History of the North Burns Park Neighborhood

By Ellen Ramsburgh


From farmland on the edge of town to a handsome tree-lined neighborhood, North Burns Park has been evolving for more than 150 years. Meanwhile, it has left clues that allow us to imagine those earlier days of our story.

Washtenaw Avenue, circa 1910

The history of North Burns Park can be found in books such as Adam Christman’s Ann Arbor: The Changing Scene and photographs at the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library.

Traces can also be seen in the landscape of our neighborhood. For example, the trees that form an oval at Burns Park, the blocks with service alleys, our street names, and even the open space behind certain houses, all hold clues to our past.

First Settler

When J. D. Baldwin arrived in Ann Arbor from New York State in 1848, he purchased 154 acres of land and built his Greek Revival farmhouse at 1530 Hill Street.

The 1880 pictorial map of Ann Arbor shows the Hall/Baldwin house at the edge of the bottom right corner. Only a few houses have been built along Washtenaw and Hill. Across the street from the Baldwin House is the C.W. Millen estate. The brick columns from that estate still stand at the entry to the sorority house.

Today, the “Hall/Baldwin House” remains the oldest house in the neighborhood. Mr. Baldwin’s fruit and berry farm stretched north along Washtenaw Avenue, west along Hill, and south to what is now Burns Park. The groves of hickory and oak trees that still shade lawns along Washtenaw were called “Baldwin’s Picnic Grove” and were part of the original farm. A few old apple trees from Mr. Baldwin’s orchard can be found in neighborhood yards. Baldwin Avenue bears the name of the first official landowner in what eventually became North Burns Park.

Influence of the Hall Family

It was the subsequent owners of the Baldwin farmhouse who essentially created our neighborhood as we know it. When Olivia and Israel Hall purchased the Baldwin house and 78 acres of farmland in 1876, they were already respected residents of the city.

The Hall family poses in front of their family home, 1894

 Mrs. Hall was an active member of the suffragette movement. At that time the Washtenaw Fair Association had a horseracing track at the southeast corner of Hill and South Forest Avenue. Mrs. Hall believed that betting at the racetrack was a bad influence on the schoolchildren of Ann Arbor.

Map showing the original site of the Fair Ground on Hill Street

She persuaded the Fair Association to move the fairgrounds farther from town by exchanging the southern part of her farm along Wells Street (now Burns Park) for the Fair Association property on Hill. The oval of linden trees we see in the park today marks the course of the old (relocated) horserace track.  Olivia’s name remains as a street name, but the more “literary” Cambridge Road replaced Israel Avenue by 1914.

A Subdivision is Created

In 1890 Mrs. Hall platted the Hill Street section as “Olivia B. Hall’s Subdivision.”  The plat created service alleys behind the homes, allowing the large front lawns that we see today along Hill, Olivia and Lincoln to be uninterrupted by driveways.

Olivia B. Hall Subdivision Plat

The Hall’s two sons later built houses at 1430 and 1503 Cambridge Road, and at 1502 Hill. (The Delta Sigma Delta dental fraternity house replaced the latter in 1931.) Descendants of the Halls lived in the Baldwin farmhouse until the 1970s.

Streetcar Transportation

Streetcars carried residents from the relocated racetrack to town from 1895 to 1925. In fact, a streetcar barn was built near the northwest corner of Wells and Lincoln about 1895. The large open space behind the houses near that intersection may have been the location of the car barn. The streetcar line ran north on Lincoln, turning east on Hill and then north on Washtenaw following the curved connector street that runs behind “the rock.”

The Neighborhood Fills In

As the University of Michigan grew, “Olivia B. Hall’s Subdivision” filled in with homes for faculty and prominent Ann Arborites, plus fraternity and sorority houses. Most of the lots had homes by the time the Depression began  Architectural styles reflected the popular styles of the era including, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival. Architects represented in the neighborhood include Albert Kahn and Irving Pond. Approximately 90% of the original homes still stand.

Burns Park and the Schools

During the 1920’s ownership of the fairgrounds was transferred to the city for a park and named for UM botany professor George P. Burns, who helped create the Ann Arbor Parks Commission. The school at Burns Park was built in 1925 for grades K-9 and was called Tappan School for first President of the University of Michigan, Henry S. Tappan. When the new middle school on Stadium Boulevard was built in 1951, the Tappan name went with the new building. Our neighborhood school became Burns Park Elementary School. Multiple generations of North Burns Park families have enjoyed the neighborhood’s homes, school and park for more than 100 years.