Lurie Terrace, a residence for active seniors of moderate means, was a real groundbreaker when it was built fifty years ago. "There were none [like it] to the best of our knowledge" recalls Bob Chance, one of the four architects who worked on it. The designers had no template to follow, just organizer Shata Ling's vision.
Ling was a remarkable woman who was not only full of ideas but made them happen. Born in 1905 in Houston and trained as a social worker, she came to Ann Arbor with her husband, Daniel Ling, in 1943 for grad school - he in civil engineering and she in public health. She later returned to U-M to study community organizing and worked part-time for researcher Wilma Donahue, a pioneer in the new field of gerontology.
When Ling realized that local seniors lacked a gathering place, she and her husband bought an old house at 439 S. Ashley to use as a senior center, renting out a basement apartment to help cover the cost. Ling served as the unpaid director and organized activities such as art classes and choral groups. "It was almost an instant success," recalled Daniel Ling in a 1985 memoir. When they outgrew that building, a generous donation helped them buy a house at 323 Packard, again making it work by renting out apartments. One of the renters there was U-M student Bob Creal, who later served on the board of Lurie Terrace for thirty-eight years.
The seed for Lurie Terrace was planted when Ling learned that many seniors who came to the center lived in inadequate rooms or small apartments, often paying more than they could afford. The problem was compounded by the fact that many of the older homes that offered low rents were being tom down to make room for apartments in the post-WWII building boom. There were four nursing homes in Ann Arbor, but no places for active seniors except for the Anna Botsford Bach Home, which housed just seventeen women.
Learning of new federal programs that would loan money for supportive housing for the elderly, Ling in 1961 converted the senior center board into a nonprofit entity known as Senior Citizens Housing of Ann Arbor, Inc. She then put together a proposal, convincing professionals, such as architect Jim Livingston, to sign on without knowing if they would ever collect a fee or not. Daniel Ling was the structural engineer. Wanting a site near downtown, she convinced the seller of property on Huron St. to keep the land option open for two years.
In the spring of 1962, the nonprofit was approved for a $1.7 million loan, payable over fifty years at 3.375 percent interest. However, it was another year before they could break ground while they ironed out the last details, including raising funds to finish the interior. The community responded with contributions, including a lounge furnished by the Kiwanis Club.
Meanwhile, the architects went to work on the design. Chance remembers Livingston coming into the office and saying "Bob, we've got a good one. You're going to love this lady." meaning Shata Ling. He was right. Chance developed a "profound admiration and respect for her," describing Ling as "an intense, brilliant, no-nonsense, off-the-shoulder kind of gal."
Livingston, who owned the firm, dealt directly with the clients. Kip Serota was the chief designer, while Linden Pettys did the drawings. Chance's main job was to see that the design was carried out as planned when building began. But Chance says they worked as a team. "If there was a problem we'd work it out together to make it happen," he explains.
"We started with what was generally expected, but Shata pushed-she wanted something different," recalls Chance. The challenge, according to Serota, "was to create something with a modest amount of money that didn't look like a public housing project."
The size of the parcel and the number of units dictated a high-rise. But Serota made it different from most blocky low-income projects by designing two eight-story hexagon-shaped towers. The ten apartments on each floor are accessed from corridors that branch out from a central elevator, rather than a single long hall. The hexagonal walls made for wedge-shaped rooms, but Serota explained those made the small spaces seem bigger, and gave residents different views out their windows. Chance remembers doing mock-ups to make sure that furniture would fit in the unconventional rooms.
Serota's original design had balconies, but Livingston nixed them, saying that the residents would rather have more floor space. Serota still thinks they would have been a good idea: in the era before air conditioning they would have allowed residents to cool off, given an illusion of more space, and made the exterior more attractive. The section connecting the two towers contained the elevator, stairs, and a different activity room for each floor: a music room, a greenhouse, an exercise room, an arts and crafts room, and a library.
The most controversial part of the plan was locating the dining room on the top floor. Ling suggested that so all the residents, not just those living on top floors, could enjoy the view over downtown Ann Arbor and the Old Serota’s original design had balconies, but Livingston nixed them, saying that the residents would rather have more floor space. Serota still thinks they would have been a good idea; in the era before air conditioning they would have allowed residents to cool off, given an illusion of more space, and made the exterior more attractive. The section connecting the two towers contained the elevator, stairs, and a different activity room for each floor: a music room, a greenhouse, an exercise room, an arts and crafts room, and a library.
The most controversial part of the plan was locating the dining room on the top floor. Ling suggested that so all the residents, not just those living on top floors, could enjoy the view over downtown Ann Arbor and the Old West Side. She felt the bother of bringing food up and carrying garbage down was worth it. City officials disagreed. Characteristically, Ling didn't back down, and eventually they relented.
