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"Vanishing Ann Arbor" celebrates history of downtown buildings and businesses

Bentley Historical Library/Katie Raymond
Michigan Radio
The Anson Brown Building is the oldest commercial building in Ann Arbor. It was built by the founder of Lower Town, Anson Brown, in 1832. Today it is home to St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Store.

What makes a city? Is it the geographic location? Is it the people? The new book Vanishing Ann Arbor looks at that city's history through the lens of its downtown buildings and businesses, including many that have come down or closed up.

Early buildings

Co-authors Patti F. Smith and Britain Woodman begin with the story of the first buildings built by white settlers in the 1820s in what would become Ann Arbor. The first of those settlers were John Allen and Elisha Rumsey. Rumsey and his wife, Mary Rumsey, started building sooner than Allen.

"We believe the first night was spent around where [the corner of] First and Huron is," Smith told Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou. "They just slept in the carriage and quickly the Rumseys started building their home. They put up a school within a year. The first school was a log cabin."

Smith says Allen did not build his home right away, but got to work when his wife, Ann Allen, began her journey to Ann Arbor. 

"He realized, 'Oh my gosh, the wife's coming,' so he throws up a log cabin," Smith said.

Eventually that cabin was painted bright red and the neighborhood became known as Bloody Corners. Today it's the interesection of Main and Huron streets.

"His wife Ann Allen came here from this genteel idyllic existence, wealthy existence in Virginia. She's riding this wagon and she lands in Ann Arbor," Smith said. "Pigs are running in the street. There's mud all over and she has to live in a bright red, one-room log cabin."

Glazier building then and now
Credit Bentley Historical Library/Katie Raymond
Glazier Building, circa 1906, and today. Built by/for Frank P. Glazier from Chelsea. His family owned a bank and newspaper. He became State Treasurer and was convicted of embezzlement.

While their tenants and owners may have changed, many of Ann Arbor's historic buildings have survived. According to Smith, the city's the oldest commercial building is the Anson Brown Building in the Lower Town neighborhood. (Smith also notes that there was once a debate about whether Lower Town or the current downtown would be developed to become the city's business hub.)

Among the oldest buildings downtown is Dr. Chase's Steam Printing House on Main Street, which was built in the 1860s. The Glazier Building at the corner of Main and Huron was completed in 1908.

"That was our first skyscraper," Smith said with a laugh.

The Glazier Building is all of seven stories tall.

Then: Charlie Binder's saloon, circa 1880. Now: Alley Bar, circa 2019. Photos courtesy of Bentley Historical Library and by Katie Raymond.

Plenty of beer 

Today Downtown Ann Arbor is peppered with establishments that brew their own beer or sell some of Michigan's best craft beers, but city also has a long brewing history. 

"There was a time in the early 1880s, 1870s when people just started opening up breweries in Ann Arbor," Smith said. "We had the Central Brewery, the Western Brewery, and the Northern brewery and those buildings are actually still here. And it was not what you think of with like [current businesses] Arbor Brewing or Grizzly Peak. You couldn't go in and sit down and get snacks."

The breweries delivered their products to the dozens of saloons in Ann Arbor before Prohibition put many of the breweries out of business. But the Western Brewery survived by making ice cream instead. The site later opened again as brewery, but eventually business dried up.

"Somebody was quoted as saying their beer was only good to put out fires with," Smith said.

Then: Fouth Street Adult Books and Peep Shows, circa 1973. Now: Today Clothing and The Local Bike Shop - A2. Photos courtesy of Ann Arbor District Library and by Katie Raymond. 

Red-light district 

For people who have lived in or visited Ann Arbor in more recent years, it might be hard to imagine the downtown with a red-light district. But in the 1970s and '80s, there was a small section of the city where adult businesses thrived.

"It was a different time. Fourth Avenue, between Huron and Liberty, had a couple of bookstores. One was called the Ann Arbor Adult News. One was called the Fourth Avenue Adult News. Above those on the second floor was the American Massage Parlor. Spoiler alert: not an actual massage parlor," Smith said. 

"There was a lot of drug use. There was prostitution. Finally ... businessmen formed a group called 200 Fourth Avenue. And their sole purpose was to buy up these buildings and then just wait out the leases and then raise the rents or get [the adult businesses] out on a technicality. And that's actually how the Fourth Avenue red-light district came to an end was development."

Then: The Michigan Theatre and shops on Liberty Street, circia 1954. Now: The Michigan Theater and new shops on Liberty Street. Photos courtesy of Bentley Historical Library and by Katie Raymond. 

Curtain closes on theatres of old

Vanishing Ann Arbor reinforces the fact that change in cities is inevitable. Most of the changes don't bother Patti Smith, but if she could, she would bring back the theatres and movie palaces that were once common downtown. 

"There was the Majestic Theater which is now parking garage. There was the Opera House which is now a paved parking lot. ... You didn't have TV so when you wanted entertainment you left your house, you went downtown, you saw these movies. There were people around you," Smith said. 

"If we had a dozen of those, how incredible that would be to sit in a place where people sat almost 100 years ago and watched vaudeville and silent films."

Lauren Talley and Katie Raymond contributed to this story.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Radio staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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