Historic Preservation in Washtenaw County
Washtenaw County is Michigan's only county-wide certified local government. Its historic preservation program is dedicated to supporting local historic districts, spurring heritage tourism, and attracting investment in our historic resources.
The Washtenaw County Historic Preservation Program is housed within the County's Office of Community & Economic Development. The program includes the Washtenaw County Historic District Commission and its staff.
To date the staff has conducted several historic preservation projects, spanning nearly three decades of identification, documentation, and analysis. Since the 1990s, several of these projects have been partially funded by grants provided by the State Historic Preservation Office's CLG grant program. These include the Washtenaw County Thematic Survey (1996-1997); and the HistWeb project (2002 to present), public workshops, heritage tours, and site-based projects in Chelsea, Dexter, and Ann Arbor.
Learn more about historic preservation, the Historic District Commission, and our efforts to preserve local history
Current Activities and News
Willow Run: Arsenal of Democracy
A Fresh Take on Ypsilanti Area History
The Washtenaw County Office of Community & Economic Development has launched a new web-based heritage tour, Willow Run: Arsenal of Democracy. Powered by cutting edge technology from ESRI’s Arc-GIS Story Map platform, it was funded in part by the MotorCities National Heritage Area and the Ypsilanti Convention & Visitors Bureau. This visually-rich web-based tourism product allows community members and visitors to easily access local history stories from their desktop and mobile devices.
Willow Run: Arsenal of Democracy Story Map integrates images of the Willow Run Bomber Plant, B-24 Bombers and Rosie the Riveter, and goes beyond popular history to give a glimpse of everyday life for those who participated in the war effort in the Ypsilanti region. This web-based tour "helps to raise the profile of Southeastern Michigan manufacturing while enhancing the underpinning of our local heritage,” said Mary Jo Callan, Director of the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development. Debbie Locke-Daniel, President & CEO of the Ypsilanti Convention & Visitors Bureau stated, “This Story Map is a great way to let the world know of the national history Ypsilanti has in its own backyard. Ypsilanti’s automobile story is not just ours but everyone’s.”
$6,000 Won by County Historic Preservation Program for the Creation of an Ann Arbor Modern Homes Tour, in Alignment with Statewide Project
Funding from the Certified Local Government Grant Program has been awarded to Washtenaw County, which is partnering with a2modern, a local affinity group of architects, homeowners, and historians to produce a walking/biking tour of architect-designed mid-20th century homes in Ann Arbor.
It is known that Michigan was a leading influence in post-World War II era design, and the home of numerous influential architects, many of whom were associated with the University of Michigan.
This tour is expected to draw architecture afficinados to Ann Arbor from throughout Michigan and the Midwest with highlights including homes designed by Robert Metcalf, George Brigham, and Alden B. Dow.
This grant project allows time and resources for Washtenaw County staff to work with the a2modern's volunteer group to assess current resources, expand survey, and develop content for a brochure to be produced in conjuction with the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office. It will also put into place the historic resource documentation, evaluation, and recommendations which may result in subsequent grant applications for an expanded Michigan Modern focus in the Ann Arbor area and subsequent heritage tours.
Here is the Guide for the Ann Arbor Hills Walking Tour
Historic Marker for Washtenaw County Dedicated
The Washtenaw County Historic District Commission dedicated a new Historic Marker on August 27, 2011.
The L.C. Allen House, located on Mooreville Road in York Township is the newest recipient of a Washtenaw County Historic Marker.
Sally Clark, current owner of the house researched the house history and found L.C. Allen. Allen, the original owner of the home, was a prominent citizen in York Township and Milan.
More than 30 people attended the dedication, including family and friends of Clark, WCHD commissioner and staff, members of the Milan Historical Society and descendants of L.C. Allen.
Rededication of Washtenaw County's First Historic District --
USS Washtenaw County 1166 LST Artifacts on Loan from US Navy
After sitting in storage for several years, the artiffacts from the USS Washtenaw County 1166 LST (landing ship tank) have a new home. The artifacts, on loan from the United States Navy, now reside in a new museum quality case in the lobby of the Washtenaw County Building located at 200 N. Main. The redeciation of the County's first Historic District took place on May 7, 2011.
$25,000 Raised for Gordon Hall Rehab Plan
Partnership between Washtenaw County and Dexter Community Group
Washtenaw County is working with the Dexter Area Historical Society & Museum to promote historic preservation, heritage tourism, and economic development, on a project valued at nearly $25,000. This Washtenaw County Local Historic District is located just west of Dexter.
Gordon Hall has a colorful history, with ties to local pioneer Judge Samuel Dexter, slaves smuggled through the Underground Railroad, and 20th century birth control pill research advocate Katherine Dexter McCormick. This impressive Greek Revival style home was built in 1841-1843, and was originally part of a sprawling 1700-acre estate including land area in both Scio and Webster townships.
