A look at the successes and misses of the National Historic Register in Metro Detroit

The Ossian Sweet Family home, located on Garland Avenue and Charlevoix Avenue in Detroit, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. The home was bought by Dr. Ossian Sweet, a physician for his family, in 1925. The Sweets, who were African American, were bullied and harassed by the white community, who gathered in a mob outside the home and threw stones and bottles at the house. 

When the mob rushed the home, those inside fired shots, injuring one and killing another. But charges against the Sweets were dropped because they acted in self-defense. It was a triumphant ruling for the Black community and eventually became known as the Civil Rights movement. 

In 2018, Detroit was awarded a $500,000 grant from the National Park Service to preserve and restore the home and two others in the neighborhood. That award would likely not have happened without its national recognition through the National Register of Historic Places. 

From left, Jason Ridgeway, Chris Turner, and Bob Hoey. Photo by Dorothy Hernandez.

The National Register of Historic Places program was first created in 1966 to help the federal government identify places worthy of preservation. Today the program generates benefits such as tax incentives and provides cities with a cultural and historical focus. 

Historian Jim Gabbert reviews nominations from fifteen state and federal agencies around the country for additions to the Register. “It’s a point of pride,” he says. “A lot of people like to acknowledge the history of their home, their neighborhood, their community.” 

One common misconception is that placement on the registry protects property from being demolished. But property owners retain the final say in what happens to a building. Property owners are called on to make an effort to maintain the building with historically accurate preservation. It’s not a legal requirement but is required if the owner wishes their property to remain on the registry. If a registered property is destroyed or altered, it is removed from the registry within a few years. 

Structures eligible for the registry must not only be historical, but they must also hold cultural significance specific to the area in which they are located. The oldest home in a city, for example, might be of historic significance because it tells the story of that city’s history, or as in the case of the Ossian Sweet home, mark a location where a historical event occurred. 

It’s this aspect of the program that usually repels property owners from nominating their homes and buildings. It is one reason Rochester, the first European settlement in Oakland County, still doesn’t have a historic district. 

“There were well over 50 properties that were eligible [for a historic district], but when the property owners were approached, they didn’t want to be a part of that,” says Rochester-Avon Historical Society member Tiffany Dziurman. “Consequently, it comes down to the values of a community, and historic preservation is not always a popular topic. 

If some are against registering their buildings because of restrictions, what makes a City or an individual want to register and preserve its build history? 

“Our building history tells a profound story about our lives and our heritage. There’s that connection we feel to places. It’s largely about people,” says Todd Walsh, National Register of Historic Places Coordinator for the State of Michigan. “It’s telling the story about Michigan and communities. We didn’t just drop out of the sky. There’s a legacy here.” 

Since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer renewed state tax credits for historic preservation, there is more of a “practical reason” to preserve property, Walsh says. 

“I take seriously the fact that we're making a positive impact, and we’re helping communities tell their stories,” Walsh said. “Helping people put value into the things they value is what motivates me.”

Removed

But what happens to these stories when a property is removed from the registry? According to the National Historic Register archives, only three significant properties in the Detroit and Metro Detroit area have been removed in the past few decades. This usually occurs because a property was neglected beyond repair or there are financial reasons for its demolition. Such was the case for the mansion of Anna Dodge in Grosse Pointe Farms, which was removed in 1978.

The house was famous for its perfect architecture, the result in part because of Anna Dodge herself, who frequently corrected contractors. But when Anna died in 1970, the mansion needed a sponsor. The maintenance of the home was said to have cost more than $100,000 a year. 

No one came to its rescue, so the seventy-room mansion was demolished in 1976 and taken off the registry two years later. After Anna Dodge’s death, her great-granddaughter told a New York Times reporter that she predicted the home would be torn down. “Who can afford to keep up a place like that?” she said. “It’s ridiculous. There are too many people going hungry and starving. It just doesn’t make sense in our way of life.”

Anna Dodge Mansion, interior (DIA via Mattie Edwards Hewitt, 1972.jpg

Detroit’s Harper Hospital, which originally opened in 1864 for Civil War soldiers, was also removed from the register. The structure was built in a Gothic Revival style on property donated by Walter Harper. An 1864 newspaper article said that the hospital would be one of the “largest and most complete institutions in the west, it will be an honor to the city” once it was finished. 

It was placed on the national register in 1976 but was demolished in 1977 when the hospital decided it needed to modernize, and it was removed from the registry a year later. The DMC Harper Hospital has since replaced it and was built near its original site. 

Harper Hospital 1883 Burton Historical Collection

The Woodward Baptist Church was another site that was listed and removed.  When it opened in 1887, the historic church could seat 1500 people. Its grand pipe organ was built by the organ company owned by Hilborne L. Roosevelt, a cousin of Woodward Ave. Baptist Church 1911 Burton Historical Collectionpresidents Theodore and Franklin.

It was one of only two Roosevelt pipe organs in the state. (The other is located at the historic Methodist Episcopal Church in Caseville.) But in 1986, a large fire broke out and destroyed the church beyond reconstruction, so it was taken off the registry in 1988.

Rejected 

Some properties are rejected outright. Often it’s a case of documents being returned for inaccuracies or requests for more evidence to support the nomination. This could be the result of incomplete paperwork or because too much of the property has changed. 

Gabbert said this kind rarely happens, accounting for about less than 10% of the 1200 nominations his department receives every year. But some of the time, these returned nominations don’t get resubmitted to the registry. 

A local example of this is the Paint Creek Cider Mill in Oakland Twp. Its history did not justify it as a significant property based on architecture and original purpose. The returned paperwork states, “The nominated building seems to have been a vanity project.” 

The business of pressing apples for cider does not appear to have been a large-scale commercial undertaking for the owner but rather established for tourists and passersby. The paperwork goes on to explain the cider mill’s antique-looking wooden wheel replaced the original steel wheel that was used to generate electricity.Paint Creek Cider Mill. Via Flickr.

Historically inaccurate renovations, combined with a lack of historical significance, prevented the nomination from being successful. The nomination was never resubmitted.

“There may be any number of reasons a returned nomination is not resubmitted,” Jim Gabbert explains, “it could be that the proponents don’t want to spend the time and effort necessary to address deficiencies.”

He also adds that “All of the [government-employed historians] at the national and state levels are public servants. We’re here to help people understand what it is we do and why the registry is important, and why their structures may or may not be the best fit for the registry.”

 
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