Jane Bird Schmiedeke

Jane Bird Schmiedeke (left) and Nat Edmunds
2005 Celebration of Women
Photo by Paul Schreiber

Celebration of Women
Leaders in Community Service
2005 Award Winner
Jane Bird Schmiedeke
June 14, 2005

Presentation made by Penny Schreiber (YHF president 1993 – 1994):

The Celebration of Women award is about leadership in volunteerism. Jane Bird Schmiedeke, in my opinion, exemplifies this award. Ypsilanti is a profoundly different city today because of Jane’s thirty-five years of determined effort. But I know that Jane is going to throw her water glass at me if I try to paint her as a solo-practitioner heroine. It is true that Jane had a lot of help changing Ypsilanti. But I am here tonight to tell you that her leadership has been and continues to be extraordinary.

Last week Ypsilanti city councilman Bill Nickels, who is right over there, stopped by to see Jack Miller at the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage museum in Depot Town. Jack was talking to three visitors from Wisconsin about local automotive history. Bill heard one of the visitors say, “I haven’t been in Ypsilanti for over twenty years. This town has changed. What a turnaround! It is nothing like it was. It is really nice now!” A second visitor chimed in with a comment about the wonderful Victorian house they had parked in front of. The change the Wisconsin visitors talked about is the direct result of historic preservation.

Bill Nickels served on the Historic District Commission with Jane for ten years from 1988 to 1998. He told me about a TV commercial that he says reminds him of Jane. In the commercial, a person walking down the street sees a problem. “Wow,” he says, “I see a big problem.” The next person going by also spies the problem. “I sure wish somebody would solve that problem,” he says. The third person who walks by notices the problem and decides to do something about it. That person is Jane.

Bill Nickels divides the city of Ypsilanti into three historical periods. The first stretched from the city’s founding in 1823 to 1939. Ypsilanti was then a quiet college town, its prosperity fueled by successful small industries. For a town its size, Ypsilanti had an unusual wealth of architecturally interesting buildings and houses representing almost every American architectural style: Greek Revival, Colonial Revival, Prairie style, the bungalow, Queen Anne, Gothic, and so on.

Bill refers to the years 1941 to 1973 as the Bomber Plant era. Factory workers poured into Ypsilanti during the war, dramatically altering the community. During these years property owners milked their properties for all the profits they could squeeze out of them. These owners showed little concern for zoning or maintenance.

The era from 1973 to the present, according to Bill, is the Jane and Nath era. Bill is referring to Nathalie Edmunds, who is here tonight and who received this award four years ago. Nath was Jane’s close partner in crime. Together these two women changed the world.

It is scary to imagine what Ypsilanti would look like today if in the 1970s Jane had not researched and written the city’s historic district ordinance. Jane explained to me that Ypsilanti’s city coffers were sparse after World War II. This was actually a benefit, she said, because it prevented wholesale demolition of Ypsilanti’s historic homes and buildings. There was no money for “urban renewal.” But many of Ypsilanti’s old homes and buildings were in terrible shape. At the end of the 1960s Depot Town was frequented by motorcyle gangs and specialized in violence and crime. All of Depot Town at that time was put on the market for $14,000. Jane told me that Ypsilanti had hit “rock bottom.”

But by the early 1970s the city was planning to remake itself. To increase its tax base, Ypsilanti drafted a master plan to raze Depot Town and replace its buildings with light industry. At that time, an Ann Arbor developer was also preparing to tear down the many buildings he owned on or near North Huron Street to build a civic center and a county building. There was talk of a senior citizen high rise. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with North Huron Street in Ypsilanti. My friend and fellow Ypsilanti preservationist Jack Harris calls it “living architectural history.” Drive over and check it out. The best idea is to walk north on the street, starting from Michigan Avenue. Imagine this restored architectural glory all gone. Conjure up instead county buildings, high rises, and an industrial park.

Virtually every significant building on or within shouting distance of North Huron Street was slated for demolition during the 1970s: the Breakey mansion, the Ladies’ Library, Mayor Cheryl Farmer’s now beautifully restored home, and the old fire station are just a few of the tantalizing examples of what the Ypsilanti community nearly lost. By the mid-1970s, the county began planning a major highway through Depot Town. Nath Edmunds remembers “one continual battle” to save North Huron Street and Depot Town. Everything was threatened until Jane’s efforts led to the establishment of the historic district in 1978.

