A former factory in floodway limbo
The fate of the former furniture factory at 109 East Madison, a key building in the debate over the use of local floodways, has been delayed. The present owner, the University of Michigan, tried to sell it but took it off the market after failing to receive any offers that were close to its appraised value.
Built in 1883, it is a classic three-story brick building, with subtle detailing and large windows. But visions of turning it into condos for downtown’s hot housing market ran into a seemingly insurmountable problem: the building is in the Allen’s Creek floodway. Although normally hidden in an underground pipe, the creek reappears during a “hundred-year flood” (the kind of flood that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year; see “Storm Warning” in the November Observer). In such a flood, 109 East Madison not only would get wet, but would receive the full force of the flowing water.
There was no regulation of floodway construction in the late nineteenth century, when cabinetmakers George Gruner and George Kuebler decided to go into business for themselves. Gruner and Kuebler built their factory on the corner of South Fourth Avenue and East Madison, nestled into a bend of Allen’s Creek--the creek passed along the building’s Fourth Avenue side and then curled around the back. Gruner and Kuebler’s equipment was steam driven, so they didn’t need the creek’s waterpower; more likely, they chose the site to be near their labor market, the skilled craftsmen who lived on what is now known as the Old West Side.
In 1899, after Kuebler died and Gruner moved to Cincinnati, Charles Sauer bought the property. Sauer was born in Canada to German parents and learned carpentry from his father before moving to Ann Arbor at age twenty. He worked as a draftsman and as a contractor before forming Sauer Lumber with his two brothers, Adam and John.
The new business offered architectural services and contracting, as well as lumber for all kinds of building. In the early years, the Sauers also still sold furniture, possibly using the same tools and craftsmen who worked for Gruner and Kuebler. They extended the business west, building a small mill in the yard for custom work, and an office at 543 South Main. “They have a well equipped planing mill in connection with the lumber plant and are doing an extensive business,” Samuel Beakes wrote in the 1906 edition of Past and Present of Washtenaw Country, Michigan, “their patronage having continually grown in a gratifying manner since the organization of the firm in 1899.”
The Sauer brothers built Ann Arbor’s 1906–1907 city hall, kitty-corner from the present one, on the corner now occupied by the Dahlmann City Center Building. Eight years later, Charles Sauer himself moved into the mayor’s office. Sadly, he died just six months into his term, at age forty-nine. On the day of his burial, all business and governmental offices closed from 2 to 3:30 p.m. during the funeral.
Although it passed out of family hands, the Sauer Lumber business kept going until the mid-1940s. Colin Fingerle, whose family owned a competing lumberyard nearby, recalls that Sauer’s specialized in doors and windows, making them from scratch.
Bob Beuhler, whose dad owned a coal company across the street, remembers the Sauer employees as skilled craftsmen. When he was a boy, he was in the middle of building something--a model boat, he thinks--but couldn’t finish the project with the tools he had, so at his dad’s suggestion he went across the street to Sauer’s to ask for help. “They ran it through their machine. They obviously knew what they were doing. They were old guys, very kind, and did it for nothing,” says Beuhler.
Nelson Plumbing, a company that sold plumbing supplies to builders and contractors, was the next occupant of the building. Fingerle remembers going to the third floor, then unused, and seeing the shaft, belts, and pulleys that had distributed power from the steam engine throughout the building. After Sauer went out of business, the Fingerles bought the property west of the building. They are still using the old custom mill and occupied the Main Street office for a while, but have since torn it down for a lumber shed.
The university bought the former factory building in 1970. It has housed various offices, including the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, Alumni Records, and Marketing Communications. Workers there enjoy the charm of the exposed brick walls and large windows, although they say that the building shakes when trains go by. They also report that in a big storm the first-floor carpeting gets wet and gives off a musty odor. While the building was on the market, all the occupants made plans to move, which the last of them are now carrying out.
People were interested in buying the building, but none at the price the university wanted. “We were frankly disappointed with the offers we received,” says Norm Herbert, U-M associate vice-president and treasurer. “From a use standpoint, keeping the building is of more value to us.”
One of those who expressed interest was local developer Peter Allen, who would have liked to convert it to living units. “It’s a magnificent building inside,” says Allen. “It would be good for young faculty.”
But “state law prohibits residential use on the floodway,” says Jerry Hancock of the city’s Building Department. “Peter Allen would have to change state law.” Office use is all right, according to Hancock, because “typically people are awake and alert and can get out of harm’s way.” But people sleep in residential property and might not be able to get out in time if surging water damaged basement utilities or if the building weakened enough to collapse. People also could be trapped on an upper floor during a flood, Hancock adds, unable to get out for a medical emergency.
Asked about the floodway problem, Allen answers, “That’s patently foolish. It’s up out of the ground. It would be great in-fill [housing]. It fits with all public policy. The idea that it’s dangerous doesn’t hold up. It’s been there for a hundred years.” Allen sees this building as a “kingpin--if you could do residential, it would give the lever to do some more, to open a bigger loophole.”
But that showdown will be delayed for at least three or four years. After rethinking the matter, the university has decided to use the building for “surge space.” It will provide temporary quarters for offices displaced by planned renovation work on several Central Campus buildings, including LS&A, Mason and Haven halls, the old Perry School, West Hall, and the Dana Building.
One thing is almost certain: the building will not be demolished. Since under current rules no one could get permission to build a new structure on the site, it would not be in anyone’s interest to tear it down. Just what it can be used for, though, is still to be determined.