Joe the Builder
How an OSU grad shaped Ann Arbor.
by Jan Schlain
In 1961, Joe O'Neal worked on two construction projects. The first was a dam in Asia worth $300-$400 million. The second was a house in Ann Arbor that cost $39,000.
In January of that year, the blond, fit Ohio native added a U-M law degree to the bachelor's and master's in civil engineering he'd earned at Ohio State. Turning down offers to teach at the U-M, O'Neal got a job with one of the world's largest contractors, Peter Kiewit.
"It was like a dream come true," says O'Neal. He was assigned to the New York City office. "My job was to work with the in-house lawyer/boss to get the bids they were doing in foreign countries in line with the laws of the country they were bidding in."
In 1961, Kiewit was taking the lead in a joint venture competing for the biggest construction project ever put out to bid: the Mangla Dam in Pakistan.
"It was a big, big opportunity, and a major, major project." But, O'Neal adds, "it was not to be, for me.
"At the end of two weeks they had a meeting of all the big leaders of this bid ... The night before this big meeting was to take place, I found a place in New York at which I could eat and afford it. It was down in the shadow of the United Nations building.
"Whatever I ate, I got the world's worst case of food poisoning. It was terrible. I got to that meeting, and I finally had to admit ... I needed help. They took me to the hospital, and I spent five days trying to get rid of this thing. And I said [to myself] in those five days, 'I want freedom. I want Ann Arbor. I want to build my own company.'"
O'Neal moved back to Ann Arbor and a much smaller project: that fall, he started a house for civil engineering prof Eugene Glysson and his family. He'd worked for Glysson at
Camp Davis, the U-M's summer program in the Rocky Mountains, and "they trusted me," O'Neal says.
"I knew we needed a house, and I knew he was wanting to build one," Glysson recalls. "So we worked together and planned it, and he proceeded to build it, and he did a heck of a job."
O'Neal went on to build several more homes before landing his first two commercial projects in 1966--Northside Presbyterian Church (designed by the great modernist architect Glen Paulsen) and fire repairs on the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house.
Since then, O'Neal Construction, Inc., has worked on more than 1,000 projects. Its buildings are woven into the city's fabric. Everyone who's climbed the circular concrete stairs of the Power Center, admired the restored Michigan Theater, or browsed the locally owned shops at Kerrytown has been touched by an O'Neal project. O'Neal renovated the Hands-On Museum, the First National Building, and Burton Tower and built the city's main fire station. The condos at Sloan Plaza and Ashley Mews are OCI's work. And in the last few years, the company has reshaped Ann Arbor's vertical profile.
"Clearly the skyline has changed," O'Neal says, "and we helped it change." His company built the ten-story Zaragon Place and fourteen-story Zaragon West student high-rises and is at work on the Ann Arbor City Apartments at First and Washington. The firm didn't bid on any of those jobs: in every case, the developers came to O'Neal to manage their projects.
That doesn't surprise developer Bill Martin, who first met O'Neal when he was trying to get his first commercial building under way about forty years ago.
"I was very, very young at that time, just trying to launch a real estate career," Martin recalls. "I needed a builder to build a building on South U, and I got the quote from another builder, and it just wouldn't work ... Somebody just mentioned a guy that had an office out on North Main Street--a little old house that's since been torn down--Joe O'Neal.
"I never heard of him, so I went to see him. I explained my situation. Would he like to make a proposal to build it? He said he certainly would. His number came in [much cheaper] and I almost fell out of my chair.
"And he said, 'Any savings below that number go to you.' I remember I got back a check from him for savings.
"That started our relationship that's lasted ... thirty-five, forty years. Some buildings he had built for us on a handshake. Not even a written contract. [He has] the highest ethical standards in the business world you could ask from anybody ... He's an American original."
"That is music to my ears," O'Neal says. He's not talking about Martin's praise--if he'd heard it, he'd blush--but the rumbling of concrete trucks lining First Street at the City Apartments construction site. Vibrators settling the pour add to the racket, and in another corner someone is welding. "Sixty years of it," says O'Neal. "That music has ruined my ears."
