Article & Photos by Karen L. Brandt
Although hundreds of Streamline Moderne bus depots were built between the World Wars, very few remain today as example of the era's burgeoning emphasis on new modes of transportation and its optimistic, futuristic outlook. These buildings are a testament and celebration of the period's faith in technology and advances in building materials, such as cast concrete, curved glass, fluorescent lighting, aluminum, porcelainized enamel, and neon. The Ann Arbor Bus Depot is an excellent example of this style. Although it is currently in a state of disrepair, at the time of its construction, the depot's updated, curvy fašade looked as sleek and modern as the new vehicles that sought to transport the masses across America's growing interstate highways.
The Ann Arbor Bus Depot, located at 116 West Huron Street, opened for business at 1 pm on September 5, 1940. Owned by the Eastern Michigan Motorbus Company for use by the Blue Goose, Short Way and Greyhound bus lines, it was designed by the Cleveland, Ohio architectural firm Bonfield and Cumming, who designed several similar depots throughout the Midwest. The structure cost $60,000 to build and, at the time, was considered one of the most up-to-date facilities in the country. Ann Arbor Mayor Walter C. Sadler said the depot's opening could be interpreted as "an expression of confidence in the community and its progress."
The Depot is a steel framed, rectangular block (182' by 55') with a smooth exterior sheathing of Indiana limestone and granite that does not belie its steel reinforced infrastructure or mechanical works. Its rounded corners and curved window bays are typical of the Streamline Moderne style, as are its repeated horizontal elements: masonry banding at the roof line that mirrors that of the granite base and is repeated on the stainless steel marquee, stair rail and signage. These features not only evoke a feeling of movement and speed, but contrast nicely with the vertical emphasis added by the three-sided, porcelainized enamel, neon and steel sign placed asymmetrically atop the marquee.
The Depot's side and rear walls are buff brick masonry; the rear section shares a back wall with the Ann Arbor Visitor's Center. A porte-cochere, with a gridded steel roof and brick support beams, serves as a bus lane on the building's east side. The narrow rear of the building features a set of painted double wood doors, topped by a steel canopy.
Based on archival photographs, little appears to have been changed structurally on the exterior. The most obvious changes have occurred in the signage. Originally, the names `Blue Goose,' `Short Way' and `Greyhound' were spelled out in the horizontal bands on the vertical sign. By 1952, the sign had been changed to reflect the news lines housed there: `Bee Line, Short Way, and Greyhound.'
When constructed, the interior of the Ann Arbor Bus Depot consisted of a large, rectangular room housing a ticket counter, baggage room and exits to the platform on the east wall. The original floor plan reveals that the lunch counter was 300 square feet and sat 14 diners, while the center waiting area sat 62 customers. In the southwest corner a stairway with polished steel handrails led to the mezzanine level, which housed the restrooms. Although the original wall color is unknown, the waiting room seats blended into the color scheme with birch or maple benches and satin steel trim. The ceiling and the walls of the waiting area were putty finished, smooth plaster, and 'Keene's' cement plaster was used on the walls of the luggage room. Fluorescent lights decorated with the Blue Goose logo hung from the ceiling. The restrooms on the mezzanine level featured glazed tile walls and sheet metal partitions. The floors throughout were beige and brown terrazzo.
The current interior bears little resemblance to the original. The mezzanine has been walled off, and the ticket counter has been moved to the north wall next to the stairs; a small office area, covered in paneling, occupies the space behind the ticket window. The east wall houses a few lockers and a row of mostly empty pay phone shelves. Metal benches covered in birch veneer provide seating. Instead of a lunch counter, the waiting room has a vending machine and arcade games. The original flooring is covered with beige vinyl tile, and the plaster walls are sheathed with eight-foot tall metal sheets. The original terrazzo floor is visible on the stairs, mezzanine, and in the restrooms. The original banded steel stair rails and ceramic tiled walls in the restrooms are all that remain of the original interior.
