Heritage Hill: Grand Rapids, Michigan


Grand Rapids's oldest neighborhood, endowed with 1,300 historic properties representing more than 60 architectural styles, Heritage Hill has experienced ups and downs in its 170-plus years. No years were more perilous than the late 1960s and early 1970s when the city recommended razing 75 percent of the neighborhood for downtown urban renewal. The demolitions didn't occur, largely because of efforts by residents who formed the Heritage Hill Association (HHA) in 1968 and sought changes in state enabling legislation that allowed municipalities to adopt local historic preservation ordinances.

Designated Area

The neighborhood is bounded by Michigan Street to the north; Union Avenue to the east; Pleasant Street to the south; and Jefferson Avenue to the west.

The neighborhood's extensive collection of historic architecture includes the first Frank Lloyd Wright commission in Michigan, the two-story Prairie-style, Meyer May House on Madison Avenue, SE. Photo courtesy Heritage Hill Association.

Planning Excellence

Reassessing its previous policies and plans, the city placed a moratorium on all construction and demolitions in the neighborhood in 1969 and passed a local preservation ordinance that took effect in 1973. Two years earlier the neighborhood had been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Residents and HHA were not only instrumental in shaping the restoration and redevelopment of the neighborhood's residential areas, but also its many commercial and institutional properties. Among these efforts were the Master Plan of Heritage Hill, approved by the city in 1988 and subsequently incorporated into the city's 2002 overall master plan, and the 1992 Prospect Plan. Funding to produce the Prospect Plan was one of the conditions the city attached when approving the Mary Free Bed Hospital's parking ramp addition.

These and other efforts of residents, combined with changes in city policies and plans, ensure that Heritage Hill's unique and historic qualities aren't lost or compromised.

Volunteers pause during a local cleanup and improvement project, one of many sponsored by the active and involved Heritage Hill Association. Photo courtesy Heritage Hill Association.

Defining Characteristics, Features


  • Founded during 1840s and home to lumber barons, teachers, judges, legislators; most houses built from 1840s to 1920s; Wealthy Street developed during 1870s
  • 1967 riots caused extensive damage to both Wealthy and Jefferson Streets
  • Urban renewal efforts during 1960s clears much of downtown for new development; city calls for demolishing 75 percent of Heritage Hill
  • Nearby hospitals propose facilities expansion during 1970s healthcare boom requiring homes in neighborhood to be demolished; opposed by residents


  • First place to use the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act in court to stop a federal project that would change the neighborhood's character (1970)
  • Architectural styles include Greek Revival, Italianate, Colonial Revival, Chateauesque, Queen Anne, Shingle, Prairie
  • Meyer May House (450 Madison Avenue SE); Frank Lloyd Wright's first commission in state; two-story Prairie-style built with Roman brick (1908-1909)
  • Annual Heritage Hill Home Tour marked 43rd year in 2012; showcases seven private homes and five historic buildings throughout neighborhood

Planning, Citizen Engagement

  • Residents Linda DeJong, Barbara Roelofs, Ethel Hansma gather 125 neighbors to protest proposed demolitions; organize Heritage Hill Association (1968)
  • Heritage Hill residents set precedent drafting first state enabling legislation allowing for the creation of local historic districts in Michigan
  • Residents file country's first successful court challenge (1970) using 1966 National Historic Preservation Act to stop loss of historic neighborhood properties
  • Heritage Hill Association successfully advocates for local urban homesteading ordinance, helping foster neighborhood revitalization and restoration efforts
  • Heritage Hill Master Plan drafted by community activists (1986)
  • Prospect Plan (1992) guides revitalization along Prospect Avenue including grant and loan program for property improvements, facade restorations
  • Heritage Hill Association currently raising funds for new Pleasant Park; construction expected to begin early 2013

Physical Attributes, Transit

  • Heritage Hill located on a slight rise overlooking downtown Grand Rapids; location of trading posts and missions when city first settled (1826)
  • Neighborhood features beautified public spaces and private lawns with mature trees, gardens; Heritage Hill Neighborhood Association hosts annual garden tour
  • $35 million new Silver Line bus rapid transit system to operate along Division Avenue, the neighborhood's western border; 2014 expected start date

Had it not been for residents, who stopped a federal urban renewal proposal, 75 percent of the neighborhood would have been razed in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy Heritage Hill Association.