The History of the Observer's New Home
You wouldn't think a simple 1940s industrial building would have much of a history, but 2390 Winewood, the new home of the Ann Arbor Observer, has a surprisingly diverse past: it has housed a manufacturer of trading stamp gifts, a factory where the first hockey helmets were made, a one-of-a-kind map store, and a remodeler's office.
The address first appears in the 1947 city directory. A motorcycle store was the first tenant, but Automated Products, later known as Kingsware, soon moved in. The company made gift items for Gold Bell trading stamps.
At the time many stores gave trading stamps as incentives to encourage customers to come back--an early version of today's "loyalty" programs. Customers received the stamps based upon the amount they spent; pasted in books, the stamps could be redeemed for gifts at special cash-free "redemption centers." It was quite a business in its heyday: Shelly Byron Hutchinson, founder of S&H Green Stamps, made enough to build the awesome mansion at 600 River St. in Ypsilanti (used today by High Scope).
In an undated aerial photo of W. Stadium, 2390 is visible as a small cement-block building facing Winewood. Presumably, it was Kingsware that added a steel warehouse behind the original structure that connected it to a second cement-block building, with a loading dock, off Maple. John Marchello, co-founder of Danmar Products, recalls that the building had already been expanded to that L shape by the time he first saw it, in the early 1960s.
Marchello says that Kingsware made electric fondue makers, hot plates, and other household appliances. His discussions with Kingsware owner Hugh Garver about painting the ice-hockey helmets that he was developing led to Danmar's moving into the building in 1962. The "Dan" is for Harlan and Josephine Danner, who joined with Marchello to form Danmar, which manufactured safety products for sports and medical uses. Marchello developed the products, and the Danners oversaw their production.
Marchello, a U-M art and design major and a member of the U-M wrestling team starting in 1954, had worked with his coach, Cliff Keen, to develop better ways to protect competitors from the hematomas known as "cauliflower ears." From wrestling headgear, he moved on to develop a plastic ice-hockey helmet; up until then, players' only head protection was a pair of soft pads connected by an elastic strap.
With a $300 loan from Keen, Marchello began manufacturing hockey helmets in his garage in New Hudson. He soon had enough orders to repay Keen's loan. Meanwhile, the Danners had moved back to Ann Arbor from Venezuela in order to rear their children in the United States and were looking for a business to become involved in. Harlan Danmar had also wrestled for the U-M, in the 1930s, and his mother was a landlady who often rented rooms to wrestlers--including, during his college years, Marchello. The sports connection soon led to a business partnership.
It turned out to be a good time to start a helmet business. Besides hockey headgear, Danmar made special helmets for motorcycle riders and police departments. And when bigger competitors took over those markets, Danmar found a new niche in medical safety products.
During Danmar's infancy, Marchello had continued doing freelance design work. One of his customers suggested that he create a helmet to protect the heads of institutionalized people, some of whom are prone to falling. Soon, other customers began asking Danmar for various medical safety products.
"There was a big need not being serviced," explains Marchello. Health care professionals had "been trying to jury-rig things to work. We'd talk on the phone, and they'd send rough drawings." Products for people with special needs included face guards, apparatuses to help hold forks or crayons, headrests, chest and head supports, and wheelchair accessories. Ruth Harris, U-M professor of physical education, contacted Danmar to suggest they build a flotation device that would allow physically handicapped people to play water sports, and thus was launched a line of swim aids.
In 1978 the Danners retired, and Marchello became Danmar's sole owner. Ten years later he sold the business to general manager Karen Lindner, but continued to work for the company. That same year, Danmar moved the company to roomier quarters at 221 Jackson Industrial Dr.
The company now has thirty-three employees, tripled since its Winewood days, and is still making medical safety equipment, much of it one-of-a-kind items. They've also seen a bit of a return to sports equipment; for instance, some teams come to them to make helmets with logos that don't easily peel off, as decals do. At age seventy-six, Marchello still comes into work every day.
John Roumanis, who was then running the Cottage Inn Pizza delivery chain, bought the building from Marchello to store supplies for his company's commissary, which at the time was located across Winewood. (For Roumanis's latest project, see Marketplace Changes, p. 45.) He rented out the part facing Winewood to Don Wagman for his map store, Geography Ltd. Wagman remembers that Cottage Inn employees stopped by many times a day, to retrieve food stored on pallets in the metal building or to get foods out of the walk-in freezer in the very back, but he says they didn't bother him because they used different doors.
Wagman sold anything having to do with cartography--maps, atlases, globes, even astronomy paraphernalia. His maps were of every kind imaginable and from all over the world--topographical, reproduction antique, road and railroad maps, street plans, and literary maps, to name just a few. When Cottage Inn moved out a few years later, Wagman had the whole building to himself, so he spread out into the unused space. "To call it ramshackle would be being kind," laughs Wagman. His biggest sellers were Michigan topographical maps, used in summer by vacationers, in fall by hunters, and year-round by engineers and environmental consultants. Wagman stayed for fourteen years but closed in 2004, no longer able to compete with online sales and web mapping services.
Contractor Paul LaRoe bought the building in 2006. By then it was in pretty rough shape, but being a remodeler, he knew what to do. "I could see that it had a good structure and was full of possibilities," LaRoe says. He gutted and cleaned the inside and, working with architect Ed Wier, installed new offices, bathrooms, and windows. He says his goal was to make the interior feel "warm and cozy, like a home," a theme echoed by a new facade with hints of a traditional peaked roof.
Observer owners Patricia Garcia and John Hilton bought the building last summer. LaRoe did such a good job on the front part that it needed only minor changes. The metal building, though, got a complete overhaul that added windows, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems. The Observer is also using part of the back building, but still has some warehouse space on the Maple side that it hopes to rent out.
The Observer spent twenty-one good years in the Marketplace Building near Kerrytown. But when ad sales fell during the recession, the company had to sublet part of its space, and what remained was uncomfortably cramped. The magazine's staff is enjoying having room to spread out again and plenty of parking (rented from Eberbach Corporation across Winewood). They do admit to missing downtown but are pleased to discover how many locally owned businesses are within easy walking distance on the west side. Says publisher Patricia Garcia, "We've traded Zingerman's [Deli] for the Roadhouse."
This article has been edited since it appeared in the February 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. The spelling of John Marchello's name has been corrected. (end of article)