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Ora Herbert Ellis (1916-2014)

O. Herbert Ellis
O. Herbert Ellis, 1972

Richard Alexander Blake (1951-)

Richard A. Blake
Richard A. Blake, 1990

Rosemarion (Alexander) Blake (1923-2015)


Rosemarion Alexander Blake
Rosemarion Blake, 1967

David A. Blake Jr (1918-2000)

David Blake
David Blake, 1949

David Addison Blake Sr (1887-1970)


David A. Blake, Sr
David A. Blake, Sr.

Fixing The Damn Roads


It's been a challenge for the county road commission since 1919. The problem has always been money.

The Washtenaw Alano Club

Since 1969, the Washtenaw Alano Club (WAC) has fulfilled its mission “to provide a facility and environment conducive to spiritual growth for recovery from addictive behavior” by hosting a variety of 12-step recovery groups and offering social, educational, and recreational activities.

The Many Lives of Burns Park


Olivia Hall's savvy land swap created a park, a school, and a neighborhood.

Today, Burns Park and its namesake school are surrounded by family neighborhoods. But 150 years ago, they were the back pasture of J.D. Baldwin's fruit farm.

In 1876, Baldwin sold his house on Hill St. (still standing at the corner of Washtenaw) and seventy-eight acres to Israel and Olivia Hall. The west side of the property bordered the county fairgrounds, then at the corner of Hill and Forest.

Library Threads

For nearly two centuries, volunteers and professionals have connected local readers to a wider world.

From its earliest days Ann Arbor has been a reading town with enthusiastic library supporters. Its first library was launched in 1827, just threeyears after the ci!J was founded. Even so, the history of our libraries is not a straight line from then to now. Different threads, professional and volunteer, paid and free, have woven back and forth ever since.

Today those strands are woven tightly together: we now have the professional Ann Arbor District Library and two independent volunteer groups that work closely with it. The Friends of the Library turns sixty-three this year, and the Ladies Library Association celebrates its sesquicentennial this month -- jointly with the AADL, which is marking its own twentieth year of independence (see Events, October 1).

We know about the 1827 library because in 1830, George Corselius ran an article lamenting its deficiencies. The editor of the Western Emigrant sought "twenty or thirty individuals" able to pay $3 each to expand that small collection into a more robust "circulating library." For that fee, readers could read Fanny Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans or the Encyclopedia Americana. Other private libraries followed, as well as reading clubs whose members bought books to share.

It wasn't until 1856 that the city had its first free, publicly accessible library. When the Union High School opened that year at the comer of State and Huron, citizens could use the library in the superintendent's office.

In 1866 the Ladies Library Association was formed as a subscription library. According to the group's history, the thirty-five founders -- "a determined group of socially prominent local women" -- paid $3 to join and $1 a year in dues for the privilege of borrowing books from its collection. They also sponsored lectures, concerts, art shows, and readings.

After renting various places, in 1885 the LLA bought a lot at 324 E. Huron. The club hired Chicago architects Allen and Irving Pond -- whose mother, Mary, was a member of the LLA -- to design the city's first freestanding library there.

Four years later, in 1889, the school board moved the high school library into its own room, and hired twenty-three-year-old typist Nellie Loving as the district's first librarian. She stayed for thirty-nine years and was an energetic advocate. "She even went to the firemen at the station," recalled Elizabeth Stack, a founder of the Friends of the Library. "They were just sitting around. 'Why don't you read something?' she asked." She followed up by bringing them books, which they later returned asking for something "livelier."

Loving's response is not on record, but the ladies of the LLA didn't just want to entertain readers-they saw themselves as "a force for intellectual and moral improvement." The minutes of the group's 1872 annual meeting observe that though the demand for fiction exceeded the supply, "we are happy to state that a large proportion of the books purchased during the year are of a character to stimulate earnest thought and fully meet the needs of the intellectual mind."

From its start, the LLA women wanted a free public library -- but they couldn't get the city to fund it. Finally, in 1902, LLA president and school board member Anna Botsford Bach suggested that the two groups apply jointly for a $20,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate who was building libraries all across America. However, they deadlocked over the location: the school board insisted that the library be in or near the high school, while the LLA wanted a separate site.

The problem was solved two years later, but at a high cost: in 1904, the high school burned down. Luckily students rescued most of the 8,000 books in the middle of the night; they were stored across the street in the Methodist Church's parlor.

The school board applied for and won a new $30,000 Carnegie grant. The library was built alongside and connected to the new high school, but the school faced State St. and had a skin of brick, while the library faced Huron and was finished in stone.

