A Century at State and Huron
The Union School and Ann Arbor High were once the city's pride.
Ann Arbor's first public high school opened on October 5, 1856. Known as the Union High School, it stood on State Street between Huron and Washington. Destroyed fifty years later in a spectacular New Year's Eve fire, it was replaced by what is now the U-M Frieze Building—a structure that many Ann Arborites of retirement age still think of fondly as Ann Arbor High.
Earlier this year, the regents voted to demolish the Frieze Building to make room for a new dormitory, consigning to memory the public schools that occupied the site for a century. But the hopes and headaches that surrounded their construction remain surprisingly current today.
The path to the Union High School was tortuous, slow, and often contentious. At least fifteen communities — from Flint to Tecumseh —opened public high schools before Ann Arbor did. The reasons for the delay were timeless: money and politics: Ann Arbor's first schoolhouse, built on land donated by village founder John Allen, opened in September 1825. By 1830 the township of Ann Arbor was divided into eleven school districts, with District 1 including the village. The first report of District 1's commissioners, in 1832, summarized the situation briskly: "No. of children between 5 and 15 years of age in the district, 161. Average No. in school, 35. No public moneys received."
Support for publicly funded education was slow to develop. Many residents, especially the wealthy who could afford private schools, opposed any tax for operating public schools. As a result, complained the Michigan State Journal in 1835, "a neglect of schools has become almost a proverbial reproach upon our village."
The situation was complicated by the multiplicity of school districts. By 1839 the eleven districts of Ann Arbor Township had been consolidated into four, and in 1842 those were consolidated into one. But in the 1881 History of Washtenaw County, Michigan, W. S. Perry, superintendent of schools from 1870 to 1897, records that in 1845, "a petition, which secured the names of nearly all the solid men of the town north of Huron St., the aristocratic part of the village, was presented to the school inspectors, praying them to divide the districts 'before any expenses incurred in preparing to build a mammoth school-house, as we prefer the system which experience has proved to the visionary and costly experiments.' Counter petitions of those living in the south and west portions of the town were made, but nevertheless the division was made, and for eight years the town supported two schools and two sets of officers throughout."
The two school districts were finally unified in November 1853. Within days, a committee was appointed to develop plans for the "Union School." By the end of December, the school board had decided on a site—one and three-fifths acres, bounded by Huron, State, Washington, and Thayer streets. The property, owned by Elijah W. and Lucy Morgan/cost $2,000.
The board presented plans and construction cost estimates for the building at a public meeting on February 4, 1854. After a long and vehement debate, it was resolved "that the District Board be, once it is hereby authorized and directed to erect and furnish at the expense, and on the faith and credit, of this District, a brick building for a Union High School."
The board voted to raise $10,000 by tax to cover the anticipated cost. "We do not like to pay taxes better than others, but when we know that we are paying for school purposes the money goes freely and without regret," the Michigan Argus editorialized. "We must have good schools or big jails."
The Morgans' land was on the extreme eastern end of the village—so far from the center of town that it had been used only for pasture and the occasional circus performance. But once the school was sited, development soon followed. "Many new houses are being built and yet the demand is not supplied," the Argus reported in September 1857. "People are moving here to take advantage of the University and our model Union School."
In its haste to get the school under way, the board had badly misjudged its cost. In addition to the $10,000 voted at the meeting in February 1854, the Argus reported in September that a "tax of $7,000 was voted to be raised the present year, and to be appropriated toward the erection of a new School building. A tax of 70 cents per scholar was voted for School purposes, and other small amounts for contingent expenses."
The following January the Argus reported on a bill, just passed by the Michigan Legislature, that seems to have been aimed at removing all possible obstacles to progress on the building. The legislation gave school boards the "power to designate sites for as many school-houses, including a Union High School? as they may think proper, by a vote of two thirds of the legal voters present, at any regular meeting." Boards were also granted the power to purchase land, raise taxes upon property within the district, fix tuition for nonresident scholars, make and enforce bylaws and regulations, borrow money, and repay loans.
Ann Arbor's board now could proceed in the knowledge that its actions bore legal sanction—a timely reassurance, as construction funds were once again found insufficient. In addition to the $10,000 voted in February 1854 and $7,000 in September of the same year, a meeting in September 1855 authorized borrowing $10,000, bringing the total appropriation for the building to $27,000. The following January, another public meeting approved borrowing a final $8,000 to complete and furnish the building and fence and grade the grounds.
School records do not provide a total cost figure for the building.
However, from 1855 through 1863 the district issued 167 individual bonds, ranging in value from $50 to $1,100, and totaling $32,637.50. That matches closely with the expenditure figures given in the Argus, which add up to $35,000—more than triple the original estimate.
For its money, though, the city got a show-place—a building a railroad publication called "the crowning glory of the town." Built of brick on a fieldstone foundation, the handsome Italianate school stood three stories tall, set well back from the street, with a curving driveway in front. The third floor was one huge assembly hall, used for public gatherings of all sorts, including the U-M graduation exercises. The basement, wrote the state superintendent for public instruction, "contained living quarters for a janitor and his family, a writing room, a recitation room, and a primary school room."