The local firm of Hopkins Burns has been hired to create a Historic Property Rehabilitation Management Plan for the site, which will provide a blueprint for its care, management, and reuse as an important center of community life in the Dexter area. This project was completed in 2011. Staff continues to advise historical society leaders on plan implementation and grant seeking.
$22,000 Grant Won by Washtenaw County for Chelsea Center for the Arts Historic Property Rehab Plan
This project, completed in 2010 and located in downtown Chelsea, was valued at almost $37,000 in total. It produced a Rehabilitation Master Plan and National Register Nomination for the Chelsea Center for the Arts (CCA), which occupies the former St. Mary's School building. It aslo provided vision for the continued use of this building as an art center and preschool.
This project contracted with Thomas Roberts Architect, a Southeast Michigan firm. A particularly gratifying moment was seeing the Board of the CCA rally to fully support the care, reuse, and expansion on‐site within their historic building. This project has absolutely met the goal of raising awareness and investment in historic preservation in Chelsea, tied it to key arts and culture leaders in the community, and set the stage for CCA's upcoming Capital Campaign.
Heritage Tourism is an important part of Washtenaw County's economic vitality.
Heritage Tourism supports local businesses, links tourists and local residents to local foods, and promotes the retention of property values. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a well-managed tourism improves the local economy and its quality of life, and also builds community pride. As concluded by a 2010 national research study (The Historic/Cultural Traveler by the U.S. Travel Association and Smithsonian Magazine) 78% (118 million) of U.S. adults who traveled in 2009 were considered cultural heritage travelers.
Visitors to historic sites and cultural attractions stay longer and spend more money at locally owned businesses, hotels, and restaurants than other kinds of tourists. In 2009, cultural and heritage visitors spent, on average, $994 per trip compared to $611 for all U.S. travelers excluding the cost of transportation – 62% more per trip than the average traveler.
Ann Arbor Modern Tour
This tour is a sampling of the extensive residential work undertaken by architecture professors at the University of Michigan for their colleagues and other professionals in the Ann Arbor Hills neighborhood. These houses were built between 1950 and 1970 when the booming postwar economy created a growing demand for new housing. In Ann Arbor, this period of building resulted in a remarkable collection of fine architect-designed homes in the Modern style, sometimes called Mid-Century Modern. The tour also includes a house designed by Robert Pond and the first house designed in Ann Arbor by Michigan architect Alden Dow—a home for his sister Martha Towsley.Download the Tour
Washtenaw County's Award-Winning Heritage Tours!
The Washtenaw County Heritage Tourism Map Project offers four distinct themed driving routes to guide visitors and locals through the County's cities, villages, and rural areas. The project serves to celebrate the region's rich heritage and highlights a variety of historic and cultural resources.
On the German Heritage Tour, tourists venture onto the back roads of Freedom, Lodi, and Scio townships to witness a landscape dotted with traditional farmsteads associated with the State's largest and first German settlement. They can follow the Historic Barns Tour through Bridgewater, Manchester, and Sharon townships to see examples of nineteenth and twentieth century structures associated with one of the region's strongest industries: agriculture. Those interested in Greek Revival Architecture can choose from the North Tour, South Tour, or selected stops in western Washtenaw County to view the style as expressed through a range of building materials (from fired and adobe brick to wood siding to cobblestone) and a variety of forms typical from the early settlement through the post-Civil War periods. Finally, those interested in the local history of northeastern Washtenaw County may enjoy the Esek Pray Trail along Ann Arbor-Plymouth Road as it travels through Superior Township. This tour features a variety of exceptional nineteenth century residences, one-room schoolhouses, and other resources all tied to the family of Esek Pray, a founding leader of the State of Michigan, and his contemporaries.
The Heritage Tourism Map Project is funded in part by a Certified Local Government grant from the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office and supported by several local partners, including the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Ypsilanti Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Saline Chamber of Commerce, Saline Area Historical Society, Washtenaw County Historical Consortium, and the Genealogical Society of Washtenaw County. For more information, please contact Melissa Milton-Pung, Washtenaw County Project Manager, at (734) 544-2954.
County History and Resources
Washtenaw County was formally established January 1, 1827, several years after the first pioneering settlers arrived to an untouched region cut by several Native American foot paths and travelers. According to Chapman's History of Washtenaw County (1881), the Legislative Council of Michigan Territory defined the boundaries of Washtenaw County in 1822. Washtenaw is a variant of Wash-ten-ong, a Chippewa name for Grand River. The Huron River valley was originally home to a large Native American population. In 1680, the French explorer La Salle passed eastward through this region canoeing from Portage Lake down the Huron to Lake Erie. French fur traders and Jesuit missionaries soon followed.