In 1916, on its fiftieth anniversary, the LLA gave its collection of several thousand books to the public library, and its building to the school board. The building was used by the Red Cross in World War I, and later by the Boy Scouts. It was tom down in 1945; its site is now occupied by the fortress-like Michigan Bell building.

In 1928, Nellie Loving's successor, Frances Hannum, separated the school and public collections. She moved the schoolbooks to the third floor and made the bottom two floors a public library, with the lower level the children's room.

In 1953, the city sold the high school to the U-M, using the money to start work on what is now Pioneer High. The university renamed the old school the Frieze Building, after a beloved classics professor. When it was tom down in 2007 to make way for North Quad, the library's Huron St. face was incorporated into the wall of the quad-what preservationists call a facadectomy.

The school's move again brought up the question of where the public library belonged. The Friends of the Library was organized in 1953 to lobby for a downtown site: the comer of Fifth and William, where the old Beal house was for sale. Elizabeth Stack organized the Friends' first fundraising book sale on the grounds of the house. Friends member Bob Iglehart recalled in

The Ladies Library Association built its own "circulating library" on Huron in 1885. a 1995 remembrance that "it was a rather pitiful affair, not a whole lot of books, but there were also homemade cookies, potted plants, and the general aspect of a ladies church affair." And it raised enough money to rent a bookmobile to take books to playgrounds that summer.

The schools did buy the site, and the new library, designed by Midland modernist Alden Dow, was dedicated on October 13, 1957. Clements Library director Howard Peckham said that the shared civic space "added an extra room to each of our houses." The Friends moved their growing collection of donated books out of Stack's garage and into the library's basement, and their sales to its sheltered front porch.

The new library was still run by the school system, so the Friends lobbied for a citizens' committee to advise the school board on the library's needs. Fred Mayer, a committee member in the 1960s, recalls that they dealt with such issues as fees for nonresidents, problem patrons, new programs, and summer reading.

Finances got easier after 1973, when the school board put a separate 1.3-mill tax for the library on the ballot. It got more votes than the schools millage, and in 1974, the library added a 20,000-square foot addition. Designed by architect and book lover Don Van Curler, its high wells of windows and enclosed garden fit with the original Dow design. In 1991 Osler/ Milling designed a second addition, adding two floors to the Van Curler addition, renovating the older part, and updating mechanical systems.

In 1980 the Friends expanded their annual sales into a bookshop in the library's basement. Elizabeth Ong, who organized it, is still an active volunteer. The shop was managed for many years by volunteer Mary Parsons, who stressed in her final report that "the sales should always be considered a community service first." But in addition to getting books into the hands of new readers, the sales also raised a lot of money. The Friends used to sponsor the "Booked for Lunch" speaker series and many other services and amenities such as literacy programs, staff workshops and scholarships, and taking books to hospitals and senior residences. They also advocated for the new branches and led millage campaigns.

In 1994, when the state's Proposal A took away school boards' authority to levy taxes for public libraries, the schools and city council sponsored creation of a new district library. An interim board was created, with Mayer as president, to divide the buildings and land, and reconfigure services that had been provided by the schools.

On June 10, 1996, voters in the Ann Arbor School District overwhelmingly approved a two-mill district library tax, and elected the first library board. Of the original seven members, only Ed Surovell remains today. Twenty years later, he says, "We're dramatically better, with higher attendance and a higher number of programs." He points to advances such as more foreign language books, the incorporation of the county library for the blind, and the construction of three new branches, Malletts Creek, Pittsfield, and Traverwood, plus the expansion of the Westgate branch.

As for the Internet, Josie Parker, director of the library since 2002, says, "We decided, instead of fighting it, to use it as a tool." Parker points out that "the public can now use the library's catalogue 2417 wherever they may be." Reserving or renewing books and getting books from other libraries are also much easier. The online Summer Game attracts 7,000-9,000 players, from children to adults.

Although Ann Arbor voters have a history of supporting library funding, in 2012 they turned down a millage to build a new downtown library. Since then, the AADL has been figuring out how to best use the present building, make necessary repairs, and, in Parker's words, "match the collection with the space." Fiction has been moved to the second floor and magazines and local history materials to the third floor. The first floor still has art prints, DVDs, and new and Zoom Lends books (high-demand volumes that rent for $1 a week), along with art, science and music tools. These are stored on wheeled carts, so a large area can be cleared for special events such as the Maker Faire and a comic book convention. A library board slate running in November (seep. 35) says they'll make a new millage vote a priority.