The groundbreaking took place in May 1963. Sid Woolner, head of the federal Community Facilities Administration – soon to be folded into the new Department of Housing and Urban Development – called Lurie Terrace “a remarkable, intriguing design.” When construction started, Ling resigned from her by-then-paying position at the senior center to volunteer on the site. She was given a hard hat and an office in the old house that the contractors were using as headquarters before tearing it down. “She was one of the few clients I’ve had who read the specifications,” recalls Chance. She monitored every aspect of the project, including the doors, carpeting, slate, drapery rods, kitchen cabinets, and tile. She also fought to save the trees on the site.
Daniel Ling recalled that his wife “climbed ladders to check the construction and brought coffee to the workmen on cold winter days. With such feminine supervision, some of the men wanted to be informed if she became involved in another construction project so they could apply for the work.”
As the opening date neared, there was a steady stream of applicants to live in the 142 apartments in the new building, which Ling had named after her mother, Anna Lurie. To qualify, people had [to] be at least sixty-two years old and have an income of less than $4,000 a year if single, or $5,000 a year if married. There were also federal rent subsidies for twenty people who qualified.
The official opening was October 9, 1965 – a day so cold and raw that some of the participants watched from inside. The program booklet included a quite from Donahue, from whom Ling had gotten many of her ideas: “Not only is this a ‘break-through’ in retirement housing for middle-income people, but Lurie Terrace represents the practical application of U-M’s many years of work and study.” The New York Times published an article about Lurie Terrace, and in the early years there were visitors from around the world who wanted to learn from its example.
Ling stayed involved in the new residence for the rest of her life. Louise Bale, who later became active in Lurie Terrace, recalled her first glimpse of its creator while dining there with a friend: “Ling entered, dressed in a classic brown suit, her gorgeous red hair piled high on her head. She radiated warmth and vigor. Table after table of the residents looked up to greet her as she passed. A quick remark, an inquiry about someone’s health, an infectious laugh – everyone in that section of the dining room became livelier at once.” Ling died of cancer in 1969 at age sixty-four, just five years after Lurie Terrace was completed.
Serota left Livingston’s office to work for Minoru Yamasaki, who was expanding his staff when he got the job of designing the World Trade Center. Chance spent most of his career working as an architect for the U-M. Livingston continued in private practice, where he designed a wide array of local buildings including Weber’s, Kale’s Waterfall (later Szechuan West), and Lawton Elementary School, as well as apartment houses and private homes.
If Shata Ling and Wilma Donahue were alive today, they would be amazed at how their pioneering efforts have mushroomed. Every community in Washtenaw County now has a senior center. Catholic Social Services Resource Directory lists eighteen senior residences including independent living, assisted living, and memory loss units, plus sixteen subsidized or affordable places. For seniors who wish to stay in their own homes, there are a myriad of services including Meals on Wheels, senior cab service, home sharing, and home health care.
The revolution that brought about this new order started in 1965 with the passage of the Older Americans Act, part of LBJ’s Great Society program. “It moved the needle on the needs of seniors and how to respond,” explains Henry Johnson, U-M emeritus vice president, who is a neighbor and supporter of Lurie Terrace. “As the population aged, a more informed public began advocating for better senior services, which led to both private and public development.”
In spite of the newer competition, Lurie Terrace is usually full, although vacancies are not filled as fast as they once were. “It used to be that they [new residents] would move in literally the next day. They’d already have their things in the car,” recalls Mary Jean Raab, who has been a board member for twenty-two years and is now president.
Most of the original units were very small efficiency apartments ranging from 300 to 350 square feet. While a great step up from the rented rooms many of the first tenants came from, as Americans grew used to having more space, Raab says, “that was simply not the right mix of unit sizes,” and eighteen of them were combined to create nine large one-bedroom apartments. Though the efficiencies are a bargain – rents start at $546 a month, including fifteen meals in the dining room – those larger apartments are now in the greatest demand, with a wait list of several years.
Raab also notes that there used to be more couples. “Today with more options [for support] to bring into the home, couples stay [home] more often until one person passes.”
Another change is the removal of the original ban on walkers and wheelchairs – the thinking then was that the residents had to be totally independent. But as residents needed assistance walking, many just hid their devices or had others go through the food line for them. “We now realize that seniors can be active mentally and physically and still need help,” Raab says.
Last year the board paid off the fifty-year mortgage. That frees them from HUD rules but also means greater responsibility. Since 2002, the board has spent $1.2 million on major updates – installing air conditioning, replacing plumbing, and putting in new windows.
“Fifty years after the first resident, we are thriving, still around, fulfilling our mission,” says Raab. She hopes that with all the improvements, the same thing can be said at the end of the next fifty years.
Captions from images:
There were no models for a residence for active seniors when Shata Ling (at left, with husband Daniel) conceived Lurie Terrace.(Above) Jim Livingston, one of the architects, speaks at the 1964 dedication; his colleague Kip Serota designed the striking hexagonal towers.
The Lings started Ann Arbor's first senior center in a house on Ashley. When Shata realized that many seniors who attended lived in inadequate rooms or small apartments, she created a nonprofit and got a $1.7 million federal loan to build Lurie Terrace. (The name honors Shata's mothers, Anna Lurie.)
