Professors’ Row, 1955

Memories of the 900 Block of Olivia Avenue

By Helen Hill

When we first drove down Olivia Avenue in the spring of 1955 to look at the house at No. 928, the block had a different look from the one it has now. Then the street was lined with elms so old and tall that their branches arched over the street, and in summer made a shady canopy so thick we couldn’t see the sky. It was a quiet residential neighborhood in the subdivision developed in 1891 by Olivia B. Hall and named for herself, as was the street we were to live on for the next 59 years. (Cambridge Road, which winds along the path of an underground river at the south end of the block, was originally called Israel Avenue in honor of her husband, who had died in 1889.)

We had been living happily in a lovely old two-bedroom house on the North Side, across from Fairview Cemetery, but with the arrival of our fourth child, we needed more bedrooms. The house at 928 Olivia Avenue (“American farmhouse architecture,” someone called it) was for rent though not for purchase. The owner was still alive, but in a nursing home with no likelihood of returning, and the family was unwilling to sell the house before she died. This looked like the perfect location for us. It was within easy walking distance of campus where my husband, Donald, was an assistant professor in the English department at the university, and our older children were at University School. It also looked like the right house, with its five bedrooms, one very small, but the right size for a small baby. The house seemed vaguely familiar, too, though it wasn’t until after we moved in that I realized that it was a mirror image of one I had lived in for 10 years in Massachusetts, when I was growing up. We rented with an option to buy, and three years later accepted the sellers’ price, even though it was higher than the appraisal.

All but two of the houses on our block of Olivia had been built between 1890 and 1899; ours in 1893. The Georgian brick house built in 1914 did not look so much out of place as the very modern one at the corner of Cambridge, built in 1951. That one, a low rectangular tan brick box with a flat roof and no gables, looked as though it didn’t belong in the neighborhood. Indeed, it had turned its back on all the Victorian houses and faced Cambridge. The others were all wooden frame houses with high pitched roofs, some with gables or dormer windows, and front and side porches. With one dark brown exception, all were painted either white or what I call Great Depression tan. That color may have lifted people’s spirits in the late Twenties and Thirties, but in 1955 I found it depressing. Yet it didn’t deter us from buying the house at 928 when the time came.

Since 1900 our house had been owned and occupied by the Levis, whose presence was still felt in the neighborhood. Moritz Levi was born in 1857 or 1858 in one of the five towns named Waldeck in Germany, and came to Kalamazoo in 1875, where he later met and married his wife. Apparently he had fond memories of his old home, for he named his son Waldeck. He was a professor of Romance Languages at the university and was famous for the large ear trumpet he carried so that he could hear what people were saying. He died, I think, in 1942, leaving behind a diary with baffled entries in the Thirties about Hitler and his treatment of Jews. He couldn’t understand. “What difference does it make that I am a Jew?” he asked poignantly.

Mrs. Levi was apparently much loved and was famous for her dinner parties. I was saddened that first summer when one of her old friends, whose memory was failing, walked over from Geddes Avenue one day to call on Mrs. Levi and was disturbed to learn that she no longer lived here.

This was still the time when students were not allowed to have cars on campus until their senior year and fraternities still had house mothers who kept the boys in line. The largest house in the block was a three-story frame boarding house with two front porches, one above the other, where Mrs. Groome rented rooms to fifteen football players and saw that they behaved themselves. Occasionally on a warm sunny day they spilled out onto her second story porch where we could hear the chatter, but they didn’t shout or carouse, or have parties with loud music; nor did the students at the ATO house at the corner of Cambridge. It was the end of an era when the university still had some authority in loco parentis and students still trusted people over 30.

We had no idea who our neighbors were when we moved into our house, but with four children, ages three months to 11 years, I felt as though we were disturbing the peace. At one time, there had been children in most of the houses, but most had long since grown up and gone. Even the grandchild who had lived in our house had grown and gone. Actually there were three other children, at either end of the block, but they went to different schools and didn’t match our children in age or sex, so we never saw them.

Partly because of the lack of children, partly because our neighbors were so much older than we, it took a while for us to get acquainted. But it was also partly because our backyards on both sides of the street faced quiet residential alleys. Since our garages were in our backyards, we all left home by the back door and rarely saw each other. When we walked or bicycled to campus or to University School we usually went out the back way, instead of up Olivia to Hill Street, because it seemed shorter. The people on the east side of the street did the same. Our alley in those days was a dirt road between backyards like ours – yards with grass, old oak and walnut trees, and fences covered with pink rambler roses. At the corner of our alley between Forest and Olivia, where it met the alley that crossed it, were two beautiful redbud trees and Mrs. Winter’s garden of rare wildflowers. It was a quiet country lane and a pleasure to walk there.

