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Posted on Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

Arthur Miller house on Division Street could face demolition if no one steps forward to buy it

By Ryan J. Stanton


The Arthur Miller house, which stands in the shadows of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research building on Division Street, is being used as a construction management office during the course of the ISR expansion project, which is expected to last through January 2014. It likely will be offered up for public bidding — with the stipulation that it must be moved — following completion of the project. And if no bidder is found, the house could be demolished.

Ryan J. Stanton |

A house where famous playwright Arthur Miller once lived when he attended the University of Michigan could be demolished if no one steps forward to buy it and relocate it.

That's what U-M officials indicated at a neighborhood meeting Thursday night as they gave an update on the $29 million expansion of U-M's Institute for Social Research building.

The 3,210-square-foot wooden house at 439 S. Division St. stands next to the ISR building, a block south of downtown Ann Arbor, and was Miller's first residence when he attended U-M in 1934.

"I just think it should be known, before it is demolished, what it is," said Ann Arbor resident Marilyn Bigelow, a self-described informal historian who showed up to Thursday's meeting to let U-M officials know she'll be fighting to preserve the house, which dates back to the late 1800s.

Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, penned more than two dozen plays during his career, including "Death of a Salesman," "The Crucible," and "A View from the Bridge." He often was in the public eye throughout the 1940s, '50s and '60s, and married Marilyn Monroe in 1956.


A scale model of the ISR addition is encased in glass in the lobby of the building. To mitigate for the loss of a pocket park on the northwest corner of the site, the university is planning to have a green roof atop the addition.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Miller died in February 2005 at the age of 89. The 280-seat Arthur Miller Theatre on U-M's North Campus remains named in his honor.

The house where Miller lived decades ago sits immediately to the south of the ISR building, where U-M began work this week on a 56,700-square-foot addition that expands the building's footprint closer to Division Street, replacing a pocket park on the northwest corner of the site.

Bigelow said she's been researching the playwright's time at U-M and learned that as a first-year student he lived in what was then a rooming house run by Elnora Nelson.

According to published biographies of Miller, Nelson was the widow of a dentist who made her residents store their luggage in a large wooden barrel in the attic containing old teeth. As the story goes, the future playwright quickly discovered none of those teeth had any gold crowns.

Miller, who later moved to a house at 411 N. State St., is said to have first made his mark in Ann Arbor as a writer for the Michigan Daily. He also contributed to the Gargoyle humor magazine.

Jim Kosteva, U-M's director of community relations, told Bigelow before Thursday's meeting he's interested in learning more about Miller's ties to the house.

City records show U-M paid $919,424 to purchase the Arthur Miller house in December 2010. It was last assessed at $178,100 before U-M bought it.

The house is being used as a construction management office during the course of the ISR expansion project, which is expected to last through January 2014. Kosteva said it likely will be offered up for public bidding — with the stipulation that it must be moved — following completion of the project.


The brick house immediately north of the project area at 417 S. Division already is up for bid. If no one can successfully relocate it, it will be demolished before long.

Ryan J. Stanton |

"The university's common practice has been to publish a notice and let people know that the home is available to be purchased and moved, and then it's a bid process," he said. "So obviously people submit bids if they wish to obtain a home, but it's clear they have to move it off the site."

Another house immediately north of the project area at 417 S. Division already is up for bid. If no one can successfully relocate it, Kosteva said, it will be demolished before long.

Brian Zybura, U-M's project manager, indicated the house to the north likely will be demolished in early October so its footprint can be used as a staging area during construction.

Kosteva said he's hopeful the Arthur Miller house will be purchased and experience a fate other than the wrecking ball.

"We're hopeful and optimistic that someone might be able to find a piece of property and the means to re-establish a new foundation for it and cover the costs of moving it," Kosteva said.

Bigelow said she has a better idea.

"I do think the university could afford to pay for the Arthur Miller house to be put somewhere else," she said, suggesting that should be a higher priority than other items on which the university is spending money. "If that's going to be destroyed, everybody should know."

Bigelow said she believes it would cost $40,000 to $50,000 to move the Arthur Miller house. She suggested the university should move it over near the Arthur Miller Theatre.


The orange space shows the footprint of the ISR expansion. The large gray area is the existing building. The two smaller gray areas on the southwest corner of the site are the footprints of two houses. One, the Arthur Miller house, still stands, while the corner lot is now a gravel parking lot.

Courtesy of University of Michigan

Aside from Bigelow and her husband Gordon, only three other residents attended Thursday's meeting. That included a property owner to the north, Dennis Vessels, and his son Kevin. They were concerned about how close the project will come to their property line.

As for the empty gravel lot just south of the Arthur Miller house at the corner of Jefferson and Division, Kosteva said nothing is being constructed there as part of this expansion.

