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How one woman gave rise to Detroit's historic preservation movement

The West Canfield Historic District

Beulah Croxford

Beulah Croxford's former home on West Canfield

The Park Avenue Hotel Just days before its demolition


On Saturday, the historic Park Avenue Hotel, built in 1924, was demolished to make way for a loading dock for a new hockey arena being constructed in Detroit's lower Cass Corridor. Advocates of historic preservation, including the author, fought to save the hotel for over a year. Their work was made possible in part by the city of Detroit's historic preservation ordinance, which requires the city's Historic District Commission to review and approve plans for any significant changes to historic structures in Detroit, including demolition. (The HDC ultimately approved the demolition of the Park Avenue Hotel, though not without controversy.) In this story, we explore the origin story of Detroit's first local historic district -- and the woman who was its most tireless champion.

"There's a newness in Detroit," said Mayor Jerome Cavanagh in the introduction to a 1965 film, "Detroit: City on the Move." Made to promote the city’s bid to host the 1968 Olympics, the film shows off Detroit as gleaming, modernist and promising. The camera takes in the city's newness in generous sweeps: the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, Cobo Hall, Ford Auditorium, Lafayette Park. “New buildings put solid roots in the ground and stretch toward the sky," the narrator intones. "New office buildings alter the landscape, each in turn becoming a bright landmark of progress."
 
That same year, an antiques collector and retired executive secretary named Beulah Groehn drove into the city from Franklin to shop at an estate sale. The house, at 627 Canfield, was a beautiful but decrepit Victorian in the gritty Cass Corridor. The neighborhood was built for well-heeled Detroiters of the late 19th-century, but over the course of 90-some years, the mansions of Canfield Street had become boarding houses, bohemian crash-pads, and drug dens.
 
There was no newness on West Canfield. But Beulah Groehn had discovered something she loved. Instead of buying antiques at that estate sale, she bought the house.

West Canfield in the 1970s. (Beulah Croxford's house on the left)
 
For the rest of her life, at a time when many of Detroit's planners and politicians felt that the city's past stood in the way of urban progress, Beulah fought to save places like West Canfield — not simply because they were old, but because she believed that saving old places would attract residents, create jobs, and make neighborhoods safer, stronger, and more beautiful. Her legacy includes not only stately, brick-paved West Canfield Street — today one of Detroit's most desirable blocks — but the city's local historic preservation ordinance, and along with it, the Historic Designation Advisory Board and Historic District Commission, the legal mechanisms and governing bodies that help make saving Detroit's old places possible.
 
Though few except a few old-timers — and a few residents of West Canfield — recognize her name, Beulah Groehn Croxford deserves to be remembered as a founding mother of historic preservation in Detroit.
 
The power to preserve: Seeking a historic district ordinance in Detroit
 
Beulah grew up on the east side of Detroit in a diverse neighborhood at Crane and Forest Street. She and her husband Henry Groehn moved to the suburbs after they got married so they could live in a large house with plenty of room for gardening.
 
But "Detroit kept drawing me back," she wrote in her notes for a 1975 interview with WDET. For eight years before purchasing her house on West Canfield, she volunteered for the Detroit Historical Society, which, after learning about her impressive collection of antique inkwells, had recruited her to help catalog theirs. Her service there connected her to many Detroiters who were active in advocating for the city's history and its landmarks, including the Society's director, Henry Brown, and his successor Solon Weeks, both of whom were involved in the campaign to create a historic designation ordinance in Detroit.
 
Her own activism began shortly after she purchased the home on West Canfield, when two houses across the street were proposed to be demolished to make way for an apartment complex. After appeals to the zoning board failed, Beulah and a few of the neighborhood's residents began to explore what it would take to pursue a local historic designation for West Canfield — something that had never been done in Detroit before and had no legal foundation at the local or state level.
 
In order for historic designation to mean anything, Detroit would have to adopt a historic district ordinance, which would allow the City of Detroit to "regulate the construction, reconstruction, addition, alteration, repair, moving, excavation, and demolition of resources in historic districts" (according to the City's current historic district ordinance, adopted in 1976). It would also give the city the authority and a process by which to designate new historic districts.
 