In time we gradually became acquainted with our neighbors. Next door on the south side, at 934, were the Slaters, a retired businessman and his wife, neighborly and tolerant of children. There was no hedge between our yards, but they didn’t mind when our boys’ games took them into their yard. Even when, much to our embarrassment, our oldest son hit a baseball through their second story window, they didn’t make a big fuss, though they did think there was more purpose than accident behind that swing of the bat. (They had heard our son say to his friend, “I bet I can hit a ball right through that second story window!”)

Beyond the Slaters, on the corner of Cambridge, lived Norris and Helen Post in the modern house that looked so out of place among the Victorian houses. Norris was, among other things, a real estate developer, and his wife was the daughter of another well-known real estate developer, John Stegemann. Norris was on City Council in the early 1960’s and instrumental in getting Forest Avenue rezoned on both sides, instead of down the middle, so that apartment houses could be built on our side of Forest right across the alley from us. Very quickly we lost our country lane. Some of the houses were changed into student housing; others were torn down to make room for apartment buildings. The shady backyards became parking lots.

Just north of our house, at 922, lived old Mrs. Lichty, the widow of a chemistry professor always referred to as Dr. Lichty. Here there was a lilac hedge between our backyards (since shaded out by trees) and our boys observed the boundary. In 1955 there was not a single tree in Mrs. Lichty’s back yard – only grass and a large asparagus bed in the middle of the yard. There was a legend in the neighborhood that Mrs. Lichty and her husband did not get along well; that he hung his coat in the back entry when he came home for lunch; and that when he went to put it on to go back to campus, he would find that she had stuffed his coat pockets with garbage.

I rarely saw Mrs. Lichty, but had one memorable encounter with her. One morning, when I was outside in my front yard with my youngest child, she rapped on the window at her front porch until she got my attention. She was by then about 90 years old. She was sitting close to the window, which was closed, and asked me to ask the postman to stop when he came by later in the morning.

“Can I do anything for you?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “I’ve broken my back. Just ask Mr. Collins to stop when he comes.”

“But I should call a doctor,” I protested.

Mrs. Lichty was adamant. My daughter, by then an early teenager, stayed with her until Mr. Collins came an hour or two later. She remembers that the house seemed bare and that Mrs. Lichty didn’t speak a word to her while she was there. Not long afterwards Mrs. Lichty died.

Just beyond Mrs. Lichty, at 916, lived Mr. Blake, a professor of classics, with his old mother whom I never saw. In a few years she died.  Professor Blake spoke Greek fluently, and when he climbed Mt. Athos he stayed with the hospitable monks in their monasteries. We rarely saw him until after he retired, and even then it was only as he sat on his front porch reading. He was pleasant, but not very social. When we invited him, he said he didn’t like to go to parties. Though he was only 65 when he retired, he was always referred to in the neighborhood as “old Mr. Blake.”

Next up the street, at 910 lived the Florers, an elderly couple whom I hardly knew, though once when I was out walking with my youngest son, Mrs. Florer invited me in. My only encounter with Mr. Florer was when he walked down to our house one day that first summer to tell me that we should have the large cottonwood tree between our house and Mrs. Lichty’s taken down. He said it wasn’t safe for children to be playing near it; it was too old. Whether he was right or not, we eventually had it taken down. It was much too close to the house anyway. Mr. Florer’s claim to fame in the neighborhood was that he had taught German at the university until World War I when the university canceled all its German classes. He then became a real estate agent and never returned to the university, which I think did not reinstate German classes until after World War II.

In the last house facing Olivia on our side of the street lived the Stevensons, only about five years older than we, and the only inhabitants from our early days with whom we became close friends. Charles was a philosophy professor, later chair of the department. His wife, Louise, was an active Democrat, a friend to many, and a charming hostess, famous for her weekly dinner parties for newcomers and visiting professors. Charles played the cello, and both he and Louise sang in a madrigal group with us for many years. When Charles was head of the Philosophy Department he used to joke that whenever he interviewed a new man for a position in the department, he asked whether he could sing tenor or play the cello. If he could do neither, Charles said he wouldn’t hire him.  Two of their daughters were grown and gone when we moved to Olivia. One of them, Anne, became a poet and lives in England where she was born. The third, three years younger than our daughter, was still at home, and as she grew older and went to University High School, they became friends, too.

