Preservation Detroit is Detroit’s oldest, largest, and most accomplished historic preservation organization. As the first Detroit recipient of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Honor Award, we have been working to preserve and revitalize Detroit’s rich architectural and cultural heritage since 1975. Through education and advocacy, research and awareness, Preservation Detroit seeks to preserve the architectural elements that foster more livable urban environments that emphasize neighborhoods and benefit the people who live in them. A part of this mission includes the redevelopment of Detroit through the restoration and re-use of the irreplaceable buildings and historic neighborhoods that serve as anchors for stability of residential areas and catalysts for economic investment.
Preservation Detroit (first established as Preservation Wayne) was founded in 1975 as a student organization when two Wayne State University (WSU) students came together to fight the demolition of historic WSU properties. The organization’s first save was the David Mackenzie House, then slated for demolition for a sewer line. With the help of like-minded individuals, this small campus organization not only halted the destruction of the historic 1895 Queen Anne residence, but also raised over $220,000 to save and restore the building; thus, creating a new home for Detroit’s first preservation organization. Mackenzie House continues to be the headquarters of Preservation Detroit.
During the 1980s, Preservation Detroit partnered with Wayne State University to designate the historically and culturally valuable East Ferry Avenue as a historic district. Through tours, lectures, and community outreach, Preservation Detroit promoted the preservation of many nearby properties. At this high point of 500 members, Preservation Detroit received the Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1986, and incorporated officially as a tax exempt 501(c)(3) in the State of Michigan.
Preservation Detroit grew in board strength and staff through the 1990s. The major focus of organizational effort during this period was the development of research and planning to document Ferry Avenue’s historical context and its potential as a cultural destination. Preservation Detroit worked closely with the Detroit Institute of Arts Founders Society and other neighborhood stakeholders on an in-depth planning study and work plan that laid the foundation for a holistic, long-term approach to the revitalization of East Ferry Avenue, culminating in a special relationship with the new owners of Hecker-Smiley Mansion, the law firm of Charfoos & Christensen. Honorary Chairs Alan Gilmour, John Stroh III, and William Taubman led a successful corporate campaign, and a generous grant from the Chrysler Fund supported an ambitious membership campaign that increased membership to 1,000 members.
Also during this time, Preservation Detroit’s historic walking tours began to flourish and became a major component of the organization. Preservation Detroit, in partnership with Cityscape Detroit and other community partners, also launched the Loft Forum series to educate the development community about various incentives available for the rehabilitation of historic structures. And after years of advocacy, rehabilitation began on The Inn on Ferry Street in early 2000 – one of the original recommendations in Preservation Detroit’s vision for Ferry Avenue.
In the new millennium, Preservation Detroit continued its tradition of evolving the preservation debate in Detroit and contributed to the conversation by adding to The Detroit Heritage Tour Series. High profile demolitions such as the Madison-Lenox and Statler hotels and the 2005 listing of all of “The Historic Buildings of Downtown Detroit” on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Places roster drew national attention to at-risk buildings in downtown Detroit. In 2006, Preservation Detroit was instrumental in establishing the Greater Detroit Historic Preservation Coalition (GDHPC), a collection of historic preservation-based professional and civic organizations focused on Detroit and its regional neighbors. Its goal was to provide an open forum to address preservation issues along with creating a more coordinated effort between various groups.
As heritage buildings in Detroit became increasingly threatened, Preservation Detroit was instrumental in the fight to save many of Detroit’s architectural and cultural landmarks, and continues to be today. In 2007, Preservation Detroit, in cooperation with Cass Tech Development and Preservation Society attempted to save the historic Cass Technical High School from demolition, issuing a request for proposal for its redevelopment. Continuing the effort to adaptively reuse historic schools, Preservation Detroit held seminars on the subject in collaboration with Detroit Public Schools the same year. The organization was also involved with efforts to historically designate the Lafayette Building downtown before it was razed in 2009.
Today, Preservation Detroit continues to improve their existing programs, while also creating new proactive initiatives focused on community advocacy. They have recently commenced a survey to document the existing building stock and identify historic resources that are integral in defining Detroit’s cultural and architectural identity. At the same time, Preservation Detroit is also meeting with community groups, governmental organizations, and citizens to discuss what is important to them in revitalization and preservation, and to form partnerships that benefit Detroit and its citizens.
In 2012, Preservation Detroit began a new internship program, offering students and young professionals experience in historic preservation advocacy and education, focusing on proactive and creative approaches to sustainable urbanism. Preservation Detroit also continues to celebrate Detroit’s past and current achievements through educational tours, lectures, and publications, thereby promoting awareness and the discussion of public history. The organization holds over 130 tours each year, exploring wide-ranging subjects from architectural history to sculpture to the history of bootlegging. In addition, a free lecture series features guest speakers; past lectures have included the history of Brush Park, Art Deco in Detroit, and architect Leonard B. Willeke, to name just a few. Also, last year the organization commenced the digitalization of its historic archives which contain photos, slides, blueprints, newspaper clippings, ephemera, and document collections related to specific Detroit buildings and neighborhoods.
Rounding out the organization’s efforts in education, advocacy, and awareness, Preservation Detroit provides a resource for press and other organizations seeking knowledge on Detroit’s history, development, architecture and culture. Preservation Detroit publically speaks out to raise awareness about preservation issues in Detroit and hopes that its efforts help to influence the preservation of Detroit’s ‘sense of place.’