Op-ed: Save the Huron Street Houses!

Monday, December 2, 2019 - 12:08pm

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In May 2019, our neighborhood — the Old Fourth Ward Historic District — found out that three houses within our historic district would be demolished by the University of Michigan to make space for a new College of Pharmacy. We received a three-day notice of the meeting, which was held on the Dearborn campus, making it difficult for us to attend. I wrote the Board of Regents instead of attending and got no response.

Over the past several years, the University of Michigan has demolished houses they owned in the Old Fourth Ward Historic District. We were upset that even after the University promised to consult with our neighborhood group, it demolished these houses without warning. Since announcing plans to demolish the three houses, the University has responded positively to our request for documentation. When historic buildings are demolished, they are usually documented for posterity so that historical styles, methods of construction, materials used and technologies employed can be noted and passed onto future generations. This documentation is of immense value to architectural historians.

The houses to be demolished form the southern border of the Old Fourth Ward Historic District, which was established in 1983. Historic districts are regulated by the city of Ann Arbor’s Historic District Commission, but the University doesn’t have to abide by these rules, being an independent body. However, these buildings are special for architectural and historical reasons. In addition, demolition is recognized by many as unsustainable behavior due to the amount of energy spent in both creating the buildings and the amount of trash that is sent to our landfills as a result of demolition. Close to 30 percent of landfills are composed of plastic and metal. As we say in the preservation community, “the greenest building is the one already standing.”

The histories of the houses are linked with the University’s history. The house at the corner of Huron and Glen was built in 1895 for Josephine Murfin, whose son James later became a University Regent. Murfin Avenue on North Campus is named after him. It is a beautiful example of the Queen Anne style with some unusual features, such as the rounded corner and the triple windows. This combination of features is rare in Ann Arbor.

The large limestone building at 1015 E. Huron began construction in 1905 as the Nu Sigma Nu Medical Fraternity. Unlike other fraternities that moved to Washtenaw, Nu Sigma Nu remained at this address until 1965. The building is a Georgian Colonial style with a semicircular limestone bay and a crenelated roofline. Stone quoins are at every corner, making it look like a medieval castle.

The most outstanding building is the house at 1007 E. Huron. This wooden clapboard and shingle house is a rare example of the Shingle style in Ann Arbor and was built in 1891. It is characterized by its rounded windows, saw-tooth shingles and broad expanse of roof. It still retains its “porte cochere,” under which ladies would descend from their carriages. It was built by Charles Whitman, who later became the State Commissioner of Railroads. Later, it was used by two different fraternities until purchased by the University.

Thus, the buildings all have historical connections to the University and represent unusual examples of late 19th and early 20th-century residential architecture. Many other universities use buildings like these as incubators for smaller units on campus. An article published on Sept. 4, 2019 in The Daily revealed that the University was “centered on enhancing student life with an emphasis on sustainability” and that the University wanted to “bring the Ann Arbor community and the University together.” Two excellent ways to start would be by respecting our local historic districts and keeping more refuse out of the landfill.

In historic preservation, sustainable preservation subscribes to the idea that there are tangible ecological benefits from reusing already constructed buildings. The National Trust for Historic Preservation notes that “historic preservation can — and should — be an important component of any effort to promote sustainable development. The conservation and improvement of our existing built resources, including re-use of historic and older buildings, greening the existing building stock, and reinvestment in older and historic communities, is crucial to combating climate change.”

The University could also set a great example by keeping these buildings in place and finding another site for the College of Pharmacy closer to the medical campus. They could at least try to find a place to move these buildings. In addition, it could consult with neighborhoods that have a stake in the outcome of their projects to facilitate better town-gown relations. These actions could be a first step in showing they are sincere in their beliefs.

Susan Wineberg is the author of “Historic Ann Arbor: An Architectural Guide.”