Running east and west alongside the Stevensons’ yard is an alley that goes from Forest to Lincoln. In one sense Olivia Avenue begins here at the alley, rather than at Hill Street, for Henderson House, a Michigan League Coop house for women students, built of dark red brick, sits at the corner of Hill and Olivia and faces Hill Street. It isn’t really part of the neighborhood. In the Fifties it seemed a little more so than it does now, for in those days we could sometimes find a babysitter there to stay with the children in the evening.

Directly opposite the League house, on the east side of Olivia at corner of Hill, also facing Hill Street, is a frame house with a wrap-around porch where another family named Stevenson lived. That Mr. Stevenson was a pacifist who went to prison for his beliefs during World War II. We never saw them.

Coming back south on Olivia and crossing the Forest-to-Lincoln alley, we come to 905 Olivia, the dark brown house where Miss Elizabeth Dean lived with her friend Mrs. Williams. I had long assumed that this Miss Dean was the one who left a million dollars to Ann Arbor for trees, but according to Wystan Stevens, an Ann Arbor historian famous for his cemetery tours, it was her cousin, also named Elizabeth Dean, who was Ann Arbor’s benefactor. Stevens writes: “Actually, there were TWO Elizabeth Deans, who were cousins – daughters of two brothers who ran a wildly successful upscale grocery store on Main Street in the 19th century. Elizabeth Russell Dean, who lived in a modest house on Vaughn Street, and grew wealthy by investing her inheritance in Standard Oil and other blue chip stocks. Both Elizabeth Deans rest now on opposite sides of the large Dean family plot in Forest Hill Cemetery.”

Then there were Ted and Mary Newcomb at 911 Olivia. Ted was one of the founders and first director of the Residential College. Mary was a welcoming neighbor, fond of children and glad to have some in the neighborhood again. They had been preceded by the Connables, one of whom, Alfred, grew up to be an investment banker in Kalamazoo and a regent of the university. He had fond memories of riding his bicycle up and down the alley between Olivia and Lincoln.

The Newcombs moved not long after we arrived, and two owners later were succeeded by Isabel Morrison, her two sons, her mother, and later, when Isabel married him, Maxwell Reade, a mathematician at the university. Eventually, when Tim Newcomb retired from the Residential College, Isabel swapped houses with James Robertson, the College’s next dean.  Jim was humorous, popular with students, and fond of snitching raspberries that hung over Mr. Emmons’s fence (by this time Elwood Derr’s fence) when he walked his dog down the alley. Jean was gentle and thoughtful. We shared camping equipment, a 40-foot ladder, and many dinners together. Our children knew each other, but because they went to different schools, did not become close friends.

Next door to the Robertsons, in the stately Georgian brick house at 917, there was old Prof. Bursley, retired professor of French, and his son Gil, a state senator at the time, who spent so much of his time in Lansing that we rarely saw him.

Next was Mrs. Groome with her football players in the big white frame house at 923. She kept her roomers under good control, with no loud parties at night, but on football Saturdays she did allow a beer party on the upper front porch. My most memorable encounter with her was one summer evening after the students had left town, when she called and asked if we would come over and search her house for prowlers. She had heard strange noises on the third floor. Almost as apprehensive as she was, and without even a stick for a weapon, we searched the whole house with only a flashlight, but found no intruders. When Mrs. Groome sold her house a few years later, it was bought by a math professor, who in turn sold it to two math professors and their family of triplets plus one.

Last before the ATO house and directly opposite us, at 929, were Walter and Dudley Emmons. The Emmonses had been preceded by Guy Mayer, a professor in the Music School, whose memory still lingered in the neighborhood, as did that of the Levis. Guy Mayer lived in the house during the Prohibition years, and when he turned his front staircase around, he built a cupboard behind the wall at the stair landing so he could have a place to hide his “hooch.” He also built a separate studio for his piano behind the house and had music notes carved into the window shutters, some of which are still on the house. The Emmonses’ son Dick, who was grown with his own family, often amused readers of The Ann Arbor News with his humorous poems.

