The Kempf House: Analyzing the History of a Musical Landscape

Posted on May 16, 2013


ImageThe United States Department of the Interior placed the Kempf House Museum, at 312 S. Division Street in Ann Arbor, on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Built in 1853, its original owner was Henry Dewitt Bennett, who worked as the Ann Arbor postmaster before becoming steward and secretary of the University of Michigan.[1] He chose the Greek Revival style that was popular in Washtenaw County (and in the U.S. in general) at the time, with dramatic white columns and “ornate grillwork in the frieze,” for his home.[2] According to the museum’s tour guide, Bennett’s design was intended to be more “modest” than most Greek Revival houses; this is evident in its squared columns, much easier to maintain and replace than its round counterparts. One such predecessor still intact today is the Wilson-Wahr House, just down the street at 126 N. Division, the exterior of which has recently required significant renovations.[3] The Kempf House now displays what became Ann Arbor’s first school of music, when married German couple Pauline and Reuben Kempf,  both music teachers, purchased it in 1890. The house itself has a rich history, one that is only enhanced by placing it within the historical context of the City of Ann Arbor.

Division Street was not named, as is often the rumor, for its role in dividing a dry campus with the available liquor in the bars on the west side of town. The two founders of Ann Arbor gave it this name because of its status as dividing line between their properties.[4] But beginning in the 1860s, Division Street extending north to Broadway was indeed the unofficial “dry line,” separating the dry University of Michigan campus from downtown and the west side of the city. Division Street, undoubtedly, was a major thoroughfare for rowdy college students coming home from the bars of Main Street. This separation would last for one hundred years, even as the city expanded east, until furious business owners finally had the line modified, creating a small ring around the campus, then removed entirely in the 1970s. While this is a rather strange context to give the Kempfs, it offers a glimpse into the role Division Street played in defining the relationship between University students and the city.

Reuben and Pauline Kempf were teachers of piano and organ, and of voice, respectively. The studio in which they gave lessons and often hosted recitals is the most ornately decorated room in the house. It is the only room in the house that is not entirely chaste, and the Kempfs designed it this way because of the guests, both wide-eyed children and adult company, that they anticipated the room would serve. While the dining room (which originally doubled as its kitchen) and the bathroom and bedrooms upstairs are quite simple, the studio has lovely design elements in its doorways, its decorative carpeting, and its ceiling trim. Its obvious centerpiece is an 1877 Steinway piano, built with only eighty-five keys instead of the more modern eighty-eight.[5] It is Ann Arbor’s first grand piano; in fact, the Kempfs would often lend the piano to the University for performances by prestigious pianists.

The house today is outfitted with a modern kitchen and full bathroom, but its inception predates modern plumbing. As I previously mentioned, the original kitchen was part of the dining room; the current kitchen was the room for the housemaid. The upstairs bathroom, now converted to represent a children’s play area and sewing room, held only a bathtub. There was only an outhouse behind the house. I suppose this makes the context of drunken students stumbling about a bit more threatening; though surrounded by a white picket fence, it surely was not just invited guests who used the Kempfs’ bathroom!

The Kempfs lived quite simply in the house for sixty-three years, only updating the house for basic amenities such as modern plumbing. The museum guide informed me that the Kempfs never even built a closet, not only because their home’s dramatically sloped walls mostly prevent closet construction upstairs, but also because closets were taxed at the time they moved in. To own a closet was a sign one had more clothing than they needed.

The area near the corner of E. Liberty Street and S. Division is now a thriving commercial district, complete with upscale restaurants and boutiques. Mani Osteria sits directly on the corner and is widely considered the finest restaurant in the city. But the area’s appeal is complicated somewhat by the prominence of Liberty Plaza, a hotbed for illegal activity.[6] Constructed in 1977, Liberty Plaza suffers this plight due to its most unique design element: “The two-tiered nature of the plaza, with a seating area five steps below street level…immediately attracted behavior that could be hidden from police view.” While great programs such as the Sonic Lunch concert series have attempted to remove the stigma of the park, it remains a clear drawback to the neighborhood. Unfortunately, Liberty Plaza sits directly next to the Kempf House, offering a blighted juxtaposition to the beautiful Greek-style architecture of the museum (and likely driving would-be visitors walking up Liberty Street away).