O'Neal is standing in the alley behind Downtown Home & Garden--outside the construction fence, no hard hat. He turned eighty this year and stepped back from day-to-day management a couple of years ago. The work here, as well as the shopping center OCI is building on Washtenaw across from Whole Foods, the remodeling of Barracuda Networks' new offices on Maynard, and a few dozen other ongoing projects, is overseen by OCI president Will Gordon. But at least once a day, O'Neal walks over from his office in the Argus Building on W. William to see how work here is progressing.
"One floor, two floor, three floor, fourth floor," he says, counting off the levels in the parking structure that will underlie the residential section. "The city runs the parking. Ann Arbor City Apartments own the apartments."
Even if the project were being built by someone else, O'Neal says, "I would be visiting it just about as many times as I do now." But because it's his, "I can have the joy of knowing that we're building that and watching the orchestration. That's a very current building, and everybody today is asking about it because we're klutzing up First"--the concrete trucks, lined up like New York taxicabs, have the street narrowed down to a single lane.
He's been hanging around construction sites since he was a boy in Marietta. His father, an accountant at Remington Rand, "was very helpful in being both a sidewalk superintendent and liking to watch other people build," O'Neal says with a twinkle in his deep blue eyes. "In those days, you could go right on the site. There were no fences. When they left at night it was wide open, and you could get up in the equipment. Many a day I played on the weekend on a construction site just like a playground."
A different kind of play brought him to Ann Arbor: the night before the 1953 Ohio State game, O'Neal and four other members of OSU's senior men's honorary society drove up from Columbus. Their intent was to paint an "O" in the middle of the field at Michigan Stadium.
"The prank never happened," he recalls. "It had rained quite hard, and the stadium was easily accessible at that time, but the tarp was on it." After getting a talking-to by the police in the pouring rain, he spent his very first night in Ann Arbor, wet, sleeping on the couch in front of the fireplace at the SAE frat house that he would someday renovate.
The next morning, he walked down South U to look at the town and campus. "I loved the city," he recalls. "I admired the university. And I applied [to law school] here.
"It was a life-changing event."
After his first year of law school, O'Neal spent the summer of 1958 teaching at Camp Davis, near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. After his second year, he took a two-year break to fulfill his commitment to the Air Force--"that should have started in '55, but they delayed it because of law school," he explains. "I decided to get that off my back." The Air Force assigned him to oversee a major housing project--610 homes, "one being built practically every four hours ... I wasn't the superintendent, but I was in charge of the contractor--representing the owner--getting those houses done and getting them done right."
He asked for an early discharge so he could teach at Camp Davis again before returning to law school. If the Air Force had refused, he says, "my life would have been different ... it was at the second visit to Camp Davis that I met Karen."
"I was the only female student," recalls Karen Koykka O'Neal. "Joe was teaching--Joe is nine years older than [I am] ... I knew right away [that I was going to marry him."
They married in 1963, living first on Sunnyside, then on Scottwood. Daughters Heidi and Heather and son Andrew attended Burns Park elementary--until they moved to Oklahoma, where their father was building a dam.
O'Neal has always loved working with water--as a boy, he says, "I would dam up every stream around Marietta." But building the Mountain Park Dam nearly sank his company. "There were some pretty dark days," O'Neal admits. "We had so many big storms--we had three five-hundred-year floods in the course of the project. Everything--you name it--started going wrong."
"I was really down at one particular point, when we lost control of the river. One of the guys said, 'If we go backwards we can only lose everything; we can gain and maybe hold our own if we go forward.'
"It helps to have a tiger chasing you--no question," O'Neal says. "We were bankrupt at one point." But they finished the dam, and a successful auction of their used equipment saved them from insolvency.
It was O'Neal's first stab at heavy construction, and his last. "I didn't become Peter Kiewit," he says. "The Oklahoma experience brought me back to earth."
Oklahoma was the worst moment in his career--but the recession that started with the 2008 financial crisis was tough, too. "The bottom really dropped out" of construction, O'Neal recalls. When contracts stop coming in, "we try every way to inch by with the people we have doing the smallest possible work and hoping something comes along. We've even had people from the field come in and do estimating. In the hardest part of all, we lay people off. That's the worst thing."
