Ann Arbor’s Secret Sauce: Our Historic Buildings

Cities have personalities, and these influence their fates. The civic persona derives partly from economic circumstance (oil boom towns differ from cities where most income is from farming, or from a dominant industry), partly from the individuals who possess the means of power and influence (think of Chicago without the history of Richard Daley), and partly from the origins and mix of the people who live there.  But the physical environment has a strong influence.  When one first encounters a city, it is the sense of place that forms a first impression.  Like first impressions of a person newly met, this may be formed from superficial features, but it is often fairly accurate.

So what is the first impression that a visitors  might have of Ann Arbor?  If they are lucky, they’ll see lots of trees, open green spaces, and our charming downtown.  They’ll also see an attractive central campus and perhaps drive or walk through some of the near-downtown neighborhoods, like the Oxbridge area, Broadway, the Old West Side.  They’ll see that we have many architecturally interesting buildings from different historical periods.  If they are being given a tour, they’ll stroll through the Nickel’s Arcade (a replica of arcades seen in London, England) and perhaps get a look at the Law Quad.  Our historic buildings are Ann Arbor’s secret sauce.  Take those away and you just have a really bad highway system and some shopping malls.  (Okay, and some nice parks.)

A Sense of Place

The importance of  experience of place has been acknowledged for decades. Here is what Tony Hiss said in his book, Experience of Place (1990, Random House) :

“…our ordinary surroundings, built and natural alike, have an immediate and a continuing effect on the way we feel and act, and on our health and intelligence.  These places have an impact on our sense of self, our sense of safety, the kind of work we get done, the ways we interact with other people, even our ability to function as citizens in a democracy.”

More recently, a sense of place has been discovered as an economic driver.  A recently published overview by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a good historical review and a number of case studies of the practice of  “placemaking”, which often focuses on public spaces but also on cultural amenities.

“Place” has many benefits.  It means everyone gets a nice place to live and a better sense of community.  It is also good for business.  Employees are likely to be more attracted to a “place”, and businesses based on  tourism are more successful.  But I question whether it can be developed overnight according to a plan.  It takes years for a community to develop a sense of place.  And it needs nurturing.  Preservation of our historic buildings and neighborhoods is part of the needed sustenance for our sense of place and quality of life, not only for those of us who live here, but for those we want to welcome in the future.

Historic Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor's historic districts, courtesy AAPA

Ann Arbor’s historic districts, courtesy AAPA

Fortunately for us, we have many dedicated individuals who have been helping the cause of historic preservation in Ann Arbor for years.  Since 1975, historic preservation has been recognized as a public purpose, and we have a number of historic districts in which the Historic District Commission oversees changes in historic buildings.  The Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance, a group of citizens who advocate for historic preservation, have produced a brochure describing this process. (Click on the figure for a larger view.)

One name that immediately springs to mind when talking of historic preservation in Ann Arbor is Grace Shackman.  She has been studying and writing about historic Ann Arbor for decades.  Notably, she has published many articles in the Ann Arbor Observer, under the title of Ann Arbor, Then and Now.  These have been pulled together into a book, Ann Arbor Observed  (but more articles have been written since that publication!).

The Planada, before its demolition by the UM. Photo Stan Shackman

The Planada, before its demolition by the UM. Photo Stan Shackman

An excellent example of her articles is this one, Ann Arbor’s Oldest Apartments (note that this and many articles that preceded the Observer’s online presence have most thoughtfully been made available on the Ann Arbor District Library’s website).  This article not only describes many historic buildings but the political decisions being made in 2004 that would affect their future. (Sadly, the City Council led by John Hieftje failed to preserve the Individual Historic Properties described.  “Then and Now” indeed.)  It also shows the mix of archived (old) photographs from Grace Shackman’s research and the contemporary photographs made by her husband and collaborator Stan Shackman. (The Shackmans collaborated on two photographic essays as well, Ann Arbor in the 19th Century and Ann Arbor in the 20th Century.)

HistoricAnnArborCoverFrontAnother name that springs readily to mind in discussing Ann Arbor’s historic legacy is Susan Wineberg.  Like Grace Shackman, she is the author of books and articles, and a longtime student of Ann Arbor’s historic buildings. (An archive of her documents is maintained by Eastern Michigan University.) Her book, Historic Buildings of Ann Arbor,  is evidently out of print but is available as an electronically accessible version.

Now Wineberg has put this long experience into a guidebook, Historic Ann Arbor, published by the Ann Arbor Historical Foundation.  Together with her co-author Patrick McCauley (who has been active in restoration and is the current chair of the Historic District Commission), she has organized information about the currently existing historic buildings in Ann Arbor so that it can be used in different ways – an individual look-up of a given building,  with use of an index for historic figures associated with different buildings, a look at one’s own neighborhood, or even a walking tour.  (The book is organized by geographical sections with maps. Each map is marked with numbers that refer to the buildings, named in sequence.)

The book begins with a succinct and useful summary of architectural styles, with pointers to Ann Arbor examples.  Knowing the style is useful in appreciating an individual building, and this book takes us from the Federal Style (1780-1840) to the Brutalist Style (1955-1975).  Happily for Ann Arbor’s charm quotient, the latter style has few representatives here.  Regarding the Federal Style, it is a reminder that Ann Arbor became a village in 1833, before the founding of the State of Michigan.  So we go way back.

Then, arranged by neighborhoods with those useful maps, the buildings are listed with approximately a page of description each, and a black-and-white photograph.  Each entry has a number of interesting notes about the history of each structure.  Who knew that the Fleetwood Diner was from a kit produced by the Dag-Wood Diner company, ca. 1948?  Or that Gloria Steinham was the featured guest at the Hermitage reception to benefit the Ann Arbor Feminist House (1972)?.

This book should be on the bookshelf of everyone who lives in Ann Arbor and values any sense of our history and architectural diversity.  As Grace Shackman says in her introduction to the book,  “Susan and Patrick’s love of Ann Arbor shines through every page.”

(Our previous posts on this subject are now indexed under the Historic Preservation category.)

ADDENDUM:  The price for Historic Ann Arbor: An Architectural Guide is $35.00 plus tax.  It is available at several Ann Arbor independent bookstores and can be ordered through Nicola’s Books or shipped by arrangement with the Mail Shoppe 734-665-6676 (email is MAILSHPPE@AOL.COM) (there is a shipping and handling charge). Update: Now available from Amazon.com as well.

ADDENDUM:  Photographic essays continue to be produced by Arcadia Publishing.  The latest is Downtown Ann Arbor, by Patti Smith.  Browse Arcadia for other Ann Arbor books by Grace Shackman and Susan Wineberg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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