A century ago, the area was largely residential.[7] Thus the Kempfs lived in what was likely a close-knit neighborhood, as its musical foundation. To the left of the Kempf House, at 320 S. Division, sits a gorgeous redbrick apartment building that was a small, private hospital from 1918 to 1940.[8] The Kempf House tour guide’s father, in fact, was born in the hospital. Dr. David Cowie was its owner and operator, and the hospital housed state of the art equipment and catered mostly to upper-class women. Its most famous patient was Francis Kelsey, namesake of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology on S. State Street, who died in the building in 1927. Today, only a few of the early 20th Century houses remain in the neighborhood, most of them across Division Street from the Kempf House, though almost all have all been converted to apartment buildings for students ((including the one in which I currently live). And while S. Division Street between E. William and E. Liberty is almost entirely student housing, it no longer feels close-knit for a few reasons.

The first is the addition of the Library Lane underground parking structure, which separates 320 S. Division and the Kempf House with the rest of the block. On weekends, automobile traffic pours into the structure at a constant rate, which makes walking on the west side of S. Division a frustrating experience. Secondly, the street has one-way traffic only, comprised only of three northbound driving lanes (plus a bicycle lane desperately in need of repair), which impedes crossing S. Division anywhere except at the crosswalks. Though the speed limit is posted at thirty-five miles per hour, one-way traffic generally encourages motorists to drive upwards of fifty miles per hour, particularly when the light at Liberty Street turns from green to yellow. Worse, the Library Lane structure exit has confusing signs, leading many cars to turn the wrong way down the one-way street, which leads to the inevitable long, panicked honking from cars traveling north.

Thus the Kempf House now lies on a uniquely difficult block of the city, in which various activities merge. Most commercial activity takes place on the north side of E. Liberty and beyond. Those who walk by the Kempf House are generally coming from or walking to the underground lot; those who drive by are likely traveling too fast to notice the house. It is now only open Wednesdays at noon for lectures and Sunday afternoons for tours.

The Kempfs were one of many significant German families who helped in the formation of downtown Ann Arbor.[9] Today, the Heidelberg Restaurant and the deceptively named Le Dog soup stand, owned by German chefs, carry on the city’s German legacy in subtler ways. It is fascinating to think of the crucial role the Kempf House played during the years that the Kempfs resided there, as a vibrant community arts center, in contrast with its forgettable role in its confusing modern landscape.

[1] “Panel Information: Residential Life in mid-19th-Century Ann Arbor.” Accessed March 14, 2013.

[2] Washtenaw County, Michigan Heritage Driving Tours, “Greek Revival Architecture: North Driving Tour of 19th Century Greek Revival Structures, Washtenaw County, Michigan.” Accessed March 14, 2013. 09 site update/histweb/histweb_tours/greek_tours.pdf.

[3] Kennedy, Roger. Greek Revival America. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989.

[4] Tobin, James. Michigan Today: The University of Michigan, “What Division Street divided.” Accessed March 14, 2013.

[5] Shackman, Grace. Ann Arbor Observer: Then and Now, “The Remarkable History of the Kempf House.” Last modified 2009. Accessed March 10, 2013.

[6] Feldscher, Kyle., “Liberty Plaza: City leaders look for ways to end crime, vagrancy issues at park.” Last modified 2012. Accessed March 14, 2013.

[7] Ann Arbor, Michigan, June 1888. New York: Sanborn Map & Publishing Co., 1888.

[8]Shackman, Grace. Ann Arbor Observer: Then and Now, “The Private Hospital Era.” Last modified 2009. Accessed March 14, 2013.

[9] Shackman, Grace. Ann Arbor Observer: Then and Now, “Old West Side Story.” Last modified 2009. Accessed March 14, 2013.