It’s a mystery why State St. butcher Tom Nickels decided to build an elegant shopping arcade. According to his family he’d never seen an arcade, yet the one he built is breathtakingly beautiful. His descendants still own it, and four generations of family members are convening this month to celebrate its 100th birthday.
Nickels’ father, John, had a butcher shop at 326 S. State and an ice business directly behind it, selling ice from Traver Creek. He lived at 334 S. State with his wife, Elizabeth, and their four children.
John Nickels died in 1907 and Elizabeth in 1913. Tom inherited the meat market, ice company, and family home, and bought the land back to Maynard from his siblings. His granddaughter, Elizabeth Herbert Becker, who now owns the arcade with her brother Fred Herbert and cousin Fred Nickels, surmises that he learned about arcades from European magazines and newspapers.
Nickels hired local architect Herman Pipp, who designed the arcade in an elegant beaux arts style with three-story pillars on the State St. side and an ivory-colored terra-cotta facade. Separated by an arch, the rest of the arcade is more modest, two stories high and faced with yellow brick, but with terra-cotta windowsills decorations tie it in with the front.
Nickels didn’t build the whole arcade himself: the southeast corner was constructed by the Farmers and Mechanics Bank, which bought the land from him and also gave him a loan. The bank was finished in 1915, but the rest of the arcade wasn’t ready for occupancy until 1917 due to shortages of materials during World War I. There were eighteen stores on the first floor, each with a mezzanine and a basement storage area. The second floor was rented to offices or businesses. “It’s a little gem box,” says Gene Hopkins, an architect who worked on its 1987 restoration. “It’s unique. You don’t see things like it every day.”
Tom’s daughter, Theodora Nickels Herbert, recalled the grand opening in a 1974 interview: “There were flowers all around, and it was quite a deal.” They came from the Blu Maize Blossom Shop in the arcade. There’s still a florist in the arcade, the University Flower Shop. The Arcade Barber Shop now has the spot where barber Myron Baker opened in 1917.
In 1921, Peter Van Boven opened a men’s clothing store in the north State St. storefront, opposite the bank. He added a shoe store on the other side of the arcade in 1933. Karen Godfrey, third generation of the Van Boven line and first woman to work in the clothing store, explains its origins: “I understand that my grandpa went into the men’s clothing business because he was a dapper fellow and had an interest in men’s fashions. Back in the day, the store’s emphasis was on selling suits and furnishings. As times changed the store had to adapt.” They continue to sell formal clothes but now also have T-shirts, golf attire, Hawaiian shirts (including a Michigan one), and blue jeans.
The Caravan Shop opened in 1927. It was the creation of Frank Karpp, who had worked for Texaco in Africa and the Far East. He used his connections there to procure unique items for his store. It too has been there ever since.
Many other stores that opened in the first decade stayed for years, including a post office substation (until 1998), Bay’s Jewelers (until 1992), the Betsy Ross Restaurant (1975), and the Van Buren lingerie shop (in the arcade until 1987, and nearby on State until 1994).
Early second-floor occupants included two prominent doctors, R. Bishop Canfield and Albert Furstenberg. Clarence Fingerle’s Arcade Cafeteria, upstairs from the post office, sold reasonably priced food like creamed shredded chicken and dumplings and baked Virginia ham. The late Ted Heusel remembered eating there regularly with his mother.
When Tom Nickels died in 1933, the business passed on to his two children, Dora Herbert and her brother, James Nickels.
James’ son Fred Nickels, now ninety, recalls that during the Depression, some tenants paid part of their rent in kind, including Roy Hoyer, who had his dance studio on the second floor. “I had to take tap dancing lessons for five years before being allowed to quit,” he laughs.
Fred Nickels remembers accompanying his mother to the arcade when she got her hair styled at the Blue Bird Salon, and Mr. Karpp at the Caravan Shop warning him not to touch the exotic merchandise. He had a better time hanging out with janitor Zonie Steinke, his maternal uncle, while he closed up for the night, stoking the furnace and filling the coal bin under the Maynard St. entrance.
James died from tuberculosis in 1936. His half of the ownership went to his two sons, Fred and Bob, but since they were still children, a professional management group was hired. In 1965 the family bought the original bank building and now owns the whole arcade.
“You could survive at the arcade with everything you needed,” recalls Dora’s daughter, Elizabeth Herbert Becker, who was born in 1936. “You had a post office, restaurant, a bank, and ladies’ and men’s stores. Everything but groceries, and you could get those at White Market” around the corner on William. As a teenager, Elizabeth worked for her aunt, Bee Nickels, who lived in the Nickels house on Maynard (site of the Collegian building) and owned a store that specialized in baby and children’s clothing imported from Europe. As a young adult, she worked at Bay’s.
Elizabeth’s brother, Fred Herbert, born in 1941, recalls how important the arcade was to their mother: “It was a vital, essential part of her life. She patronized it two or three days a week. She was friends with the tenants.” His childhood memories include “the aroma of grilled pecan rolls from the Betsy Ross wafting up from a vent into the concourse.”
