HISTORY IN THE MAKING: New committee will determine historic worth of Ann Arbor's Germantown neighborhood
The stone walls and bell tower of the castle-like Bethlehem United Church of Christ rise high into the sky, casting shadows over adjacent properties along Fourth Avenue south of downtown Ann Arbor.
A historic marker out front says the Gothic-style church was dedicated in 1896 by German congregants whose ancestors first settled in the area in the 1820s and 1830s. They built two other churches, along with some of the earliest houses in the neighborhood.
Two doors down from the church, a sign in front of the Muehlig Funeral Chapel gives a nod to the chapel's own historic roots: "Established in 1852."
There's a nostalgic charm to Ann Arbor's Germantown neighborhood, where colorful turn-of-the-century homes and towering trees line the streets. If you ask Tom Whitaker, president of the Germantown Neighborhood Association, there's a case to be made for designating the area an official historic district.
"Even in some of Ann Arbor's best historic districts, you don't have this much continuous, in-place, original architecture," Whitaker said. "You go down the streets on the Old West Side, and there are very few blocks where you have continuous uninterrupted houses. A lot of them have been broken up by boxy, brick apartment buildings from the 1960s that were put up quickly to cash in on student housing. This neighborhood, for some reason, remained intact through all of that."
A new historic district study committee, on which Whitaker serves, has been formed to determine the historic significance of a two-block portion of Germantown. The portion includes the area along South Fifth Avenue where a developer wants to demolish seven turn-of-the-century homes to make way for an apartment complex called City Place.
The new committee - its seven members were hand-picked by city officials - will spend the next six to 12 months studying whether it makes sense to establish a historic district to preserve the neighborhood.
"There's a lot of work to be done," Whitaker said. "I'm generally pleased with the makeup of the group. There's a lot of good professional preservationists that have experience, and I think they will get right down to business."
Their duties will include a significant amount of field work, research and documentation. In addition to Whitaker, the committee members are Ina Hanel-Gerdenich, a local historic preservation consultant; Susan Wineberg, a past Ann Arbor Historic District Commission member; Sarah Wallace and Patrick McCauley, current Historic District Commission members; Rebecca Lopez Kriss, a graduate student at the University of Michigan; and Kristi Gilbert, who has served on past historic district study committees.
The City Council recently approved a six-month moratorium on construction and demolition in the proposed district while the committee, which has yet to hold its first meeting, completes its work. That, for now, holds up the development of City Place. And after six months, there's a chance the moratorium could be extended another six months while the committee continues to meet.
"Their task is going to be to examine the properties in the district to get some kind of inventory and understand the historic contribution they make to the community," said City Councilman Carsten Hohnke, D-5th Ward, who pushed for the formation of the committee and a moratorium.
At the developer's request, the City Council agreed in July to postpone consideration of the City Place site plan until the developer can come back in January with revised plans. Developer Alex de Parry has now decided to come back before the City Council Monday to ask for approval of a site plan that includes two, three-story apartment buildings with a total of 24 units and 144 bedrooms.
Jill Thacher, the city's historic preservation coordinator, said the study committee will assess the historic value and condition of buildings in the proposed district. It will take into consideration any modifications that have been done and will look at just how much historic material is left, she said.
Thacher said if the area becomes a historic district, all future building work beyond basic repairs would need to be reviewed by the city's Historic District Commission. If the work proposed is not appropriate or doesn't meet certain standards, the commission can reject it based on historic grounds alone.
Hohnke said there's no doubt Germantown has been a longstanding residential community in Ann Arbor. As one example, he points to the Beakes house at 415 S. Fifth Ave., believed to be one of the oldest surviving houses in the city. The house, which dates back to the 1830s or 1840s, has served at different times as home for two of Ann Arbor's mayors - Hiram Beakes, who was mayor from 1873 to 1875, and Samuel Beakes, who was mayor from 1888 to 1890, as well as the editor of the Ann Arbor Argus.
A number of properties in the neighborhood - including the Beakes house, which is slated for demolition under the City Place plan - were once recognized as individual historic properties. But the historic district they were part of was absolved of its status in 2001. Changes in state law determined historic districts must be made up of contiguous properties, not scattered parcels.
The new area being evaluated for its historic net worth includes a two-block stretch from William to Packard between Fourth and Fifth avenues. The actual Germantown neighborhood covers a larger area from Fourth to Division and William to Madison. Whitaker hopes the committee will look at expanding the study area to include a greater portion of Germantown.
Whitaker, a construction manager and real estate investor, lives at 444 S. Fifth Ave., directly across from the proposed City Place site. From the porch of his eclectic-style home built in 1905, he can see the row of seven houses that potentially face the wrecking ball. He also owns the home next door at 450 S. Fifth Ave., which he leases to a family.
Whitaker has a personal stake in whether the neighborhood receives a historic designation: It would help him pay for exterior renovations on both houses.
"The historic district would make that more possible because there'll be a 25 percent state tax credit for properties in the historic district for renovation costs," he said. "And for income properties like the house next door, you can combine the 25 percent state tax credit with a 20 percent federal credit, so theoretically up to 45 percent of qualified renovation costs for historic renovations can be tax-deductible. It's a tremendous incentive."
Martha Luczak, who lives with her family at 438 S. Fifth Ave., said she's anxious for the study committee to get to work. She, too, looks across the street at the seven homes that could come down if City Place moves forward.
"My dream would be that the homes would remain intact and that other families would pursue living down here," said Luczak, who lives in a home built in 1925 and originally occupied by the Schmid family, early leaders of the Bethlehem Church next door. "We feel very honored to be in these homes and to be stewards to these homes. Every house has its own file of history."
Tom Ziesemer, who has been going to Bethlehem Church for nearly 30 years, peered out the back window of the church on a recent afternoon, admiring the historic charm of the seven houses across the street.
"Those homes are beautiful over there," Ziesemer said. "You'd hate to see those houses come down and see that area modernized now."
Ryan Stanton covers government for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529.