The Fritz Building
Reading, Writing, and Recovery
From the November, 2020 issue
Over its seventy-five years, a small, tree-shaded yellow brick building on Maple Rd. has been a township elementary school, a preschool, an alternative high school, a school administration building, and a senior volunteer center. For the last thirty-four years, as the Alano Club, it's been a safe meeting space for the recovery community.
The original Fritz schoolhouse opened in 1837 in a home at the corner of Miller and Maple roads donated by farmer John Fritz. It was replaced by a wooden schoolhouse, which by the 1930s was in serious decline.
In 1938 the Fifteenth School District, serving Ann Arbor and Scio townships, purchased four acres of Fritz Woods on N. Maple near Dexter Ave. for a new school. (The seller, Frank J. Kennedy of Detroit, had bought the parcel from Fritz's descendants.) There must have been construction or funding delays--the Ann Arbor News wrote that it was "one of the few schoolhouses in the county to be entirely financed by residents of its own community"--because the school didn't open until eight years later.
By then, 170 kindergarten-through-sixth-grade students were studying in the schoolhouse and a two-room portable structure. Second- through sixth-grade students transitioned to the new school as soon it opened in February 1945. The kindergartners and first graders remained at the old school until the portable classrooms could be moved to the new site.
The News reported that "Wayne architect Peter Brender designed the building with an eye for expansion," but that never happened. As the surrounding area was built up, formerly small school districts were consolidating into the Ann Arbor Public Schools. The Fifteenth District was annexed in 1954, with both its students and principal, Louise Ritsema, transferring to Ann Arbor's newly opened Haisley Elementary a few blocks away.
With no immediate need for the building, the schools made it available to the Ann Arbor Cooperative Nursery, since renamed the Ann Arbor Nursery. Its website says that its "origins can be traced back to
the spring of 1938, when a group of mothers attending lectures on various phases of preschool education at the University of Michigan Extension Service made plans to organize a summer play group known as the Ann Arbor Pre-School Play Group." It left when AAPS reactivated the building in 1956. It passed through a series of locations before settling in at the First Baptist Church in 2008.
Why AAPS reactivated the building is a mystery, as there is no listing for it in the Ann Arbor City Directory from 1957 through 1963. But an Ann Arbor News article in 1968 announced that due to overcrowding at Abbot School, two second-grade classes would be held at the Fritz building. And in 1971, it became an alternative high school.
According to a 2010 Ann Arbor News article, when the district's new superintendent, Bruce McPherson, discovered that a group of Pioneer teachers had a plan in place for an alternative school, he gave them "six weeks and free rein to establish their school in the old Fritz Elementary building." Desks were quickly replaced with rugs and mattresses on the floor, and Pioneer II opened in October 1971 with three teachers and 108 students.
In its second year, inspired by a trip to the Native American mounds of southern Ohio, students successfully lobbied to have it renamed Earthworks.
"[T]he NASA sounding name was ugly, we thought, especially to the ears of children raised in the shadow of Sputnik and Telstar," arwulf arwulf recalled in 1994 in the alternative newspaper Agenda. "After much brainstorming, and a great deal of reckless ideation, we came up with a name commensurate with our most meaningful experience as a group: the camping trips which often took us to those Hopewellian Mounds."
The building, he wrote, "was run down, poorly heated during the winter, and underwent considerable changes during our time there. We painted murals, hung chairs made from automobile tires in one of the three main rooms, and converted the girls' [rest]room into a ceramics workshop."
But "as time went by I noticed we were being handed individuals who were unusual in provocative ways; the public school system was siphoning off problematic kids upon us. So we found ourselves dealing with a violent brain-damaged boy who needed special attention. Everybody deserves a fresh alternative, but there are some people whose very presence can be destructive. I do feel that this was one factor in the disintegration of Earthworks." By the spring of 1978, when enrollment had declined to fifty students, the board of education merged it into Community High.
From 1980 through 1986, the building was used by AAPS adult education program administrators and the Retired & Senior Volunteer Program. Then, in 1986, the school board put it and other unused school buildings up for sale.
The timing was fortuitous for the Washtenaw Alano Club (WAC). Organized in 1969, the nonprofit was one of many springing up around the country in that era to provide safe places for those in Alcoholics Anonymous to meet and hold events.
WAC initially met in a cramped, older home on N. Main. In 1975, it moved to the Fourth Avenue Arcade on S. Fourth. The former Montgomery Ward department store has recently been reborn as an upscale apartment building called Montgomery Houze, but at the time, recalls longtime WAC member Pat Reilly, it was a "red-light area"--neighbors included a liquor store, an adult bookstore, and a massage parlor. "We had Alateen meetings there [for young people], so that was not so good," Reilly says. In 1978, they left for a small, second-story office space with a leaky ceiling on Packard Rd.
Aided by a $5,000 grant from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, WAC leased a roomy, two-story building on S. State in 1980 from the Bechtel Power Corporation. It was ideal--until Bechtel left town. Late in the summer of 1986, the club's president found a notice on the door giving the group just sixty days to vacate.
A club member knew the Fritz Building was available, and a two-month fund drive raised $30,000 for a down payment. Though the club's $127,500 bid was not the highest, the school board chose it anyway because of WAC's role in substance abuse recovery.
The club has had many internal renovations over the years, though the building's origins are still evident in the tall windows illuminating the rooms. The parking lot has been paved and a peaked roof built over the original flat one. Landscaping, aided by the sweat equity of members and volunteers, includes rain and butterfly gardens, a patio, and a firepit. But a large stand of trees still testifies to its history as the Fritz's woodlot.
Last September the Alano Club celebrated its fifty-year anniversary with a film presentation about its history, a catered dinner, a magic show, and more on its grounds. The little kids of its members, running willy-nilly under the bright blue sky and towering oaks, made for memories of Fritz School and Earthworks students and today's recovering people helping one another to continue to learn about recovery and celebrate freedom from addiction.
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