the house.

Today, thanks mainly to the efforts of Edith Kempf, the music studio has been almost entirely re-created, complete with the famous grand piano (which has only eighty-five keys, three less than the modern ones), the red couch, the two mirrors that Pauline's voice students used to check their posture and their mouth formations, Reuben's desk, a music stand, and the Lyra flag. Even the prints of Germany on the walls were there during the Kempfs' occupancy.

The sitting room, decorated to be contemporary with the studio, holds a horsehair couch from Reuben Kempfs parents' farm (in perfect condition because only the minister was allowed to sit on it) and an Ann Arbor Allmendinger organ.

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Grace Shackman