Board president Mary Jean Raab shows off the vista from the top-floor dining room. Placing it there was the most controversial part of the design, and city officials objected. But Ling prevailed – she wanted every resident to be able to enjoy the view.
The History of the Observer's New Home
You wouldn't think a simple 1940s industrial building would have much of a history, but 2390 Winewood, the new home of the Ann Arbor Observer, has a surprisingly diverse past: it has housed a manufacturer of trading stamp gifts, a factory where the first hockey helmets were made, a one-of-a-kind map store, and a remodeler's office.
The address first appears in the 1947 city directory. A motorcycle store was the first tenant, but Automated Products, later known as Kingsware, soon moved in. The company made gift items for Gold Bell trading stamps.
At the time many stores gave trading stamps as incentives to encourage customers to come back--an early version of today's "loyalty" programs. Customers received the stamps based upon the amount they spent; pasted in books, the stamps could be redeemed for gifts at special cash-free "redemption centers." It was quite a business in its heyday: Shelly Byron Hutchinson, founder of S&H Green Stamps, made enough to build the awesome mansion at 600 River St. in Ypsilanti (used today by High Scope).
In an undated aerial photo of W. Stadium, 2390 is visible as a small cement-block building facing Winewood. Presumably, it was Kingsware that added a steel warehouse behind the original structure that connected it to a second cement-block building, with a loading dock, off Maple. John Marchello, co-founder of Danmar Products, recalls that the building had already been expanded to that L shape by the time he first saw it, in the early 1960s.
Marchello says that Kingsware made electric fondue makers, hot plates, and other household appliances. His discussions with Kingsware owner Hugh Garver about painting the ice-hockey helmets that he was developing led to Danmar's moving into the building in 1962. The "Dan" is for Harlan and Josephine Danner, who joined with Marchello to form Danmar, which manufactured safety products for sports and medical uses. Marchello developed the products, and the Danners oversaw their production.
Marchello, a U-M art and design major and a member of the U-M wrestling team starting in 1954, had worked with his coach, Cliff Keen, to develop better ways to protect competitors from the hematomas known as "cauliflower ears." From wrestling headgear, he moved on to develop a plastic ice-hockey helmet; up until then, players' only head protection was a pair of soft pads connected by an elastic strap.
With a $300 loan from Keen, Marchello began manufacturing hockey helmets in his garage in New Hudson. He soon had enough orders to repay Keen's loan. Meanwhile, the Danners had moved back to Ann Arbor from Venezuela in order to rear their children in the United States and were looking for a business to become involved in. Harlan Danmar had also wrestled for the U-M, in the 1930s, and his mother was a landlady who often rented rooms to wrestlers--including, during his college years, Marchello. The sports connection soon led to a business partnership.
It turned out to be a good time to start a helmet business. Besides hockey headgear, Danmar made special helmets for motorcycle riders and police departments. And when bigger competitors took over those markets, Danmar found a new niche in medical safety products.
During Danmar's infancy, Marchello had continued doing freelance design work. One of his customers suggested that he create a helmet to protect the heads of institutionalized people, some of whom are prone to falling. Soon, other customers began asking Danmar for various medical safety products.
"There was a big need not being serviced," explains Marchello. Health care professionals had "been trying to jury-rig things to work. We'd talk on the phone, and they'd send rough drawings." Products for people with special needs included face guards, apparatuses to help hold forks or crayons, headrests, chest and head supports, and wheelchair accessories. Ruth Harris, U-M professor of physical education, contacted Danmar to suggest they build a flotation device that would allow physically handicapped people to play water sports, and thus was launched a line of swim aids.
In 1978 the Danners retired, and Marchello became Danmar's sole owner. Ten years later he sold the business to general manager Karen Lindner, but continued to work for the company. That same year, Danmar moved the company to roomier quarters at 221 Jackson Industrial Dr.
The company now has thirty-three employees, tripled since its Winewood days, and is still making medical safety equipment, much of it one-of-a-kind items. They've also seen a bit of a return to sports equipment; for instance, some teams come to them to make helmets with logos that don't easily peel off, as decals do. At age seventy-six, Marchello still comes into work every day.
John Roumanis, who was then running the Cottage Inn Pizza delivery chain, bought the building from Marchello to store supplies for his company's commissary, which at the time was located across Winewood. (For Roumanis's latest project, see Marketplace Changes, p. 45.) He rented out the part facing Winewood to Don Wagman for his map store, Geography Ltd. Wagman remembers that Cottage Inn employees stopped by many times a day, to retrieve food stored on pallets in the metal building or to get foods out of the walk-in freezer in the very back, but he says they didn't bother him because they used different doors.