Asked if they could explain the need to move or demolish the Arthur Miller house after the current expansion project is done, and what might take its place, U-M officials said they couldn't.

"The short answer is not really," Kosteva said. "We recognize that for the course of the next 15 to 16 months, it's simply going to be utilized as a facility for the construction management."

Kosteva confirmed what the site plan appears to show — that the addition doesn't expand the ISR building's footprint south to where the Arthur Miller house stands. Asked if there are plans for another future expansion, Kosteva said nothing has been presented to the board of regents yet.

"The use of that site has not been determined," he said.

Another of the tales Bigelow is able to tell after researching Miller's history in Ann Arbor is how he arrived here as a freshman from New York City in the 1930s.

"He came into the Union on a bus coming from Brooklyn, New York," she said. "Two days on the bus, he gets off at the Union, he sees the taxis, and he says, 'Take me to the Union,' so the taxi rider takes him all over town and then pulls up at the Union,' and he realizes he's been had. But somehow he finds this house that's really close to the Union to live in his freshman year."

Bigelow said she's going to do what she can to see to it that the Arthur Miller house is saved. At Thursday's meeting, she spoke of a house that was saved in Columbus, Ohio.

"One of the delights of Columbus, Ohio, believe it or not, is to go down and see the James Thurber house, which has been preserved on a boulevard near the downtown library," she said.

"And not only that, they have bought the Victorian next door for public literary meetings and various civic gatherings," she said. "So not only have they kept the Thurber house intact, but you can wander and touch and talk and go into the rooms, and it's the most delightful thing."

As for the Arthur Miller house, Kosteva said he thinks there's a keen interest in seeing that part of U-M's history retained as best as possible. But if it's determined there no longer is an institutional or mission-related use for the home, he said, it's the university's practice to let it go.

Zybura said the permitted work hours for the ISR expansion project are from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, though work typically will stop by 3:30 p.m. each day. U-M officials said it's not expected there will be much after-hours work, but it's possible.

"Some time in late November we're going to start doing the building foundations," Zybura said. "That'll go throughout winter, and in February the structural steel will start to go up."

By next spring, Zybura said, the building will start taking shape. And by summertime, he said, most activities from then on will occur inside the building.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Mon, Sep 17, 2012 : 4:09 p.m.

As someone who had the pleasure of living in this house, I too am sad to see it threatened by development. While there were many initials carved into the attic, Miller's were never found, although the search party wasn't very strong. Either way this house has a history, not just from Miller's time (sweet product placement, eh?) but my own with my roommates. So for our sake, please let it stand.


Sun, Sep 16, 2012 : 1:02 a.m.

From the text above: "... Nelson was the widow of a dentist who made her residents store their luggage in a large wooden barrel in the attic containing old teeth. As the story goes, the future playwright quickly discovered none of those teeth had any gold crowns." From page 3 of the work Mr. Stanton references in the link in his later comment, "Arthur Miller's America: Theater and Culture in a Time of Change" edited by Enoch Brater: "... Nelson, the widow of a dentist (she made all of her residents store their luggage in a large wooden barrel in the attic containing old teeth; the future playwright soon discovered that none of them had any gold crowns)." These are, for all intents and purposes, identical. A couple of padding words have been added or altered, but whole phrases remain intact. The article makes no effort to cite or reference this work. This appears to meet the standard definition of plagiarism.


Sun, Sep 16, 2012 : 2:41 a.m.



Sun, Sep 16, 2012 : 12:06 a.m.

If I had the money I'd buy it in a NY minute! I have always loved this house. I hope someone, or an organization will step up and save this historic home from destruction!

K Thompson

Sat, Sep 15, 2012 : 10:53 p.m.

Kinda sentimental, just becaus he lived there? Maybe save one of his old kleenexes too. Did he carve his initials in the banister? He does have a theater here named after him, ya lnow.

Tom Whitaker

Sat, Sep 15, 2012 : 12:36 p.m.

Putting aside who lived here or even how old or wonderful this particular house is, the real point is this is a place where people could continue to live, close to where they work or go to school. This will bring the total to three houses (on is already demolished) the University has purchased at this location, simply to tear them down. From what I understand, none of them are even in the footprint of the new building, but they'll be torn down anyway. The University should put away its sustainability flag. Can no one in the administration see how illogical it is to tear down places where faculty, staff or students could live and walk to work or class, and then build multi-million dollar parking structures, run buses all day, and pave green fields all over town to accommodate commuters? These three houses could have continued housing as many as 30 people for decades. That means 30 new bedrooms of housing will need to be built farther away, more traffic, and more wasted energy, all for no reason. But hey, they just bought a few hybrid buses right? Hurray.


Sat, Sep 15, 2012 : 12:04 p.m.

