The Buried History of Barton Hills
Author: Grace Shackman and Lois Kane
Ann Arbor's first suburb recalls the golden age of landscape architecture.
Barton Hills Village is a 140-home enclave set on rolling hills between the Huron River and Whitmore Lake Road. Ann Arbor's first suburb was a financial disaster for its developers, but a century after it was conceived, it remains a masterpiece of the landscaper's art. Designed by the Olmsted Brothers, whose father created New York's Central Park, it was carefully planned to preserve and emphasize the land's natural forms. Today, its winding lanes and thoughtfully sited homes recall a moment in American history when landscape architecture was an important cultural force.
Apparently, the area has always been recognized as special. In 1998 a builder working on a new home uncovered human remains at a site on Barton Shore Drive. He called the Washtenaw County sheriff's office, which called the U-M Museum of Anthropology. Archaeologist John O'Shea came to investigate.
In a subsequent talk to Barton Hills residents, O'Shea recalled that he and his colleagues at first doubted whether the site was of archaeological interest: the remains seemed too fresh, and the bones seemed too long to be prehistoric. But further analysis of the bones, soil, and artifacts established that the first recorded person at the site of what is now Barton Hills was a tall, slim young woman who lived more than 1,000 years ago. She must have been something of an aristocrat, because when she died, she was buried in a stone-lined grave instead of being left exposed to birds, insects, and weather, the usual practice at the time.
Even after white settlers cleared the trees from the hills early in the nineteenth century, the 1,000-year-old grave lay hidden and forgotten. Then, a century ago, the landscape underwent another dramatic change.
In 1905, Detroit's Edison Illuminating Company purchased Washtenaw Light and Power, which had been furnishing electricity to Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti from a hydroelectric plant on Dixboro Road. Edison also bought other properties along the Huron where hydropower could be developed or improved, including the river below Barton Hills.
In Kilowatts at Work, a 1957 history of Detroit Edison, author Raymond C. Miller writes that the company wanted the sites mainly to eliminate competitors like Washtenaw Light and Power. Even then, it was clear that hydropower couldn't meet the area's demand for electricity. Nonetheless, Edison went on to build the dams and generating stations that still define the river all the way from Belleville to Barton Hills.
The company's president at the time was Alex Dow (1862-1942), a Scottish immigrant who taught himself science. According to Miller, Dow was a well-read man with many interests. "No one could ignore the fact that the introduction of dams and power plants would assuredly alter the scene," Miller writes. "Dow himself was too much a lover of nature to do unnecessary violence to natural beauty, and the contemporary national emphasis on conservation and the protection of natural resources attracted his approval and interest."
Miller's book, commissioned by Detroit Edison, wasn't likely to portray Dow in any but a flattering light. But there's no question that Dow was a visionary. To obtain the property for its dams and flowage area, Edison often had to buy larger parcels, including entire farms. In 1913 the company combined all the excess property, totaling 2,000 acres, into one entity, the Huron Farms Company, and hired William E. Underdown, a 1904 Cornell graduate, to manage it.
The original idea had been to sell off the excess land, but soon Dow was full of plans to use it. He created a demonstration farm on Whitmore Lake Road, opened a resort for the company's women employees on Huron River Drive, and donated land on Argo Pond to the city for a boathouse and municipal beach. But his most lasting impact came when he hired the nation's leading landscape architects, Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts.
Frederick Law Olmsted and his then partner, Calvert Vaux, were the first people ever to describe themselves as "landscape architects." Their signature creation was the vast and innovative design of New York City's Central Park. The park's "natural design" was not natural at all: it was a carefully engineered replacement for what was then a swampy lowland. Beginning in 1857, Olmsted and Vaux changed it to a glorious centerpiece of the city by adding hills and meadows, massive plantings, curving pathways, and stone walls and bridges.
Olmsted founded his own firm in 1883. Driven by the conviction that beautiful settings would improve the health and welfare of ordinary people, he and his associates shaped such beloved American landscapes as Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.; Detroit's Belle Isle; the spacious grounds of Stanford University; and Boston's "Emerald Necklace" of linked parks. The firm even contributed early designs for Yellowstone National Park.
Under Olmsted's son and stepson, who took over in 1895, the firm continued to win high-profile assignments, including the National Mall and the White House grounds in Washington. (In 1918 Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. excused himself from a Barton Hills trip, writing that he was "continuously employed in Washington upon government work.") But during the "City Beautiful" movement of the early twentieth century, many smaller communities also sought guidance from the prestigious firm. Before World War I, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and the U-M all commissioned master plans from the Olmsteds. The firm's list of Ann Arbor projects also includes plans for nine east-side subdivisions and landscapes for an equal number of individual property owners. (Its landscape plan for Harry and Carrie Earhart's mansion on Geddes has been re-created by the building's present owner, Concordia University.)
