Modern architecture tours to circle Ann Arbor 'hoods

Modernism in architecture is defined in broad strokes as building design that employs a simple, unadorned form. Washtenaw County, particularly Ann Arbor, has a plethora of residential examples built between about 1940 and 1970, many designed by professors at the University of Michigan School of Architecture, an embracer of the Modernist movement.

To that end, the county has just received a $6,000 grant from the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to develop walk/bike/drive tours of residential neighborhoods with large concentrations of Ann Arbor's Modern architecture.

This grant falls under the SHPO's sponsoring of a statewide survey to document Michigan's rich Modern design heritage. "We're hooking into that and we're saying, 'You know what, Michigan was very important in the development of Mid-Century Modern design, and here's some evidence.'" Milton-Pung explains.

The focus area will be just east of the University of Michigan campus, in the Ann Arbor Hills neighborhood and north of Geddes Road, says Melissa Milton-Pung, a project manager in the Washtenaw County Office of Economic Development and Energy. Many of the homes are located on Arlington, Devonshire, Heather Way, and Avon Roads.

While it's largely too soon to release specific locations, Milton-Pung mentions 830 Avon Road, a home built in 1954 for H. Richard Crane, a professor and physicist who was involved in the Manhattan project and instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb. And Indian River Place, off the north side of Geddes Road, has four properties inspired by modern interpretations of Japanese architecture.

The county is working with homeowners, the a2Modern group, archivists at the Bentley Historical Museum, and U-M's Taubman College of Architecture, to list about 40 properties that are fine stylistic examples of Mid-century Modern homes. The collection spans the work of 11 architects, many of whom are or were U-M professors of architecture and had connections with luminaries such as Mies van de Rohe and Charles and Ray Eames. The work of Robert Metcalf, a former dean of the Taubman College, will be featured prominently, Milton-Pung says. The tour will also include the designs of George Brigham, Bennett Wells, William Muschenheim, and Alden B. Dow, as well as Frank Lloyd Wright's Palmer House.

The properties will be designated on a downloadable map and brochure to be used for self-guided tours. The county is shooting to have the brochure ready by late summer or early fall, but definitely by year-end, Milton-Pung says. She also sees the potential to widen the scope to include guided tours and other neighborhoods county-wide, and commercial properties as well. The goal is not just touring, but to draw eyes to Modern architecture potentially at risk of being flattened.

"I think anybody who's interested in Mid-Century Modern understands that oftentimes because these don't look like traditional 'historic' properties like you would think of, say, a Beaux Arts courthouse or a Victorian house on the West Side, these properties are somewhat vulnerable because you'll have somebody come in and say, 'you know I like the property but I just want to tear it down and put something new where they are because it isn't really that important.'"

Milton-Pung would also like to see the restoration of a former victim of budget cuts - an updated countywide survey of Modern residential and commercial properties.

"We are in the process of seeing one of the icons of eastern Washtenaw county being lost to the community...the Ann Arbor-Ypsi bowl sign. If that property had been designated or there had been other ways to protect it, we wouldn't necessarily see it go away."

Source: Melissa Milton-Pung, project manager, Washtenaw County Office of Economic Development and Energy
Writer: Tanya Muzumdar

1055 Chestnut Street, Ann Arbor. Architect Robert Metcalf, built 1958. (courtesy of Washtenaw County)

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