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West Stadium Blvd. at Ninety

Grace Shackman

Once a rural bypass, it's now a motorized Main Street

Stadium Blvd never had horses and buggies travel on it, nor has it ever been much of a pedestrian street.  Constructed in 1926, it was a product of the automobile age.  Originally named “Boulevard Drive,” it was also known simply as the Cutoff or Bypass.  It arced around the city, forking off Washtenaw Ave. to pass south of the city’s existing neighborhoods before turning north and continuing all the way to Jackson Rd.  It gave drivers on state highway M-17 a way around the congested center of town, and gave them a direct route to Michigan Stadium, which opened in 1927 and gave the street its lasting name.  

When Stadium Blvd. was new, it fronted on farms and was out in the country.  As the surrounding areas were developed, subdivisions lined most of the east-west section.  The north-south segment from Pauline to Jackson was zoned as a commercial district.  

The colorful 2015 Dale Fisher photo at right, taken looking north from Liberty, shows businesses all the way to Maple Rd. and beyond.  But it took a while to get there.  The 1951 photo above caught the street in transition.

The part closest to Jackson Rd. developed first.  In 1935 a gas station and a private home show up along W. Stadium there in the City Directory.  In the late 1930s, a few more houses and some other businesses came along — another gas station and some manufacturing firms — a toolmaking company, an electric service, and a monument company.

Aerial View: Stadium

In 1939, Sportsman Park opened at the corner of Stadium and Liberty.  Built for fast-pitch softball, it was the brainchild of the two Frey brothers, Christ and Walter, co-owners of a beer distributorship.  They sponsored a men’s team, Oldbru, and Pfeiffer, a women’s team.  Surrounded by a wooden fence, the park included dressing rooms and showers, a press box, a concession stand, music, and printed programs.  “Besides Ferry Field, it was the only one with lights, so we could play at night,” recalls Jack Spaide, who played on his church’s team.

The top teams were in the industrial leagues, which were sponsored by companies.  The rules forbade professional players, but some companies let workers practice during the workday or even hired players just so they would qualify for their teams.  Dow Chemical in Midland, which had the best team around and even won a national championship, recruited some of Ann Arbor’s best players.

Below the industrial leagues were Class B teams, like the one Spaide played on for St. Paul Lutheran Church in the 1940s.  The announcer used to call him Sam Spade (the Maltese Falcon came out in 1941) when he came up to bat.  One of Spaide’s friends, who played for Bethlehem Church, called him Sam for the rest of his life.  Spaide remembered those days as “fun times” but decided to quit, when, in his words, “someone sliding into base, probably home, broke his ankle.  I had a child and another on the way, and I realized if anything happened to me I wouldn’t be able to take care of them.”

Katie Stadel, pitcher for the Pfeiffer team, was the star of the women’s league.  She was the first woman inducted into the Michigan Softball Hall of Fame and the first woman to use the windmill pitch here.  In a 2002 interview she recalled, “ I saw it used in a Lansing [men’s] game.  I practiced all winter and introduced it the next spring.”

Exhibition games were also big draws; one featured boxer Joe Louis, known as the Brown Bomber.  Donkey ball was another favorite.  It was played with regular softball rules — except that when the batter made a hit, he had to get a donkey to accompany him to first base and stay there once they’d arrived.  Most players tried to ride them, but Sandy Schulz Rayment remembers that her Uncle Jack “used to pick the donkey up and run to first base.”  Still tickled, she says, “I never laughed so hard.  It was a comedy of errors.”

After World War II, development started in earnest.  A 1949 Ann Arbor News article heralded W. Stadium as “Ann Arbor’s fastest growing commercial area,” reporting that the value of commercially zoned property had increased 75 percent in five years.  An aerial photo showed twenty-eight businesses on or near W. Stadium, although there were still a lot of empty lots. The largest group was vehicle related, including two motorcycle shops, a trailer rental, auto sales, a truck company, and several gas stations.