Wagman sold anything having to do with cartography--maps, atlases, globes, even astronomy paraphernalia. His maps were of every kind imaginable and from all over the world--topographical, reproduction antique, road and railroad maps, street plans, and literary maps, to name just a few. When Cottage Inn moved out a few years later, Wagman had the whole building to himself, so he spread out into the unused space. "To call it ramshackle would be being kind," laughs Wagman. His biggest sellers were Michigan topographical maps, used in summer by vacationers, in fall by hunters, and year-round by engineers and environmental consultants. Wagman stayed for fourteen years but closed in 2004, no longer able to compete with online sales and web mapping services.
Contractor Paul LaRoe bought the building in 2006. By then it was in pretty rough shape, but being a remodeler, he knew what to do. "I could see that it had a good structure and was full of possibilities," LaRoe says. He gutted and cleaned the inside and, working with architect Ed Wier, installed new offices, bathrooms, and windows. He says his goal was to make the interior feel "warm and cozy, like a home," a theme echoed by a new facade with hints of a traditional peaked roof.
Observer owners Patricia Garcia and John Hilton bought the building last summer. LaRoe did such a good job on the front part that it needed only minor changes. The metal building, though, got a complete overhaul that added windows, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems. The Observer is also using part of the back building, but still has some warehouse space on the Maple side that it hopes to rent out.
The Observer spent twenty-one good years in the Marketplace Building near Kerrytown. But when ad sales fell during the recession, the company had to sublet part of its space, and what remained was uncomfortably cramped. The magazine's staff is enjoying having room to spread out again and plenty of parking (rented from Eberbach Corporation across Winewood). They do admit to missing downtown but are pleased to discover how many locally owned businesses are within easy walking distance on the west side. Says publisher Patricia Garcia, "We've traded Zingerman's [Deli] for the Roadhouse."
This article has been edited since it appeared in the February 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. The spelling of John Marchello's name has been corrected. (end of article)
What was a star architect thinking?
When I worked at the Chelsea Standard in the 1980s, I often covered events at Chelsea High School. It was not a single building, but a campus of one-story structures that students scurried between in all types of weather. I was told it was designed by a California architect who didn't understand Michigan winters.
Imagine my surprise to learn, years later, that it was actually the work of Minoru Yamasaki, the famous Modern architect who went on to design the World Trade Center. Born in Seattle, Yamasaki moved to Detroit in 1945, so by the time he designed the school in 1956, he had been through eleven Michigan winters.
But Yamasaki evidently wasn't thinking about winter. In a 1957 interview with Architectural Forum, he explained: "We hit upon the idea that if the buildings could each express their individual character that we might be able to depict the quality of a small town. The auditroium, gym, homemaking area would symbolically and literally be the town center."
Yamasaki was hardly the first architect to ignore practical problems. A janitor once broke a leg tending an elevated planter at Alden Dow's Ann ARbor library. Frank Lloyd Wright's eccentricities - leaking roofs, tiny kitchens - are well know. But Chelsea needed a new school - the high school population, then fewer than 400 students, was predicted to double in ten years.
Local architect Art Lindauer encouraged an innovative design. "I went to the school board and said, 'Every school looks like each other,'" recalls Lindauer, the father of Chelsea mayor Jason Lindauer. "'Why don't you try an architect with a different approach?'" Asked for suggestions, he mentioned Yamasaki, who at the time was activiely pursuing school work. After interviewing a dozen architects, a citizen's committee recommended hiring Yamaski, Leinweber, and Associates.
Peter Flintoff, whose father, Howard Flintoff, was secretary of the school board, recalls hearing that they felt lucky to get Yamasaki. Alyce Riemenschneider remembers that her parents and their friends were also excited to have someone so famous design their school.
People raised questions about the campus layout, but according to the Standard, school board members argued that the design would "provide the best building program at the most economical cost." Outside walkways would to-ceiling windows [it] was much nicer than the traditional string of hallway lockers," recalls Carol Cameron Lauhon, who also graduated in 1961. Covered walkways with brightly colored bubbles at building entrances served to unify the campus and afford some shelter as students passed between classes.
The main building, which Yamasaki called the "Town Center," contained the cafeteria, library, gym, and auditorium. Circling the auditorium were six classrooms used for English and social sciences. A Central atrium was open to the sky and filled with planst and bushes. "For the prom, the junior class would decorate the atrium with flowers and green plastic truf and furnish it with a wooden bridge over a small pond. Couples posed on the bridge for their prom photos. Very romantic!" recalls Lauhon.
June Winans, who taught earth science and geology, shared the science building with biology, chemistry, and physics teachers. Shop classes, the Standard explained, also had their own building so that "noises made by operating equipment or hammering and sawing will not disturb other classes."
The home economics and art building had a pitched roof to look more like a house. Riemenschneider recalls that the desks converted into cutting tables and that sewing machines were hidden in veneer cabinets. The kitchen had the newest stoves and refrigerators and an island, a novelty at the time. After preparing a meal, the students moved into a dining room and a living room.
At an open house, the Standard reported, "most people were impressed not only with the beautiful appearance of the new campus type high school but also with its very evident functional features."
