History buffs, listen up! The town of Ypsilanti is steeped in history, with several historic buildings and sites still standing tall, like the iconic water tower and several churches, homes and other structures dating back to the early 1800s. Plus, there are a handful of museums in Ypsilanti sharing fascinating information about the area’s colorful history, delving into the worlds of aviation, automotive and firefighting. That’s because the city played an important role in each of those industries, as it was home to the last Hudson automobile dealership as well as a manufacturing plant that employed many real-life “Rosie the Riveters” during World War II.
Let’s take a tour to unearth some of the best historic sites and museums in Ypsilanti — including details about their history and some information to know before you visit!
To see several historic buildings in one spot, head to the Ypsilanti Historic District, which encompasses several blocks on each side of the Huron River in the heart of town. The district contains approximately 400 structures in two main areas, including the buildings along Michigan Avenue and those in Depot Town. There is a mix of historic residential and commercial buildings, including multiple examples of Greek Revival, Queen Anne, brick Italianate, Tudor Revival, and other architectural styles.
Depot Town came to be after the Ypsilanti Train Depot was opened in 1838, evolving into a thriving commercial district, with businesses such as a flour mill, a farmers’ store, an iron foundry, a fire department, a clothing store, and more. Today, Depot Town is a bustling shopping district home to antique shops, specialty stores, restaurants, and most of the city’s museums. Situated on the north side of Depot Town, the Freighthouse offers a glimpse into the town’s railroad past, and today serves as an event space, hosting the Depot Town Farmers’ Market on Saturdays throughout the summer!
Considered the unofficial symbol of the city, the stone water tower just south of Eastern Michigan University dates all the way back to 1889, when it was designed by William R. Coats as part of an elaborate city waterworks project. It has maintained the same original design and has been in continuous service ever since. Resting on the highest point in Ypsilanti, the 147-foot tower is used to store a reserve of water to feed cast iron mains constructed in 1885. During the construction process, workers made four crosses in the stonework, including two on the exterior and two inside, in order to protect themselves from injury. Completed in February 1890, the entire project cost $21,368, while the restoration in 1976 cost $114,694. Click here to learn more about the history of this important city landmark.
The story of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church dates all the way back to the late 1820s, when missionaries preached to the area’s first settlers and later formed St. James Church in 1930. After a few years, the church faltered then reorganized as St. Luke’s. The new congregation purchased property and built a wooden structure, which they quickly outgrew. In June 1858, the current sanctuary was consecrated and then designed and built by the Detroit firm, Anderson and Jordan, for just $15,000. Since its inception, the church has stood for social justice and equality, welcoming African Americans prior to the Civil War and empowering women throughout its history. Over the years, the church has added some structures and additions, including the Church House in 1928, an organ and stained glass windows in the 1940s, and the Parish House in 1955, which provided classrooms, a kitchen and a theater. Click here to learn more about the fascinating history of this beautiful church.
Ladies’ Literary Club of Ypsilanti has been meeting since 1878 — many of those years within the historic clubhouse, which is considered one of the most important Greek Revival structures in the state of Michigan. The property was originally built circa 1843 as the home for William M. Davis, and was sold at some point to Elijah Grant to be used as a local dry goods store. The home stayed in the family when Grant died in 1851, and was sold by his son in 1913 to the Ladies’ Literary Club. The building was designated as a Registered Michigan Historic Site in 1965 and named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Today, the club refers to the house as the Davis-Conklin-Grant House to honor each of its owners over its 175+ year history.
Founded in 1849 as the Michigan State Normal School, Eastern Michigan University has a number of noteworthy historic buildings on campus. One of the oldest and most prominent is Welch Hall, a Georgian Revival-style building named after the school’s first principal, Adonijah Welch. Constructed in 1895, Welch Hall is the second-oldest surviving building on campus and an Eastern Michigan University Historic District contributing property. Other historic buildings on EMU’s campus include McKenny Hall, Sherzer Hall, and Starkweather Hall, which is the oldest building still standing on campus. All four are situated in the L-shaped parcel of land across from the Ypsilanti Water Tower known as the Eastern Michigan University Historic District. Click here to learn more about these historic buildings!
The history of First Presbyterian Church of Ypsilanti dates all the way back to July 1829, when a congregation of 12 members was organized under the leadership of Reverend William Page. But it wasn’t until 1857 that the current brick building was constructed, after the congregation had outgrown its frame building. Costing just $12,000, the building was dedicated on September 23, 1857, coinciding with the installment of the new pastor, Reverent Gustavius L. Foster. Over the decades, this beautiful brick church on the corner of Washington and Emmet Streets underwent several renovations, both inside and out, including the removal of the original spire, the addition of two Beaux-Art towers, Tiffany windows, a new organ, new classrooms, an elevator, and much more. Click here to learn more about the history of First Presbyterian Church of Ypsilanti!
In 1927, Carl L. Miller opened a Hudson Sales and Service franchise as an automobile dealership and repair shop. After a merger and the discontinuation of the Hudson line, the fate of the shop was in jeopardy, but Carl’s son, Jack, continued Miller Motors by selling Hudson parts and cars until the museum was founded. Thus preserving the dealership’s authentic condition, the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum was opened in 1995 and is now home to hundreds of historic cars, plus advertising, service, repair and promotional items, and so much more. You can visit the collection Tuesday through Sunday from 1-4 p.m.
Step back in time to see what a typical Ypsilanti home looked like in the 19th Century. This gorgeous 1860 home operates as a museum and archives, both organized and operated by the Ypsilanti Historical Society. Built in 1860, the Dow House was owned and operated by three prominent Ypsilanti families before it was acquired by the society. It was designed in the Italianate style, featuring a hipped roof, hooded windows, extended eaves, and expressive brackets. Take a tour of the museum to explore a variety of exhibitions, including a formal parlor, an informal parlor, a dining room, a solarium, a kitchen, and a bedroom, as well as special display rooms. And the downstairs archives include information about family history, micro-film, local history, businesses, maps, photographs and more. The Ypsilanti Historical Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 2–5 p.m. and admission is free, but donations are appreciated! Learn more about the history of the Dow House here.
There’s no better home for a museum dedicated to the history of firefighting in Michigan than a restored firehouse! That’s right — the Michigan Firehouse Museum is housed in Ypsilanti’s former fire station that was built in 1898. The station remained in service until 1975, when it was sold to a family who lived in the building. It was then purchased in 1998 by locals, Howard and Norma Weaver, who opened the museum that same year. Today, the Michigan Firehouse Museum encompasses more than 26,000 square feet of exciting displays, including 25 changing exhibits with antique fire trucks and early fire rigs, historic artifacts, and the largest collection of fire truck bells in the country. You can visit the museum Thursday through Sunday from 12–4 p.m.
The Yankee Air Museum is an aviation, aerospace and science museum that was founded in 1981. The museum temporarily closed in 2004 when a fire destroyed the original World War II building the museum was housed in, and was rebuilt and reopened in 2010 at its current location at Willow Run Airport. Situated between Ypsilanti and Bellevue, Willow Run was a manufacturing complex used for the mass production of aircraft, especially the B-24 Liberator heavy bomber, during World War II. In 2013, the Yankee Air Museum purchased 144,000 square feet of the plant, which it now uses to house and protect some of the museum’s large aircraft acquisitions. In addition to the history of the property itself, the museum is packed with exhibits focused on the history of World War I and II, Rosie the Riveter, the Vietnam War, aircraft restoration, and so much more. Visit the museum Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m.–4 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m.–4 p.m.
And the Rest is History…
What local historic sites and museums in Ypsilanti are your favorites? Share all the details in the comments below!