Walking Through History: Heritage Hill Home Tour Marks 50 Years

Words and photography by Kayla Sosa

Barbara Roelofs, founder of the Heritage Hill Home Tour, stands on her porch on College Avenue.

The Heritage Hill neighborhood is well-known in Grand Rapids for its old and beautiful homes. While the metro area of the city expands, the original neighborhood continues to thrive and preserve its history.

In 1969, 75 percent of the Heritage Hill neighborhood was slated for demolition. The city was focusing on upcoming college and medical construction projects, and the neighborhood was close to not making the cut.

“It was the days of urban renewal,” Jan Earl, executive director of the Heritage Hill Association (HHA), said. “The suburban themes were what was valued and old was devalued.”

That’s when Barbara Roelofs, a resident and member of the HHA, suggested e a tour of homes to raise funds for the neighborhood.

“I had been involved in the Michigan Historical Society and knew that Marshall (MI) did a tour every year,” Roelofs, 85, said. “When I suggested the tour, it was mostly (men) on the side of ‘Oh, this’ll never work. It won’t come true.’ But, we got the vote to do it.”

A thousand people showed up to the first tour, which took place on a Tuesday during Michigan Week, a week-long celebration started in 1954 to celebrate Michigan and promote it as a great place to live, work and start a business.

“It was a rousing success, as nobody in this part of the state had ever done anything like that,” Roelofs said.

The HHA was later nationally recognized as a historic district, which puts laws around construction and demolition to preserve the neighborhood.

Earl said while many people now prefer suburban living, there’s something special about neighborhoods that were built over a hundred years ago.

“The architecture of our neighborhood… shapes our community,” she expressed. “Everything is designed to be on the street level, which shapes how people interact with one another.”

Homes in Heritage Hill are not set too far back from the street, have small front yards, sit close to each other, share driveways and many have porches.

“It really builds and strengthens community,” Earl said. “If you’re going to live here, you’re going to be with people, your neighbors.”

Even with the well-preserved remnants of another, Heritage Hill is still a modern neighborhood in 2019.

“You think of a historic district never changing, but it does, to adapt to today’s lifestyles, but while still protecting the incredible craftsmanship [of the past],” Earl said.

Driving through Heritage Hill, one can’t help but slow down and look at the unique architecture and colors of the houses, many built in the early 1900s.

“The houses to me are art,” Earl said. “Our tour is here to showcase the incredible value of architecture and craftsmanship, and show how it is still a living, breathing part of life.”

From woodwork to stained glass to staircases and light switches, tiny details in the houses give way to the time-period in which they were built. All of the houses vary from modern to Victorian designs and many styles in between.

Roelofs has lived at her house on College Avenue for 55 years. Then and now, the preservation of the neighborhood has always been important to her. At Roelofs’ house, she pointed out Mother-of-Pearl light switch buttons, a wall panel that opens to a pantry area and a mouthpiece in the kitchen that reaches to the master bedroom — in case you want to tell your maid what you’ll be having for breakfast.

While many historical features are still present in the homes, but it really depends on the owners to restore the inside of the house.

“People at first don’t realize what the details are to maintain the house in its historic originality,” Roelofs said. “The tour is good for pointing that out.”

When new residents move into a Heritage Hill Home, they are informed about various rules regarding the preservation of the house; specifically, residents have to be approved to do any exterior changes to the house. On the inside, they have more freedom to redesign. When asked what she hopes the neighborhood will look like in another 50 years, Roelofs smiled and said: “Like this.”

Eight homes and four public buildings will be part of the tour this year. There are a total of 1,300 homes in the Heritage Hill Neighborhood. A free shuttle bus will be provided between all of the home tours.

Purchase tickets at heritagehillweb.org or visit the HHA office, 126 College Avenue SE.

What: 50th Annual Heritage Hill Weekend Tour of Homes
When: May 18, 11 a.m. — 5 p.m., May 19 12 p.m.—6 p.m.
Where: 126 College Avenue SE
Cost: $18 in advance, $25 weekend of the event


Kayla Sosa is a multimedia journalism student at GVSU. She’s a local freelance writer and enjoys spending time with her husband, her kitty and her family. When she’s not writing, she likes to go on nature walks, do yoga and paint

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