Reality Beyond Dreams: A Brief History of The Ark
It is rare that reality exceeds our dreams. Yet that has happened at The Ark Coffee House over the forty-seven years of its existence.
In 1965, four Ann Arbor churches envisioned a gathering place for students — a coffee house like many that were springing up on campuses all around the country. First Presbyterian, Calvary Presbyterian, Northside Presbyterian churches and Campus Chapel (Christian Reformed campus ministry) set up a board with two representatives from each church. First Presbyterian Church provided the major portion of the funding and the church house on Hill Street… known as Hill House.
The focus of the churches was not to preach or proselytize, but to listen to the concerns of students and to provide a warm, safe, peaceful place to come together free from drugs, alcohol, and the storms of academic life and personal stress. It was meant to provide a creative outlet for talent in music, poetry and art work; to dialogue about the issues and questions of the campus community. And by December 1965, it had received its present name: The Ark. It has been afloat ever since!
EARLY MANAGERS AND PROGRAMS
George Abbott White, the first manager, began in January 1966. The early programs included presentations by and dialogue with faculty and other local folks. The political climate of the 60’s, with civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, provided the opportunity for many political as well as ethical and theological discussions. At the Thursday Night Forums you might hear a philosopher, a sheriff, a poet, an artist, or a theologian.
Gradually The Ark became a space for students to hang out and talk informally. Folk music, the popular genre of the day, soon became part of the offerings. The Wednesday evening Hootenanny (now known as the Open Stage) was started by Bob White who still occasionally performs at The Ark. Movies were shown on Monday Nights. Friday and Saturday nights’ planned programs drew a crowd. For a while worship services were held on Sunday nights. Shape note singing began and still continues to this day. Free coffee, tea, sandwiches and pastries were served between sets by “douloi” (biblical term for “servants”) from the various churches. Soon an Ark community developed and “The Ark volunteers” took over the serving, which they still do today. Two members of The Ark community were added to the board.
The Ark had several managers in its early years: Dan Giardina, Ms. Fran Lyman, and Rev. Jim and Ann Feiker, who started the present direction of The Ark. In January 1969, David Siglin was selected as manager. He said he would do the job for five years - tops. He retired from The Ark in 2008, having made it one of the most well-known and respected music venues in the country. That The Ark has survived since the 60’s is a miracle in itself, due in no small part to the vision, dedication and energy of Dave, with significant support and encouragement from Linda, his wife.
It seems that the first paid performer was Larry Henkel and several now famous people got their start at The Ark in the late 60’s. The Prime Movers, a rather raucous group, played at The Ark with James Osterberg on the drums, who is now known as Iggy Pop. Will Geer, later known as Grandpa Walton, performed the first “Tribute to Woody Guthrie” in the U.S. at The Ark. Gilda Radner, of Saturday Night Live fame, performed in the hoots as a student. These are just a few of thousands of folks who have performed at The Ark over the years.
The financial support from the four churches gradually dried up and The Ark had to support itself with monies from admission fees and donations. This ultimately moved The Ark to initiate a major fundraiser in 1977, the now yearly Ann Arbor Folk Festival, which is a major weekend event of fabulous entertainment. In the late 70’s the churches no longer supported The Ark actively and The Ark was reorganized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. By the early 1980’s First Presbyterian Church wanted the Hill Street property for its own use and The Ark ended it first phase of its existence.
The second incarnation of The Ark was at 637 ½ S. Main St. above the original South Main Market, currently the Neutral Zone. Ark II opened on September 8, 1984 featuring performer Michael Cooney. The Ark continued to flourish and on September 12, 1996, Ark III opened at its current location at 316 S. Main with a program featuring Greg Brown, the Chenille Sisters, Maura O’Connell, and comic/songwriter Andy Breckman, creator of the popular TV show Monk. In all three incarnations, The Ark has remained true to its purpose, now embodied in its mission statement:
The Ark is a non-profit organization dedicated to the enrichment of the human spirit through the presentation, preservation and encouragement of folk, roots and ethnic music and related arts. The Ark provides a safe and welcoming atmosphere for all people to listen to, learn about, perform and share music.
The Ark is governed by an elected volunteer Board of Directors, run by a staff of seven full-time and five part-time employees and supported by over 400 volunteers. The Board is elected by the organization’s Charter Members — a group that includes some of The Ark’s founding members, current and former Board members and other “keepers of the flame” dedicated to ensuring that The Ark continues to fulfill its mission far into the future.
Over forty years ago, no one could have imagined that those early beginnings as a campus ministry coffee house would develop into a world renowned folk, ethnic and alternative music club. Indeed, the reality of The Ark today has far surpassed the wildest dreams of the original founders.