Neighborhoods of GR: Heritage Hill houses the caretakers of history

Welcome to Neighborhoods of GR, an informal series for Grand Rapidians, its visitors, and those considering calling the river city home. Each article in the series will covering a particular GR neighborhood will be covered by a resident writer, and showcase the charm, the history, and diversity of our fair city.
While some of the homes might predate the Civil War, inside them exists a young, thriving community. Heritage Hill is more than a neighborhood. It’s a symbol of our hometown pride.
A walk-through Heritage Hill is a walk through the ages. Spanning from Crescent to Pleasant and Union to Lafayette, this neighborhood serves as one of the most tangible connections to our past. It is an architectural time machine that takes residents and visitors alike to an age before cookie-cutter suburban sprawl. A visit here is a trip back to a time to when homes were custom-built for the elite by the most renowned architects of the time.

Back then, homes were built to specifications set by the homeowner. As a result, the neighborhood boasts influences and aspects of nearly every style of American architecture. We see the rounded turrets of Queen Anne homes; both the linear accents of Stick, and the wide, plain Shingle style can be seen too. And of course there are Prairie style homes, like that of Meyer May House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright himself. The design of these homes tells the story of early Grand Rapids, and acts as a living museum to our progress from lumber town to booming metropolis.

Turrets and stone are design accents common to the Heritage Hill area.However, these huge, dated homes now only reflect the aesthetics of the neighborhood. Hidden behind the ancient columns, the ornate, vibrant color schemes, and the windowed turrets lives a still thriving community of mostly renters, too young to remember the “tudor revival” that inspired their home’s design.

After the neighborhood was established and built by the upper classes of early Grand Rapids, many of the homes were rezoned as multifamily residences. Much of the upper crust of the city moved away from the crowding, and often times not one, but several families, began to rent their homes. Renting families like these now make up the current bulk of the neighborhood's population. So, while Heritage Hill still looks like it did when it was built by the lumber barons, judges, lawyers, and bigwigs of Grand Rapids, it's important to remember most of the homes are not occupied by their owners.

Heritage Hill has Grand Rapids’ largest concentration of rental opportunities. According to their 2015 Neighborhood Report 70 percent of its 4,103 residents are renting. So while homes in Heritage Hill were built between 1843 and 1925, the average resident of this neighborhood is only 29 and moved in somewhere around 2005.

That means that within Heritage Hill is still a story being written, about us, about our thriving community. The story of a community that fought to remain intact in the wake of post-war progress.

There was a time in Grand Rapids’ history when the artful architecture and historic value of the Heritage Hill neighborhood wasn’t recognized. In the 1960s, development projects sought to commercialize the neighborhood and proposed plans which would have meant the destruction of nearly 75 percent of the structures in the area.

The residents recognized that the proposed projects would erase a chapter of this city’s history and destroy their community. The people of Heritage Hill were determined to have their voices heard and to fight for their homes and their history and so they began meeting and eventually formed The Heritage Hill Association in early 1968. The Heritage Hill Association, with the help of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, established their neighborhood as one of the first and largest urban historic districts, reserving its place on the National Register of Historic Places in March 1971, thus protecting it from development.

Jan EarlSince then, the quality and variety of homes preserved and restored by the association’s efforts has garnered national attention. The American Planning Association named Heritage Hill one of 2012’s Greatest Places in America. This Old House magazine honored Heritage Hill as one of the Best Neighborhoods in 2011. And the way the association countered development using their historic status, and the National Historic Preservation Act, to disrupt federal funding has set a major precedent for historic preservation. The neighborhood has, since 1968, become something bigger, something of an icon, and has been recognized for the beauty it holds. But in the words of Jan Earl, current executive director of the Heritage Hill Association, “it’s a lot more than houses. Heritage Hill is the people and the place.”

“Owners are like caretakers,” Earl continues. She describes the homeowners in this neighborhood as conscious that they will hand these homes over to the next generation. And from the way Earl talks about the residents, they act as caretakers of the neighborhood, too.

One of the many houses with a strongly distinctive period style. This caretaker mentality is exemplified through the efforts of one landmark within the Heritage Hill neighborhood, the Meyer-May House. This prairie home now stands as one of the most completely restored examples of esteemed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and functions as a sort of museum. Bought by Steelcase in 1985, the home has since been meticulously restored and preserved, and now welcomes tours several times a week. Tours which Don Dekker, director of the Meyer-May House, describes as attracting people from, “all over the world.” The Meyer-May House is exactly the distinct blend of hometown pride, functional preservation, and warm welcome that defines Heritage Hill.

Wrought iron railings are among many details from the period that have been preserved. Or, in the words of Dekker, the house is part of what, “Makes Heritage Hill such a unique and vibrant place.”

When asked about how architecture has changed over the years, Dekker notes the large porches with walkways coming out to the street. He describes these porches as being the social network of the time. Many residents of Heritage Hill are still participate in this old-fashioned social network. Any warm evening, it's common to see residents relaxing on their prominent front porches. And they’re often friendly enough to say hello.

Heritage Hill is the oldest neighborhood in Grand Rapids with one of the most vibrant and welcoming communities. So while some of the homes might predate the Civil War, inside them exists a young, thriving community. Heritage Hill is more than a neighborhood. It’s a symbol of our hometown pride. Those little plaques are badges of honor saying, “this is Grand Rapids, my city, and my home. I’m proud to be a part of Heritage Hill.”

Earl’s closing statement seems to be the mantra of every Heritage Hill resident, “I just love the community.”

Photography by Kristina Bird of Bird + Bird Studio
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