Once the height of local luxury, the vintage apartment building has a new lease on life.
When Cathy Nowosielski was a U-M medical student in the 1970s, she passed Observatory Lodge, at Observatory Street and Washington Heights, every day as she walked between her sorority and the old University Hospital. A panoply of almost every Tudor detail ever used, the 1930 apartment building has turrets, oriel windows, half-timbering, a slate roof, cooper eaves, and stained-glass windows.
Nowosielski admired the building, and when she learned that it was owned by the U-M and rented to employees and grad students, she decided to investigate living there. Directed to the second floor of the LS&A Building, she was told that she could have the one available unit if she took it right away. She gasped but agreed. "It reminded me of walking into an elegant mansion," she recalls. It was not only (in her words) "phenomenal" but also a much better deal than her sorority.
On a recent visit to Ann Arbor, Nowosielski asked a friend to drive her by some old haunts. When they got near Observatory Lodge, her friend, Alicia Marting, couldn't believe it—the building Nowosielski wanted to see was the same one Mcirting's division, kinesiology, was moving into. They were even more amazed when they figured out that part of Nowosielski's top-floor apartment had been preserved just as it was—vaulted ceiling, textured plaster, phone alcove, and all—as the dean's office.
Observatory Lodge was the last in a string of eight elegant, multistory apartment houses that various developers built near campus in the decade before the Great Depression. Six are still standing, but two were recently torn down—the Planada on Ann Street was replaced by a parking structure, and high-rise apartments are currently going up on the site of the former Anberay on East University.
An elegant entrance foyer and lobby set the tone of Observatory Lodge, with a fireplace, art-pottery floor tiles, ornate wall panels, and antique furniture. The thirty-four apartments included efficiencies and one- and two-bedroom units. A hair salon and barbershop, entered from an outside door on the northeast side of the building, was convenient for residents but was also open to the general public. Both a manager and a caretaker lived on the premises.
Observatory Lodge's location made it perfect for hospital employees. City directories from the 1930s list a hospital pharmacist, social worker, stenographer, and cataloguer, as well as doctors, interns, and nurses.
The main U-M campus was also well represented, with every level of academia from full professors to students. From the town side came Otto Haisley, superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and Julius Schaffer, the manager of Kline's department store. Several women residents reported their occupation as "widow." Former Washtenaw County sheriff Doug Harvey knew the building well: after World War II, his father, also named Douglas, was hired as caretaker by the Ann Arbor Trust Company, which owned the building. The family moved into a rent-free one-bedroom garden-level apartment on the east side. The future sheriff and his brother slept in the living room on roll-away cots.
"A grand old place" is how Harvey remembers the building. Most of the residents were "people of high stature, who lived there for years. It was hard to get in—you didn't just ask. It was rented far in advance; you had to wait until someone died." Harvey describes his father as a "jack of all trades—whatever he was asked, he knew how to do." He could paint, put up wallpaper, and repair plumbing, along with more mundane chores like stoking the furnace and keeping the hallways clean. He was so capable that his employers soon combined the jobs of caretaker and manager.
Since people lived there for years, the caretaker knew them all well. "He used to coddle them. They loved him to death," Harvey recalls. For instance, his father used to walk the Irish setter belonging to Edgar Kahn, the famous neurosurgeon, and feed the dog an egg when they returned.
No one was allowed into the building without being buzzed in—certainly a plus for the widows. If no one answered a buzz, the elder Harvey would go to the door and interrogate the visitor. Not even the paperboy was allowed in; he just dropped the newspapers in the foyer and rang the buzzer. The manager then delivered them to the apartments.
The younger Harvey was in high school when his dad took the job. He enjoyed going up on the roof and looking at the view out over the Huron River valley. When his buddies came over after school, they used to see whether they could get the elevator to stop short of the second floor and then climb on top of it to ride the rest of the way up. "Dad would get mad, but we thought it was the best thing since canned beer," he laughs.
Celebrated Observatory Lodge residents included U-M neurosurgeon Edgar Kahn, Kline's department store manager Julius Schaffer, and Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent Otto Haisley. As a teenager, future sheriff Doug Harvey "surfed" atop its elevator—angeringhis father, who managed the building.
The university bought the building in 1966. By the time Cathy Nowosielski lived there, students made up about half of the residents. They tended to be assigned to the top floors, she recalls, probably because they could deal better with the stairs when the elevator broke down.
