Beloved Palmer Woods neighborhood celebrates 100 years
A hundred years ago, developer Charles W. Burton hired renowned landscape architect Ossian Simonds to help him develop an exclusive neighborhood in a wooded area north of Detroit.
Eyeing the lovely terrain, Simonds did something very unusual in the city at the time: he designed the streets as curving avenues.
Today, large, sweeping trees still arch over the winding streets of Palmer Woods. Birds chirp above lawn mowers. And as the neighborhood celebrates its centennial this year in a city that has changed so dramatically, what’s just as remarkable is how much Michigan’s first platted subdivision has stayed the same.
“For our neighborhood to remain intact and still be a beautiful place that’s one with nature is amazing,” says Craig Vanderburg, president of the Palmer Woods Association. “Everything about it from the way it was created has remained intact. It’s still a wonderful place to live and that’s cause for celebration.”
Capping off a year of special events is a Centennial Gala on Saturday at the Detroit Golf Club. Tickets are $100 and will include cocktails, music, a strolling dinner, and a history room that will detail Palmer Woods’ evolution over the last 100 years with photos, videos, even mannequins in period costumes from the 1900s.
Longtime resident Lynne Carter Keith, who grew up in Palmer Woods and now lives in her parents’ old house with her husband, Terrance, believes one reason Palmer Woods has endured while other neighborhoods have struggled is its residents’ commitment to the community.
“When people choose to live in Palmer Woods, it’s a commitment to not just the neighborhood but to a lifestyle and to creating a community,” says Keith, co-chair of the centennial committee. “All of us feel like we’re not just stewards for the houses and the homes but a sense of community.”
Palmer Woods gets its name from U.S. Sen. Thomas Palmer. In 1893, he donated 188 acres of land south of Seven Mile to the city “for the good of everybody,” which would eventually become Palmer Park. After his death in 1913, his family sold a plot of land north of Seven Mile, west of Woodward to developer Burton in 1915.
In April 1915, the Palmer Woods company was founded to form a neighborhood marketed as “an oasis, free from grime of the city,” according to Palmer Woods’ local historians. Ads touted winding drives, wooded vistas and “artistically grouped shrubbery.”
Simonds laid out Palmer Woods’ streets as curving avenues, a break in the rigid gridiron tradition of Detroit. Building lots are irregular in shape.
The area was heavily wooded and “they wanted to maintain that,” says Keith.
Of the 297 structures in Palmer Woods Historic District, 202 were built between 1915 and 1940. Tudor Revival is the most common architectural style, characterized by medieval design elements such as battlements, twisted chimney stacks, Tudor arches and leaded windows.
Homes were designed by some of the biggest names in architecture — Albert Kahn, Minoru Yamasaki, Frank Lloyd Wright — for some of the biggest names in the auto industry. Two of the seven Fisher brothers, Alfred and William, had homes in Palmer Woods, as did Bishop Michael Gallagher. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan lived in Palmer Woods before being elected.
About growing up in the neighborhood, where she moved to in 1967, Keith says, “I don’t want to sound Pollyanna but it was like an oasis. It was filled with family and kids and we had this belief that we were living in this great city and this great neighborhood — and not emblematic of the problems of the city.”
Still, Palmer Woods has had — and continues to have — its challenges. In 1994, the William Fisher mansion, built in 1925 and called the Clipper mansion because of a boat motif throughout the house, burned down. Livernois, once a thriving economic hub nearby, continues to struggle to reinvent itself.
And security is a challenge, as it is for any community, says Vanderburg. The neighborhood has its own security patrols that it pays for with neighborhood dues and neighbors monitor vacant houses. A special assessment district is in the process of being established to pay for security, mosquito abatement and snow removal.
Safety and security “is something that we pay a lot of attention to just so our quality of life in our community remains good,” says Vanderburg.
Today, Palmer Woods is a diverse mix of everyone from lawyers to artists. Longtime resident Margo Norris, one of the chairs of the centennial committee, says it’s been nice to see a growing number of younger families moving into the neighborhood.
“Younger families are moving in — and I’m thrilled with that,” says Norris. “You’re always concerned with the school system that we won’t have younger families and we do.”
Going forward, Vandenburg said Palmer Woods will work to stay a premier community.
“We are 100 years old and our infrastructure needs repairs, just general upkeep of the neighborhood,” he says. “There’s a lot going on behind the beautiful landscaping and many of things aren’t always readily paid for by our city and state government. We’ve had to be creative.”
Palmer Woods turns 100
Palmer Woods will celebrate 100 years with a Centennial Gala Saturday at the Detroit Golf Club. Tickets are $100 and will include music, dancing, cocktails, a strolling dinner, and a history room. Go to palmerwoods.org.