Alex de Parry • A Passion for Preservation

Ann Arbor Builder & Developer Steps to the Forefront Restoring Saginaw’s Most Treasured & Historic Buildings

    icon Oct 29, 2021
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“Architecture was the first art to be engulfed by the totalitarians, who distorted the search for simplicity in modern architecture to monotony that destroys the past by dislocating us from the intricate nuances of history and leaving us further isolated in the empty landscapes of psychoses.  Our buildings have come to look like one another and cease to function with the art, beauty, and mysterious proportions of the past.”

                                                                                                                          -        Norman Mailer, ‘The Big Bite’.  Esquire Magazine, 1963

As the Saginaw Board of Education prepares to demolish the Frutchey Bean Building all for the sake of building an unneeded school, one of the most iconic structures remaining in the city connecting us not only with our historic legacy, but also our sense of placement and identity, now joins the ranks of the wrecking ball along with other irreplaceable buildings such as The Saginaw Auditorium and The Franklin Theatre, to name but a few.

While the neon bean bunny that once leapt across the expanse of the midnight sky, instilling us with a sense of mirth and promise is no more, thanks to the focus, commitment, and passion for preservation of Ann Arbor developer Alex de Parry, fortunately dozens of other irreplaceable, iconic, and historic buildings populating Saginaw’s Old Town Historic District and Downtown area have been saved from the wrecking ball -  renovated, restored, and refurbished to a stature and significance they should be destined to occupy within our community.

Since 2014, when he first invested in restoration of the Pankonin Building,  on the corner of Court St. and Michigan Avenue, which quickly became the home for Rock Your Locks, de Parry has also been instrumental in restoration of the Lee Mansion on South Washington and contributed heavily to the restoration and salvation of the Roethke Stone House on Gratiot Ave - part of the childhood compound of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Theodore Roethke.

He also acquired the historic Court Street & N. Michigan  buildings that serve as homes to Mr. Van’s Shoe Repair, Bauer’s Jewelers, Saginaw Tattoo, WUB Wheel, and The Barnard Building, which is home to Cebulla Jewelry and Prim Beauty Suites along with two apartments; along with the P.C. Andres Building at 412, 414, and 416 Court Street that houses Adomaitis Antiques, Thrive Social, Little House Antiques, along with 118 N. Michigan Ave. which is home to Liquid Lounge and two apartments.

A couple years ago de Parry acquired 200 and 204 S. Michigan Ave., which is currently home to Audio Gazing and Prem Yoga; along with 208 S. Michigan Ave., which houses Saginaw Beauty Suites and was formerly the Bethesda Thrift Store and up until the late 1950s, the West Side Post Office.

de Parry also completely remodeled the building at 411 Hancock, which formerly was the Hamburger Hut when it opened in the 1930s and closed in 2010 and is currently home for The Bread Guy; and his most current projects undergoing renovation are 413 Adams, known as the Case Building, which was formerly a funeral parlor and now offers 10 commercial spaces, either retail or studio; along with 110 South Hamilton, Jake’s Building, which is called the West Bank Lofts and features 11 condos currently under construction and three first floor office or retail spaces.

Outside Looking In

Alex de Parry got his start in real estate, building, and renovation back in the summer of 1969, when he first came to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan. “I was going to go to medical school but needed to become an in-state student because I was from Illinois, so I bought an old house to establish residency.  But as we all know, whenever you buy an old house you’ve got to fix it.   I had to take a year off anyway to establish residency, so I started off by picking up old houses nobody else wanted,” he explains.

In 1971 just after graduating from the University of Michigan and fresh out of college, de Parry founded his own company, Ann Arbor Builders.  At that time Richard Nixon was president, the average price of a new home was $28,300, and the average size of that home was 1525 square feet.  Most people thought it was perfectly normal for a family to have one bathroom and for kids to share a bedroom.

“Once I formed Ann Arbor Builders, I began buying and restoring old homes throughout downtown Ann Arbor,” he continues. “Throughout the decade the company expanded its portfolio, managed its own properties, and was hired to restore old and historic properties besides my own.   In 1976, the company ventured into land development and homebuilding when it bought 65 acres in Hamburg Township, split the land into 17 sites, put in roads and utilities, and began building homes.”

“Once I got out of the student housing rental market, my focus was primarily on land developing and condominium developments,” he notes. “We got involved in new construction and built thousands of single family homes and hundreds of lots.”  

The company has since served as the umbrella under which its operating entities have developed many subdivisions, built hundreds of single and multi-family homes, completed numerous residential and commercial remodeling projects, and owned, restored and managed many residential and commercial properties throughout southeast Michigan, southeast and southwest Florida and southeast Georgia.

