Anatomy of a historic residence turned commercial building in downtown Ann Arbor

This story originally ran 4/1/09.

There is more to a building than just the face of it, and nowhere is that more true than in downtown Ann Arbor.

The college town is known as one of Michigan's best downtown's because of a high density of historic storefronts. But those storefronts often hide a lot more history than the average student or yuppie notices on first browse. On closer inspection a roof of an old Victorian house can be seen peaking from behind the lot-line storefront or an old residential staircase near the front door of a business.

They may seem out of place in the middle of downtown, but in most cases these features were there first. And these residential-turned-commercial buildings dot downtown and the University of Michigan's campus.

That's the situation with 209 S State St., the storefront next to Buffalo Wild Wings near the State Theater, which is in line to undergo yet another renovation. What looks like a typical 2-story masonry storefront started out as a small Queen Anne house in the late 19th Century with a bay window, wood shingle roof and small addition.

By 1902 it had become a two-unit boarding house called the Chubb House (after its owner George Chubb) and started taking on more and more additions. An eatery also opened in it about this time. Its current fa├žade was added sometime between 1925 and 1930. By then it was known as the Ritz Dine and Dance and was considered a cabaret.

"That was a pretty common thing to do that for a while in the 1930s," says Susan Wineberg, a former member of the Ann Arbor Historical District Commission and author of "Lost Ann Arbor", a book about architecturally significant buildings in the college town that have been razed.

By 1936 it became Chubb's restaurant before becoming the Michigan Wolverine Student Cooperative for eating in 1937 as a response to the Depression. It eventually died out because of World War II. After that a mix of retail tenants occupied the ground floor, including the Secretary of State, Ann Arbor Cooperative Credit Union, book shops, women's clothing stores and a lighting store. Residential apartments remained in the upper floors.

All of the building stock on that block of South State Street went through a similar transformation, if it was lucky. The whole block was residential buildings at the turn of the 20th Century, serving as housing to the nearby U-M campus. Former U-M Medical School Dean Victor Vaugh's house was cleared away to make room for the State Theater. A staircase to a previous house can be found near the front door of what is today Mr. Greeks. That house's original plaster medallions are evident in the building.

"Sometimes they save the houses and moved them," Wineberg says. "Sometimes they built in front of them. Sometimes they were destroyed."

Luckily for the little house that used to be 209 S State, it's too expensive to remove. It's flanked by nearby storefronts and a large student apartment building. Removing the back half of the house would be equivalent of plucking it out from the sky.

"The back gable of the house is still there," says Aaron Vermeulen, principal of Ann Arbor-based O-X Studios, which is redesigning the building. "A lot of the house is still there and visible. That structure over time has just been layered like an onion."

Vermeulen's firm is only planning to peal back a layer or two to add a mezzanine to the front space, converting both floors to commercial. That space is currently being offered at $35 per square foot. Worth enough money to turn the space into something no Ann Arborite has seen before but not enough to peel back all of the layers of history in that onion.

Source: Susan Wineberg, a former member of the Ann Arbor Historical District Commission, Aaron Vermeulen, principal of O-X Studios and Jill Thatcher, city planner for Ann Arbor
Writer: Jon Zemke
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