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The Ugliest Building in Ann Arbor?

Tue, 09/04/2007 - 6:33pm by amy

"Dear Wystan, since I know you will eventually stumble upon this photograph can I just go ahead and preemptively ask for information about the Masonic Temple? Thanks!" (photo and quote by Phil Dokas)

Phil, I am touched by your faith in my proclivity for stumbling . . . . I also stumbled across this page from Jim Rees, who concurs with your aesthetic assessment of the Federal Building.

Even as the Federal Building was taking shape, witnesses realized that it was not going to turn out well. Its insipid obtrusiveness compounded the felony that had been committed already in removing the Masonic Temple and several inoffensive houses, merely so that several dozen USPS trucks could be parked on a barren lot behind. The building's greatest sin was that it was not special enough for the site. As a structure, it was obviously unworthy of the sacrifice that had been made in the loss of the Temple.

Notwithstanding the negative impact that the new building made on the public mood, and on the downtown streetscape, within a few months of its completion it received awards from the Michigan chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and from some kind of academy of masonry contractors. Coincidentally, these outfits appear to have represented the only people anywhere who actually profited from its existence. I read stories about their awards in the newspaper, and snickered. Everyone could see that the emperor had no clothes.

In a memorable sally, Ann Arbor News columnist Jane Myers referred to the glassed-in staircase bay out in front as "King Kong's shower stall." (DeLaurentiis' 1976 version of the King Kong movie was still fresh in memory.)

John Baird supplies this photo of the Frehsee "Corner House" Building, on State Street at Washington, another worthy contender for your "ugliest" honors.

submitted by Wystan Stevens

The Denali building, a half-block east on Liberty Street, is a new in-your-face example -- not ugly, exactly, but an egregious misuse of space. (It replaced a Greek Revival house, converted to commercial uses, which had seen better days).

I've long felt that University Towers deserved prominent billing in the Ugliest Buildings category. Its existence has offended my delicate sensibilities for most of my life.

The Masonic Temple, which faced Fourth Avenue, stood not where your "Ugliest Building in Ann Arbor" squats, but on the site of its parking lot.

(This reinforces the truth behind the comic definition of a local historian:

"A person who can tell you
What used to stand
Where the parking lot is now.")

The Temple was designed by the French Canadian architect Jean Jacques Albert Rousseau, who had come to Ann Arbor from his native Quebec, and was a faculty member of the University of Michigan's School of Architecture. Alexander Grant Ruthven had been president of the University of Michigan (1929-1951). It was built in the early 1920s, mainly of reinforced concrete, clad in the white brick that was a peculiar favorite of Rousseau's -- he used it again in his own house on Vinewood Street, and in St. Mary's Student Chapel, on the corner of Thompson and William streets. (I have wondered whether the chapel's bricks might have been leftovers from the big order used on the temple.)

Here's a link to St. Mary's, from Historic Buildings, Ann Arbor, Michigan:

Susan Wineberg reminds me that Rousseau was architect of the Anberay apartments, another Ann Arbor landmark slated for oblivion.

Completed in 1925, the Masonic Temple was a massive structure, with huge assembly rooms on its five floors, to accommodate the various branches of masonic allegiance. Membership in the Knights Templar and other orders was at its zenith in the 1920s, both locally and nationwide. Here is a gorgeous postcard depiction of the building when it was brand new.

Unfortunately, participation in masonic rituals and fellowship declined during the Depression and war years, and did not rebound greatly after WWII ended. People had other ways to fill spare time. Annual income was insufficient to maintain the building. Lower floors were filled with flimsy wooden partitions and rented out. I recall that the Bendix Corporation had offices here for awhile, but the ornate edifice could not readily be adapted to commercial uses.

Ask the surviving masons whether they weren't delighted when condemnation for the Federal Building parking lot forced them to dispose of this white elephant, and they will deny it. Yet I suspect that feelings of loss and chagrin may have been mingled with a measure of relief. When the Historic District Commission protested the impending destruction, and preservationists began making inquiries about saving the Temple, various federal, state and local potentates warned that any attempt to interfere would force cancellation of the entire project. Ann Arbor was determined to have its own federal building -- the Temple be damned.

Here is what the masons say on their own web page:

"1977: After a 3 year Federal “Eminent Domain” Law Suit court battle, the USA Government narrowly prevailed. The Federal Government was required to pay $204,000 of which $80,000 was deducted to raize the Temple on behalf of the US Government. In other words, the Masons had to put settlement money up to demolish their former Temple. The $120,000 figure was one third of a M.A.I. appraisal by The Gerald Alcock Company of Ann Arbor. Federal Judge Charles Joiner of Detroit gave no value to the Masonic Temple structure, definitely one of the finest 1920's art deco architectural masterpieces in the City of Ann Arbor. The City Council and Mayor wanted the Federal Building and cleared away the political hurdles by allowing all structures in the 4th Avenue and Liberty Rd. block to be removed; all these properties were removed from the property tax rolls. The $120,000 net figure to the Masons bought 4.65 acres of land and started construction of a modest 7,200 sq. ft. Temple building at 2875 W. Liberty Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48103."

(Of course, by 1977 the Masonic Temple had been gone for two years. The late Judge Charles Joiner, a tall, handsome, vigorous man -- a former U-M law professor and an Ann Arbor resident -- was in line to occupy the first courtroom in the Ann Arbor Federal Building. In fact, its completion considerably eased his daily commute. As an interested party in getting the Masonic Temple out of the way, he probably should not have been The Decider in this "settlement.")

I watched the demolition of the building in the summer of 1975. It took an entire week of constant battering for a heavy wrecking ball to smack down the concrete walls and floors. Meanwhile, the rear entrance, with a bare utilitarian staircase leading up to a top-floor locker room, was left unguarded. In the evenings, after smashing had stopped for the day, curious folks would wander in and explore what was left. Friends of mine discovered that some of the lockers were still filled with black woolen masonic coats and heavy woolen ceremonial capes. They filled a pickup truck with these abandoned artifacts, intending to sell them -- but in the end, they gave all of them away.

Clan Crawford, an Ann Arbor attorney (ret.), took this photo in 1974...

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