The land was diverse, ranging from flat lake bottom land in the southeast to rolling hills filled with small lakes to the northwest. Woodlands punctuated with small oak openings (once referred to as arbors) filled the space in between. Four years after Michigan became a Territory in 1805, Godfrey, Pepin and La Shambre established a trading post known as Godfrey's, on the Pottawatomie Trail in what is now Ypsilanti. Many pioneers saw economic opportunity by harnessing river power for sawmills and gristmills. Major Benjamin Woodruff, who purchased 160 acres of land in 1823 in Ypsilanti Township, is commonly acknowledged to be Washtenaw's first settler. A year later John Allen collaborated with Elisha Rumsey to plat the town of Ann Arbor (originally Annarbour), named for Allen's wife, Ann, and the burr oak opening present on the site.
Early area transportation networks developed from the rivers and Native American Trails. In 1827, the Chicago Military Road was built along the Great Sauk Trail (now Michigan Avenue from Ypsilanti through Saline and to Clinton). Two years later, the Territorial Road to St. Joseph (now US-12 parallel to I-94) was built. The completion of the Michigan Central Railroad's Detroit-Ann Arbor connection in 1839 symbolized the beginning of a new era of immigration, economic accessibility and growth for Washtenaw County.
Since its founding, the County has grown in population, accommodating settlers from New England, New York, and southern Canada; and immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and other parts of Europe. The County has ranked among the top counties in Michigan for agricultural production, and become known for its sheep and as the home of the University of Michigan. The University, founded in Detroit in 1817, moved to Ann Arbor in 1837. Located in Ypsilanti, the Michigan State Normal School (now Eastern Michigan University) was established in 1849. It is the oldest teachers' institution west of the Allegheny Mountains.
The County established its county seat in the City of Ann Arbor, but it also has several other cities and villages, including Ypsilanti, Saline, Chelsea, Milan, Dexter, and Manchester. It is filled with interesting architecture, beautiful landscapes, and many stories. To learn more about its history, please check out these references and web links.
The Washtenaw County Historic District Commission is always accepting applications for potential Local Historic Districts. For more information, please contact Melissa Milton-Pung at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-544-2954.
A Local Historic District is an entity that protects the integrity of a historic resource or group of resources. In 1970, the state of Michigan passed the Local Historic Districts Act, PA 169, which safeguards a community's heritage by allowing local governments to adopt an ordinance that contains design review guidelines based on national standards. A Historic District Commission is selected to implement the ordinance, and provide support to each resource. The Washtenaw County Historic District Commission (WCHDC) was created in 1974 and currently oversees thirteen Local Historic Districts. Its mission is to protect the historic buildings, sites, objects, and landscapes of Washtenaw County and to promote a culture of historic preservation.
The primary functions of the Washtenaw County Historic District Commission are to:
- Identify, document and inventory historic county resources
- Foster protection of historic resources by the establishment and maintenance of historic districts
- Provide educational programs and information regarding Washtenaw County history and historic preservation issues
- Recognize significant heritage sites through a program of historic markers
- Support local and state historic preservation organizations
- HDC Calendar, Agendas and Minutes
- 2014 Washtenaw County Historic District Commissioners
- Washtenaw County's Local Historic Districts- including complete HDC Commission Reports!
- Local Historic District Annual Staff Report, 2013
- WCHDC Ordinance (pdf)
Local Historic District Tool Kit
- Washtenaw County Local Historic District Poster (doc)
- National Register of Historic Places FAQ (doc)
- Michigan State Historic Preservation Office Geneology of a House (pdf)
- Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation
- Steps for Historic District Designation (doc)
- Word Version Application for Local Historic District Designation (doc)
- PDF Version Application for Local Historic District Designation (pdf)
- Application for work in a Historic District (Certificate of Appropriateness) (pdf)
- Outline of procedure for review of work in a Historic District (pdf)
- Michigan State Historic Preservation Office Designation Process Flow Chart (pdf)
The following resources provide more information on the various incentives available to historic property owners.
- Historic Preservation Tax Credits
- Levels of protection for Federal and Local Historic Preservation Programs (doc)
- National Register FAQ (doc)
- Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation
- Washtenaw County Historic Preservation FAQ (pdf)
- What is a Historic Resource? (PowerPoint)
Washtenaw County's Historic Resource Database
HistWeb is Washtenaw County's online database of Washtenaw County historic sites. Started in 2002, the database highlights over 4,000 historic resources in an internet mapping tool.
For more information on historic preservation:
Other Certified Local Governments in Washtenaw County:
- Ann Arbor Historic Preservation
- Saline Historic District Commission
- Ypsilanti Historic District Commission
Regional and National Resources:
- Michigan State Historic Preservation Office
- Michigan Historic Preservation Network
- Michigan Barn Preservation Network
- National Trust For Historic Preservation
- National Park Service
Melissa Milton-Pung, Project Manager