Nickels Arcade Celebrates 100 Years

By Grace Shackman

Nickels Arcade celebrates its Centennial this year and the Arcade and AADL are commemorating the milestone with exhibits, receptions and a digital history of the Arcade. AADL will host an exhibit at the Downtown Library beginning June 1, 2017, featuring photos, articles, and artifacts that tell the story of the first 100 years of Nickels Arcade. The Arcade "family" will have ongoing exhibits throughout the Arcade and a gala reception in July.

When Tom Nickels inherited his father’s State Street meat market, he decided to tear it down and build the elegant European-style Nickels Arcade that is still there one hundred years later. He bought the land all the way down to Maynard from his siblings and then hired local architect Herman Pipp to design. The section on the southeast corner, then Farmers and Mechanics Bank and now Bivouac, was finished in 1915, but the rest was not ready for occupancy until 1917 due to shortage of materials during World War I.

Soon the Arcade filled with up-scale businesses of the kind that European arcades aimed to attract. The oldest business is the barber shop, which opened in 1917 and, although changing owners periodically, has stayed in the same location offering the same service. The oldest store to stay in the same family is VanBoven Clothing, which opened in 1927 where the meat market had been located. The Caravan Shop opened the same year but has, like the barber shop, had different owners. Tom Nickels’ sister, Bee Nickels, opened a store that specialized in fine children’s clothing imported from Europe.

Many of the other stores that opened in the first decade stayed for years, including a post office substation (until 1998), Bay's Jewelry (three generations until 1992), and Betsy Ross Restaurant (closed in 1975). Women’s undergarments were sold at the Van Buren shop, owned by Mae Van Buren, who had managed that department at Mack’s Department Store and knew how to do perfect fittings. From 1932 to 1982, a mainstay of the Arcade was the Arcade Newsstand at the State Street entrance.

As the economy picked up after World War II, a crop of new stores opened that followed the pattern of pre-war tenants of staying for many years. Milford Boersma, who opened his travel business in 1945, was a pioneer in many phases of travel. Jessie Winchell Forsythe opened Forsythe Gallery, the first art gallery in Ann Arbor, in 1954. In 1956 University Flower Shop moved into space that had been Aunt Bees and has been a flower shop ever since. In 1987 the Arcade was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, the Arcade is a mix of old-time stores, such as the tobacco shop that opened in 1964 and Arcadian Antiques, which dates back to 1983, with very “now” concerns such as Babo Juice and Food and Comet Coffee, keeping the European feel.

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