The Historic District Commission decides that a new fence must fall down on Ann Arbor’s Old West Side

A newly installed split-rail fence in front of a house at 617 W. Madison St. in Ann Arbor’s Old West Side Historic District is about to fall, according to a judgment by the Historic District Commission Thursday.

Ryan J. Stanton |

A half-hour hearing in the town hall on Thursday evening was not enough to convince them Ann Arbor Historic District Commission allowing a homeowner to keep a new fence on their property. The verdict: It doesn’t belong in the city Historic quarter of the old west side.

Louis Breskmanwho lives with his fiancé in a 1920s house at 617 W. Madison St., Meredith NewmanHe now has 90 days to dismantle the wooden split-rail fence he installed last month for about $ 1,200 and restore the property to normal.

“The neighborhood is delighted that it has retained its historic character, and that is exactly what our policies are designed to do,” said the HDC Chairwoman Ellen Ramsburgh. “I don’t think the fence is appropriate, and I’m sorry for an afterthought, but that’s the way it is.”

The HDC voted 5-0 to reject Breskman’s request for an adequacy certificate to the commissioners Patrick McCauley, Ben Bushkuhl, Robert White and Kristina Glusac Making the decision to go for the fence with Ramsburgh doesn’t fit in with the historic neighborhood.


Patrick McCauley

“One of the first things you see when you walk into the house is that rustic split-rail farmhouse fence,” said McCauley. “And it just doesn’t look appropriate, I don’t think so.”

Breskman and his fiancé appeared before the HDC along with a lawyer to represent their case. They left disappointed with the result and said they were not sure of their next steps.

Jill ThacherThe city’s monument preservation coordinator advised the HDC that split-rail fences in the front gardens are incompatible with the historic character of the neighborhood and should not be allowed. She said Breskman could file a new application to install a fence in a design appropriate for the district.

Thacher said a square or flat picket fence with an opacity of at least 50 percent would be a more appropriate design.

Breskman said he wasn’t sure he wanted to “get tangled up” with the HDC again. He noticed that there was already a worn wooden picket fence on part of the property that was being dismantled to make way for the new fence and he doesn’t like that style.

Following the guidelines for designing historic neighborhoods, Ann Arbor follows the use of wood (either picket or swap board), wrought iron or metal (wrought iron style), or chain link (backyards only) when installing new fences. Thacher said this was the first time the HDC considered whether to allow split rail fences in the Old West Side.

Last month, according to Thacher, city officials received reports from three different neighbors that a fence was being built without a permit. A city building inspector visited the site and found that a split-rail fence had been installed along the sidewalk on Fifth Street on the corner lot.

Not only did Breskman fail to obtain a required Certificate of Appropriateness from the HDC prior to installing the fence, but they were also unable to obtain approval to comply with zone regulations.

The building inspector issued an order to stop work. But over the weekend the rest of the fence was installed along West Madison.

City officials say Breskman may face a civil violation or misdemeanor for violating the Work Interruption Ordinance, but that has not yet been issued.

During her employee investigation, Thacher said she looked through 200 or more old photos of Ann Arbor and found that the town definitely once had post-and-rail fences similar to those installed on Breskman’s property.

“This is a very old style of fencing, but it was prevalent before the turn of the 19th century,” she said, adding that fences existed in the 19th century from the founding days of Ann Arbor to the Civil War and the turn of the century.


A view of the new fence from the front of the house.

Ryan J. Stanton |

“This was a fairly common post-rail fence style that was used to contain livestock,” she said. “I have several photos from the 1880s and 90s showing panoramas of Ann Arbor, and you see larger yards with areas to contain animals – big animals, horses, cattle, whatever.”

She said that after the turn of the century, these types of fences were no longer as prevalent as the land became more subdivided and the plots became smaller. She said most of the fences that are closer to downtown on small residential lots are picket style, and photos prove it.

Breskman’s one-and-a-half-story Craftsman-style house first appeared in the city directory in 1927 as the home of Emil Hoppe, a telephone company employee and student.

“I’m not saying that there was never a split-rail fence for a newer house in the 20s,” Thacher told the commissioners on Thursday evening. “Because that could certainly be a throwback to old styles, but having picket-style fences – either wood or metal – on residential lots was clearly predominant. Especially since this house wasn’t built until 1926.”

Thacher acknowledged that split-rail fences made a comeback in Ann Arbor during the suburban housing boom after World War II. But that still doesn’t make it appropriate, she said.

She cited federal guidelines that new buildings in historic districts that are “visually incompatible” or “destroy historical relationships within the area” are not recommended.

White, one of the five commissioners who denied Breskman’s request, said he wished there was some way to retrofit the new fence to make it compatible.

“Right now it’s there and I don’t like the economic waste,” he said, informing Breskman that things could have been different if he had just lived across the street.

“They might have your fence right across from you on the west side because you’re in the old town and they aren’t,” he said. “That’s the limit.”

Commissioner Bushkuhl said he had personally visited the property and was compassionate. He said Breskman and his fiancé took good care of the house.

“It’s a nice installation of that type of fence,” he added. “You did a good job.”

But he said it just still doesn’t fit.

“I drove through the neighborhood and looked around, you can’t really see these fences on the front gardens of houses,” said Bushkuhl. “And every house you would see is not in a historic neighborhood, which is an important difference to me.”

Commenting on the situation, Commissioner McCauley said there is a huge difference between fences in front of a house and fences on the more private side of a house.

“At the time this historic district was important, these types of fences – even if they existed on the Old West Side – would never have been in front of the house,” he said. “That’s the public side. There could have been a more nifty picket fence.”

Even if a property owner had a campsite full of animals, he said, he would have been in the back of the house and out of the public eye as much as possible.

“A fence like this might be more suitable in a rural setting – a rural historic neighborhood,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily fit into a historic part of a city district.”

Joy Glovick, an Ann Arbor-based attorney representing Breskman and his fiancé, argued the fence blended in with its surroundings.

“The fact is there are split rail fences in the area,” she said, adding that there are even some chain link fences in the old town, as well as split rail fences in a nearby park. “How does this fence not fit into the park nearby?”

Thacher said some of the aforementioned fences are not in the historic district, while others were installed prior to the city’s current monument protection ordinance being passed in 2007. She said this was the case with the split rail fence in Wurster Park.

Ramsburgh asked Breskman if he knew his property was in a historic neighborhood when he decided to put up the fence. He said he was aware of this, but didn’t think this would be a problem as another property two blocks away had a similar fence.

Glovick said she thought a picket fence would be more of a hindrance. She noted that her customers wanted to grow climbing plants on the fence so that it would look like “one big shrub”.

“It’s not a chain link fence,” added Glovick. “It has historical precedence. Whether it is appropriate for 1927 or not, I mean, that’s a bit restrictive. They clearly existed before. They were placed under that point. How is that historically incorrect?”

Ryan J. Stanton reports on government and politics for Reach him at [email protected] or 734-623-2529. You can also follow him on Twitter or subscribe to’s email newsletter.

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