What came along this time was rental housing downtown. Four high-rise apartments have opened in the past three years, and two more are under construction. OCI was hired to manage construction on three of them.
Manage is the key word. Unlike the early years, when OCI's own employees poured concrete, pounded nails, and hung drywall, most building is now done by specialized subcontractors. OCI provides coordination and oversight--a role O'Neal likens to an orchestra conductor's. "If everyone followed the plans and did exactly what they are supposed to do in our contract, we really are not needed," O'Neal says. "But they don't, so we're needed."
Since he stepped back from daily operations, O'Neal says, "Will [Gordon] worries about the construction, and Andrew worries about all the properties." As president of parent company O'Neal Inc., Andrew oversees OCI, Kerrytown, and several other buildings. All three of Joe and Karen's children have worked in the family business, but only Andrew remains active. Heidi and her husband, both MBAs, live in Paris with their three daughters, Britton, Austen, and Nella. Heather, who co-owns the Himalayan Bazaar on Main Street, is married and has a toddler, Kenneth. Andrew, who's divorced, has one boy, Joe.
O'Neal says that he and Andrew work well together--though Karen points out that there is no question who's boss. While Joe no longer sits in on every meeting, he says, "I keep my eyes on the dials and gauges."
Whatever comes next, retirement is not part of the O'Neal plan--Karen refers to Florida as "the 'F' word."
"I never want to be out of Ann Arbor," says Joe. "I'm happy here."
One of the ways he's filled his new free time is thinking about the city's future. O'Neal is "more than a builder," Bill Martin says. "He's one of those city fathers. He's always putting the city's interest first."
O'Neal was the founding chair of the Friends of the Ann Arbor Greenway, a group that advocates building parks and paths along the buried course of Allen Creek. "Fingerle's property, [the parking lot at] First and William, [the former city garages at] 415 West Washington [and] 721 N. Main. I can name you every property along there--I've talked with all of them."
In his vision, people could walk or bike along the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks from Stadium Boulevard to the Huron River, "and never cross a street and never cross the railroad. And it's possible, and it's doable, if you're confident. You have to have a vision, and you have to be confident you can carry it out."
He's also a strong supporter of the Ann Arbor School for the Performing Arts. He says, modestly, that he thinks that a little of that passion "comes from when I tried to play the cornet in high school and found out I'm not a musician. Karen and her family are very much in the arts." Karen owns Out of Hand Papermaking Studio, where she makes art papers from natural fibers and teaches.
His third passion is a historic mill in Macon, south of Saline, that was once owned by Henry Ford. There, at least, he's still a hands-on builder--he's just moved, rebuilt, and rewired a shed Ford built. He's also built a dam that's not just a tribute to his boyhood fascination with water--it's an exact re-creation, in miniature, of the Mountain Park Dam.
"I can't wait in the morning to get to work," he says as he turns out the lights in the shed Ford built. "I can't wait until it's time to go running. I can't wait until it's time to come here. I can't wait to have dinner with Karen, and I can't wait to go to bed." He adds, pointing to his still fit, sturdy, eighty-year-old frame, "I ask quite a bit of this thing."
As for his very first project, the Glyssons lived in their home until this past summer, when they sold it (for $315,000, not $39,000) and moved to Glacier Hills.
"We're sorry we had to give it up," Eugene Glysson says. "You get to the point where you can't take care of the yard and that sort of thing ... you just do what you have to do.
"It didn't take long to sell. It was a very sellable house!"
The following Calls & letters item appeared in the January 2013 Ann Arbor Observer:
To the Observer:
The [December] article on Joe O'Neal by Jan Schlain was a pleasure for me to read. As clarification, Joe and I currently serve together with others on the Board of the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy. Joe was Board President when the Conservancy was established as a 501(c)(3). The Friends of the Ann Arbor Greenway, mentioned in Jan's article, is a complementary grass roots group established earlier by others. The Friends continue to support and work toward the creation of the Greenway. More is available about the Greenway, the Friends and the Conservancy at acgreenwayconservancy.org and other searchable online resources.
[Originally published in December, 2012.]