One of the new businesses was the Hannah Building Company owned by Eugene and Edith Hannah.  They designed their headquarters at 2310 to look like an elongated Cape Cod house.  Eugene Hannah used to say of his early days, “Earl Fingerle had the lumber, I had the ambition, but nobody had the money.”

That changed after the war, when there was plenty of work.  Their daughter Nan Hannah Cunningham recalls that they didn’t build in any one style but used “what made sense for the neighborhood, from small ranches to custom designed.”  Three streets are named for the Hannah children: Mark Hannah for Cunningham's brother, Kay Pkwy. for one of her sisters, and Virnankay Ct. jointly for Nan, Kay, and their sister Virginia.  Edith Hannah ran an interior design studio in the back of the building.

The Hannahs also dealt in real estate.  They bought a number of lots on Stadium, which they sold to new businesses, including two drug stores catering to the expanding neighborhoods nearby: Becker Pharmacy at 2424 W. Stadium and Quarry Drugs at 2215.

Although most of the buildings were nondescript utilitarian structures, at least two built after the 1951 photo was taken were designed by local architects working in the Mid-Century Modern style.  The Naylor car dealership at 2095, with its tepee-like dome, was the work of Ted Smith, who also did a ski shop on Washtenaw with a similar roof.  And Bob Metcalfe, best known for his sixty-eight local homes, designed 2333 for the Fuller-Hodges Travel Agency.  His notes at the Bentley Historical Library show how carefully he shaped it for its intended use, with drawings showing exactly where the typewriters, money drawers, account drawers, reference books files, and open racks would be.

Two drive-in restaurants opened in 1948, the A&W and the H&H.  The H&H disappeared within a year, but the A&W at 2405 became a town favorite.  Ralph Moore was only twenty-two when he opened it with a little assistance from an uncle who had an A&W in Flint.  Ralph married Bernice Wright three years later, and the two of them ran it together until 1983.  At that time Stadium, although paved, was only two lanes with no curbs or gutters.  The concept of staying in your car while a carhop came out and took your order was new to the area, although already popular in California.  “People complained.  We had to work at getting people to eat in their cars,” recalls Bernice Moore.  There was no indoor seating, but there were a few stools outside for the occasional walk-up customer.  

The Moores made the root beer every morning, mixing the syrup provided by the company with sugar that they bought locally in large quantities.  Along with the drink, they sold hot dogs as required by the franchise.  Coney dogs, topped with chili sauce and onions, were a Tuesday-only special; french fries came later.  They bought twelve-ounce A&W mugs by the case, since between breakage and people taking them they were always short.  Bernice gave a tiny A&W mug to anyone had a baby.  

Bernice and Ralph divided the chores, with Bernice hiring and scheduling the help, while Ralph took care of finances.  Dorothy Fillinger, who with her husband Jack ran Fillinger Typesetting across the street, remembers that the Moores had loyal employees who stayed for years.  The Moores worked just as hard as their employees.  Since they were open long hours, they staggered their schedules.  The both worked at noon, but Bernice opened in the morning and went home after lunch, while Ralph came at lunch and stayed the rest of the day.  The managed to raise two kids with the help of babysitters.

In the early 1950s, the Moores’ competition was a frozen custard shop, Stadium Tavern, and the Forty-Niner Diner.  All served snacks or casual food; the age of frequent eating out was far in the future. 

Tice’s Tavern on the northwest corner of Liberty and Stadium began as a grocery store attached to a house.  Although it got a lot of its business from people attending events at Sportsman Park right next to them, it continued operating for many years after the park closed.  Tire’s became a town favorite, remembered not just as a bar, but also for its good food.

Across the street from Tice’s, Joe Ackerly built a small frozen custard stand, selling a rich soft-serve ice cream.  Travelers would stop and get a custard and a cup of coffee.  Ackerly sold the business to Earl Fowler, who put on so many additions that eventually the original stand was totally hidden.  Fowlers’ was the first restaurant on the street with a TV that folks could watch while they ate.