Like the library itself, the Friends now make greater use of the Internet. In Parsons' time, when they spotted valuable books or documents, they worked at either finding a place to donate them, perhaps to the Bentley or Clements, or sold them. The Internet has made this process much easier. (It helps that many of their sorters are retired librarians or specialists who are good at identifying books of interest.)

When the elevators failed during a routine inspection in 2014, the Friends bookstore moved up to the first floor. Business was so good there that they stayed. The group now annually gives the library $100,000 or more; the money is used mostly for children's activities, including library visits for every second grader in the district. The Friends' former basement space is now the AADL's "Secret Lab," where children can work on messier projects such as cooking or art.

The Ladies Library Association also is still active. One of its earlier members, Alice Wethey, "was a terrific treasurer," says Joan Innes, a member for sixty-three years. "She was a tremendous investor and put our money into blue chip stocks." The LLA's twenty-woman board, which includes both Innes and her artist daughter, Sarah, uses the income to support the library's purchase of art books, framed fine art reproductions that patrons can borrow, and art-themed games for the children's department. As the new branches opened, the LLA also bought original works by local artists to display there.

The library has just hired its own volunteer coordinator, Shoshana Hurand, formerly with the Arts Alliance. "It's a real breakthrough and will offer volunteers a wider variety of opportunities," says library board member Margaret Leary. Parker explains that until now library volunteers have been handled by whoever answered the phone for the specific project. Now one person will see where volunteers might fit-maybe with kids' sewing or art projects, or online help, or in many other ways. The Friends will stay totally separate, although both entities will probably send people to each other.

On October 1 (see Events), the Ann Arbor District Library and the Ladies Library Association will celebrate their twentieth and !50th anniversaries, respectively. The event will feature a talk by Francis Blouin, U-M professor of history and information and retired head of the Bentley Historical Library, entitled "Connecting the City."

"We talk a lot these days about 'connectivity' that now means being plugged into the Internet and all the information it provides," Blouin explains. "But being connected certainly predates the arrival of the smartphone. Ann Arbor in the nineteenth century, though a small town, also wanted to be connected to the wider world." Thanks to generations of avid readers and hardworking library supporters, those connections now are stronger than ever.

[Caption 1]: Founded in 1866 as a subscription library, the Ladies Library Association continues to support library purchases. Artist-member Sarah Innes envisioned an early meeting (left) and painted a group portrait today (below).

[Caption 2]: A $30,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie paid for the city's first dedicated public library. Only its facade survives, on North Quad.

[Caption 3]: The Ladies Library Association built its own "circulating library" on Huron in 1885.

Birth of the Cube Farm

Driving by the deserted, dilapidated one-story building at 2285 S. State, no one would ever guess it was the birthplace of the office cubicle, an invention that radically changed the American workplace. The much-maligned "cube farm" has been the butt of untold numbers of Dilbert cartoons. But like many new products grown commonplace, the panel systems were innovative in their time, giving workers formerly stationed in rows of open desks a semiprivate space of their own.

Action Office, the original "office system," was the invention of Bob Propst, a brilliant artist and inventor hired in 1958 to create new products for west Michiganbased Herman Miller. The man who hired Propst, Dirk Jan De Pree, had already turned a small Zeeland furniture company into a major design force by being an excellent spotter of talent.

When De Pree started working as a clerk at what was then the Michigan Star Furniture Company in 1910, the company was making household furniture that replicated historic styles. In 1923 De Pree and his father-in-law, Herman Miller, took over the business. And in 1930, De Pree turned the company 180 degrees by hiring Gilbert Rohde to design modem-style furniture- a daring move to stave off bankruptcy at the start of the Great Depression. The experiment paid off when Rohde's unique designs turned out to be big sellers. "He demonstrated that mass production had the potential to spread modernism to consumers in all regions of the country," explains Phyllis Ross, Rohde's biographer. When Rohde died in 1944, DePree again looked for a star designer, and after a yearlong search, hired George Nelson. Nelson in tum recruited other talented modernists to design products for Miller, among them Charles Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and textile designer Alexander Girard.

By the time DePree hired Propst in the late 1950s, the company's star designers were segueing into other pursuits. Herman Miller kept producing modem furniture, as it still does, but De Pree was looking for new projects. Since he didn't want to offend his existing talent, he originally stipulated that Propst should "find problems outside the furniture industry and to conceive solutions for them." As it turned out, Propst didn't stay out of furniture development but instead invented the company's next major product, office furniture systems.

Propst was born in 1921 on a cattle farm. Jack Propst's right-hand man and co-holder of twenty eight patents, thinks that was where he learned to make things work: "When you live on a farm, if something goes wrong, you're the only one to fix it."

