The worn, creaky floorboards on the second story of Burnham House betray the building’s historic past.

Jessica Boullion
Burnham House, which now houses the James D. Reader, Jr. Urban Environmental Education Center. Built between 1837 and 1839, Burnham House is the oldest building on campus. (RODRIGO GAYA/Daily)

Burnham House, which guards the Washington Heights entrance to Nichols Arboretum, is the University’s oldest building. Construction on the building started in 1837, the year the University moved from Detroit to Ann Arbor.

The 170-year-old building now houses the Arboretum’s James D. Reader Jr. Urban Environmental Education Center.

The building was originally located on Wall Street, near the medical campus. It was a boarding house until 1968, when it was converted into doctor’s offices.

In the mid-1990s, the University purchased Burnham House with the intention of tearing it down to make room for a parking lot.

After locals argued that the historic building shouldn’t be destroyed, the University offered Burnham House to any University unit that would pay to move the house. Nichols Arboretum decided to turn the venerable building into an education center.

“We thought, ‘Well, hey, let’s rescue an old building,’ ” said April Pickrel, business operations coordinator for the Arb.

On Feb. 8, 1998, Burnham House was lifted onto a flatbed truck and taken to its current location outside the Arb. Traffic was blocked for hours as the 210-ton house rolled down East Medical Center Drive at about 3 mph, The Michigan Daily reported at the time. Construction teams were on hand in case the building fell apart in transit.

Burnham House increased interest in the Hill neighborhood and made the entrance to the Arboretum safer, she said.

“There has been an increase in good visitor activity and a decrease in illicit visitor activity,” Pickrel said. “It seems more welcoming.”

Burnham House underwent more than a year of renovations before it opened in 1999. It now serves as an education center with administrative offices, classrooms and a conference room.

Two tenants – at least one of which must be a graduate student at the University – live year-round in an apartment on the second floor. They don’t pay rent, instead working 10 hours each week for the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.

Arb employees and visitors enjoy the building’s old-fashioned charm, Pickrel said.

“It’s been really great to have a building with history,” she said.


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