In 1949 Isabel and Paul Jung purchased the Forty-Niner Diner, at 2307, with another couple, who soon dropped out of the business.  The food was cooked on a grill while customers sitting at the counter could watch.  The place was so small that the heavy pots had to be washed in the basement.  The Jungs’ daughter, Beverly Jung Hanselman, still uses her mom’s barbecue sauce recipe.  When the Jungs sold the place, they went to work at Sears, since the manager had been one of their customers.

McDonald’s arrived at 2000 W. Stadium (not shown) in 1956, opening with big hoopla as one of the first in Michigan.  Townsfolk were delighted with the 15 cent hamburgers and 20 cent milk shakes.  The McDonald’s folks had approached Ralph and Bernice Moore about becoming the local franchise, but the price for buy-in didn’t seem worth it.  Instead the A&W fought back by adding hamburgers.

In the early days the Moores were busiest during the daytime.  They recall that their parking lot was filled with trucks.  On Sundays there was a steady stream of people coming home to the Detroit area from the lakes to the west.  But that traffic bypassed town completely after I-94 opened in the late 1950s.  W. Stadium then flipped 180 degrees, from serving travelers to catering to locals.  Sunday became the Moores’ slowest day, while evenings changed to their busiest time, as Ann Arborites came by after work.  Little League coaches often bought their teams for a treat to celebrate winning games.

In 1959 Everett’s Drive-In opened at 2280.  Cunningham remembers that her dad helped get Everett Williams established, backing him and giving him some land.  Everett’s became a teenage hangout for young people with cars or access to one.  Ann Arbor soon had a cruise scene, not as big as in large cities, but kids could go from McDonald’s to Everett’s and then across the street to the A&W to see what was happening.  Milk shakes were a popular item at Everett’s, but it was most famous for its namesake hamburger, a deluxe version Everett invented that resembled a Big Boy.

In the 1950s and 1960s there were lots of mom-and-pop businesses, belying the belief that women in the postwar years were all stay-at-home moms.  Dorothy and Jack Fillinger did Linotype printing, mainly for local advertising companies and for the University of Michigan.  Dorothy Fillinger remembers how interested the college students were in their machine, which used hot lead to set a line of type at a time, “Jack would set their names in metal and show them how it worked.  They were fascinated,” she says.

In 1961 Richard and Grace Leslie opened their office supply business at 2231 W. Liberty, one lot west of Stadium.  Richard Leslie learned how to repair typewriters in the army and worked for Mayer Schairer downtown for a few years before opening his own store.  Their son, Dale Leslie, says his mother was the bookkeeper and office manager, while his dad handled the stock and did the physical work.  In 1971 Richard Leslie was one of the funders of the West Stadium Area Business and Professional Association.  It later merged with the Jackson Road Business Association that had been founded in 1959, in order to lobby for more exits off I-94.  (The exits it won at Jackson and Zeeb helped create another west-side business district on Jackson Rd.)

Stadium Blvd. also attracted businesses that needed more room than they could afford downtown.  “less rent for more space,” explains Al Raymond, of Ann Arbor Financial Services, 1829 W. Stadium.  The same advantage lay in buying.  Wrigleys grocery built a store at 2350 W. Stadium so it would have more shelf room.  Vernor’s ginger ale built its warehouse at 2370.

The majority of the stores were owned and operated by people from Ann Arbor.  “We knew everyone on Stadium, they were all local,” says Bernice Moore, echoed by Dorothy Fillinger.  For instance, Deft Paint at 2381 was owned by Harold and Robert Marquardt, another father-son combo.  Botsford Title was owned by Thomas and Harry Botsford — Thomas’s son Don later owned the Gymkhana on Maple, where Top of the Lamp is now.  Paul Larned, president of the West Washtenaw Business Association, who came to the area in 1982, remembers that even then “most of the businesses were in someone’s name.”

