Once a Street of Grand Houses, it's Slowly Reclaiming its Former Respect
Twenty years before the Civil War, wealthy citizens built their houses near the center of town, often at street intersections. From the County Courthouse east along Ann Street, elegant Greek Revival structures stood at successive corners: a bank president lived at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Ann; an attorney at Fifth Avenue and Ann; a judge at Division and Ann; and a founder of the U-M medical school at State and Ann.
After the Civil War, during the building boom that occurred all over the U.S., the blocks between the corner buildings on Ann Street were filled in. In 1866 James F. and Rhoda Royce paid $900 to the heirs of George Danforth for "a strip of land off the east side of Lot 2" and built the house tthat still stands at 311 East Ann Street.
The house is a perfectly preserved example of what is known as an Italianate cube. The cube part comes from the fact hat the roof is not a pointed gable but a four-sided hip roof, which sits atop a square structure. (Houses in previous periods had been more rectangular.) Italianate refers primarily to decorative details:pairs of carved ornamental brackets under the roof eaves; long, narrow windows, often with rounded tops (here only the door is rounded); and the exuberant scroll-sawn decoration on the porch.
James Royce was an old pioneer, having arrived in Washtenaw County in 1830 from New York. He was a skilled cabinet- and chair-maker who later owned a carriage manufactory. Those endeavors evidently did not leave him wealthy: in later years, he worked as a clerk in the Bach and Abel dry goods store at the comer of Main and Washington (later B. E. Muehlig's and today the law offices of Hooper Hathaway Price Beuche & Wallace).
Bach had been Royce's son-in-law (his first wife was Royce's daughter), so it seems appropriate that he provided work for Royce in his old age. Bach later became mayor (Bach School is named after him). In 1878, when Royce was seventy-two, Bach purchased the house at 311 East Ann and allowed the Royces to stay there for as long as they lived. This may have been a form of pension for a good employee, a dodge to avoid creditors left over from Royce's business ventures, or even a gift for a former father-in-law.Whatever the reason, the Royces were able to live in the style to which they were accustomed until their deaths. James died in 1883 and Rhoda died in 1889.
In 1892 the house came into the possession of two unmarried half-sisters, Harriet and Electa Knight, daughters of early Washtenaw County pioneer Rufus Knight,whose cobblestone house still stands at 4944 Scio Church Road. Harriet was sixty-three years old when she moved from the cobblestone house to 311 East Ann. She remained there until her death in 1910 at eighty-one. Electa was kicked by a horse in 1901 and was thereafter confined to a wheelchair and forced to rely on her sister, who was nearly twenty years older. Despite their afflictions, they "bore their suffering with fortitude," according to Electa's obituary in 1919.
By 1907, the sisters began taking in boarders. The first were children of relatives who took advantage of the sisters' Ann Arbor residence to send their children to the esteemed Ann Arbor High School, which at the time functioned as almost a prep school for the U-M.
In the early 1970's, when I lived at 311, a managed to find and interview one of these boarders, Edith Knight Behringer. Mrs. Behringer lived at 311 from 1907 to 1915. She was the great-niece of Harriet and Electa Knight, and the house passed to her mother, Clara Knight, when Electa died in 1919. Mrs. Behringer remembered seeing her first car when a suitor came to call on Miss Gertrude Breed, who lived next door. Her aunts preferred to take the air with their Shetland pony and pony cart.
Later on, her aunts' lodgers tended to be doctors and nurses working at University Hospital, then located on Catherine near Glen. Three bedrooms upstairs and one downstairs were rented out. Despite depending on roomers to make ends meet, the Knight sisters never lost their pride in their fine home. While Mrs. Behringer lived at 311, a U-M professor built a house next door at 305. Her aunts dismissed it as a "little snot of a house" because it seemed so small compared to theirs.
By the 1920's, the automobile had taken hold in America, and many in the middle and upper classes moved to the suburbs, away from the decay that they saw throughout the central city (by then over fifty years old). The Ann Street neighborhood was no longer fashionable, and the area went into a decline. Both the bank president's house at Fourth and Ann and the attorney's house at Fifth and Ann became hotels. The former building survives (its biggest tenant is now Wooden Spoon books), but the latter—in its last years the Town House Hotel, catering to immigrants arriving from the South—was demolished in 1971 after part of the rear end collapsed on a neighboring house.