Creepy about the teeth. I wonder if any of the houses where America's first and most demented (and financially successful) serial killers- Dr. Harold Mudgett- alias HH Holmes lived while attending the University of Michigan medical school? Does anyone know? That would make a great story.


Sat, Sep 15, 2012 : 11:30 a.m.

Hooray for the Buckeyes for saving a historical house! The Wolverine administration sure could use some of their foresight. Save the building yourselves. Follow the example that the buckeyes set!


Sat, Sep 15, 2012 : 12:24 a.m.

Pave paradise and put up a parking lot!


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 9:37 p.m.

Take some nice photos and put up an historical marker.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 6:10 p.m.

UM can pay $900K for a $200K house but can't afford to move it ($50K)...BS! If this course is not changed, do we let all the remaining downntown historic homes be demolished at some point? These homes are what makes us different from all the other crappy towns full of concrete boxes...UM should be restricted on demolitions!!! City Council should address this. This is our town too, some respect!


Sat, Sep 15, 2012 : 11:39 a.m.

I'm tired of the U just cramming their expansion plans down the throats of AA residents. Remember the historic homes on wall st.? The U of M administration has no soul.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 10:09 p.m.

So he lived there for a short time. Big Deal! I hear Elvis flew over once!


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 5:18 p.m.

Did Miller OWN the house or just live there?

Rick Fitzgerald

Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 4:30 p.m.

The headline on this story jumps ahead to a decision that has not been made and will not be made for quite some time. As Jim Kosteva, U-M director of community relations, already told, the university has no intention of demolishing the house and has made no decision on the future of the house where Arthur Miller first lived in Ann Arbor. Any decision about future use is a long way away.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 3:44 p.m.

I'm kind of surprised no one mentioned the amount U of M paid for this, given what it appraised for: "City records show U-M paid $919,424 to purchase the Arthur Miller house in December 2010. It was last assessed at $178,100 before U-M bought it." I doubt it dropped 200% since the purchase date, so I'm assuming they paid a lot more than it was assessed to be worth. Why is that? Is that what the seller was asking? And if so, why would someone pay it? Is it because of their bottomless financial resources? Overpaying seems like it would still be overpaying, regardless of how much you have to spend.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 6:28 p.m.

@ahi: I get were you coming from, but obviously the house is actually worthless to the buyer. Only the lot counts for development purposes. Assessed value is irrelevent, as its what the market will accept. If your buying a house 200K, sure. If you building a $28.1 million dollar expansion and need the space, then it becomes a $29 million expansion.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 5:04 p.m.

I think it's safe to say it was under-assessed. No way is a downtown lot + 3200 sq. ft house worth only 178k. Based on other area house sales, $919k is a pretty good deal.

Stephen Landes

Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 3:11 p.m.

I took the time to check out the Thurber House web site and found that this house was the family home for four years -- a far cry from a one year student residence. The "Arthur Miller" house is really the "Elnora Nelson" house. I can't see that this particular house has any relevance to understanding or celebrating Arthur Miller; it's more like the dozens (hundreds?) of places that claim "George Washington slept here".


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 3:01 p.m.

Why not have the City, or another developer, buy both the Arthur Miller and brick houses and move them to the newly vacant spaces on Main street? It preserves the history of the buildings and keeps the historical feel to the neighborhoods. They should be able to fit perfectly in the newly vacant space where the Greek church used to be.

Linda Peck

Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 2:59 p.m.

I'm too tired to fight anymore.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 2:55 p.m.

Doze it. No one cares anymore.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 2:19 p.m.

I know Greenfield Village had a house moved from Ann Arbor to their location. It is similar to the Kempf house. I wonder if they are thinking of moving it as well. Otherwise, Ann Arbor looses its charm, again.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 2:58 p.m.

Yes because that house was oh so charming looking...


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 1:47 p.m.

I'm all for historical preservation, but this is a reach in my book.

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 1:31 p.m.

Here's a good recap of Arthur Miller's time in this house and the housemates he lived with. Apparently they spent a lot of time playing bridge:


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 1:27 p.m.

Did anyone notable ever live in one of the renovated dorms? Should we not renovate a dorm room that James Earl Jones once lived in? I see a big difference between someone living in a house vs. being a tenant among many in a house. I also would question what someone accomplished while in the house, i.e. "he wrote this play while living in the house".

Ann English

Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 11:38 p.m.

Someone living in a house, not square in the middle of a university? Walt Whitman's last home, the only house he ever bought, there in Camden, New Jersey, has been turned into a museum about him and is on the U. S. National Register of Historic Places. He didn't write Leaves of Grass there, but revised it several times. Not the kind of house that can be moved; it was a rowhouse, so there's no open space between it and the houses on either side. I don't see this house which Arthur Miller never owned being turned into a museum highlighting his life and accomplishments.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 1:24 p.m.