Edison president Alex Dow oversaw construction of the company's power dams on the Huron River. Dow's wife, Vivienne, chose the site for their sprawling shingle-style home for its view of Barton Dam.
Dow sought the firm's advice on the entire Huron Fa^ms project. But its biggest contribution was its design for Barton Hills. Dow envisioned stately homes, a country club, and even a hotel on the rolling hills north of the newly created Barton Pond.
Some skeptics had trouble imagining the transformation Dow proposed. Because the area had been cleared for grazing long before, they jokingly dubbed the planned community "Barren Hills."
On December 22, 1915, Underdown reported to the Olmsteds that he was surveying the hill land north of Barton Pond and "would like to arrange with you to lay this out for [a] subdivision ... for fairly high class private homes." By April 1916 the firm had delivered a preliminary plan. The lots were large, from one to eight acres, and a cover letter explained that each had been laid according to "important views, and with the shape of the land."
The letter noted that the country club was sited high on a hill, "in a most commanding position" on Barton North Drive. Deceptively rustic, the roads were actually carefully engineered for optimal grading and drainage. The Olmsteds added that Barton Shore Drive, which roughly paralleled Barton North Drive at a lower elevation, would "undoubtedly prove the most attractive when built as it will follow comparatively near the water and will command an uninterrupted view over the pool."
"It's that drive along the shore that does it," comments Realtor Ed Surovell, who lives in Barton Hills. "On most of the recreational lakes in this area (and almost everywhere else for that matter) roads have been placed behind the houses (usually seasonal cottages) so that there is no road between cottage and water; here, the motorist or pedestrian gets the benefit."
The site was not entirely empty. While the dam was being constructed, several unassuming, traditional houses had been built on the shore for Edison employees; they are still there, now used for Barton Hills staff. During World War I a few grander homes were built by individuals with Edison connections. Underdown, the Huron Farms manager, began work on a house for his family in 1916. He consulted with a "Mr. G. Gibbs" of Olmsted on the construction of the access road, later named Underdown.
Infrastructure work began in earnest after the war. In 1919, by special action of the Huron Farms board, Dow's wife, Vivienne, was given her choice of any lot in the subdivision for $1. She chose a centrally located sixteen-acre site, halfway between the high road and the shore road, that had an excellent view of the pond, so her husband could look out and see his dam.
Designed by U-M architecture dean Emil Lorch (who probably also did the Underdown house), the Dow home was started in 1921 and occupied by 1922. It is large, with twenty rooms, but feels comfortable and homey. In the manner of the British rural gentry, the Dows gave it a name, "Brushwood." (According to their granddaughter, the name came from one of Vivienne's favorite poems.)
After the house was completed, Alex Dow commuted to Detroit, sometimes staying the night or part of the week. For many years Vivienne continued to consult the Olmsted firm, asking about such things as where to locate the rose garden, the configuration of the path to the beach, and how to add a stone wall in front. In February 1927, Ferris Smith, who had replaced Gibbs as the Olmsted representative, visited the Dows and reported, "Met Mrs. Dow at 10 o'clock, also Mr. Dow. He left after a few minutes and said that Mrs. Dow was boss of the place."
According to a reminiscence written by former resident Ole Blackett in 1974, the developers first focused on selling multi-acre sites to buyers seeking "large houses suitable for country estates." But if Dow had hoped to lure other Detroit executives to Barton Hills, he was disappointed— most of the early buyers came from Ann Arbor. "For several reasons, among which are the rapid expansion of the University and the great amount of heavy traffic along Washtenaw Ave., it seems that several people have already decided that they wish to move further out," Smith reported in June 1922. "And while I was in Ann Arbor, among those who came out to Barton Hills to look at property were the Dan Zimmermans, Dr. R. Bishop Canfield, Dr. and Mrs. [Breakey], and Dr. and Mrs. Loree." Drs. Breakey and Loree both lived near Central Campus, while Canfield and Zimmerman, a businessman who had investments in everything from artificial ice to ball bearings, were neighbors on Washtenaw. (The Canfields' home later became the Women's City Club.)