The following January, the Argus published a long story praising the new facilities--as well as the orderliness, efficiency, and spirit of the student body and faculty. The paper reported that the curriculum included:
"Four classes in Latin, two in Greek, two in French, two i%,German, two in Bourdon's Algebra, three in Elementary Algebra, one in Geometry, one in Natural Philosophy, tour in Arithmetic, one in Book Keeping, and three in English Grammar. . . . Instruction was also given regularly to both departments in Writing, Drawing and Vocal Music; and private lessons are given in Instrumental Music."
Noting that the number in attendance was 356, the report concluded:
"Our school is well organized, well disciplined, and well instructed; thus far it has more than answered our most sanguine expectations, and it now gives the most cheering promise or continued prosperity."
Though the U-M would not admit women until 1870, the Union School was coed from the start. The Argus noted in fall 1857 that residents paid nothing for the basic course of study, aside from a "modest fee" for those wishing to pursue foreign languages, art, or music.
"For the information or our friends residing in adjoining Towns, we give the terms—per quarter or 11 weeks—on which non-resident scholars are admitted: Higher Dept., English Studies, $4. Higher Dept., English and Languages, $5. Intermediate English, $3. Intermediate English and Languages, $4."
The high school was still educating many nonresidents when superintendent Perry wrote his history of the school district, circa 1880:
"It is one or the largest preparatory and academical schools in the country, and its reputation has become well nigh national. Or its 400 to 500 pupils, about 60 per cent are non-residents. Its annual tuition receipts go far toward cancelling the cost or its support, while many families become temporary residents or the city in order to secure the advantages of its superior instruction. Since 1861, the date or its rirst graduation class, the school has graduated 870 pupils, a large portion or whom entered the University of Michigan. It is doubtful if any other enterprise of the city has contributed more, even to its material prosperity, than has the Ann Arbor high school."
The initial curriculum was divided into two sections—classics and English. They covered similar material, but the former was more rigorous for college preparation. In 1872 a commercial course was started, and two years later, Horatio Chute was hired to teach science. He designed some of the first comprehensive courses in high school physics, astronomy, and chemistry, which were copied all over the country.
As enrollment grew, so did the building. A portico was added to the west side in 1857. In 1872 the school was extended on the east side by about forty feet, nearly doubling in size. That same year new heating equipment, seats, and bells were purchased. In 1889 a final expansion nearly doubled its size again, extending the school all the way to Huron Street.
The Gothic-style addition was no sooner completed than it was nearly destroyed: on September 10, 1889, smoke was seen pouring out of a window on the first floor. Fortunately, firemen and a group of about 100 boys were able to extinguish the fire in short order. Afterward there was discussion of taking steps to fireproof the building—but nothing was done.
Fifteen years later, on New Year's Eve 1904, the entire school was consumed by flames. Because water pressure was low and the fire was well advanced when it was discovered, the firemen could not save the building. Even though the blaze occurred in the middle of the night, most of the town came out to watch.
Principal Judson Pattengill, science teacher Horatio Chute, math teacher Levi Wines, and school superintendent Herbert Slauson organized a rescue mission. Aided by about 100 students, they were able to save much of Chute's prized physics laboratory equipment and most of the 8,000 library books. But much more was lost— textbooks, botany and chemistry equipment, school records, teaching aids, and sports equipment.
"Friends of mine who were high school students at the time tell me that they stood with tears running down their cheeks, crying unashamed as they saw the flames break out in one after another of their classrooms," local historian Lela Duff wrote in 1956. Overnight, the city had lost its showplace, the anchor of the development of a large section of the local real estate market, and a trendsetting educational institution.
Christmas vacation was extended just two days. With an outpouring of community support, classes resumed on January 12. The eighth grade moved en masse to Perry School, while high school classes met in borrowed churches and student religious centers, Moran's School of Shorthand, and the basement and storerooms of the new Hamilton Block at Thayer and North University.
Efforts to replace the school started the morning after the fire with an emergency meeting of the school board. A bond issue to fund a new building passed in March, 370-42. The district hired Malcomson and Higginbotham of Detroit to design both the new school and an adjoining library facing Huron (the district had already received a Carnegie grant for the library before the fire). Both are neoclassical designs with pillars, multisectioned windows, and arched main entrances. But the school is made of brick, while the library has a stone facade, and details differ subtly on the roofs and entrances.
The new school opened for classes on April 2, 1907, and was dedicated in a community ceremony ten days later. "That Ann Arbor now possesses the finest public school building in Michigan, if not in the United States, is admitted by all who have visited whether residents of the district or of other sections of the country," the Daily Times enthused.
If students entered at the side doors on Washington or Huron, which most did since they had their lockers there, they were on the bottom floor. About a third of that floor was the domain of Chute, who had been allowed to design it for science instruction. The gym was in the middle. At the back, on the Thayer Street side, were rooms equipped for vocational classes — wood and metal shops and drafting rooms.