The doctor's house at Ann and State was moved across the street to 712 East Ann in the 1920's to make way for the Wil-Dean apartments. The judge's house at Division, now known as the Wilson-Wahr house, survived to become one of Ann Arbor's favorite historic buildings. Though less lovingly cared for, the Royce house at 311 also endured almost intact. It became a rooming house for U-M students in the 1960's: a rent roster from that era shows tenants from Thailand, Egypt, and Pakistan, as well as from all over the U.S.
Ann Street has begun to win back some of the respect its name once commanded. Beginning in 1977, a group of residents of the area began studying ways to protect the historic houses in the area. Eventually, two city ordinances were passed, establishing the Ann Street Historic Block (between Division and State) and the Old Fourth Ward Historic District, an association of owners of historic houses in the area east of Fifth Avenue to Glen and north from Huron Street to the river. Today, renovation is occurring all along Ann Street, from Main to Glen, and both owners and renters take pride in the rebirth of their historic neighborhood.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Above) In 1866, the neighborhood around tourney George Danforth's Greek Revival Mansion at Ann And Fifth began to fill in, starting with a fine "Italianate cube" at 311 E. Ann St.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Below) In this century, a much plainer house (at left) was shoehorned in at 305. The Danforth house was demolished in 1971, but the newer buildings both survive.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Harriet (left) and Electa Knight shared 31 with student roomers to make ends meet.
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.
The first time I heard the term "politically correct," I was sitting on John Sinclair's bed. It was mid December 1972, and the week before, the Light Opera had put on a light show at the People's Ballroom.
I was seriously into doing lightshows at the time. Gather up some used slide and overhead projectors, mix well with colored oils and a variety of home-made psychedelic apparatus, and voila: a swirling visual treat just right to shine above a stage filled with sweaty rock and rollers. The Light Opera consisted at the time of myself, aided and abetted by Mike Lutz (not the rocker, the lab tech) and photographer Henry Seggarman.
Before the show I had borrowed my mom's camera and shot a bunch of logos of the Tribal Council, the umbrella organization through which Sinclair's Rainbow People's Party (RPP) supervised a host of countercultural activities-the Ballroom, the Tribal Network (the loose collective of the Ann Arbor Sun newspaper, and other media entities), the People's Defense Committee (which provided legal aid), and various other groups. Along with the logos, slides from the 1972 Blues and Jazz Festival, and the usual assortment of psychedelia, our show had featured my collection of tasteful classical nudes, garnered from my travels through the art museums of Europe.
That was what got us in trouble. I was being called to account before the Tribal Council's Music & Ballroom Committee, which met in the big house that the Rainbow People lived in on Hill Street. Sinclair's bedroom was the only meeting space available that day. Sinclair had come to town in the 1968 and formed the White Panther Party. By 1971, the year I graduated from Kalamazoo College and returned to Ann Arbor, the White Panthers had evolved into the Rainbow People's Party.
The on-line introduction to the John and Leni Sinclair Papers collection, now housed at the Bentley Historical Library, describes the party thusly:
"Rainbow People's Party embraced Marxism-Leninism as its guide to action and concentrated on building a strong local political organization to promote the revolutionary struggle for a "communal, classless, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and anti-sexist...culture of liberation..."
The "strong local political organization" was the above-mentioned Tribal Council, and the Light Opera was up on charges of sexism.
The People's Ballroom wasn't owned by the Rainbow People. It shared a former Cadillac dealership with the Community Center Project, a federally-funded group of agencies consisting of Drug Help, Ozone House, and the Free People's Clinic. While the actual political ins and outs are too complicated to go into here (that would take a book, perhaps two), suffice it to say that the Ann Arbor Tribal Council Music & Ballroom Committee was a committee of dedicated lefties, and politics were never far from the matter at hand.
My own involvement was as non-political as I could make it. I saw myself as a simple artiste bent on photons and merriment. I was a child of the upper middle class (I grew up on the other side of Washtenaw from the Rainbow house, three blocks up Hill St.) and while of libertarian inclinations, I was in no way a radical.