Now, more than 45 years later, Alex is still at the helm, making Ann Arbor Builders one of the oldest companies in Ann Arbor still owned and run by its founder.

“When I started out I enjoyed being my own boss, but then I quickly realized that the trade-off is how you get to work 60 or 70 hours a week when you’re your own boss. Now I’m mainly involved with condominium development and management projects and we’ve gotten out of building 20 or 30 new houses a year.  I’m 74-years old now and have pulled back to only working 40-hour weeks,” he smiles.

“Honestly, my own inexperience at the start formed the very foundation of my company’s philosophy: listen to your client. And that’s what we’ve been doing for more than 45 years now. I believe in taking a personal, partnering approach to every project that I undertake.  For me the key is helping people break down decisions into smaller, manageable parts, so the process is fun and exciting rather than overwhelming.”

So how did Alex begin his involvement with the restoration and preservation of Saginaw’s architectural legacy?

“A friend of mine by the name of Tom Germain who I went to college with was from Saginaw and his family goes back three or four generations,” explains Alex.

“He was my Saginaw connection and his relatives go back to the 1870s to Peter Charles Andres, who was a former Mayor of Saginaw.  Tom had the Pankonin Building and the Barnard Building and some of these properties in Saginaw that had been in the family for years and years and he asked me if I would be interested in partnering with him.” 

“I said, ‘Sure, I’ll come up and take a look.’  I’d never really been to Saginaw. To me it was a town you pass on your way up I-75 when you’re traveling north, so when Tom introduced me some of these Old Town business owners back in 2014, I was impressed and thought it could be an interesting experience.  The first one we did was the Pankonin Building, which we completely restored to its original 1880s look. It had been covered in metal siding and was a very ugly building, but we turned that all around.”

What prompted de Parry to make a commitment of this magnitude to the community of Saginaw? “I liked the people and I liked working with the city,” he reflects. “The business owners are great in Old Town and I saw some good business opportunities, plus I love old historic buildings.”

Given that many people view historic buildings as involving too much work and being too costly to renovate, arguing it’s better to start from scratch, de Parry seems to take the opposite approach.  Why is he so attracted to older buildings?  

“I like the architecture,” he responds. “It’s hard to replicate what was built a hundred years ago; and frankly, you simply can’t do it because it’s too expensive. But if you have a good shell and if the bones are good, everything else will fall into place.   The Case Building is a good example of that.  People thought that would be difficult to renovate, but it was somewhat easier because of the way the rooms were laid out. They converted nicely into either retail or office spaces, so we took the existing floor plans and made them work.”

Given Saginaw’s reputation for destroying rather than salvaging its historic buildings, has Alex formed any opinion on why the city has such a propensity to tear down its older structures?

“Well, fortunately Old Town Saginaw is a historic district, which gave that area a level of protection that some of the buildings downtown on Genesee street never had,” he reflects. “I don’t really have an answer to your question. I think it was a 1980s or ‘90s mentality to tear everything down and they will come, but then you just end up with a. lot of vacant lots.  Because Old Town is a historic district, you can’t just tear stuff down, so that did protect a lot of those structure from the wrecking ball.”

“That being said, they’re about to tear down the old Stevens Building on the riverfront because it’s a non-contributing building to a historic district,” continues Alex. “There’s not architectural value to it and it’s just a big concrete box that was built in the 1930s, so there is a fine line to walk.  Just because something is old doesn’t mean we have to keep it.  Some of these buildings aren’t worth keeping because they weren’t built well. And in actuality, when they built the Stevens building they did not pay attention to the footings, because the building is settling along the river bank because it was built on fill. The Jakes Building, on the other hand, was built further up the hill and is a fantastic old building.”

“Another problem that Saginaw has is loss of population,” notes Alex. “Sometimes you get into maintenance issues and the cost involved with that, but the good thing about Old Town is that it has new businesses coming in and new people visiting it. It has a good mix of restaurants, bars, and retail and is a safe area that people enjoy, so all these factors need to come into play.”

“Once these projects get renovated they pretty much run themselves,” concludes Alex. “What hurt the most was COVID, because it shut everything down. Fortunately, all the businesses in Old Town seem to have survived, but now we’re fighting materials shortages and labor shortages.  If we can find the materials to finish projects we’re currently working on, those materials are really expensive; plus we have more work than we have people around to do that work, so those are the two biggest challenges right now.”

“I believe in always keeping my eyes open to new opportunities, but it has to make economic sense. If a project makes sense, we’ll pursue; but if it doesn’t, then I believe in letting someone else take it on.”


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