Two other Streamline Moderne bus depots designed by the same architectural firm, Bonfield and Cumming, were built nearby and constructed in 1940. The Kalamazoo, Michigan bus depot, completed in January 1941 for the Blue Goose and Eastern Michigan Motorbuses Company, is nearly identical to the Ann Arbor depot in terms of their exteriors. Both are structural steel core rectangular buildings (the Kalamazoo depot is 94' by 66' 8") surrounded by Indiana limestone and a black granite base, with a porte-cochere bus lane. Both depots also featured similar curved, asymmetrical windows around the recessed doors and a band of masonry at the roofline. The only obvious difference on the fašade was the marquee; the Kalamazoo marquee was semi-circular with the Greyhound sign centered above it. Both canopies shared the horizontal ribbing typical of the Streamline Moderne style.
The lack of a mezzanine in Kalamazoo's depot distinguished it from the Ann Arbor depot, as did its lunch counter, which was 'M'-shaped and sat more customers. Both Depots had bay windows, birch benches, and the same style fluorescent lighting emblazoned with the flying goose motif.
Bonfield and Cumming's Windsor, Ontario bus depot, completed in May, 1940, demonstrates a variation of their depot style. The Windsor building had a rectangular, two-story fašade with rounded edges, and a two-story `tail' extending toward the back. The exterior was sheathed with sawed limestone and a black granite base, just as the two other depots, but demonstrated a different approach toward fenestration. The Windsor depot had a central recessed entryway with double doors flanked by rectangular windows separated. The windows on the second story were curved on their outer edges, similar to the Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo front windows. A horizontally-ribbed rectangular marquee with rounded edges similar to the one employed on the Ann Arbor depot was centered above the entryway; it had a four-sided Greyhound sign, decorated with porcelain and enamel, springing from the center of the marquee just as the Kalamazoo depot. The Windsor depot also shared the same horizontal edging at the roofline and flat roof with the other two depots.
The interior of the Windsor station was laid out differently than their other depots. Although the ticket booth and baggage claim areas were on the first floor, they were located in the rear corner of the Windsor station. The bulk of the remaining floor space was taken up by a larger waiting room that seated 90 people. A restaurant area was located in the front corner, and featured a few dining booths in addition to the counter present in the other two depots. A newsstand stood near the entry. The upper story housed two locker rooms in the rear, and restrooms and office space in the front portion. As in the Ann Arbor Depot, the waiting room of the Windsor station featured terrazzo flooring. Additionally, cement floors were used in the restaurant and locker room, a departure from the material used in Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, both the Kalamazoo and Windsor depots are no longer standing.
As one of Bonfield and Cumming's last remaining structures, the Ann Arbor Bus Deport is in dire need of cleaning, repair and restoration, an issue particularly vital due to its location next to the Ann Arbor Visitor's Center; visitors to the city will witness a bus terminal that has not been properly cared for as one of their first impressions of Ann Arbor.
Of the Depot's four sides, the facade seems to be in the best shape and is the most aesthetically attractive; unfortunately, the front entry is no longer used. Although the limestone and granite on the facade appear to be in good condition, the marquee's enamel is severely chipped and worn. The east wall, along the porte-cochere, is in the greatest state of disrepair, with a corroded roof, rusted aluminum window framing, and cracked windowpanes. There are several severe cracks running through the mortar in the masonry of the rear of the building, indicating possible structural damage.
The interior of the Ann Arbor Depot is in poor condition, also. Aside from cosmetic issues, such as dirty walls, the original terrazzo floors on the steps, mezzanine and in the restroom are in need of repair, as are the bathroom fixtures and original tile.
Unfortunately, although the Ann Arbor Bus Depot is the only example of Streamline Moderne architecture left in Ann Arbor, the building is currently endangered and restoration does not seem likely. The depot was listed on the Ann Arbor Register of Historic Places as an individual historic property in 1988; however, the building lost its designation during a lawsuit. The depot's current owner, First Martin Corporation, plans to tear down the building while incorporating its facade, canopy and sign into a ten-story office building on the same site. After a battle, the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission approved the plan in January 1999. Although no progress has occurred in terms of demolition, based on its appearance and lack of maintenance, it seems that the owner's plan may be, as preservationists say, 'demolition by neglect.'