Given John Sinclair's own legendary love of marijuana, his description of the Ballroom in a letter to the Musician's Union may seem surprising:
"Ann Arbor People's Ballroom is a non-profit, community-operated rock and roll dance center ... It has been funded under a federal grant designed to help combat the hard drug problem in Ann Arbor's rainbow community by providing activities and programs which give young sisters and brothers a constructive, positive context for their energy."
Note that Sinclair and the Rainbow folks (and almost everyone else in Ann Arbor) made a clear distinction between hard drugs (heroin, speed, etc.) and the non-menace of reefer. The Ballroom was at 502 E. Washington Street, where the Tally Hall parking structure is now. It was the result of years of planning, politicking, and involvement from the local hip community. Members of several local bands assisted in the construction, including the Wild Boys. I was in a band at the time, and remember making it to at least one of the pounding parties, after which we all went skinny dipping in Dolph Park.
The ballroom opened September 1st, 1972. The front offices held the various community center organizations and an open meeting room, and the ballroom was in the back, where the former Cadillac garages were. There was a continuing problem with street people hanging out in the meeting room, and a lot of discussion among the agencies as to how to deal with the issue. This would have serious repercussions, as we shall see.
The ballroom was around 100' wide by 40' deep, with a raised stage area at the east end and food and drink at the west end. A team of local volunteers had built an incredibly beautiful suspended dance floor for the Ballroom, and all were delighted with its dance-worthiness. The grand opening "tribal stomps" featured the Wild Boys, the
Mojo Boogie Band and Guardian Angel on Friday and Petunia (a jazz ensemble), Stone School Road, and the Rainbow People's house band, the Mighty UP, on Saturday. The total take was $928.50 and the place was packed, with lines out into the street.
The Ballroom had a total capacity of 540, was open Fridays and Saturdays, and was filled most of those nights. During the week there were art shows and other activities. I remember being at the Saturday opening show, and being blown away by how freakin' cool the whole thing was. Fillmore Ann Arbor! Just down the street from my church! (That would be the First Methodist Church, where I did time as Boy Scout, acolyte, and junior choir member).
Food was provided by the People's Food Committee, the RPP's Psychedelic Rangers provided security, and the Friday show was broadcast on WNRZ, the hip radio station of the time. In between bands, the Tribal Council Communications Committee interviewed musicians and community workers, and presented the whole ballroom story live on the radio.
The Ballroom became a must-play venue for bands across the state. At the Bentley Historical Library there are 76 boxes of cultural artifacts donated by John and Leni Sinclair from this era. In a folder called "Peoples Ballroom" are long lists of bands clamoring for dates, as well as the contracts for those bands that appeared. Also found are notes from Ballroom committee meetings, on which some of this story is based.
Dr. Arwulf Arwulf remembers the People's Ballroom
My most enduring memory of the People's Ballroom is of Mighty Joe Young's Chicago Blues Band. This was so different from anything us young white kids had ever experienced before. To stand in close proximity to this powerful blues engine, the punchy percussion, the electric lead, rhythm and bass guitars augmented by a no-nonsense alto saxophonist who never removed his hat and a wild trumpeter who screamed and hollered with abandon, this changed me permanently, and I'm sure that everyone else present that night was similarly altered for life."
The man who set the building on fire was a black Vietnam War veteran who later admitted that he wanted to be a hero but then couldn't extinguish the blaze in time, having set it in a room filled with cans of paint and turpentine. Knowing he had some problems left over from the war, I was not surprised when I heard he'd inadvertently torched the place. There was something else that might have exacerbated his problems. I vividly recall a scrawny little southern cracker hassling the hell out of him for being black, only weeks prior to the fire.
We were all hanging out on the overstuffed furniture in the front of the Community Center and this little shit was making the most incredibly offensive comments regarding the man's beautiful dark brown flesh. I remember the look on the black man's face as he bottled up his anger, and the tension I felt in the air, it was suffocating. His white girlfriend confronted the chump, angrily pointed out the fact that the individual he was hassling was a human being and ultimately chased the fool out of there.