Propst's college and work life was an unusual mix of the artistic and practical. He entered college to stw.dy chemical engineering but switched to fine arts. During World War II Propst was in charge of beachhead operations in the South Pacific, which he later said taught him to innovate. When he returned from the war, he taught art, started an architectural sculpture business, and worked as a freelance inventor.

The monumental meeting of De Pree and Propst was totally accidental, according to Clark Malcolm, Herman Miller writer and researcher. De Pree had a free afternoon while visiting his son, who was teaching math at the University of Colorado. A young architect recommended he go hear a lecture by an interesting researcher. "D.J. went to hear Propst, was impressed, and sent his son Hugh to meet Propst," Malcolm explains. "Hugh did, was impressed, and began the relationship that eventually resulted in Propst moving to Ann ·Arbor to become president of the brand-new Herman Miller Research Corporation in 1960."

The official explanation for locating the company in Ann Arbor was to be close to the U-M. Malcolm suggests a more practical reason: Propst "didn't want to move to Zeeland, and he wanted to be near an international airport. He decided either Chicago or Ann Arbor would be good, opting for Ann Arbor because the drive to Zeeland in the morning would be west and back to Ann Arbor in the east. That way the sun would never be in his eyes." When these trips were necessary, Propst raced his beloved Porsche across the state.

Propst set up shop in a former .rnr,ee-loav garage on S. State. Built of poured concrete and perched on a hill, its basement was on ground level on one side, perfect for delivering prototypes of Propst's designs. Kelley, then a U-M senior studying industrial design, came to work as an intern after seeing a posting on a school bulletin board. When Kelley graduated, Propst hired him full time.

Dave Armstrong, who joined the company later, recalls that the two men worked so closely together that "Kelley could finish Propst's sentences. He was good at thinking, at making things happen." The office had only two other employeesPropst's wife, Lee Propst, who was the business manager, and Del Coates, an automotive designer, later replaced by another designer, John Holmes.

Action Office grew out of Propst's interest in trying to make offices more efficient. Its first iteration, although based on Propst's concept, was styled by George Nelson in New York (Nelson didn't want to live in Zeeland either). Introduced in 1964, Action Office I included a stand-up desk, storage unit, and accessory pieces.

"It was nice looking but too expensive and didn't work," Kelley recalls. "It was a pain in the neck to put together and not easy to work in." But though it didn't sell, it did get some good reviews, and four years later Herman Miller replaced it with Action Office II.

This time the design was completely the work of Probst and his Ann Arbor office. "It had thirteen components. It was a wonderfully simple program," recalls Kelley. The pieces included wall units, desks, storage cabinets, and file bins. A table could be brought out for meetings.

The dividing walls provided some privacy and muffled the sound of meetings and telephone calls. But the main reason for the panels was more efficient use of space. Shelves, bulletin boards, storage units, or personal items could all be hung on them without taking up desk space.

D.J. and Hugh De Pree asked Nelson and Propst to collaborate, but they never got along. When Nelson received an award for the first iteration of the Action Office, he didn't even mention Propst. When a model of the Action Office was sent to Charles Eames, in California, he sent it right back without comment.

The feelings were mutual. "Propst thought Nelson and Eames were more about aesthetics than problem solving. And they thought his stuff so ugly, who would want it?" explains Malcolm.

While Nelson and Eames thought in terms of individual pieces of furniture, Propst was interested in developing a system where the components worked together. He started by studying how people actually worked and then developed a system that facilitated productivity. "He always said, 'The solution is easy if you can define the problem,' " recalls Kelley.

Propst's concept was that the pieces could be assembled in different ways to meet each person's needs and easily adapted when their requirements changed. "People should not be planted like onions in pots to sit somewhere," he said. The thought of offices full of square cubicles horrified him. In his 1968 booklet "The Office: A Facility Based on Change," he recommended a layout of "three sides with a slightly widened opening," explaining "there is good definition of territory, privacy is well expressed and the ability to survey or participate is well maintained." Kelley admits that he was the one who unintentionally made the cube farm possible by creating a rigid connector.

Action Office II -- later known simply as Action Office -- proved to be very successful and profitable. "Propst changed the world of office design for the next forty years," says Kelley. Herman Miller added an addition onto its main building in Zeeland to manufacture the systems. In 1964 Herman Miller's sales were $10 million. By 1970 they had more than doubled to $25 million.

Other western Michigan furniture companies, such as Hayworth and Steelcase, also began producing office systems. Today most residential furniture is made in North Carolina or abroad, but western Michigan is still the world's largest producer of office furniture.