The students who made the transition still have fond memories of Yamaski's school. "The exterior walkways between buildings felt less confining than the old school's intererior hallways and multiple stairwells, some of them narrow and windowless," says Lauhon.
"I was happy to walk outside," says Brown, adding: "The teachers aid it woke the students up."
"The breath of fresh air did them good," says Bill Chandler, the school's work-study coordinator. Sam Vogel, social studies teacher and later assistant principal, recalls that "the covered walkways developed leaks, but, unless it was pouring, it wasn't a problem."
Parents were less thrilled. Some thought it was ridiculous that their children had to go outside. One recalls her daughter tell her, "mom, we don't need decent clothes to go to school. We just need a good coat."
As enrollment grew, an auto mechanics garage was added, and a new bulding facing Washington for social studies. The cafeteria was enlarged by moving the library into another building.
But when the locker room got overcrowded and rowdy-the staff dubbed it "God's Little Acre" - there was no way to expand it. Eventually the lockers were movied into the "town center," but "then the halls were too crowded," Vogel recalls. The atrium also became a problem, with maintenance issues and heat loss through the single-pane glass the surrounded it.
Yamasaki's futuristic vision never caught on: the present Chelsea High, built in 1998, is again a single building. His campus, however, is still in use - its buildings now house the Chelsea Senior Center, school board offices, Chelsea Community Education and Recreation, and Chelsea Early Education. The roofs and bubble entrances are gone, the original large windows have been replaced by smaller ones, and the atrium has been filled in to create a windowless meeting room.
But students who went there still have fond memories of their school. "It seems to me that the Yamasaki design was a new way of imagining spaces for student life," says Lauhon. "The school was a pleasant place to be. My sense is that this is what Yamasaki had in mind."
A house without a doorbell? A bathtub sticking up in the middle of a room? A window instead of a mirror above a bathroom sink? Who would design houses like these? The answer is: architects, for their own homes.
Freed from constraints of clients and their families, architects can give free rein to their own needs and tastes. The local architects interviewed for this article have designed unique houses, personal statements of how they want to live. The oldest house is nearly sixty years old, but all turned out so well that the architects are still happily living in them.
The two local giants of the post-war Mid-Century Modern building era, Bob Metcalf and David Osler, both designed their own homes early in their careers, and both for practical reasons: Metcalf to showcase what he could do for future clients (see "Metcalf Modern," April 2011), and Osler to build a house for his growing family within the limits of what the bank would loan him.
Osler's house, at 3081 Glazier Way, was actually his second try building for himself. He grew up on a farm east of today's Huron Parkway. His father was the county agricultural agent. Early in his career Osler built an apartment in his parents' barn for himself and his wife, Connie. "We lived there until I thought I had enough practice to build a house," he says, explaining why he waited until 1961, when they had three children, to design his own home. He chose another site on a corner of his parents' land. (Much of the rest of the property was later developed as the Osler-designed Oslund condominiums.)
Osler designed a simple rectangular two-story house and hired builder Dick Wagner to put it up. Although clearly in the Modern style, Osler's house was practical. Before opening his own office in 1958, Osler had worked for several other architects. The one he admired most was Douglas "Pete" Loree, from whom, he says, he learned that "solving a problem for the family was more important than interesting shapes." For Osler's family, the challenge was to maximize useful space within a limited budget.
The house is entered from the narrow end, with the main living area half a story up and bedrooms half a story down. The entry and dining room are in the center, with the living room and family room off to the right, and kitchen and study to the left. "It's open, but each room has an identity," he explains. "Every inch is working. There is no wasted space."
Friends who, like him, were just starting careers and had limited means, admired the house and became early clients.
Since the home was built, Osler has added bays and an upstairs screen porch and moved bedroom walls. "I've played with it over the years, but it's basically the same," he says. Now in his nineties, he never thought when he was building it that he might one day prefer to live in a one-floor house without stairs, but he has no intention of moving.
Kingsbury Marzolf describes his house at 1420 Granger as a "Scandinavian row house." His wife Marian's maternal grandparents came from Sweden, and the couple has visited Scandinavia many times. Marzolf designed the house before moving to Ann Arbor to teach at the architecture school, but didn't build until 1967, when he found a suitable site—a narrow lot that had been the side yard of an older house. It worked perfectly: Marzolf's plan was for a narrow part facing the street and most of the windows on the front and back.
Although the house is clearly Modern, with a wooden front and brick sides, Marzolf made sure it would fit in the neighborhood by raising it to the height of the other houses and eschewing the flat roof often found in this style. "I like houses to have caps," he explains. Marzolf hired Calvin Hoeft to build the house but closely watched the progress. "I must have taught because I got paid, but I don't remember. I just remember coming over twice a day and taking pictures," he says. He often used it as a case study for his classes.
From the front door, one can see all the way back to the living room, and beyond that, through floor-to-ceiling windows, a secluded back yard. "Seeing all the way through makes the house seem bigger," explains Marzolf. The kitchen is in the front, with the stove next to a window facing the street, divided from the dining area by cabinets with sliding panels.