On the wall of the Community Center was a big photograph of George Jackson. Peaking on my first acid trip after the last night of the Blues & Jazz Festival 1972, I'd stood in front of that picture for about an hour. Contemplating it again once the racist knucklehead had left the building, I remember asking myself why this poisonous racism was sullying our socially progressive space. It was a reminder that we all had our work cut out for us. And we still do."
--Dr. Arwulf Arwulf
The Ballroom was custom-made for light shows, so naturally we wanted to do a show there. My connection in was a high school student named Hugh Hitchcock, who was a phenomenal Moog synthesizer player. He had a band called Pyramus and I got them a gig at the Ballroom on 12-8-72 with the proviso that the Light Opera would accompany them.
To reach the Ballroom, you walked down the alley between the wings of the main building and entered through a small ticket-taking enclosure. Atop the enclosure was the area for the lightshow crew, accessible via a ladder. Which meant we had to pass up all our heavy projectors, slides, and other equipment before the show, hauling it all down thereafter. We had a wheel with holes in it spinning in front of the slide projectors, so we could flash the slides through colored filters, and the slides would flicker back and forth from one projector's output to the other. That way we could juxtapose nude females with nude males in a (to me, at least) humorous suitably-psychedelic fashion. And so, on the night Pyramus played, the first thing that greeted concert-goers was a big slide of the Tribal Council graphic, backed by naked people flickering in and out.
This, I thought, was pretty hilarious. But alas, I was politically incorrect. It seemed there was also a People's Lightshow Committee that I was unaware of, made up of a cadre of women who used to do lightshows at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit. Hard-core politicos, they didn't find our show funny at all.
They called us on it at the meeting on John Sinclair's bed. We (myself and Henry Seggarman) took a lot of flack from the cadre sisters (all the Rainbow people were brothers and sisters), who were incensed that we had the unmitigated audacity to feature naked women in our little presentation. The nude women in question were Aphrodite, the three Graces, and other alabaster figures familiar to anyone who has taken Western Art 101. The point was raised that nude men (Apollo, David, the Laocoön Group, etc.) were also involved, but somehow the cadre sisters missed seeing those.
There was much discussion of what was politically correct here, my first exposure to the term. There was much made of the idea that the show should reflect the community as a whole (as defined by the RPP cadre), not just be one group's (admittedly cockamamie) take on art and society.
At one point in the meeting, John's 5-year old daughter Sunny, wandered in looking for scissors. John asked her where they were the last time she saw them, and she said that John had them the last time, using them to cut up the peyote buttons. The upshot was that we got kicked out of the Ballroom. Which was a good thing, because the next week it burned down.
The Knock-Down Party Band and Merlin were on the bill for December 15, 1972, and a fire started in the basement. Everyone evacuated safely, and the bands even managed to get their equipment out. But the Ballroom and Community Center were toast.
According to the Ann Arbor Sun, the firemen pretty much stood by and let it burn. While it was certainly true that the whole operation, being of non-traditional brown rice longhair tie-dyed hippy origin, was not beloved by the local power structure, Joe Tiboni remembers the story a bit differently. He says the fire began in the basement of the front part of the building where the offices were (the Ballroom in the back was on a cement slab). When the firemen arrived, the fire, accelerated by silk screen solvent ("rocket reducer") used in the production of posters, had engulfed the entire ceiling and there wasn't anything anyone could have done.
I heard about the disaster the next morning when I went to pick up my week's food from the People's Food Coop. I was majorly bummed, as was the entire community. As I recall, the cause of the blaze was a very disturbed street person who hung around the Community Center. The story I heard was that he started the fire so he could report it and become a hero. He came running out of the basement yelling "Fire!" and grabbed the only fire extinguisher in the building. But the fire was already out of control and that was it for the Ballroom and Community Center.
Efforts were made to resurrect it, with concerts under the Ballroom name held in East Quad. The four main agencies at the Community Center, Ozone House, Drug Help, Free People's Clinic and the Community Center Project were housed temporarily at the former Canterbury House location on E. William St. Eventually all moved to more permanent quarters and all but Ozone House have long since been absorbed into other agencies or disbanded.
