New self-guided tours offer a look at Ann Arbor's "living history" for city's bicentennial

Local history is right in the palm of your hand thanks to a new series of self-guided smartphone tours of the city. 
If you were shown a picture of the front door of the President's House at the University of Michigan (U-M), would you recognize it? What if you were turned loose in a local cemetery with a map to find the gravesite of Elisha Rumsey? What if you don't even know who Elisha Rumsey is? As Ann Arbor hurtles towards celebrating its bicentennial birthday on May 25, the answers could be right in the palm of your hand thanks to a new series of self-guided smartphone tours of the city. 

A2 SmartTours is a set of 15 self-guided smartphone-based tours boasting a range of themes – historical, downtown, campus, neighborhoods, riverwalks, and a scavenger adventure, to name a few. Hosted by the Ann Arbor District Library, each SmartTour includes a definitive, striking photograph, and an engaging story detailing each site's significance in Tree Town's timeline. 

"People are already reporting wonderful experiences. They're looking at places in the city differently, and with much more appreciation," says Norm Tyler, the chair of the SmartTours Subcommittee of the Ann Arbor Bicentennial History Committee. "It's a really entertaining way to learn about local history and get to know your neighbors throughout the year."

Every building has a story

Tyler, a retired professor and former director of the city planning program at Eastern Michigan University, confides that he created SmartTours in part to provide a way for Ann Arbor residents and visitors "to be a part of the city's living history." 

If Tyler had to name a favorite place in the world, it would be his own home — the historic Robert S. Wilson House in Ann Arbor. Also known as the Wilson-Wahr House, it's one of the sites on the Old Fourth Ward SmartTour and is considered one of the best examples of the Greek Revival style in the northern United States. Tyler and his wife Ilene, who has been instrumental in creating SmartTours, have written a book about the house. It's over 200 years old and considered one of the most important homes in Ann Arbor. Over two dozen more books on its history and significance exist. And when Ted Kennedy was running for president, he gave a speech there.  

"We're sitting in a pretty significant house," Norm Tyler says. "It's a warm, comfortable house. We're only the fourth owners. It's an important part of the city that people pass by, but to some it's just another big house."

While you can delve into the history of the Tylers' home and many others through SmartTours, he says, the tour series is not just "about buildings in the community. It's about building community." 
Doug CoombeSmartTours Subcommittee chair Norm Tyler.
Case in point: the Scavenger Tour, which Norm Tyler deliberately masterminded. 

"Maybe you can't figure something out. No problem," he says. "Maybe you could go ask your friends and neighbors for help. Who knows where the conversation could go?"

Norm Tyler reached out to his own friends and neighbors in the city's Old Fourth Ward to join the bicentennial committee and to help develop SmartTours. One of those neighbors is local historian Susan Wineberg, coauthor of "Historic Ann Arbor: An Architectural Guide."

Wineberg is a longstanding one-woman powerhouse in the historical preservation arena. She was born in Chicago but came to Ann Arbor to study archeological anthropology in 1964. She began sleuthing out clues about a single house in the city and eventually researched other local historic homes, served on the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission, and most recently wrote the narratives for eight SmartTours. 
Doug CoombeAnn Arbor historian Susan Wineberg.
"I never miss an opportunity to educate people about historic house preservation," she says. "Ann Arbor has so many incredible homes that need attention. Once these places are gone, they're gone."

Also retired, she lives with her husband, Lars Bjorn, in another spectacular historic house within walking distance from the Tylers, at 712 E. Ann St. 

"Sometimes I'm here and I think I hear the rustling of a lady's evening gown, but I don't think too much about the previous owners," Wineberg says. "There's a lot of history in this house."

She adds, "every building has a story to tell. Some are just more interesting than others."

A toast to the town

Wineberg adds that the physical structure of a building can connect history to the present. 

"We like to think of history as storytelling, and it’s very hard to tell some stories without the building," she explains. "The physicality of the building brings history to life."

Norm Tyler shares similar sentiments. While SmartTours can be explored online, he says it's a different, multi-sensory experience to be standing face-to-face with an important place. 

"If you stop at your smartphone or your computer, it won't have as much impact for you. You're just reading another history," he says. "Sure, you can look at an old building online, but if you go to the site [and] look at the building while learning about it, then it becomes more than a site. It takes on a very rich meaning and becomes an experience."
Doug CoombeJoann Green.
For anyone who visits all 177 SmartTours sites and reads the narratives, there are bragging rights to be had in the form of an official certification of completion autographed by Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor. Residents and visitors can get firsthand experience with SmartTours at the city's official birthday celebration, which begins at 11 a.m. May 25 at Liberty Plaza downtown Ann Arbor. U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell will be in attendance for the event, which will be emceed by local radio personality Lucy Ann Lance. After the party, at 2:30 p.m., three guided SmartTours groups will depart from Liberty Plaza. 

Joann Green has been wowed by SmartTours. She and her husband took the A2 Modern Tour, which includes the Palmer Residence, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. She first moved to Ann Arbor in 1968 to attend U-M, and is now retired in Pittsfield Township. SmartTours has given her a perfect reason to come into town and enjoy Ann Arbor as never before. 

"The modern homes were something we never really experienced before, so it was a learning experience," she explains. "They were just so stunning. I'm looking forward to doing some more tours with my walking group."

Green adds that Norm Tyler and his team should be "commended for a job well done." 
Doug CoombeSusan Wineberg, Norm Taylor, and Joann Green at the Robert S. Wilson House in Ann Arbor.
"They've done something wonderful for the city that's unique and interactive," she says. "I also like that it's designed for people of all physical abilities and ages."

Norm Tyler hopes that as word spreads about SmartTours, residents and corporations will support the volunteer effort. Donations are being accepted through the Ann Arbor Historical Foundation, SmartTours' fiduciary agent.

"We take it for granted that we live in a very special place. We top lists for the best places to live, raise families, get educated, and visit," he says. "SmartTours is about community pride. When you know about your community, you care about your community."

For a full list of SmartTours, click here.

Jaishree Drepaul is a freelance writer and editor based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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