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


The Ossian Sweet Family home on Garland Avenue and Charlevoix Avenue in Detroit was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. The house was built in 1925 by Dr. Ossian Sweet, a family doctor. The African Americans were bullied and molested by the white community, who gathered in a mob in front of the house and threw stones and bottles at the house.

When the mob stormed the house, inmates fired shots, injuring one and killing another. But charges against the candy were dropped because they were acting in self-defense. It was a triumphant decision for the black community and eventually came to be known as the civil rights movement.

In 2018, Detroit received a $ 500,000 grant from the National Park Service to maintain and restore the home and two more in the neighborhood. This award would likely not have come about without their national recognition by 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 launched in 1966 to help the federal government identify places worth preserving. Today the program generates benefits such as tax incentives and offers cities a cultural and historical focus.

Historian Jim Gabbert is reviewing nominations from fifteen state and federal agencies across the country for inclusion on the register. “It’s a point of pride,” he says. “Many people like to acknowledge the history of their home, their neighborhood, their community.”

A common misconception is that placement in the registry protects property from demolition. But the owners have the final say on what happens to a building. Property owners are encouraged to endeavor to keep the building in a historically correct state. This is not a legal requirement, but is required if the owner wants their property to remain in the registry. If a registered property is destroyed or altered, it will be removed from the register within a few years.

Structures eligible for registration need not only be historical, but also have a cultural meaning specific to the area in which they are located. For example, the oldest house in a city could be of historical importance because it tells the story of that city or, as in the case of the Ossian Sweet house, marks a place where a historical event took place.

It is this aspect of the program that usually prevents homeowners from nominating their homes and buildings. This is one of the reasons why Rochester, the first European settlement in Oakland County, still lacks a Historic District.

“There were well over 50 eligible properties [for a historic district]But when the owners were approached, they didn’t want to be part of it, ”says Tiffany Dziurman, member of the Rochester-Avon Historical Society. “So community values ​​matter, and preserving history is not always a popular topic.

If some are against registering their buildings because of restrictions, what drives a city or individual to register and preserve their building history?

“Our building history tells a profound story about our lives and our heritage. There is this connection that we feel to places. It’s mostly about people, ”said Todd Walsh, coordinator of the National Register of Historic Places for the state of Michigan. “It tells the story of Michigan and its communities. We didn’t just fall from the sky. There’s a legacy here. ”

Since Governor Gretchen Whitmer renewed state conservation tax credits, there has been more of a “practical reason” to keep property, Walsh said.

“I take seriously the fact that we are making a positive impact and helping communities tell their stories,” said Walsh. “Helping people to value the things they value motivates me.”


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 areas have been removed in the past few decades. This usually occurs because a property has been irreparably neglected or there are financial reasons for its demolition. Such was the case for Anna Dodge’s mansion in Grosse Pointe Farms, which was removed in 1978.

The house was famous for its perfect architecture, due in part to Anna Dodge herself, who frequently corrected building contractors. When Anna died in 1970, the mansion needed a sponsor. The house is said to have cost more than $ 100,000 a year to maintain.

No one came to his rescue, so the seventy-room mansion was demolished in 1976 and removed from the register two years later. After the death of Anna Dodge, her great-granddaughter told a New York Times Reporters that they predicted the house would be demolished. “Who can afford to hold a place like this?” She said. “It’s ridiculous. There are too many people who are starving and starving. It just doesn’t make sense in our way of life.”

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

Harper Hospital in Detroit, which originally opened for Civil War soldiers in 1864, has also been removed from the register. The structure was built in neo-Gothic style on a plot of land donated by Walter Harper. An 1864 newspaper article stated that when the hospital was completed it will be “one of the largest and most complete facilities in the West, it will be an honor for the city”.

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

Harper Hospital 1883 Burton Historical Collection

Woodward Baptist Church was another site that was listed and removed. When it opened in 1887, the historic church offered space for 1,500 people. The large 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 in the historic Methodist Episcopal Church in Caseville.) In 1986, however, a great fire broke out and the church was destroyed until it was rebuilt. In 1988 it was removed from the register.


Some properties are rejected outright. Often, documents are returned due to inaccuracies or additional evidence is requested to support the nomination. This could be due to incomplete records or too much property having changed.

Gabbert said this is rare, accounting for less than 10% of the 1200 nominations his department receives each year. However, sometimes these returned nominations are not re-submitted 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 documents returned state: “The nominated building appears to have been a vanity project.”

The business of pressing apples for cider does not seem to have been a major commercial undertaking for the owner, but rather established for tourists and passers-by. The paperwork goes on to explain that 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 re-submitted.

“There could be a number of reasons why a returned nomination might not be re-submitted,” explains Jim Gabbert. “Proponents may not want to spend the time and effort it takes to correct deficiencies.”

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


Dusty Kennedy