Behind its modest storefront was the classiest interior decorating firm in Ann Arbor
Frequenters of downtown have enjoyed watching the recent transformation of the Cracked Crab building at 112 West Washington back to its nineteenth-century appearance. William Herz erected the building about 1880 as a paint store, and his family continued in business there for more than eighty years. Under Herz's ownership, and later that of his son, Oswald, the Herz Paint Store became the premier painting and decorating firm in town.
William Herz, a Prussian, learned his trade in Berlin. Born in 1849, he began his apprenticeship at age fourteen, learning painting, frescoing, varnishing, and sign painting. He emigrated at age twenty to join his parents, who had preceded him to Ann Arbor.
Herz opened his own business shortly after he arrived. Working fourteen-hour days, six days a week, he sold paint and related supplies and also decorated many private homes and public buildings. Within ten years, he had nine employees and was able to replace his small store with the two-story brick building on West Washington. He and his wife, Sophia Muehlig, (they married in 1874) also built an impressive house at 603 West Huron, joining other prosperous Germans on that street. He served on city council for eight years, representing the Second Ward (approximately today's Old West Side). Since Ann Arbor had not yet built its first city hall, he probably hosted some of the council meetings in his store.
When William Herz died in 1913, his son, Oswald, took over. Alice Godfrey remembers Oswald Herz as "aristocratic in manner, always dressed up, and very polite and gentlemanly." Professionally, says architect David Osier, Herz was "the painter and decorator of Ann Arbor."
Herz didn't dazzle his customers with fancy displays. Bill Dettling, longtime cook at the Old German next door, says the store looked "like an old-time grocery store, with shelves on all sides." On one side, glass cases displayed paint brushes. Along the other side, rolls of wallpaper were stacked like rugs. Morrie Dalitz owned Varsity Laundry and delivered clean towels and linens to the store. He remembers it as mostly inventory, not displays; "like himself, Herz kept the place neat."
Herz didn't need to display his inventory, because he worked so well from memory. Mary Culver remembers going to the store with her mother to pick out wallpaper for the bedroom she was taking over from her brother, who was serving in World War II. After they described what they had in mind, Herz simply reached up to the shelves and brought down several appropriate samples. Angela Dobson Welsh remembers that Herz always had the latest thing, including "very modern" wallpaper designs from California.
Herz's paint, like everything else he sold, was top quality. Welch, whose parents often used Herz's services, remembers that his paint jobs seemed to last forever and could be washed without damage. Osler likens hiring Herz to buying a Mercedes. His workmen would first clean and sand the walls and then apply six or seven coats of paint.
Bill Wente, a longtime employee, supervised Herz's crews. Most of the dozen or so employees lived on the Old West Side and walked to work. The firm's single truck was used to deliver the crews and their supplies to jobs. If Herz wanted to check on them during the day, he rode his bicycle.
Home owners trusted Herz and his crews, even turning over their house keys so work could proceed while they were off on vacation. Herz, in turn, would help out in their absence by accepting packages, arranging to cut the lawn or shovel the walk, or even sending forgotten clothes.
Herz had a reputation as an autocratic interior designer. Morrie Dalitz recalls that if Herz said a red chair was needed and a customer objected to red, Herz would order a red one anyway. Welch remembers that he worked in many styles, from traditional to modem, and that the final results were "different looking, something you didn't see anywhere else." Herz was also a potter. He had a kiln on the second floor of his store and offered classes several nights a week.
Like his father, Herz did at lot of work for the U-M, and he also worked closely with Goodyear's department store. Most of his private clients were from the east side, where many professors and successful business people lived. Jesse Coller, wife of surgeon Fred Coller, had a knack for decorating and often helped her friends with their houses. According to Welch, she was a great champion of Herz and sent all her friends to him.
Herz never married. When he died in 1954, he left the business to four faithful employees, including Wente, who continued to run it. But according to Osler, the paint business was changing drastically by then. With the advent of mixing machines and ready-mixed colors, department and discount stores were moving in on the turf that had once belonged exclusively to local paint stores.
At the end of 1963, the partners closed the business and sold the building to Herman Goetz, who changed it to a bar and grill. In 1971 the Cracked Crab took over and did a major remodeling that covered the facade, added a phony first-story roof, and lowered the entrance by removing the stepping-stone with Herz's name etched in it. (It can be found embedded in the sidewalk by the Del Rio's side door.)
The Cracked Crab expanded into the adjacent storefront in 1978. Both buildings are now owned by the same partnership that owns the former Old German building at 120, now the Grizzly Peak Brewing Company. Using old photographs found by Susan Wineberg, managing partner Jon Carlson is restoring the building and recreating its nineteenth-century appearance. He has removed the Cracked Crab's facade and white paint to reveal the original deep-orange brick. In consultation with historic paint expert Rob Schweitzer, he is painting the building's non-brick details in red, yellow, green, and brown, historically accurate colors that also complement the Grizzly Peak.
Carlson's new tenant will be the Cafe Zola, run by Alan Zakalik and Hediye Batu. They chose the name because it had the sophisticated, international ring they were looking for; because the Z picked up on Zakalik's name; and because Emile Zola was writing around the time when the building was put up. They hope to open sometime in January.
—Grace Shackman, with research assistance by Susan Wineberg
(Above) Within ten years of opening his Ann Arbor paint store, William Herz built this two-story brick storefront on West Washington.
(Right) After years of neglect, it's being restored to its nineteenth-century appearance.