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At last, a new use for the armory!

Grace Shackman

Ed Shaffran hopes to build housing where militias marched and Bob Seger sang

Ann Arbor had a militia—a group of citizens who could be called out in times of military emergency—almost from its founding. In 1825, Elisha Rumsey organized a company that included practically all the men in the one-year-old settlement. "They drilled on special days, and their marching was loudly applauded, especially by the ladies of the village," wrote Orlando Stevenson in Ann Arbor: The First Hundred Years. During the Civil War, while the young men went off to fight for the Union cause, men over age forty-five formed the Ann Arbor Home Guard, which according to Stevenson
"held parades of their own, marched, and engaged in activities suitable to their years and to the spirit of the times."

The Spanish-American War, 1898-1899, revived an interest in military matters, and townsfolk began to consider building their own armory. In 1909, city council resolved to buy two lots and to construct a National Guard armory. (Local militias had been incorporated into the National Guard in 1903.) Ann Arbor's building was financed with a combination of state funds and contributions from local citizens. The total cost, including furnishings and lockers, was $25,000.

A turreted two-story section facing Ann Street housed offices, classrooms, lounges, a game area, and the caretaker's quarters. A longer one-story section along Fifth Avenue housed the drill hall, where the weekend soldiers practiced marching. The basement was used for a shooting range, lockers, and a kitchen. A room on the northeast corner, accessible only from the street, was used as a polling place and for voting machine storage, a condition the city made when they donated the land.

The armory had many other nonmilitary uses. Older Ann Arborites remember going to the boxing matches held by the local Guard company as fund-raisers in the 1930's. One of the participants was Casper Grammatico, who recalls, "I fought for Company K and got three dollars in trade at Moe's Sports Shop on State. I was sixteen, still in high school, when I started. The place would be full. Admission was forty or fifty cents. I did it every year in winter, two or three times a week."

The Guardsmen also raised money by selling honorary memberships. Don Nutt, who was the armory's technician from 1951 to 1978, recalls that for $10, honorary Guard members got a pin and a certificate. The real reason people signed up, Nutt says, was that membership excused them from jury duty. When the law was changed to eliminate that exemption, most people let their memberships expire.

The local company also rented out the armory. Many dances were held in the drill room, with the canvas that usually protected the wooden floor pulled back and live bands playing on the stage. In the 1930's, Herb ("Red") Ritz played for public dances every Friday and Saturday. Later, in Nutt's time, fraternities often rented the armory for their dances. The location was especially popular in the days when liquor could not be sold east of Division. The Black Elks also rented the armory regularly, since their building on Sunset was not large enough for big dances.

In the late 1960's, a teenage nightclub, Mother's, used the armory on weekends. "The kids came there to dance, to have a good time. There were no drugs. It didn't take much to attract kids back then," recalls Mark Amsdill, a member of the Sindells, one of the rock 'n' roll bands that played there. Amsdill remembers that other groups that played at Mother's later went on to greater fame—such as Bob Seger, the Rationals, and Mitch Ryder. Don Nutt has less happy memories of Mother's. "It was an awful time; they had different principles. They smoked pot and had no age restrictions—college-age kids and thirteen-year-old girls. It was always a tussle."

The drill space could also be rented for sales. After a devastating fire, Montgomery Ward held a fire sale at the armory that was so well attended that Nutt had to get a ladder and climb in through a window to reach his office. The Downtown Kiwanis Club held its popular sales at the armory from 1948 until 1967, when the club bought its own building; Don Strite, the technician before Nutt, remembers lines of customers extending around the block.

Unlike earlier caretakers, Strite and Nutt handled the administrative details of the company as well as the upkeep of the building. In the early days of their administrations, the company remained much as it had been since its founding: locally based (Nutt compares it to a fraternity), with patriotism as its main motivator. ("The pay was peanuts.") Then a series of decisions at the state and federal levels changed it irreparably. The local connection was severely weakened in the 1960's with passage of the Reserve Officers Promotion Act, which mandated that reserve officers had to be promoted regularly in order to retain their commissions. Since officers had traditionally stayed in their local communities for many years, there were few opportunities for steady promotion within local companies, and younger officers were forced to accept transfers to be promoted. Then in 1973 the draft ended and National Guard pay went up, making membership less a patriotic hobby and more a part-time job.

The final blow came in the late 1980's, when the state decided to merge the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti companies. Since the Ann Arbor building was old, and the Ypsilanti armory was to be torn down to make room for the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center (now the Ypsilanti Marriott), they decided to build a new one to serve both cities, next to the Ypsilanti Township Hall.

The Ann Arbor armory has stood empty since the National Guard moved out six years ago. Various groups have shown interest in the building - Food Gatherers, Community Access Cable, and the Hands-On Museum - and so have the city and the county. But a new state law mandating that surplus property be sold at market value put the armory out of the reach of these groups: the state's asking price was close to $500,000.

This summer, the state Department of Military Affairs finally reduced the price and accepted a lower bid from Ed Shaffran, a local developer who has done many projects in the downtown area, most recently the old Kline's building. Shaffran cautions that there are still a number of steps to be taken before the project is final; indeed, his earlier effort to buy the building at the asking price foundered when he couldn't make the economics work. With a more realistic price, he's hopeful that he'll finally be able to move ahead with his plans to convert the armory into housing, either condos or apartments.

—Grace Shackman

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Grace Shackman