Located between the entrances of Bivouac and Ashley’s on State Street, the Arbor Vitae Loft is a six-person co-op aiming to provide a counterculture safe space for live music, community activism and do-it-yourself art.
Amid high beamed ceilings and walls stacked with records, University of Michigan alum Tegwyn John, an advocate for the property, explained its rich historical role to The Daily. Arbor Vitae, John said, has long been seen as a symbol for creativity and self-expression in the Ann Arbor community.
Arbor Vitae’s history dates back to the 1800s. Over the years, it has functioned as a speakeasy, corset factory, dance hall and even mini-golf course. In 1962, Ann Arbor resident, traveler and architect Rich Ahern began renting the loft directly from Bee Nickels Hall, and converted the loft into a community living space. The loft is still owned by the Nickels family. John explained the eccentric nature of the loft is reminiscent of Ahern.
“He was so multifaceted,” John said. “He traveled the world a couple times on tours of inner-Asia — Afghanistan, Pakistan, in 1952 you know, when people weren’t doing that … He was trained as an architect at MIT in Mechanical Engineering, worked as an architect and community planner but his passion was drawing — drawing buildings and arts, and his life mission was to advocate for world peace.”
Since taking ownership of the space, Ahern has hosted bands, artistic performances, political organizing meetings and event lectures at Arbor Vitae. In advocating for world peace, Ahern was the first person to invite the Dalai Lama to Ann Arbor. John, a Buddhist, explains part of her connection to the loft is due to its role as a safe space for all religions.
“Part of the reason why I feel connected to this space is because I am Tibetan Buddhist,” John said. “So, a huge part of my personal identity, I feel I kind of owe to this place and to Rich for literally making a place for these, non-traditional, countercultural thoughts to be talked about and discussed. “
Now, almost half a century later, Arbor Vitae is in danger of being shut down as several aspects of the loft’s infrastructure have not met building code standards established by the state. John said when Ahern converted the loft into a living space, his relationship with the property owners allowed the lack of infrastructure to go unaddressed. Yet, after the shift in property management to Oxford Companies and Ahern’s death in 2004, the building has come under scrutiny.
“(Arbor Vitae) was based on Rich’s own communication power, after he died, people who lived here were intimidated by the city and property management companies and felt less and less agency to advocate for this place,” John said. “And that’s part of why it’s so under the radar now … tenants have kind of shrunk and tried to hide.”
Earlier this year, as the tenants were attempting to negotiate a new lease, the new management company ordered an inspection on the loft. Arbor Vitae’s facilities failed to meet building code standards on infrastructure such as internal heating.
“Oxford is the property management company, the people here were working to get a new lease, and a city inspection happened during that process,” John said. “They came in, and I think it was an inspector, and they threw the book at the place. Which is kind of understandable.”
The residents promptly received a “Notice to Quit” on Aug. 27., which gave them 30 days to move out. Lizy Michealson, a current resident of Arbor Vitae and University of Michigan alum, felt a sense of loss at the thought of losing Arbor Vitae.
“When we first found out, it was just in a very emotional stage,” Michealson said. “Essentially, we felt this very intense loss … A lot of things have changed in Ann Arbor and the entire world, and this place has been a witness to that.”
The Daily reached out to Oxford Companies for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.
LSA junior Solomon Medintz said saving Arbor Vitae is important for the Ann Arbor community because of both its rich history and also because of its affordability.
“Arbor Vitae has this amazing history of community space and organizing and art,” Menenditz said. “So many amazing conversations and meetings have happened there. That space should be preserved. (Arbor Vitae is) one of the only affordable options — housing options — on our campus, and I think we should be preserving all of the affordable housing options we can.”
In the face of complete shut-down, community activists and tenants rallied around the issue. On Sept. 3, a GoFundMe page was created to save the loft. The proceeds would go to possible renovations, preserving Ahern’s memorabilia. At the time of publication, the page had raised a little over $4,000, almost a fourth of its fundraising goal of $20,000.
John described her sense of urgency in saving the loft because it is one of the only counter-culture spaces left in Ann Arbor.
“I mean if this place goes, it’s the last nail in the coffin of Ann Arbor turning into a neo-liberal hell-hole,” John said. “From my perspective as a townie, this is the secret beating heart of Ann Arbor.”
Michealson reflected on why she is fighting to keep the Arbor Vitae alive.
“This place is like our family member,” Michealson said. “You don’t let your family member go. You fight for them. You make sure that they can stay and be healthy and impact other people’s lives.”
Correction: After publication, John clarified that the property belonged to the Nickels family, and that the residents received a Notice to Quit, not an eviction notice.