415 West Washington
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.
When the WCRC began operating in 1919, its offices were in the County Courthouse, and the site on West Washington was a storage yard. By 1921, when former U-M All-American football player Ernie Allmendinger began working there, the commission maintained 104 miles of roads, only 8 miles of which were paved.
By 1925 it could afford its own building—a simple concrete structure with offices above a garage. Three years later, the commission added a one-story workshop, and in 1930 the complex took on its present form with the completion of an additional, brick garage.
By 1937 the WCRC staff was maintaining 1,411 miles of road. In an article written ten years later, Allmendinger recalled how three-person crews would go out and determine road and fence lines, often with the help of property owners who showed them markers or deeds. The commission would then make improvements, such as straightening roads, extending culverts, reshaping steep hills, and digging drainage ditches.
During the Great Depression, there was never enough time or money to do all that was needed. Then, in World War II, it was impossible to buy new equipment, or even parts for old equipment.
"We didn't have tools. We would work by hand, by shovel," recalls Thomas Kittel, who worked at the road commission after graduating from high school in 1944, and then again when he came back from the war in 1946.
In spring the challenge was to make muddy roads passable, mainly by spreading gravel. Then the crews had to grade the dirt roads to smooth out the ruts and potholes. If they didn't finish the road surfaces fast enough, "they would dry up harder than the devil," remembered one worker.
In the summer the challenge was the reverse—keeping them from becoming too dusty. Washtenaw was the first county in the state to use liquid chloride to solve this problem. John Rayburn and Ernie Schellenberger worked on the first chloride truck. Rayburn recalls that he opened the tap that let out the chloride while Schellenberger drove.
Winter was the most challenging time. The crews would mix sand with flaky, solid chloride to keep the sand from freezing. During snowstorms, Carl Thayer's job was to stand at the back of the truck and push the sand onto a wheel that spread it onto the road. When Thayer got too cold, he would bang with his shovel on the back of the cab, and the driver would stop and let him come in to warm up.
WCRC employees fortunate enough to have indoor or part-indoor jobs—surveying, engineering, bookkeeping, purchasing, and personnel—worked on the second floor of the main building. Two other small county offices were also there: planning, with two full-time employees, and building inspections, with one. Eileen Westfall Gondak worked half time in each.
Gondak, who started as a teenager in 1948, recalls that her boss, planner George Hurrell, "worried about the strip [on Washtenaw] between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. He said if we don't zone better, with greenways, we won't be able to tell when one city ends and the other begins." According to Gondak, "Everyone laughed, saying, 'Where are you coming from?'"
Road crews ran the gamut from football star Allmendinger to someone who couldn't read. Many were farmers who worked their fields in their off hours. Summer help often included football players recruited by Allmendinger.
Thayer—who, like Rayburn, went to work for the WCRC in 1947 after serving in World War II—recalls that they alternated between working fifty-five and forty-five hours a week. Every other Friday, when the men got their checks, many would go drinking at Prey's Cafe on West Washington and not be in shape to come to work on Saturday.
After World War II, the road commission slowly began replacing its equipment. One acquisition was a truck that sprinkled sand automatically, so that the only crew needed was a driver sitting in a warm cab. The delighted Thayer was the first to use it. The old trucks, which were just barely functioning, were sold for scrap.
In 1965 the road commission moved to a modern garage on Zeeb Road. It was right in the middle of the county and much closer to the areas where work was needed, especially after the freeways were finished.
The City of Ann Arbor took over the Washington Street building. Upstairs are offices for parks and recreation, forestry, parking, traffic engineering, and Fairview Cemetery, along with the sign shop.
The first floor is still garage. Community Standards—the former parking enforcement office, now expanded to include neighborhood parking regulations and "clean community" violations—is also in the building.
This summer most of the building's operations will move to a new garage now being constructed on Stone School Road south of Ellsworth (Community Standards will move to the former Fire Station 2, on Stadium near Packard). There is a broad spread of opinions on the best future use of the building—or the site if the building is torn down.
The Allen Creek Task Force is divided three ways on the site's future use—between tearing the complex down to form a park, tearing it down and building something new on the highest portion of the land, and restoring the 1925 building for another use. Several groups are interested in the building, including Downtown Kiwanis for its sales, and the Arts Alliance of the Ann Arbor Area for artists' studios. (See "Land War: The Three-Way Fight over the Future of Downtown," October 2006.) The final decision will be up to city council.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Above): Arts advocate Tamara Real and Kiwanian Dan Dever both want the eighty-one-year-old garage for their nonprofits. (Right) The building under construction in 1924, just five years after the Washtenaw County Road Commission began operating. (Below) Ernie Schellenberger and John Rayburn sprayed liquid chloride on dirt roads to keep down the dust.