A year ago, 212 S. State was a vacant lot. Hidden away behind Sava’s restaurant, it was accessible only from an alley off Washington or a sidewalk between the restaurant and Lane Hall. 

It was scarcely visible even before a small stucco building there was torn down after a 2015 fire. But that stucco building had a significant past—first, as the garage for Goldman Brothers Cleaners and then, for almost sixty years, as J.T. Abernathy’s pottery studio. 

Abernathy exhibited his work—often glazed in a gorgeous trademark blue—at every Ann Arbor Art Fair from 1960 through 2019. He founded a gallery that lasted, in several forms and locations, for thirty-five years. But it was at the studio that he made his greatest impact—as a creator, a trainer of apprentices, and a supplier of clay to other potters. He single-handedly made the unassuming structure a nexus of Ann Arbor’s twentieth-century craft revival. 

Abernathy will turn 100 this month. He has macular degeneration and can no longer make pots, but he still paints in the basement of the Miner St. home that he shares with his wife of thirty years, Teri Adams. Somewhat against his wishes—crowds make him nervous—his former apprentices are putting together a birthday party and gallery show this month. 

Meanwhile, 212 S. State is being transformed. This fall, a five-story apartment building rose up behind Sava’s. And Howard Frehsee is just getting started. 

Frehsee, the suburban Detroit developer who kicked off the student high-rise boom with Corner House Lofts in 2004, calls that building that replaced Abernathy’s studio “Little Brother.” Its “Big Brother,” facing Washington, will rise nineteen stories. 

Frehsee and Abernathy are creators from utterly different worlds. Their paths converged on that small slice of land off State St. 

 —

“Can you hear us clearly?” Adams asks. They’re calling from their car, because Abernathy can hear better when the phone is connected to its audio system. “We’re looking at a beautiful scene,” she says. “So we’re wonderful.”

Abernathy was born and raised in southeastern Oklahoma. He grew up, he says, “so poor and so hungry that I always worried about making a living.” 

He was studying to be an engineer when World War II called. He wanted to fly planes but “washed out,” he says, because of an eye condition. Instead, he repaired teletype machines for the Army Signal Corps. And when he got out, he says, “I didn’t want to do engineering anymore. 

“I went to the army psychologist, and I was on the GI Bill, and they gave me a bunch of tests for a week. And after the tests were over, they said, ‘We’ll pay for anything you wish to study.’” Though he had “a very high percentile in mechanics,” he’d also been told he had an aptitude for art—and that’s what he chose. 

“See, I had taken one pottery class at Oklahoma State and got hooked on clay,” he says. He had worked with wood and steel, but “clay—I had never worked with anything so malleable.”

“He took pottery classes and drawing classes,” says Adams—and married his drawing teacher. They relocated to Seattle and then to the Detroit area, where he completed his undergraduate education at Cranbrook, then added a master’s in kiln building. 

He landed a job as an instructor at the U-M art school, but within five years, “I was asked to leave by the dean,” Abernathy says. “I raised too much hell, I cussed my students out.” It didn’t help that he divorced his wife and married one of his students. That marriage lasted just nine months.  “I always wanted my own studio anyway,” he says.

He created one in the garage behind what was then Goldman Brothers Cleaners. 

“I went there [in 1956] with seven hundred and fifty borrowed dollars,” he remembers. “I just had one little room, and the pottery that I had been making at U of M, and I put it in there for sale.” 

That room was his workshop, his store, and his home. “For a while he slept on a sisal fiber mat in the front of the room,” says Adams. 

 Then Max Goldman—who founded the cleaners and owned the building—let him have the building’s other room too. “That’s where I made the first kilns, in one of those rooms,” Abernathy recalls. “And I made about five different kilns, out of bricks and stuff the students had brought from U of M. And from then on …” He pauses, and Adams finishes the sentence: “he was off and running.” 

 —

Abernathy and Adams met in 1976, moved in together in 1980 and married in 1991. “We took our time,” she says. She says she learned about his early years from talking to Abernathy and his former apprentices, members of the Potters Guild, and spending some cherished time with Abernathy’s mother in Oklahoma.

She describes her husband “as fundamentally, constitutionally independent and somewhat of an outsider—and difficult.” But people always appreciated his commitment and respected his skills. 

He’d built the first kilns at the Potters Guild, and “when he started his studio, women in the Potters Guild helped him,” Adams says. “They gave him money to go out to dinner. One woman in particular helped him a lot, Harriet Waite (whose husband, John, was a very successful attorney in town). She said, ‘Don’t worry about paying me back. Just take apprentices.’ 

“He always had apprentices. Sometimes they walked through the front door and said, ‘What’s goin’ on?’ and just didn’t go away. Sometimes a teacher would send them.”

The apprentices “got a check every Friday,” Abernathy says, “and they were supposed to work half-time for me, and then they could work half-time to make their own pottery.”

One kid showed up on a skateboard. “He would buy two bags of clay, and I would give him one, and he’d haul it all the way home on his skateboard,” Abernathy recalls. “And he said, ‘I want to work for you.’ 

“He was in only ninth grade. I said, ‘I won’t work with you until you at least graduate from high school, and I’d much rather work with you if you graduate from college.’” 

Stan Baker finished high school—but then he apprenticed with Abernathy and started going out on the art fair circuit. He’d lost his own father when he was young and still considers Abernathy his surrogate father. 