As lots were sold, architects began contacting the Olmsted firm for site information. For instance, a July 1922 letter from Cuthbert and Cuthbert (William and Ivan, local architect and engineer respectively) asks for specifics for lots 7 and 8. Because each site plan needed detailed drawings, the Olmsteds suggested hiring a full-time architect; they recommended George Babson, who had done similar work for them at Forest Hills Gardens on Long Island.
Detroit Edison completed the first nine holes of Barton Hills Country Club in 1919. In 1922 the clubhouse was built and the course extended and redesigned. "The idea of the country club was to embellish the subdivision," explains Edmond DeVine, who today lives in the Underdown house and as a boy often came to the golf course with his father. The club's original members constituted a who's who of the community; among them were U-M regent Junius Beal and Walter Mack, owner of the town's largest department store. (Membership is not linked to residency—of the 540 current member families, only fifty-six live in the village.)
The first two houses, Underdown's and the Dows', were in the shingled Arts and Crafts style. In the 1920s the English Cottage style was popular, with its steeply pitched roofs, casement windows, stained-glass windows, and curved entrances. Cuthbert and Cuthbert excelled at this style, winning an honorable mention in an architectural magazine for the Vernau home on Underdown.
According to Ole Blackett, however, "suddenly the sale of lots stopped....Apparently the demand for expensive country estate had run out and Edison was forced to alter its sales policy." Blackett believed that Edison then subdivided larger lots to produce more affordable parcels. However, even the earliest Olmsted maps show many relatively modest homesites of an acre or so. More likely, the developers simply changed their focus from multiple-lot blocks to individual sales.
The first clue that Edison might be lowering its sights came in 1924, when Under-down asked Frederick Olmsted Jr. his opinion of Henry Flagg houses, which, Underdown explained, were "built low to the ground without cellars." Olmsted was out of the office when the letter arrived, but his staff answered, "We know that Mr. Olmsted has been more or less acquainted with the 'Flagg' house for some time, and while we cannot quote him we understand he is not enthusiastic over them." Nonetheless, three Flagg houses were built near the east end of the development.
Edison's hopes for Barton Hills peaked in 1925, when the company had Olmsted sketch out a possible extension of the development all the way west to the Foster Bridge on Maple Road. But there weren't enough buyers to fill the original subdivision, much less the extension. Edison stopped consulting the Olmsted firm after 1927, presumably to rein in expenses.
The 1931 advertising brochure emphasized that "homes need not be pretentious" and invited future buyers to "notice the diversity of architecture and to see how harmoniously the smaller homes blend with the larger residences." Even many of those larger houses seem relatively normal today. "The houses that I remember were not fancy," says Sarah Riggs Taggart, who as a child spent a lot of time at Barton Hills because her grandparents on both sides, Henry and Emma Riggs and Grace Walzer, and her aunt Lizzie Oliphant all lived there. "I remember the Breakey house as comfortable, the Riggs house likewise. Gram [Walzer]'s big house was the fanciest, and the fact that subsequent owners haven't tampered with it suggests that everyone has loved it as it is."
Barton Hills grew slowly but steadily even through the Depression. Instead of executives, many of the new arrivals in the 1930s were U-M faculty, such as Bill Haber and his wife, Fanny; William and Louise Trow; and Ole and Ruth Blackett. Helen Underdown built a smaller house on Juniper Lane after William was killed in a car crash in 1930.
In 1941 Dr. Howard and Cecilia Ross built a multipillared house that neighbors sarcastically dubbed "Tara," after the mansion in Gone With the Wind. That same year, at the opposite end of the architectural spectrum, Otto and Eleanor LaPorte built the first Modern-style home in Barton Hills. Designed by U-M architecture professor George Brigham, "it was so modern, Otto and Eleanor had a difficult time getting financing," reports Adele LaPorte, Otto's second wife. "It was so outre, the bank said they'd never get their money out of it." A year later Gene and Sadie Power also built a Modern house, designed by Birmingham architect Wallace Frost.
Home building stopped during World War II, when materials were needed for the war effort. That may have been the final straw for Detroit Edison. As early as 1931, financial people at the company were complaining that Huron Farms, as the development was still called, had cost roughly $234,000 and produced only $22,000. There were also ongoing costs, with Edison employees often siphoned off to do chores at Barton Hills and the other properties.
So in 1944 the company essentially gave the property to the residents. "They contacted the people who lived here and wanted them to take it over," recalls Walter Esch, the village's maintenance superintendent. But according to Esch, "the people didn't have any money, and they didn't want to take it over. So Edison put ten thousand dollars in the bank for them to take it over and left Charlie Gallagher, one of their employees, to stay on the premises."