Marzolf regularly invited his U-M architecture students to his house. They called his living room "a 1950s Scandinavian furniture museum" with its Swedish rugs, chairs by Finland's Alvar Aalto, a papa bear chair by Danish designer Hans Wegner, and a Le Corbusier chrome frame black sofa.
Though Marzolf did commercial and apartment work before returning to the U-M to teach, his own house is the only one he ever designed. The only major work he's done to it was in 1997, when he called Hoeft back to replace the living room windows because their wooden frames were rotting out near the ground. Now in his eighties, Marzolf is still happy here: "I've never considered moving to Florida."
When the Modern architects were making their mark in the 1950s and 1960s, subdivisions were sprouting all around Ann Arbor's historic core. The generation that followed in the 1970s and 1980s rediscovered the joys and headaches of older buildings.
Gene Hopkins' first Ann Arbor home was a condemned house on the Old West Side. He and other designer-rehabbers, including Dave Evans of Quinn Evans and landscape architect Clarence Roy of JJR, shared a van to haul their trash and building supplies.
Hopkins, like Evans, went on to build a national reputation in historic preservation, working on such gems as the Michigan State Capitol and Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel. Most of his residential work has been restoring old houses or building new ones that fit into historic areas, including several he's now designing on Mackinac. However, when he built his own house at 4709 N. Delhi Rd. in 1985, he didn't have to worry about fitting into a neighborhood: he and his wife, Jane, chose to build on eight acres in Webster Township, leaving him free to choose elements he liked. The house features such historic touches as pointed gables, front door sidelights, and a set of three Palladian windows with the middle one taller. The house is clad in cedar shakes, alternating shell patterns with rectangles, which "softens how the house sits on the site," as Hopkins puts it.
On the inside, a modern open floor plan is paired with historic references such as woodwork with bull's-eye patterns and old-time hardware. Large windows on the north and west sides, decks three-quarters of the way around, and multiple exits go with the Modern precept of blurring the definition of inside and outside. "We like the traditional character-defining features but are not restricted by the Victorian lifestyle," Hopkins explains.
Building the house was a family project. Hopkins' dad, just retired, moved in with them for awhile so he could help. Hopkins' two brothers came on weekends. The Hopkins' daughter, Brie, then in kindergarten, was given jobs such as picking up nails. She picked out her own room and made all the decisions about it. Now grown, Brie and her husband recently returned from New England. Hopkins is fixing up the old farm house next door for them, where they plan to operate an organic farm.
In furnishings, the family enjoys what Hopkins calls "the design tension with antique and contemporary." Mixed in with modern furniture are antiques that Jane enjoys collecting. The lamp above the kitchen table is from the one-room school that Gene, who grew up on a dairy farm, attended near Belding in Ionia County.
The house still meets their needs. The biggest change has been in the walkout basement. Originally left unfinished, it was fixed up for Brie to entertain her teenage friends, then used as a family room, and is now the office of HopkinsBurns Design Studio, housing Hopkins, partner Tamara Burns, and their three-person staff. The floor-to-ceiling windows on the north side look out onto a patio where they hold staff meetings in good weather, and beyond that to a pond that Hopkins built using natural springs on the property.
Russell Serbay works at Hobbs and Black, where he specializes in commercial architecture. Although his residential work has been limited to designing a few additions for friends, he created a totally unique house for himself at 1625 Leaird Dr. in 1989.
Serbay wanted to live in an established neighborhood and found an oddly shaped lot no one else had built on. That wasn't a problem for him, he explains, because "I didn't want to reshape the land to fit the house but to design the house to fit the land." He sited the house on the highest point of the lot, with the front door and garage on a street side and the east side windowless for privacy from the house next door.
The most exciting part is inside. The front hall, which can be entered from the front door or the garage, leads past the stairway to a step-down living room, following the contour of the land. The large windows on the west and north face his back and side yards and a spectacular view all the way across town to the steeple of Zion Lutheran Church on W. Liberty.
Serbay compares his design to a pinwheel, the center being the stairwell and the three spokes being the entry hall, the living room, and a wing with the dining room and kitchen. "No space is wasted, and the only door is to the powder room," he explains.
Upstairs there are two bedrooms, with a loft in the guest bedroom. His friends warned him that his house was not marketable, to which he responded "Why build someone else's house for me?"
He did most of the work, hiring subcontractors only when necessary. Acting on advice from Hobbs and Black's interior decorators, he installed commercial-grade blue-gray carpet and matching porcelain ceramic tile, both of which still look new.
Serbay says the experience of building his own house helps on his job. "Now when they say they can't do something, I can say 'Yes, you can.'"
Serbay doesn't have a doorbell because he's never liked them. "The house is small enough that if someone raps on the door and I'm awake, I'll hear it," he explains.