The 2015 photo finds many more national brands.  In the 1990s the Hannah building was demolished (Cunningham remembered crying when it came down) to make way for a bigger McDonald’s with a double drive-thru.  Everett’s spot is not a Taco Bell, and the Fillingers’ typesetting shop is a Subway; there’s a Burger King across the street, about where the Forty-Niner Diner stood.  

Leslie Office Supply closed in 1997, unable to compete with big-box chains like Staples and OfficeMax.  The Becker and Quarry pharmacies are long gone, too.  While the independent Stadium Pharmacy survives in West Stadium Shopping Center, it’s eclipsed by big new CVS and Walgreens stores.

And a fan returning from the 1940s to look for Sportsman Park wouldn’t recognize the corner of Stadium and Liberty.  In 1986 Tice’s Tavern was torn down to make way for what’s now Key Bank.  Across the street, what had been Fowler’s restaurant survived through many incarnations, including a pancake house and La Piñata, a Mexican restaurant, but eventually made way for a spiffy little Bank of Ann Arbor branch.  With the Lake Trust Credit Union across Liberty, some people took to calling W. Stadium “Financial Row.”

But while the time-traveling fan wouldn’t see it from the street, the outline of Sportsman Park can still be discerned in the 2015 photo, in the parking lots fanning out behind Gourmet Garden and a closed gas station.  And local businesses remain a vital presence.

Becker’s is now the A&L Wine Castle, while Deluxe Drapery has the former Quarry — which Arbor Farms expanded before moving to an even bigger store alongside Ace Barnes Hardware.  Nearby, Stadium Hardware has gradually grown to occupy most of the small strip center where it stared after moving from downtown, with Bell’s Diner thriving in the remaining spot.  Even the former McDonald’s is now home to a local business, Lewis Jewelers.

The Forty-Niner Diner went though several more owners and by 1974 had changed to a donut shop.  The Wrigleys supermarket is now Planet Fitness, while Planned Parenthood has the onetime Vernor’s warehouse.  Across the street, the Fuller-Hodges building is now home to Stadium Opticians.  Though it’s had additions on both sides, Bob Metcalfe’s distinctive grillwork can still be seen on the front as well as the two outdoor planters he designed.  

The opticians are typical of the utilitarian service businesses once anchored downtown, but moved out to take advantage of easier access, better parking, and less expensive real estate.  Though many of the early gas stations have closed, auto parts stores and repair shops remain plentiful, including, Stadium Auto Service, on the former A&W site.  And while there are no longer any motorcycle shops, two-wheeled transportation is represented by Great Lakes Cycling, in a onetime auto seat cover factory at 2770.

It’s perhaps ironic that Great Lakes nabbed its prime spot after Discount Tire moved to Jackson Rd.  But a bike shop is perfectly suited to today’s more inclusive vision of transportation, as the move to “complete streets” add bicycle lanes and pedestrian crossings to Stadium and other streets once ruled by the automobile.

Thanks to Harry Cross for his inspiration and assistance with this article.


[Photo caption]: “Stadium Blvd. Filling Up,” the <em>Ann Arbor News</em> wrote when it published this photo in 1951.  Popular destinations included Sportsman Park (1).  Ralph and Bernice Moore’s A&W drive-in (3), Tice’s Tavern (4) and Joe Ackerly’s custard stand (5).  Eugene and Edith Hannah, who would be instrumental in many buildings that followed, and their office in the Cape Cod-style building (2) where McDonald’s stands today.

Many of the early businesses on the street catered to motorists taking the pre-freeway “Bypass” around downtown.  The peak-roofed Texaco and most other gas stations have long since been replaced by services for nearby resident, but auto care remains a theme — though the Victory Lane oil change at Libery and Stadium shares its corner with no fewer than three banks.

Wriggles built its supermarket on W. Stadium to get more shelf space.  Painted purple, the building is not Planet Fitness.

Though national brands are now ubiquitous — this Subway replaced the Fillingers’ printing shop — many local businesses remain.  

Rights Held By
Grace Shackman