June is the time when catalpa trees, with their distinctive, heart-shaped leaves, bear their big white flower clusters, to be followed by seed pods that look like long, brown string beans. But Ann Arbor’s most famous catalpas—indeed, the trees from which many of the central-area catalpas are said to have been propagated—are only a memory. They stood in front of the old Chapin house, a once-handsome Greek Revival building on Ann at Fourth Avenue. The building now houses the Yoga Center, the De la Ferriere book store, and, on the Fourth Avenue side, the People’s Produce Co-op and the Wooden Spoon book store. For three decades, from 1890 to 1920, the place was known as the Catalpa Hotel.
Today it takes a practiced eye to see beyond the cracked stucco and plastic entryway and recognize the dilapidated building as a once-imposing structure dating from before 1850. The house was built some time around 1840 to house the Washtenaw Bank and provide a home for its president and his family. Its solid brick walls were covered with stucco, which was then scored to resemble the stone masonry the Greek temples which inspired the Greek Revival style so popular in early nineteenth-century American architecture. Ann Arbor had so many such imitation-stone houses that it was sometimes called a “little stucco village.”
In 1847, Volney Chapin, the prosperous owner of an agricultural implement foundry on West Huron, purchased the house and converted it to a private residence. For thirty years it was a local showplace, renowned for its large catalpa trees and rose-bordered paths winding through the extensive grounds extending all the way back to Catherine and up to Fifth Avenue. After Mrs. Chapin’s death in 1876, the house was sold. The gardens gave way to commercial development, while the house served as a hotel with a succession of different names. The side along Fourth Avenue was remodeled into several storefronts with plate glass windows. They housed a variety of shops, including a saloon, a billiard hall, and a barbershop. In 1913, Joe Parker, proprietor of Joe Parker’s College Saloon (the famous “Joe’s” that figures so prominently in that favorite college song, “I Want to Go Back to Michigan”), moved his establishment into the Catalpa Hotel, where it thrived until Prohibition. Joe’s went out of business in 1920, and the next year the Catalpa Hotel was sold to the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce. The famous college hangout is still remembered with a small tile mosiac “Joe” in the corner of the Wooden Spoon book shop.
The Chamber drew up plans for remodeling the building in the then-popular colonial mode, taking advantage of its classical lines and details. Published drawings provided for an outdoor tea garden, an auditorium, and a banquet hall. But these changes never materialized. By 1925 the Chamber had more ambitious and metropolitan plans for its property, as it began a long campaign to construct a modern, fireproof hotel, on the site. These plans, too, never came to pass. Throughout the Depression and early war years the building housed the offices of many service and welfare organizations, as well as the local bus station.
In 1942, citing its inability to meet operating expenses, the Chamber sold the building for $11,000 to Christ Bilakos. He renamed it Peters Hotel for his son, Peter Bilakos, who now has his law practice down the street in the recently-restored building at 109 East Ann. That building housed his father’s restaurant. The Bilakos family still owns the Chapin building.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: The Chapin house in Judge Chapin’s day, circa 1870. The catalpas are the three large-trunked trees in front of the house. MICHIGAN HISTORICAL COLLECTIONS.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: The Chapin house today: a rare downtown survivor from a more gracious era.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: An artist’s conception of the bar at Joe’s when that famous college saloon was in the Calalpa Hotel. The bald bartender is Joe Parker himself.