According to Blackett, who was involved in the negotiations, the transaction was carefully crafted to allow Edison to write off its losses on the development without creating any new tax liabilities for the residents. Edison sold out to the newly formed Barton Hills Improvement Association for just $20,000 —and gave the group a mortgage for the entire amount. Though Blackett was on the U-M faculty, he writes that after the transfer, "I went on the road myself and sold lots in order to meet our mortgage payments and our share of the employment payrolls."
By 1949 Gallagher needed help in maintaining the subdivision's 500 acres. He talked Walter Esch, then twenty-three, away from his family farm on North Territorial to take the job. Walter and his wife, Mary, moved into one of three three-bedroom employee houses, where they raised ten children. One of those children, David, and his wife, Jan, now live in one of the houses, too. David is the village's assistant maintenance superintendent, and Jan is the village's assistant clerk.
Walter Esch recalls that one of the more colorful postwar residents was Edgar Kaiser, son of the industrialist Henry Kaiser, who had taken over the Willow Run bomber plant to build Kaiser Frazer cars. Edgar enlarged the Riggs home and added a swimming pool. Every year he put up 3,500 outdoor Christmas lights that drew viewers from all around, and ended the holiday season with a big New Year's party. "If they [the guests] had too much to drink, Mr. Kaiser would come and say, 'Walt, take one of the cars'—he always had five or six cars from the factory sitting there—'and take them home,' " remembers Esch.
When he started, Esch says, there were still only about thirty homes in the village. The Detroit Edison people were all gone, and most of the residents were professionals—doctors, dentists, and professors. But the postwar construction boom was starting, and after thirty years of delays, Barton Hills was about to fill up.
In the 1950s and 1960s, many new homes were Modern designs by forward-looking U-M professors, such as Brigham and Bob Metcalf. Architects Fran Quarton and Herb Johe built houses for themselves, and Johe designed four others. David Osler, son-in-law of Emil Lorch, also built several Modern houses, and the Colvin Robinson firm designed a home for George and Elizabeth (Libby) Langford. Generally, these were flat-roof designs that blended in with the landscape and made economical and respectful use of such materials as glass, wood, and concrete. They probably averaged about 2,800 square feet—considerably smaller than the mansions that had preceded them.
Multitalented Walter Esch became, de facto, the landscaper of Barton Hills. Olm-sted had laid one-lane gravel roads. Over time, Esch oversaw their widening to two-lane asphalt roads that retain the Olmsted contours. "Oh, Juniper Lane was gravel," he recalls. He and another employee "blacktopped it by hand because they [the residents' association] didn't have any money." Using rubble from city of Ann Arbor demolitions, he widened the shoulders where the river sometimes washed out the road.
Over the years, Esch has also been, de facto, fire chief, chief of police, water commissioner, road maintenance administrator and crew, garbage department head and crew, mailman, rescue squad for household emergencies, and bus driver. "Because Walter came at the time the community was just finding its identity," his daughter-in-law Jan says, "many of the current traditions were his idea, and the two just grew up together."
From 1944 to 1975, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. every day, the Barton Hills bus was available for trips to and from Ann Arbor. "We picked up the maids and everything," Esch says. "There was a family, we had to sit there until the maid had the dinner on the table before we could take her to town, and the board backed her [the lady of the house] up. Charlie and I, we used to argue with the board all the time about that."
The older Esch children went to the two-room Hagen School on Dhu Varren Road. As the district grew, the younger ones went to various elementary schools.
"I think most Barton Hills kids went to University School," Mary says. Walter recalls that the Barton Hills bus delivered kids to seven schools, including, besides the now defunct University School, St. Thomas, Angell, Tappan, and eventually Greenhills. Ann Arbor school buses now take kids to Wines, Forsythe, and Pioneer.
In 1973 Barton Hills became the first home-rule village in Washtenaw County. This status protected the subdivision from what residents saw then as potential incursions of other governments that might necessitate difficult and expensive water and sewage linkups.
"My two best friends," says Libby Langford, a critical player in establishing the village, "were Conrail and the Foster Bridge"—the high-speed tracks and single-lane bridge discouraged traffic from Ann Arbor. "Nobody bothers us; we do our own thing; we love it."