Disbanded as well was the People's Ballroom. It had a brief life; three and a half months of rock and roll, peace, love, and (mostly) understanding.
I took away from the experience a determination to continue my artistic tendencies, while avoiding contact with politicos as much as possible. I went on to play bass and guitar in a bunch of fun yet unsuccessful bands, doing lightshows until changing times made that impossible, and finally evolving to doing Mac computer support, web work, writing, and photography. And sometimes, when I take a digital picture, I think about how it would look flashing in colors above a band somewhere, with some nudes tossed in, just for grins.
Thanks Joe Tiboni for his insights and memories, and to Arwulf for taking the time to write down his recollections. And a big "Righteous, dude!" to John Sinclair for making the early 70's an interesting time in Ann Arbor, and for the foresight of donating his archives to the Bentley before his house in New Orleans burned down.
Below are photograph captions from the original print edition, also available from the author's website at: Mondodyne.
Caption 1: The picture above shows various Community Center members posed in front of the building before the renovation. This is from the Ann Arbor Sun newspaper, 7-27-71. According to Joe Tiboni, those pictured are: (On the left of the door) Laura [last name unknown], Matt Lampe, Joe Tiboni. (Right of the Door): Nancy Lessin (front row) Tanner, Michael Pollack, Robin Giber and Blue. Between Tanner and Pollack, Gayle Johnson. Others unknown. Photo by David Fenton. Photo courtesy of the John and Leni Sinclair papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
Caption 2: The photo above, taken during an art show at the Ballroom, shows John Sinclair on the left and Walden Simper in the foreground, flanked by Bob Sheffield (standing), others unknown. Photographer unknown, but probably David Fenton. Photo courtesy of the John and Leni Sinclair papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
Burned by the firestorm over its controversial Michigan Stadium halo, the architectural firm of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates is taking a much more conservative tack with its first U-M building.
The Philadelphia firm, headed by the husband-and-wife team of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, is nationally famous for daring designs. When U-M president Lee Bollinger hired VSBA to work on a campus master plan two years ago, one of their first suggestions was to ditch the traditional brick trim planned for the expanded stadium in favor of a maize-and-blue metal halo decorated with gigantic football icons and slogans. The couple, authors (with Steven Izenour) of Learning from Las Vegas, thought the colorful band would, in Venturi's words, "create a gala quality at that end of campus."
They quickly discovered that to many people Wolverine football is more than a game. Infuriated at the halo's breezy irreverence, football fans protested verbally, wrote angry letters, and withheld donations. This past spring, Bollinger finally caved and had the halo taken down.
So when Venturi presented plans for his first U-M building to a group of community leaders in April, the first question on everyone's mind was, Could this be another disaster? Those concerns were soon allayed: presenting the plans for the U-M's new Life Sciences Institute building, Venturi took pains to show how it would fit with the rest of the campus.
After Scott Brown gave an update on the campus plan, Venturi, wearing his usual professorial scruffy sport coat, diffidently held up two poster boards. The audience impatiently craned their necks to see, and then laughed as mayor Ingrid Sheldon stepped forward, seized the boards, and lifted them high overhead. One showed the proposed institute, which will face Washtenaw at an angle south of Palmer Drive. The other compared the new design with similar buildings already on campus.
While saying that he doesn't consider himself a "historical revivalist," Venturi stressed that he does believe that new buildings should harmonize with their surroundings. He called his six-story Life Sciences design "a generic loft building, like the early buildings on campus by Albert Kahn and Smith, Hinchman & Grylls." The simple, functional designs of Albert Kahn (architect notably of the Hatcher Library and Hill Auditorium) and SHG (Chemistry Building, Rackham Auditorium) still look good many decades after they were built, and have proven themselves highly adaptable to changing academic needs—goals that Venturi says he aspires to as well.
The regents approved the Life Sciences Institute plan at their April meeting and went on to appoint VSBA as architects for the Commons—the second new Life Sciences building, which will face Washtenaw in front of the power plant. If VSBA succeed, as they have elsewhere, in combining classic elements in new and unusual ways, they may well be remembered for their U-M buildings long after the halo fiasco is forgotten.