“He has influenced my life in many ways,” says art-tile maker David McAlpine, another apprentice from the 1970s. “His work ethic and his love of craft and art certainly continue in my life every day. Also his philosophy about quitting time: Clean up, have a glass of champagne (or beer) and a good meal, and start over in the morning … we were all treated like family and equals.” 

What drew young people like Baker and McAlpine to 212 S. State?

“I think it’s my sincerity,” says Abernathy. “I was a teacher at heart.”

 —

A few years after starting his studio, Abernathy rented a space in Nickels Arcade and opened a gallery. Adams helped him, but even so, she says, “it was a lot of work.” After ten years, Abernathy invited other potters to join him in a cooperative. The Clay Gallery “went from the Nickels Arcade to Liberty St. to Main St.,” Adams recalls, “and that lasted for
twenty-five years.” 

Abernathy also “set up—with help—a clay-processing plant,” he says. In a 1987 Observer article, Leslie Stainton described it: “Behind the door, huge machines grind out hundreds of pounds of damp clay at a time. Kilns roar, and customers’ telephone calls pierce the racket with an amplified ring sounding something like a factory whistle … the inventory of equipment includes two potter’s wheels, two hydraulic presses, a clay mixer, two extruders, a marble-topped work table, and even a washing machine.” 

The operation extended to the couple’s home, a “so-called farm” outside Whitmore Lake. Abernathy bought it in 1971 planning to open “my own little art academy there,” he says. “But it never happened, because I just bit off more than I could chew.” 

Instead, Adams says, he built “a very large warehouse where he had semitruckloads of clay” delivered. “And then every morning when he got up, he would load a pickup truck with the clay he needed for that day.” He’d haul them down to 212, mix and rebag the varieties he needed, then load them into customers’ cars or deliver them to schools all across southeastern Michigan. 

“That’s how we made a living,” says Abernathy candidly. “We didn’t make anything making pottery.” Adams also contributed an income—and benefits —as an IT administrator at the U-M.

They kept it up, Adams says, until the commute became impossible: Abernathy had begun to lose his eyesight and she’d started getting migraines and lost her job. So in 2003 they sold the farm, stopped mixing clay, and bought the house on Miner. Instead of working at 212, Abernathy started taking the bus to the Potters Guild on Hill. 

Two years later, Howard Frehsee bought Sava’s building from Max Goldman’s grandchildren. The deal included 212. Frehsee says that he “promised the Goldman family, because of their grandparents’ relationship with Abernathy, that I would give him a life estate there—that he would continue to be there until he no longer could.” 

Abernathy agrees that Frehsee honored that. But sometime around 2010, the couple stopped using the building. Within a week, Frehsee says, “a portion of the roof collapsed.” 

— 

Frehsee didn’t start out developing campus housing. “I’m an industrial and commercial guy,” he says. But when his daughter was a student at Michigan, she had to move out of her sorority one summer into a rental house. He picked her up there one day to take her out to lunch. 

“It was disgusting,” he says. “It smelled. It was dirty. It was dilapidated. The fire escape was rotted. I think to myself, ‘My kids mean more to me than anything and this is where my daughter is—in a rat trap, a fire trap.’ So that’s when my juices started going. I asked her how much Mom was paying for it and she told me, and then I started to think, ‘Hmm. I can probably build something for less than that that would be really safe.”

He did just that with Corner House Lofts at S. State and E. Washington. Then, he started assembling property on the other side of State. 

He says he bought the Goldman building because he loved it, knowing it was protected as part of the State Street Historic District. But he saw no reason to preserve the garage behind it, which, as he saw it, had lived out its useful life. 

The Historic District Commission disagreed, leading to what Frehsee characterizes as a prolonged but “respectful” back-and-forth. Though it was finally demolished after the 2015 fire, the vacant lot was still protected—and he says commission members made it clear they didn’t want it swallowed up in the high-rise he was already planning facing Washington. 

And so “Little Brother” was born. Because it’s lower and more traditionally designed, it makes a better transition from State St. to the taller building. It also, he points out, could be built with “‘bricks and sticks,’ meaning it’s lumber—it’s a less expensive construction.” To further keep costs down, most apartments will be small studio “micro-units.” 

While Big Brother will target students, he says, with the smaller building “I’m trying to help people who work in the community … I don’t have all the numbers yet—it’s still fluid. But it will be less expensive than the high-rise, to be sure.”

He also worked out a deal with the Michigan Theater to move its bathrooms—now in back of a building he needs to demolish on Washington—into the new building. When the HDC saw the plan, he says, “I think there was [just] one vote against it.” 

One thing Little Brother won’t have, though, is Abernathy’s State St. address. “Access to the property is really going to be off Washington St.,” Frehsee says. The fire department has a policy, he says, that a building’s address should also be “the most direct route to the property.” If it was on State and firefighters pulled up in front of the restaurant, he points out, “they would have to run along the north side, and if there’s outside seating, and it’s a summer day, it’s a dangerous condition. 

“So we discussed it and we said ‘Okay, let’s change the address to 630 East Washington.’” They’re aiming to welcome their first residents in the fall of 2024. 

Abernathy’s first show in ten years opens at the Gutman Gallery on N. Fourth Ave. on January 18—one day before his 100th birthday. Though he’d just as soon be at home painting, he expects to be there. “The cardiologist is very optimistic about my longevity,” he says.