Students who came in through the grand entrance on State Street could go down half a flight to the gym or half a flight up to reach the auditorium. The top floor had two big session rooms—combination study halls and places for students to be when not in class—facing State Street. Divided by sexes at the Union School, in the new school they were separated by alphabet. Longtime (1946-1968) principal Nick Schreiber was hired in 1936 to be the session teacher for L-Z. His counterpart, Sara Keen—called "Miss Kerosene" by the school wags—took care of the first part of the alphabet.
As in the Union School, the curriculum centered on subjects needed to get into college. But the new school also offered greatly expanded vocational courses—the state's 1905 compulsory school attendance law required the school to serve more students who weren't college-bound.
Many alumni remember the school assemblies. Veteran local radio personality Ted Heusel heard a broadcast of one of Hitler's speeches at an assembly in 1938. In another assembly he saw the chief archer from the movie Robin Hood stand in the balcony and hit targets on the stage. Another assembly featured U-M football star Tom Harmon. "He came down the aisles with everyone screaming," says Heusel.
Ted Palmer never forgot the assembly at which his history teacher played a trick on the students. "Miss Perry came from the right side and another Miss Perry came from the left and met in the center. It astounded everyone to see two Miss Perrys. It turned out she was an identical twin." Three years later, the sisters played a variation of the same trick on Dick DeLong and his classmates.
In the gym underneath the auditorium, students took physical education and played indoor competitive games. Palmer ran track by circling the gym, twenty-two laps per mile. "It wasn't much straightway, but some schools had less," he recalls. To practice the forty-yard dash, students ran the length of the hall that connected the Washington and Huron street entrances. This practice was halted when one student didn't stop in time and went right though the glass, seriously injuring himself.
For cross-country, Palmer jogged to West Park and ran there, returning to school for showers. Students participating in football or baseball ran to Wines (now Elbel) Field but were lucky in having a little building there where they could change and shower. Kip Taylor, who scored the first touchdown in Michigan Stadium, was one of their coaches. Beginning in 1938, Ann Arbor High's teams were nicknamed the Pioneers. A 1962 school booklet explains that the name was appropriate because the high school was "a pioneer in the true sense of the word, being one of the first schools in the state to have an organized athletic program."
At lunchtime students could eat at school, but "we liked to mingle with the college kids on State Street," recalls Palmer. The area was full of lunch places, well remembered by high school alumni — Kresge's counter for hot dogs, next door at Granada's for hot beef sandwiches, Betsy Ross in Nickels Arcade for deviled ham sandwiches, Toppers on Division for 150 hamburgers.
The lures of the neighborhood included the State Theater. In his memoirs, principal Nick Schreiber recalled a day, after a heavy snowstorm, when other schools closed but the high school remained open. In protest, a large number of students left for the matinee at the State. "When I learned of the exodus to the theater, I went over and asked the manager, a Rotarian friend, if I might have the theater lighted while I took the stage and announced that those students who did not return to classes were in for disciplinary action," Schreiber remembered. "They left the theater in haste."
The high school served well through the city's explosive growth in the 1920s, the Depression, and World War II. But after the war it was increasingly overcrowded. Built for 800 students, it was serving close to 1,400 by the time it closed in 1956. "The wood floors were creaky when we went there," recalls Bob Kuhn, a student in the 1940s. "The school seemed old. The cement stairs were worn."
The U-M, too, was growing rapidly and needed more space. So the city and university worked out a swap: the university got the high school, while the public schools got a large university-owned parcel diagonally across from Michigan Stadium—the site of the present Pioneer High. Included in the trade was Wines Field, now renamed Elbel, after Louis Elbel, author of "The Victors"; today, it is used for U-M band practice.
The university renamed the old high school the Frieze Building, after an esteemed nineteenth-century professor, and built an addition on the back. Even though people thought the building was run down during its last years as a high school, it lasted fifty years more with very little maintenance. But this year is likely to be its last.
In January the U-M regents voted to demolish the Frieze Building to make room for what they are provisionally calling "North Quad." Preservation activists and Ann Arbor High alumni argued for saving the building or at least the facade, but U-M planner Sue Gott rules that out, saying the university needs to use the entire site, including the State Street lawn. Still on the table is the possibility of preserving the Carnegie Library—if it can be combined successfully with the new building.
This article is based in part on Wil Cumming's history of the Ann Arbor Union High School. The complete text is aailable in the Ann Arbor Public Schools collection at the U-M Bentley Historical Library.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: When Ann Arbor High was dedicated in April 1907, the Daily Times declared it "the finest public building in Michigan, if not in the United States."
[Photo caption from original print edition]: After the fire on New Year's Eve, 1904. Overnight, the city lost its showplace, the anchor of the development of a large section of the local real estate market, and a trendsetting educational institution.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: The city and university worked out a swap, trading the old school for a large parcel diagonally across from Michigan Stadium—the site of the present Pioneer High