Damian Farrell has built houses in fourteen states in the twenty-five years since he moved here from South Africa, but none is like the house he built for himself in 2000 in Scio Township at 4930 High Meadow, off Knight Rd. The lot is in a small subdivision. Knight's Farm, which he laid out as an investment before deciding, at the suggestion of his wife, Katherine, to build their own house there. (Counting his own, he designed four of the six houses on the street.) The garage is perpendicular to the house, thus avoiding his pet peeve, snout-nosed garages that stick out from the front of the house.
The house has a front inspired by Charles Voysey (an English Arts and Crafts architect who lived from 1857 to 1941) and a South African layout. The outside has repetitive elements, such as pointed gables and square windows, but is not perfectly symmetrical.
Inside Farrell leaves Voysey behind, eschewing small rooms and low wood- beamed ceilings for a much more open and flowing space, with cathedral ceilings in the living and family rooms. Coming from a sunnier climate, Farrell has worked to maximize the Michigan light with large windows throughout the house, even from north-facing windows, which he says create a softer light.
A central corridor runs the length of the house so "you pass every room every time you pass through the house. All the rooms are engaged in everyday life," Farrell explains. The house has a T shape: a wing in front crosses the main corridor and contains the master bedroom and the stairs to the second floor.
The first room along the main corridor is the living room to the left. A formal dining room, across the hall from the living room, is like ones that Farrell grew up with in South Africa. He enjoys having an eating space large enough to seat their three own children and three grandchildren. The dining room table is from South Africa, as are most of the decorative items on built-in shelves.
The kitchen, midway down the central corridor, is the heart of the house. Katherine, who owns Katherine's Catering, loves to cook, and the two of them like to entertain, so the kitchen was designed to take lots of wear and to be very usable.
The most telling feature of Farrell's South African roots are the ten outdoor exits—eight sets of French doors plus the front and back doors, which "extend living to outside." A patio on the east side, with a croquet lawn beyond, and a wisteria-covered veranda on the other side, allow the Farrells to have more guests in the summer. A big meadow behind the house, which they’ve deeded to a conservancy, creates a wonderful view in all seasons.
Because Katherine loves to take baths, her husband bought her the deepest tub he could find and put it smack in the middle of the bathroom. They also have an unusual outdoor bathroom extension with a shower and hot tub. In warm weather they can step outside and take an outdoor shower as if they lived in the tropics. "It's like an early morning vacation," says Farrell.
Mark and Jenny Melchi, who since 2001 have lived at 1471 Ardmoor, didn't plan on building their own house. While house hunting in the city, they were becoming discouraged by what they found in their price range, when their Realtor casually mentioned that the lot next door to a house they were shown on Ardmoor was also for sale. "It dawned on us: 'Why don't we try it, we can do it,'" says Jenny.
They each grew up in Midland and were used to seeing architect-designed houses, especially those of Alden Dow (who also designed Ann Arbor's City Hall and downtown library). Since Ardmoor was filled with established homes, Mark designed a modern version of an American four square, which he describes as "a new but old house that fits in the neighborhood and looks like it's been here all the time." Four squares, modeled on the nineteenth-century Italian cubes, were popular in the early twentieth century. They were practical for large families, giving maximum square footage for their footprint with straight vertical lines and hip roofs and no wasted space. The Melchis' house has the classic box shape but is also clearly Modern with cleaner lines and added features, such as a balcony off the master bedroom, several bump-outs including one for the stairs, and bay windows.
Inside, the house is totally Modern with rooms that flow into one another. There are no walls dividing the front entry, living room, dining room, sunroom, and kitchen. Instead the rooms are subtly differentiated by the ceiling soffits. Wanting the maximum amount of light, Melchi didn't connect the garage with the house, so all the walls could have windows.
The Melchis did much of the work themselves—installing hardwood floors and built-in bookcases and doing trim work, painting, tiling, and outside grading. They also saved money by being their own protect manager. At that time Mark was head of his own company, Archetype (since merged with Mike Vlasic's MAVDevelopment), so he could get away from his office whenever he needed to.
They included lots of little touches, such as a laundry on the second floor, a Murphy bed in the basement, and a library nook in the upstairs hall. The newel post on the stairs replicates the one they liked in their previous house. The kids' bathroom has a round window above the sink instead of a mirror. There's a mirror on another wall.
While all the architects' houses are different, certain elements are similar. The most noticeable is that they all rejected four-walled rooms in favor of free-flowing space, except in the private areas. All of them paid careful attention to the light coming in.
The exteriors are all Modernist, either totally with the straight vertical lines that define the style as in the Osler, Marzolf, and Serbay houses, or with references to earlier styles used by Hopkins, Farrell, and Melchi.
Many of the architects took the opportunity to try new materials and technologies. Melchi used plumbing pipe for his porch pillars. Hopkins was the first architect in the area to install geothermal heating. Serbay used a Canadian construction method he had read about, with a thicker outer wall for insulation, and a conventional inner one for wiring, plumbing, and heating ducts.
With all these advantages, the bigger question is why more architects don't build their own homes. Local architect Marc Rueter points out that the high costs of city lots makes the endeavor very expensive. Today, buying an existing house and changing it incrementally as time and money allow is usually a more viable alternative for young architects.