Van Boven’s two stores made it through the Depression and World War II. In 1973 the family hired Robert Frost to manage the shoe store, which he later bought. Frost remembers those as the golden years of the arcade, when Jacobson’s department store and then Borders books drew a high-end clientele to the area. “We thought it would never end. We had such pride to be on State St.; it was the place to be.”
In 1990, U-M student Rich Bellas started working in the shoe store part time. He stayed on after graduation, and became Frost’s partner. In 2014 they sold the store to Roger Pothus, the owner of Renaissance clothing. Bellas still works there, but Frost runs shoe stores in Petoskey and Traverse City.
After the Nickelses and the Van Bovens, the arcade’s other great dynasty began in 1963, when Jim and Augusta Edwards opened Maison Edwards. Augusta, from Italy, based the inventory on things in European stores such as leather goods, scarves, perfume, chess sets, and pens. In 1964 the couple bought the store next door and turned it into a tobacco shop. From then on Jim ran the tobacco store and Augusta the original store. In 1965 the Edwardses bought the Van Buren shop, and in 1973 they bought the Caravan Shop from the Karpps.
“When they sold to Jim Edwards, they charged him full price for every item in the store, even some damaged things,” recalls Fred Herbert. Even so, as the Karpps were childless, the Edwardses helped them out in their declining years. “When the Karpps died,” Herbert adds, “they left them more money than they’d paid for the shop.”
The Edwardses hired Linda Liechty to manage the Van Buren shop and eventually sold it to her. They also helped Liechty’s daughter, Rhonda Gilpin, buy the arcade’s antique shop when she was just nineteen. She’d asked Jim for advice, and when she couldn’t get a bank loan, he lent her the money himself. She opened the Arcadian in 1983, and ten years later, when Edwards was ready to retire, bought the Caravan Shop, too.
Gilpin’s children grew up in the arcade, just as she did. “Most kids learn to ride their bikes on the sidewalk in front of their house. I learned riding down the arcade,” explains her daughter Bailey, who works with her mother in the Arcadian. Son Steve is working on a master’s at U-M but still works with his mother in the summer.
Chuck Ghawi also got involved in the arcade at a young age. As a student at U-M in the 1980s, Ghawi walked into Maison Edwards Tobacconist and asked for a job. He remembers that “three men in three-piece suits all said ‘no’ at the same time.” But he kept coming back, and they finally relented and hired him part time. After graduation Ghawi kept in touch with the Edwardses, and in 1991 they sold him the store. Although he only occasionally smokes a cigar or a pipe, he still loves the business and the chance to visit with customers. “I don’t get to travel because I have to be in the store, but the world comes here,” he says.
In 1987, when the arcade was seventy years old, it received National Register of Historic Places designation. Architects Four was hired to do a restoration. They repaired or replaced terra-cotta that was cracked or damaged, repaired the skylight, designed consistent signage, moved the AC units, and removed the asphalt tile covering the glass-block floors.
The biggest retail tenant now is Bivouac, which sells outdoor gear and clothing from the former bank and several neighboring State St. storefronts. But owner Ed Davidson says that when he first talked to the arcade’s management company about renting space, they turned him down. “They said, ‘You look like a bum off the street, and you want to rent a clothes store?'” he recalls.
Davidson argued that the jeans and army surplus he sold were the new trend, but his long hair and brief credit history–he’d only been in business a year and a half–worked against him. So he phoned Dora Herbert to plead his case, offering to put up as many months’ rent as she wanted in escrow. To his surprise, she asked only for two months’ rent–and came to his grand opening in her wheelchair.
Today, Nickels Arcade is a mix of new and old stores. Entering the tobacco store is like being in a time warp, while Comet Coffee and Babo provide a hip European look. Many tenants have left the floor bare with the original maroon, gray, and white tiles. Some have also kept the mezzanines, usually for offices. The original bank safe and vault are still in the basement of Bivouac, used for storage.
The arcade does show its age. Tenants note that there are no elevators to the second floor, uncertain heat, and no central air. And as beautiful as it is, it’s a landmark mainly to people who spend time on campus. “I have people come in and say they’ve lived in Ann Arbor for twenty years and never knew this existed,” says Rich Bellas.
Still, the overwhelming opinion of the tenants is that they love the arcade. Graphic artist Mike Savitski, who designed the concourse banners announcing the 100th birthday, has had an office upstairs since 1998. He says he especially appreciates the location during Art Fair, when he can work quietly, then walk out to “find the place packed like sardines,” and at Christmas, when the arcade becomes “a Dickens-looking scene with greens hanging, lights glowing, troubadours singing, and the cold outside.”
Architect Lincoln Poley, a tenant since 1987, loves “the architectural style, the openness of the building, the fenestration, and the decorative elements.” Landscape designer Norm Cox (1995) appreciates “the sense of community combined with the cool factor of working in a pedestrian arcade located across the street from the Central Campus and all of its energy.”
“I’m an architecture and history buff from way back,” Savitski says. “The arcade embodies both these things. To walk through it several times a day is a real treat.”
from Calls & Letters, August 2017
To the Observer:
I read with interest your article about the Nickels Arcade in the July issue.
One of the longest tenants in the Arcade was Boersma Travel which opened in 1946 and did not leave until 2014 when it consolidated its offices on Jackson Road in Ann Arbor.