Ypsilanti’s Venerable Ark
Think back for a moment to the long-ago days of Sunday school. Quiz: Name a large and ancient wooden structure that had something to do with water, that contained extremely varied contents, and that moved from one place to another. It ended up on higher ground than its starting point. Near the end of its journey, it served as a launch pad for exploratory birds.
This description applies to the Biblical boat you thought of and to the huge onetime secondhand store at Washington and Pearl called, by weirdest coincidence, “The Ark.”
The Ark was built in 1837, the same year Michigan became a state. Its original site was on the now-vanished Water Street just east of the river. It was originally intended to serve as a tannery, where cowhides could be processed into leather.
Its site was in those days well removed from the few buildings that would grow to become downtown Ypsilanti. The site was likely chosen on purpose. Tanneries were smelly places, where piles of cow skins were scraped of their remaining flesh and soaked in vats of chemicals in order to process them into leather. A location downstream from downtown meant that meat scraps and used-up chemicals could be drained into the river without creating a stench in the stretch of river traveling through town.
In the mid-1800s, John Howland opened another tannery on the northwest side of the intersection of Forest Avenue and the railroad bridge, today the site of the Farm Bureau silo. Like the Water Street tannery, it was located on the fringe of settlement, for good reason. “The stench around [Howland’s] tanneries was terrible,” reads an undated local newspaper article from the Archives. “The odor often penetrated into the district surrounding Forest Avenue.” Howland’s tannery began producing leather goods in the 1870s, notes the article, up until 1918, when the Farm Bureau took over the site.
It may be that How land’s tannery siphoned business away from the Water Street site, or it may just be that the Water Street site never became fully operational. Perhaps the financial troubles of “The Panic of 1837” played a role. In either case, sometime before 1851 the building was disassembled, moved into the downtown area, and reassembled on the southeast corner of Pearl and Washington.
Shortly after its move and reassembly, the huge fire of 1851 swept through downtown Ypsilanti. “The city made heroic efforts to stay the flames,” wrote Harvery Colburn in his “Story of Ypsilanti.” “Ropes were fastened to the building known as ‘The Ark’ on the southeast corner of Washington and pearl, and futile efforts were made to pull it down. The fire, however, did not reach the building.”
The Ark stayed in business for the next 70 years. For a while it served as a blacksmith shop. Eventually it became what it is remembered for, a secondhand shop selling furniture, household goods, and a wide variety of other items.
The century turned and the Ark still stood in its historic spot. By now it was looking a bit decrepit, with ill-fitting window frames, missing panes of glass, uneven siding, and shreds of old posters dangling from its exterior. On the front of the building near the roof, a mannequin of a man dangled, wearing a sign advertising Smith Brothers’ cough drops. The Ark’s day was almost over.
Its swan song came in the form of pigeons.
“Joe Sim of 364 16th Street, Detroit, is interested in carrier pigeons,” said the June 19, 1911 Ypsilanti Daily Press.
“To teach them to fly long distances and return to their home, he brings a basket full of them, about 20, out to Ypsilanti, and lets them loose,” continued the paper. “Several people were seen Sunday morning standing by the ‘Ark’ intently looking up into the ethereal blue. It was about 8 o’clock. The pigeons were circling higher and higher above the city. They refused to light on the ‘Ark’ or return to it. These sensible birds, Joe says, will take about fifteen minutes to get their bearings. They were released at 7:45 and sure enough at 8 o’clock Joe announced, ‘They’re off, they will be home by 9.’”
Just a year after the pigeons’ departure, the Ark was torn down and a new building was built on its site. One of the city’s longest-surviving buildings was no more.