Even if one can pay for a city lot, they are hard to find. Both Metcalf and Osler built at what was then the edge of town, while Marzolf and Melchi were lucky to find side yards that were being separated into new lots. Serbay looked for years before he found his lot. Its unusual shape, which he used to his advantage, probably deterred others from buying it. Hopkins and Farrell built outside the city.
Another problem is that it's hard to de sign for oneself. "Being your own client, that's the toughest client you can come up with," says Serbay, who drew three plans before settling on the one he used. Some compare it to a doctor treating him- or herself. An out-of-town architect shudders at the thought. "If I wanted a house, I'd have one of my colleagues do it. If I tried, I would never stop fiddling with it,” he explains.
Rueter also thinks the trend has changed. In the 1950s forward-thinking architects believed in building Modernist homes, while today they are more into buying an old house or condo in the city and fixing it up. Doug Kelbaugh, U-M professor of architecture and urban planning, is a perfect example of this. When he was a young architect starting out in the 1970s, he built his own Modernist solar house in New Jersey. When he came to the U-M, he designed the interior of his condo in the newly converted Armory Building downtown.
When Wells Bennett became dean of the U-M architecture school in 1937, he worked at hiring architects who were Modernists, such as Tee Larson, William Muschenheim, Joe Albano, Walter Sanders, and Joe Lee, all of whom also designed and built their own houses, as did Wells Bennett himself. Looking at a list of his colleagues, Kelbaugh could find no one who had built his or her own home, although many of them had done major remodeling or big additions on existing homes.
Asked why things changed, Kelbaugh replies that the earlier professors wanted and could afford to make a design statement. "In Metcalf's day, simple Modernism was cutting- edge. Today you have to be more avant-garde, like Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid," architects whose freeform shapes and exotic materials are far too expensive for academic architects.
Kelbaugh also points out that the study of architecture has become more academic less practical (although he's hoping that it is swinging back from high theory to more emphasis on construction, affordability, and sustainability). "Where once building your own house might have helped get tenure, it is less likely to now,” he says.
However they do it, most people work at making houses personal to them, but architects designing their own homes can ratchet up the personal many notches. As Hopkins says, "A home is not a home unless it’s about you; otherwise, it’s just a house.”
[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Top) Gene Hopkins made his name in historic preservation, but mixed traditional and modern elements when he built his own home. (Above) David and Connie Osler maximized useful space on a limited budget
[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Above) The ten entrances to Damian Farrell's Scio Township home recall his South African roots. (Below) Russell Serbay didn't mind that the lot he found was oddly shaped: "I didn't want to reshape the land to fit the house, but to design the house to fit the land."
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Kingsbury Marzolf calls the narrow home he built on what had been another house's side yard a "Scandinavian row house." His students joke that it's also "a 1950s Scandinavian furniture museum."
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Mark and Jennifer Melchi (with Nicholas, Jacob, and Blu) did much of the work on their home themselves, including installing hardwood floors and built-in bookcases.
When the present fire station was being built in the 1970’s, Ann Arborites debated whether to save the 1882 firehouse and, if so, what to use it for. Although the Civic Theater also had many proponents, the final decision was to use it for a children’s science museum. The city retained ownership of the building, but rented it to the Hands-On Museum for a nominal fee. The museum, under the direction of Cynthia Yao, refurbished the almost century-old firehouse and expanded the floor space by 50 percent by opening up the attic and creating a mezzanine above the second floor.
Ironically, the old firehouse needed significant upgrades to meet modern fire safety standards, including enclosing open stairwells. (The museum later added sprinkler and alarm systems.) While the work was in progress, some firehouse artifacts were found, including an ancient ax, an 1883 grocery list, and a flag. These are on display in the museum’s stairwell, along with some historic items donated by the fire department – including the hook once used by the city’s first professional fire chief, Fred Sipley.
The museum moved into the old firehouse October 13, 1982. At that time it had one paid staff member (director Yao), ten volunteers, and twenty-five exhibits. They hoped to attract enough visitors to meet their $50,000 operating budget and, to their relief and surprise, did so: 25,000 people came the first year. Although the museum has received some grants, for the most part it has operated on money from entrance fees and programs. It now has more than 250 exhibits, a staff of fourteen, between 400 and 500 volunteers, and a yearly budget of $850,000. Last year 145,000 people visited the museum, including 40,000 children in school groups. At last count, 1,343,221 people have come through the museum since its founding.
But just as the fire department outgrew the building, so has the museum. It has purchased four buildings to the west along Huron. Once remodeling is complete, the acquisitions will triple the museum’s size. The new space will be used for a variety of new displays and innovative programs, including a preschool gallery, a telecommunications exhibit, and a science theater for high school and college students. The area that had been covered parking for the gas company will be used for a lobby and gift shop. The rest of the parking lot on Ann Street will become the entrance, making bus drop-off and pickup much safer.