Jane is very proud of the historic district ordinance that she wrote for Ypsilanti. I was talking with her a few weeks ago and I managed to wrangle this fact out of her. It wasn’t easy, because Jane doesn’t toot her own horn. She just can’t. If you think of personality types on a continuum, the blowhard is on one end and Jane is on the other. Before writing the Ypsilanti ordinance, Jane researched sixteen historic districts around the country, including those in Savannah, Annapolis, and New York City. She recalls that, whatever their size or location, all sixteen districts took the same approach, basing their local ordinances on the Supreme Court’s ruling that preservation is a legitimate public purpose and that governmental units are within their rights to regulate what can be done with historic buildings.

It is essential to understand that it isn’t just that Jane volunteered her time to research and write the ordinance. What is important and remarkable is that the ordinance she researched and wrote is such a damn good one. Jane added restrictions to the ordinance. She put teeth in it. People fought those restrictions, but Jane prevailed. Since 1978, time and time again, the ordinance has proved effective.

Jane is not afraid of controversy. She isn’t interested in being popular. My favorite thing about her is her tenacity. She has often been smack in the middle of major city controversies. Her side — her calm and quiet tenacity — always won out and this was to the ultimate benefit of the city.

Today Jane is revered by preservationists throughout the state and her historic district ordinance is considered a model by preservationists everywhere. Her ordinance is the essence of her great success. But everything that she has done before and since is connected to it. Jane spent years in the 1970s doing the painstaking work of planning a historic district. She identified the city’s most significant historic structures, she plotted the geographic boundaries of the proposed district, and she sought the help of likeminded Ypsilanti citizens, mustering political forces to elect a city council sympathetic to preservation.

Jane applied to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, asking that the city’s district be placed on its National Register of Historic Places. Few people expected that humble little Ypsilanti would be granted this designation. They were wrong. No doubt the people at the National Trust were impressed by Jane’s ordinance. Ypsilanti’s district was added to the National Register and today it is the second largest historic district in Michigan. Jane has been chair of Ypsilanti’s Historic District Commission since 1978. She chairs twice-monthly HDC meetings, putting in considerable research time before each one. Jane is a volunteer administrator of city government.

In 1974 Jane cofounded the Ypsilanti Heritage Foundation, a still-thriving nonprofit with the purpose of increasing public understanding and appreciation of Ypsilanti’s architectural links to the past, educating the community in the philosophy and purpose of historic preservation, and encouraging public and private preservation efforts. Jane remains a dedicated member of its board. She also founded the Heritage Foundation’s annual summer home tour and she is still on that committee.

In addition, Jane is one of the founders of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, an organization dedicated to assisting other communities in the preservation of this state’s historic resources. Jane has spoken at its annual conferences about preservation and the ways in which it benefits the economic stability of communities, basing her talks on her own experiences and successes in Ypsilanti. In 1996 she was the recipient of the Network’s Citizen’s Historic Preservation Award.

Last summer a movement was underfoot to tear down the historic Starkweather house, built in the 1840s, on Huron River Drive near Cornell Street in Ypsilanti. Mary Ann Starkweather and her husband, John, were abolitionist. Well-known Ypsilanti inventor Elijah McCoy, an African American, worked on the Starkweather farm as a young boy. The Starkweather house is famous locally as a documented stop on the Underground Railroad and it is part of Ann Arbor’s organized tours of Underground Railroad sites. When Jane heard that the house was going to be torn down, she sprang into action, informing city council of what was happening and organizing a study committee. All of a sudden, the Starkweather house became its own historic district. End of problem.

In the mid-1970s, Ypsilanti’s Chamber of Commerce was dead set against preservation. Today the Chamber thinks they invented preservation and they routinely use it to promote the city.

Jane and I were talking recently about what is happening today in Ypsilanti. We spoke about current or recent preservation projects that are benefiting the community: the once-neglected Kresge building on Michigan Avenue is being transformed into twenty-two fabulous apartments, the Water Street Project, also on Michigan Avenue, will bring condos to formerly derelict or abandoned property along the river (this would never be happening without the historic district), and the recent addition to the old fire museum is a splendid example of progressive preservation. But Jane tells me these are only symbols.

What is most important, according to Jane, is that the city of Ypsilanti has so thoroughly embraced preservation. “When we started,” she told me, “we had no support, even from the city. We had no staff and no budget. Today there are two planners on staff and an HDC intern.” Today preservation is the way the city does business. Ypsilanti provides its citizens with sewers, police, garbage pickup, and preservation. Preservation is interwoven into every part of city government and city planning.

My final comment about Jane. As we’ve been told earlier, she has been driven all her life by a passion for old things. How remarkable to have sustained that passion over thirty-five years of volunteering and to have used it to bring economic stability to her community.

And now, I’d like to introduce you to Jane Bird Schmiedeke.

—Penny Schreiber

Updated by Paul Schreiber (paulschreiber@comcast.net) on April 8, 2022