There is a peculiar accumulation of material culture above Wazoo Records on State Street. It”s like a piece of living history, something of a dream. For nearly 115 years, the loft space there has been used for everything from a dance hall to a third floor miniature golf course. At one time it was a corset factory, then an inventor”s laboratory. In the “20s there was gamblingand gambling can”t operate without alcohol, so the loft became a make-shift speakeasy for a time. Since the early sixties, it has been known as Arborvitae. For the past 39 years, its only constant has been Rich Ahern, a man as interesting as the loft he inhabits.
Picture a man in his early “70s with the intensity of a teenager. He”s well-traveled and been around the block more than a few times, but is filled with incomparable zest. “I never stopped rocking and rolling that”s my secret,” Rich says with a gleam in his eye. He never stopped reading either. Arborvitae is filled with thousands of books and articles on politics, globalization, democracy and the environment. Ralph Nader”s presidential campaign for Michigan was largely run out of this space and now it is an enclave of Green party members.
I wanted to know how he found Arborvitae.
“The story of Arborvitae begins 12 years before I moved here,” Rich says. “I was a senior at MIT and had a dream so real that I woke with a start. I saw plaster walls and a high-barreled wooden ceiling. I knew that someday I was going to live in a place like that.” A decade passed or so passed in which Rich got his doctorate in Europe and traveled the world. By the time he got back to the states 12 years later, he had largely brushed off the dream. That was when he rediscovered Ann Arbor.
He needed to find “office space suitable for an apartment” to begin his architectural work. In 1962, real estate agent B. Nichols Hall showed him a vacated dental office in what is now Wazoo Records. This wouldn”t do. It was too expensive and there weren”t enough windows. So Hall opened a door to the loft above “with a big set of keys that looked like something out of a grade B movie” and the two walked up the stairs. Under their feet, the staircase crunched with the sound of dead bats underneath. But the dark staircase opened up to a magnificent loft with thick-beamed ceilings.
“Fabulous!” Rich recalls shouting.
“I think we can work something out,” said the agent.
Here was the space Rich had been looking for. Rich then realized what he saw before him. “Here was the dream I had 12 years before.”
The first winter, he had no heat and no bathroom. He had a little space heater under his desk and had to go to the old Pancake House to use the bathroom. In the spring, draftsmen moved in to work for him. Soon they became interested in living there as well and it evolved into the 6-person loft it is today.
Now the bathroom is outfitted with a hand-made cement bathtubquite possibly the only one of its kind in the city. Next to the bathroom is the ninth hole of the old miniature golf course that was there when Rich moved in. Upstairs is Rich”s living space, where a library is being compiled with the goal of ending war. It”s quite possibly the most idealistic vision in the most idiosyncratic home I”ve ever encountered. There are remnants of 40 years of cyclical living patterns in Arborvitae. People have left things behind after they move out. Flags, lamps, furniture, art and propaganda. Each little piece of the material is a reminder of the impermanentthose fleeting lives that cross our own.
Josh Wickerham”s column runs every other week. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.