Nowosielski remembers the building as being "very quiet. There were no parties. It was a place to come back to and call your own." The units were unfurnished and there were no group activities, but the young med student loved it—she enjoyed eating in the breakfast nook in the turret and having the sun shine in on three sides through casement windows. But much as she enjoyed living in Observatory Lodge, she admits that even then, more than twenty years before it closed, the plumbing, the elevator, and other parts of the building were showing their age.
Noreen Clark, professor and former dean of the U-M School of Public Health, lived in Observatory Lodge in its last decade as a residence. She was first drawn to the building by the location—it's literally in the shadow of her school. She had to get on a waiting list before she could move in, and once she was in the building, she got on other lists to move into bigger apartments. Eventually she had a two-bedroom unit with a terrace. But even the smallest unit was fine, since she has a commuter marriage (her husband works in New York).
Coming from the UK, where professors often live "in college," Clark enjoyed seeing students wandering around on evenings and weekends. She also loved the old building details—"the old gesso still intact, the arched doorways, the accordion-door elevator."
Toward the end of her stay, though, Clark was the only faculty member in the building. In 2001 she was the last resident to move out.
When the university closed Observatory Lodge, it cited concerns about the building's safety—specifically, the poor condition of the electrical system and fire alarms. By then over seventy years old, it still had its original knob-and-tube wiring with horsehair insulation, as well as asbestos. People who loved the place held their collective breaths, fearing the university might demolish it as it had the Planada. They were delighted when, in 2005, the U-M announced plans to convert it to offices for the division of kinesiology.
Kinesiology desperately needed more space. As the division's mission expanded, it was spilling out of its quarters in the Central Campus Recreation Building into an annex next door. Besides its traditional curriculum of teaching people to be gym teachers and physical education administrators, kinesiology now helps communities use sports as a tourist attraction and does research in "movement science"— studying, for instance, why certain activities can control diabetes, or how exercises can reduce developmental delays in babies with Down syndrome.
The university's exterior renovations enhanced the building's historic character. The slate roof and copper gutters and downspouts were repaired, and new windows were installed that mimicked the original small-paned casements. The original squirrel weathervane was preserved, and a duplicate was made of the original wooden sign. The only visible "change is the addition of a retaining wall in front, which should provide ft pleasant place for students to sit in warmer weather.
The changes inside were much more extensive. Because total rewiring was needed, and because the thirty-four bathrooms and kitchens were not needed, the inside was pretty much gutted, except for load-bearing walls. But the new offices and labs have been largely furnished with older-style wooden furniture, in deference to the building's history.
Two places were kept much as they originally were—Cathy Nowosielski's top-floor apartment, now the dean's office, and the lobby and foyer. The hope is that "someone can walk in and get a sense of what the building was like," explains Jim Mclntyre, development director of kinesiology.
To redo the front entry the university hired Saline-based Ron Koenig, who has done restorations all over the country, including several state capitols and the Detroit Opera House. Koenig's goal was, in his words, "to have the lobby look old but well maintained. It's key to reading the building."
Luckily all the design elements were still there, although some were in bad shape or painted over. Koenig started by taking samples of the lowest layers to discover original colors and finishes. He then brought everything—the raised decorations in the wall panels, the floor tiles (a mix of Pewabic, Moravian, and possibly Flint Faience), the wainscoting, and the stained glass—as close as possible to its original condition.
Kinesiology began moving in last October and completed the transition during the semester break. A few labs and classrooms remain in the CCRB, but everything else is finally under one roof. "Because of the location, we're also talking about more collaborative work with public health, medicine, and orthopaedic surgery," Mclntyre says.
After kinesiology moved in, Noreen Clark was given a tour by dean Beverly Ulrich, a friend of hers. "I'm really happy it's occupied by a group who has respect for the building and are happy to be there," Clark says. But she admits she misses her apartment. If she could, she says, "I would move back in a New York minute."
The U-M is holding a grand opening of Observatory Lodge on April 3. The public is invited to take tours and hear opening remarks by U-M president Mary Sue Coleman and kinesiology dean Beverly Ulrich.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Kinesiology dean Eeverly Ulrich (left) now has her office on the building's top floor—in the same turreted corner where Cathy Nowosielski (right) lived as a medical student in the 1970s.