The Backstory: Gambling, seances and sandals made the Kayser Building

If you haven't shopped at Fourth Avenue Birkenstock in Ann Arbor, there's a good chance you've seen it. Maybe you've sat in the food co-op's cafe and stared across the street at the vintage brown brick building. You might have even looked up (way up) and noticed the carved plate that reads Kayser.

But do you know who Charles F. Kayser was? And, more importantly, are you aware of the building's colorful history?

Let's start by making one thing clear, the three story building Kayser erected in 1899 was not the first to grace that location. An Argus-Democrat article from that same year reports that there once stood another building on the site, constructed by Samuel Sutherland in 1855. It housed a gun shop, which is ironic given the reputation of those who don Birkenstock sandals. Pictures of the original building are lost to history, but the structure was reported to have used bog lime and marl as construction materials. The masons were paid a whopping $2.00 per day.

The Kayser building was first established as a hotel, which remained open through World War I. According to city directories, the managers were typically African American. In the early 1920s, the Colored Welfare League (CWL) purchased the building. That purchase was made possible by local African American leaders who felt that that World War I recruits were not being given the same elaborate send offs as white recruits. To remedy this, black community leaders raised money and threw their own send-off parties. Money left over after the war ended was used to purchase 209-211 N. Fourth Avenue.

This ownership was important, as it allowed the League to evict the Huron Club, infamously known as a "local gambling den and house of prostitution." The League then turned the space into a community center for African Americans. At the time the YMCA did not allow African American children to use their facilities, so this new facility was much needed.

One of the first groups to utilize the re-purposed building was the Dunbar Center. Named for poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the group provided classes, social and education programs, and dances. In 1926, the Dunbar Center moved to 1009 E. Catherine, and then to 420 N. Fourth Avenue eleven years later. It eventually morphed into the Ann Arbor Community Center on North Main Street.

In additional to members of the Dunbar Center, many other fraternal organizations rented space on the second floor —the Black Elks, St. Mary's Lodge, the Household of Ruth Lodge, and Eastern Star. On Thursday evenings in the 1930s, a group of women met to socialize. Men who worked for white fraternities at U-M also met there. During these early years, the second floor housed University of Michigan School of Law graduate, active NAACP member, and League attorney John Ragland.

By the 1930s, a barbershop and beauty salon made their home on the building's ground floor. Owned by Samuel Elliot and Olive Lowery, respectively, these businesses catered to an African American clientele. A tea room first named Josephine's Tea Room and later Julia's Tea Room (to reflect a change in owners), operated from 1937-1943. In addition to serving food and drinks, the restaurant also held the occasional séance fundraiser. After the business closed, the second floor was converted into apartments.

A young African American barber named J.D. Hall purchased the building in 1966. His barbershop occupied the space on the north part of the building. In 1989, Fourth Avenue Birkenstock opened in the space to the left of the barbershop. During Mr. Hall's ownership, groups such as Model Cities, the Women's Crisis Center, and the Community Leaning Post rented space on the second floor while the third floor remained as rented rooms. Today, the Fourth Avenue Birkenstock shop thrives on as does the Baser Law Firm and STATinMED research.

But what of Mr. Kayser? He lived a long and seemingly pleasant life. He was born in the city in 1863, and passed away at his home on 322 E. Ann Street 86 years later. He manufactured cigars at his shop in the 100 block of North Main Street, was a member of the Elks and the Bethlehem Church. He and his wife, Anna, did not have children. He was laid to rest in Forest Hill Cemetery.

With speed of progress and the constant changes to downtown's character and culture, it's sometimes easy to forget the rich past that can be found in a local sandal shop. Look beyond the Birkenstocks and you may find a place that the local minority community once called their own... or even tales of tea drinkers talking to the dead.

Patti F. Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website,, as well as local bookstores.
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