Propst's next big project, introduced in 1971, was Co/ Struc (Coherent Structures), a system for use in hospitals. Propst thought of it when he was in traction at University Hospital for back pain in the 1960s. "He watched how nurses moved around and noted inefficiencies. They noticed he took notes and told their manager, who became interested in Propst's ideas," explains Malcolm. An interchangeable system with containers, frames, carts, and wall rails to support storage cabinets and lockers, Co/Struc, like Action Office, is still in production. Kelley recently bought a storage system for his son, a dentist.

Propst's team left the old garage in 1972 for a rented building at 3970 Varsity Drive. In 1979 the company was reconfigured as the Facility Management Institute, and its mission was expanded to address more general questions of how offices could work efficiently. FMI eventually built its own building at 3971 Research Drive (now the Social Security Office). At its height, the company employed fortyfive people-architects, designers, planners, and human behaviorists-to study such subjects as how people interact in offices, optimum work environments, and training of managers.

Propst hired Dave Armstrong when he was organizing FMI in 1978. They had met when Armstrong, as associate dean of agriculture at MSU, was one of the first customers for Action Office II. Later, whenever they were in the same town, the two men would meet for dinner. Propst would always ask, 'When are you coming to work for me?'" recalls Armstrong.

"When Propst developed his theories, the modem office was just emerging and hadn't been scientifically studied by anyone," Armstrong recalls. "The white-collar boom was just starting." Today facilities management degrees are offered at universities all around the country. The International Facilities Management Association began in Ann Arbor as an outgrowth of a conference organized by Herman Miller. Armstrong was its first head.

The Propst family lived at 2347 Londonderry in a house designed by·modem architect David Osler. Kelley remembers that the house was filled with "stuff he designed, sitting on classic pedestal columns. He was always moving around, so the sculpture was always shaking." Kelley describes Propst as "really down-to-earth. There was nothing pretentious about him. He knew he was smart, but thought life was to be lived."

Propst left Herman Miller in 1980. There were differences of opinion, especially over the way Action Office was being used, and a new president coming in. Armstrong took over FMI.

Clark Malcolm joined the office in 1983, so he never worked under Propst. However, he had seen him a few times when he was working at the Centicore bookstore near campus -- "an odd guy who came in to buy art books around Christmas for his employees. he would spend a couple thousand. He was tall, bald headed, stocky, and crotchety." Propst eventually moved to Seattle, where he pursued new design interests, including modular homes, until his death in 2000.

The State St. building served as the retail outlet for Ann Arbor Plastics, then was occupied by a series of food-related businesses. Ali Hijazi opened La Zamaan Cafe there in 2007, but stayed only a few months before deciding "it was not suitable for sit-down customers." Several other eateries have come and gone since. At present it stands empty.

Armstrong left FMI in 1986, when Herman Miller reconfigured the company as Metaform. A reduced staff of about ten studied products that could help older people stay in their own homes longer. When Metaform closed five years later, the remaining staffers transferred to Zeeland, except for Malcolm. Working out of an upstairs office in his house, he wrote five books with D.J. De Pree's son Max and wrote or co-authored more than ten more about facility management, architecture, and design.

The fiftieth anniversary of Action Office this year has renewed interest in Propst's work-in May, he was written up in both the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker. Though never as famous as some of Herman Miller's other designers, his designs touched more people's lives, for better or worse. Asked about the long-term effect of Propst's work, Malcolm answers, "Bob Propst and his invention completely changed the way we think about knowledge work and the places it happens."

From diagram (print edition): Three sides with a slightly widened opening appears to be the best enclosure of all as a generality. There is good definition of territory, privacy is well expressed and the ability to survey or participate is well maintained.

Four sided enclosure is bad for the wide awake and activity-oriented man. He is isolated, insulated, and remote. His ability to be part of an organization family is diminished. Bad Cubicle!

Propst saw his invention as a way to customize spaces to meet people's needs -- the thought of offices full of square cubicles horrified him. His right-hand man, Jack Kelley, admits that he was the one who unintentionally made the cube farm possible by creating a rigid connector.

Photographs (in print edition): (Top) Bob Propst (right) with fellow designer George Nelson. Though they collaborated on Herman Miller's first office system, Action Office I, they never got along. "Propst thought Nelson and [Charles] Eames were more about esthetics than problem solving," says Miller writer and researcher Clark Malcolm. "And they thought his stuff was so ugly, who would want it?" The far more successful Action Office II (below left and right) was entirely designed at Propst's Ann Arbor office.

See also the following video, in which author Grace Shackman talks with Bob Propst, former president of the Herman Miller research Corporation. He designed the Action Office furniture system, which reshaped the American office by providing a semi-private space to work in.