Ann Arbor's a small town, really. Let's preserve what historical buildings we have. Regional differences bring visitors to town. I believe that the construction craze we are living through brings us closer to looking like Southfield everyday. The idea of moving the Miller house near the Miller theatre is a good one...even though it would be sad to see another piece of history deleted from our increasingly cement and brick downtown. (I heard it called Restaurantville by a downtown store owner recently - under local government policies and decisions, the change over time has been dramatic.)


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 5:42 p.m.

Ann Arbor is anything but a "small town". Plus its just a old house, there will be more. I PROMISE


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 1:19 p.m.

Sounds like it would make a great "Drinking Establishment". Books of Arthur Miller on the shelf and single malts being served.

Go Blue

Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 1:17 p.m.

As usual, tear it down and put up a big parking lot or whatever. Nothing is sacred in this town, old is bad and should not exist. We need new, new and more new. Why do we not try to save anything historic? After a few years, that shiny, new building is going to look not that great and just like another big box with no appeal.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 2:57 p.m.

That is generally how cities continue to grow, if the house had some architectural appeal then maybe it would be worth the time to consider it. In this case though it is just a very common looking house where someone lived for a year. Not really a big deal.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 12:56 p.m.

I guess my real question here is why the plan is to knock the house down when the ISR expansion doesn't even go anywhere near it anyway. What's the point of suddenly knocking it down now? Just to save some money and do both things at once? "Oh, hey, while you're here..."

Tom Whitaker

Sat, Sep 15, 2012 : 12:17 p.m.

It'll probably become a surface parking lot. They won't tell you that now, but just wait...


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 12:50 p.m.

It looks like more research went into this article than any other done by in the last year! Very telling.

Peter Baker

Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 12:46 p.m.

The comparison to the James Thurber house is specious at best. Thurber was FROM Columbus, worked as a reporter at the Columbus Dispatch, and is buried in Columbus. He was far more significant to Columbus than Arthur Miller was to Ann Arbor. If college towns went around trying to save every apartment that any notable alumni has ever lived in, this place would look like Greenfield Village.


Sun, Sep 16, 2012 : 12:18 a.m.

@timjbd Or the Robo-Cop "Ugliest building ever"


Sat, Sep 15, 2012 : 1:59 p.m.

Having it look like Greenfield Village is preferable to having it look like Anycementboxland, USA.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 12:36 p.m.

They should call This Old House magazine. They have a feature every month called "Save this old house": Somebody would be interested in taking this project on.

Brad Jensen

Wed, Sep 19, 2012 : 9 p.m.

I have contacted this Old House Magazine and the are looking into it. Stay Tuned!


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 12:29 p.m.

So what if Arthur Miller once lived there? This is just a dwelling, and when it was built there was likely no intention that this dwelling would stand as long as the Colosseum. Let's move on -


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 12:27 p.m.

Maybe Mrs. Bigelow should belly up to the bar and layout the $40,000 or $50,000 she believes it will take to preserve the buliding.

Wolf's Bane

Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 12:19 p.m.

There another huge chunk of the city's history. Too bad Americans don't care about history.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 2:18 p.m.

Ann Arbor has been destroying history left and right because the UM can do pretty much whatever it wants to do simply because it is scooping all the land it can and make it tax free without any consideration to who or what might have lived there. Glad Arthur Miller is not alive to see his home destroyed to more blight by the UM.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 12:49 p.m.

I don't think many Ann Arbor residents are hanging their hat on the fact that Arthur Miller spent some time here.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 12:13 p.m.

To avoid any future scuffles in the city, if I become famous, I won't be offended if you knock down my freshman year dorm room.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 12:45 p.m.

Best post yet!

Eric S

Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 11:48 a.m.

So, someone who became famous lived in a building for a year, before they became famous. None of the work they're famous for was done in that place. That hardly makes the building historically significant, especially a house that has seen extensive modification since that time. Not everywhere that George Washington slept is historic either. "Arthur Miller lived here" would be a cool story to go with the house if it can be saved, but it's not worth much special effort.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 3:42 p.m.

You took the words right out of my mouth. It's hardly the place where he did his great works. Are we going to preserve every rooming house where a famous person stayed?


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 11:08 a.m.

Maybe the DDA could relocate it to the library lot space. . . It would make a nice farmhouse for an urban farm. . . Then, we could grow some crops on the library lot, too. . . And, have some hoop houses for early growing starts. . .


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 6:23 p.m.

That's a really cool idea!! You should formally propose it to City Council.


Fri, Sep 14, 2012 : 11:55 a.m.

I like that idea. Not sure the DDA would be my first choice to take on any project I wanted to see succeed, though. It would fit on the Palio lot, too. That would be a rare instance of the U and the city working in tandem (for reasons other than making money for some private entity, though). So that's out.