The village has its own well on a cleanaquifer. Each home has its own septic system, and the village requires periodic inspections. Residents pay taxes to both the village and Ann Arbor Township, currently totaling about 13.5 mills. (The corresponding rate in Ann Arbor is 16.9 mills.) One curious legacy of the village's past is that the Barton Hills Maintenance Corporation owns the roads and therefore is able to limit access to the village—signs at the entrances announce "No thoroughfare" and "Private road."
Only a few empty lots remain, and most of those belong to families who own two. So, for the most part, if a new house is to be built, an old one must come down. In the past ten years the village has seen about half a dozen "teardowns." The long-forgotten stone grave was discovered during one of these projects, for Domino's Pizza president and U-M regent David Brandon.
These new homes vary in architectural style, but all of them are several times larger than the buildings they replaced.
That's become an issue for the maintenance corporation, which must approve all building plans. "As I look to the future," says president Chuck Bultman, "one of the struggles of the corporation is to find a way to work with the larger house typical today, sited on lots designed for a more modest house size."
The first generation of residents were, like Alex Dow himself, wealthy white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But unlike some developments of its era, Barton Hills never had restrictive deed covenants that barred minorities. Today, residents include African American, Middle Eastern, Indian, Kashmiri, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and East Asian families.
Prosperity, however, remains a requirement. According to the 2000 census, Barton Hills' median household income was $149,000, more than triple Ann Arbor's $46,000. And while Ann Arbor posted a healthy median home value of $181,000, it paled next to Barton Hill's $710,000. Real estate agent Nancy Bishop, who lives in the village, estimates that house values start at about $600,000 and run all the way up to $5 or $6 million.
Since 1949, Walter Esch has done whatever needs doing in Barton Hills. His wife, Mary, raised ten children in a bungalow originally built for workers on Barton dam. Now their son David and daughter-in-law Jan work for the village, too, and live in another of the houses.
There have been a few minor adjustments over the years, but overall, Barton Hills' layout remains remarkably faithful to the parklike design worked out by the Olmsteds more than eighty years ago. The biggest change is that hills once barren are now almost covered with trees.
The Olmsteds recommended trees as early as 1916, and the U-M forestry school oversaw plantings in the 1920s. The firm was never commissioned to develop a maintenance plan for the village, but to judge by its work elsewhere, it would almost certainly have provided for glades, dells, and long clear views between groupings of well-tended trees. Instead, coveted and cosseted, the trees have multiplied into a thick forest that presents a major challenge to the Olmsted plan.
The original country club building nestled into the landscape yet offered a lovely view of the river from its long covered veranda. Over the decades, however, trees grew and blocked the river view. In the late 1980s the original clubhouse was torn down and replaced by a large, traditionally columned building placed right up against Country Club Road. The site described by Olmsted Brothers as the best in Barton Hills is now occupied by a parking lot.
Knowledge of Dow's Olmstedian vision died out with the first generation of residents. Many present residents interviewed for this article hadn't even known of the Olmsted connection when they bought their houses. As the years went by and trees continued growing, people living away from the shore forgot about the views and instead enjoyed the closeness to nature and privacy that the trees provided.
"When the view died, the plan died. Views only exist for the fortunate few," says Ed Surovell, adding that people today are attracted by the trees instead. "It was a change in social values. Trees were good, positive. City folks can't tell good trees from bad."
They're trying to learn. In 2003 the village's board of trustees hired Clark Forestry to conduct a study of the state of the woods. (Though the firm is based in Bara-boo, Wisconsin, owner Fred Clark grew up in Barton Hills.) Commissioning of the study "is an indication of the awareness that the trees need to be managed and plans made for the future," Jan Esch says. "It has been supported by consistent, if limited, budgetary funding. Some funds were spent last year on garlic mustard control and ash tree removal, with continuing efforts under way for this year." There are other environmental issues as well, such as plant growth in Barton Pond and the village's resident deer herd, which has grown so large that it has to be managed by professional sharpshooters under a state permit.
Although it has acquired more and bigger houses, Barton Hills hasn't become a mere house museum. The rolling hills, alluring roads, and general focus on the pond remain intact. A century after Alex Dow started buying up property along the Huron, the Olmsted Brothers' work has held up well.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: (Above) An Olmstead Brothers blueprint shows the signature stone pillars at the entrance. (Left) The country club was set on the hilltop overlooking Barton Pond - one of the many views lost as woods grew up throughout the subdivision (below).
[Photo caption from original print edition]: As early as 1931, Edison's financial people were complaining that the development had cost roughly $234,000 and produced only $22,000. There were also ongoing costs, with Edison employees often siphoned off to do chores at Barton Hills and the other properties.