Mrs. Emmons was motherly, made cookies for the children, and was someone I could rely on in an emergency. (There was only one that I remember. Our 8-year-old son had had dinner with a friend whose parents agreed to bring him home at 8:30. We were home with the other children by 8:30, but the parents had dropped off our son at 8:15 without making sure we were there. When Mrs. Emmons became aware of his distress, she came to the rescue, took him home, and comforted him with milk and cookies.) Walter Emmons was Dean of the Engineering School for many years before he retired. He was also an enthusiastic and generous gardener. Some of the flowers in my first gardens – feverfew, evening primroses – came from Walter Emmons, and still persist in other gardens in the neighborhood. Every year on the Fourth of July Walter brought us a quart of raspberries from the bushes in his back yard. Later, he gave me enough bushes to start a patch of my own.

Last on the eastern side of the block, at the corner of Cambridge, was the ATO house, a large stucco fraternity house with a very large yard that slopes down to Cambridge, where the fraternity boys welcomed the children in winter with their sleds and saucers. There was plenty of snow in those days and the hill was just the right size for small children. As at Mrs. Groome’s, there were no loud parties in those days, for fraternity houses all had house mothers who kept the boys in line.

During most of the time I have lived here, this has been a stable neighborhood. Though some houses have turned over several times since 1955, two have changed ownership only once since then, and ours, of course, not at all.

One other house changed ownership briefly, but occupancy only once. About 1962 Dr. Timothy Harrison and his wife, Eliza, bought and moved into Mrs. Lichty’s house and became invested in the neighborhood. They had two children, and they inaugurated the holiday parties that brought the neighborhood families together socially in a way that had not existed when we arrived. These holiday parties became an annual tradition and soon spread to include many of the residents at this end of North Burns Park. One might say, perhaps, that this extension of neighborliness was the seed from which the North Burns Park Association grew a few years later.

It is also because of the generosity of Eliza Harrison that this block has remained a family neighborhood. In the Sixties, after the rezoning of Forest, when developers were eager to buy houses near campus and turn them into student rentals without supervision, it would have been possible for this neighborhood to lose its character as the old people died off. But when Mr. Blake died, Eliza Harrison bought and held the house for more than a year until she found a family who wanted to buy it to live in. Some of that family is still there. When Miss Dean died, the Harrisons bought and moved into her house, selling the Lichty house to another family. Later Eliza bought and held a house in the 900 block of Lincoln until she found a family for it. The whole neighborhood is indebted to her for preserving its residential qualities.

Having once been the youngest adult on this block of Olivia Avenue, I have for some time now been the Oldest Inhabitant. Olivia Avenue is still Professors Row, but with a little more variety. I have watched as the houses shed their ugly Depression Tan paint for pale grey, lavender-grey, grey-green, blue, blue-green, and dark green, white, half white-half coffee colored, and one that is buttercup yellow. Three of the professors are also lawyers. There is a businessman. After many years of professorial tenancy, there is now another doctor taking Dr. Harrison’s place in Miss Dean’s house, and another dean has moved into the Newcomb/Robertson house next door to them. Though another generation of children has grown up and gone, the students sometimes remind me that the young are still with us. My great-granddaughter brings echoes of childhood when she comes, because she likes to swing on the rope swing that still hangs next door, though the boy who lived there has gone off to college. One of the Whitman girls who grew up on the other side of me brings her two sons back to visit Grandmother, and Charlie Derr brings his daughter to visit his mother. But they don’t live here. There are signs, though, that the cycle is beginning again. There are now a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old across the street.

When the time comes for me to leave, I know I will miss the tunnel of trees that has almost replaced the old overarching elms, and I will miss the Victorian houses set back from the sidewalks. I will also miss my neighbors, many of whom have long been good friends. And I will miss my house, which has a tradition of long occupancy by few occupants. This house was built by the Lichtys in 1893 or shortly before. (According to the City Directory there was a student living here in 1893.) The Levis bought and moved into it in 1900, and lived here for 55 years, bringing up three children and then a granddaughter. My family, with four children, has lived here for almost 60 years, and though the children are grown and gone, and the grandchildren, too, they all still come back, bringing their own memories of good times here on Olivia Avenue. My fondest hope is that when I leave, another family with children will come to live here and enjoy this house and neighborhood as much and as long as we have, and perhaps even longer.


Helen M. Hill

Revised August 2014