But proposing a historic district ordinance was a "step into the unknown," says Bill Worden, the retired director of Detroit's Historic Designation Advisory Board. The State of Michigan had not yet passed enabling legislation that would give municipalities the authority to enact and enforce their own historic district ordinances. So a stand-alone local ordinance was "shaky in its underpinnings—it wasn't crystal-clear that the city had the power to do the things they said they were going to do," Worden says.
 
Far from a last-ditch effort to save two threatened houses, Beulah saw the historic designation of West Canfield as an opportunity to show how historic preservation could work as a tool for community redevelopment and reinvestment — especially in blighted neighborhoods that the city's planners would just as soon flatten and rebuild, as they had with Black Bottom and a significant swath of Corktown in the 1950s and1960s (For a great, thoroughly researched long-read about urban renewal in Corktown, check out this post on Corktown History.)
 
"Our block is an excellent example of the inherent potential for restoration of the inner city," Beulah wrote in a letter to Charles Blessing, Detroit's planning director from 1953 to 1977. (Blessing was the man behind the Mies van der Rohe-designed Lafayette Park development project, and many of Detroit's hospital complexes — an internationally-recognized design visionary who nonetheless embodied the inherent struggle to square Detroit's "ugly" past with the sleek promise of its future.) West Canfield was "threatened by forces that would destroy rather than maintain and rebuild the dignity of an avenue that truly could be a model for our city."
 
Passing the ordinance took three years of fighting, waiting, and fighting some more. Craig Morrison, an architectural historian who worked with Beulah to pass the ordinance and helped her on a major survey of Detroit's historic buildings in 1972, says they had to work hard to challenge the public assumption that Detroit didn't really have any history to preserve.
 
"The attitude was there was nothing historic here — what do we have to preserve? It's a working man's town. We want modernity, we want progress, there's not enough parking," Morrison says. "It's not so different now." 
 
While they were waiting for the ordinance to move through city government, one of West Canfield's 16 mansions was destroyed by arson. In response, the neighbors on Canfield submitted an exasperated letter to City Council: "Does the whole city of Detroit have to burn to ashes before anyone helps to put us under the mantel of the historic preservation ordinance?"
 
But with support from a few key allies — including, crucially, Charles Driscoll, an architectural engineer who worked in the city's planning department and became an insider champion of historic preservation in Detroit — the ordinance passed in 1969.
 
Michigan's local historic districts enabling act followed later that year. So did the designation of West Canfield, which became Detroit's first historic district. Today there are about 130 of them.
 
"[Beulah Croxford] has to be remembered for her absolute determination to get the right thing done," Worden says.
 
"The Grande Dame of historic West Canfield"
 
Beulah Croxford in 1994. Photo by Martin McClain.Those who knew Beulah — a tiny woman who wore a huge bouffant — remember her variously as a "tiger," a "determined warrior," tireless, tenacious, and sometimes a pain in the ass.
 
"You loved her or you hated her, because she was a fighter," says Craig Morrison. "She was always dressed very elegantly, casting off the aura of the great Victorian lady with her hair piled up on her head, the Grande Dame of historic Canfield."
 
"There are two kinds of people in this world," West Canfield resident Kim Schroeder remembers Beulah saying. "Those who get ulcers, and those who give ulcers. Be a person who gives ulcers."
 
During the construction of the Renaissance Center, truckloads of brick were excavated from Atwater Street. Beulah persuaded Henry Ford II, chairman of Ford Motor Company's board of directors, to let her have them, and recruited a corps of volunteers with trucks to help her move them to West Canfield. West Canfield's iconic brick paving is Beulah's work.
 
She also worked doggedly — and "at some personal risk," says Worden — to make West Canfield a better place to live. She led the effort to shut down Anderson's Gardens, a bar on Third Street that allegedly doubled as a brothel, and campaigned actively against the show bars and pornographic movie houses that lined 2nd and 3rd Streets in the '70s. She even won an award from the FBI for busting up a corrupt police paycheck-cashing scheme at a neighborhood convenience store.
 
And she made enemies.
 
When a subsidized housing development within the West Canfield historic district failed to trigger the proper review, the Canfield Association sued the city, which made some people feel like historic preservation was the purview of the privileged and the litigious. In part as a consequence of the lawsuit, the City Council voted Beulah off the Historic Designation Advisory Board, which she had served on since its founding.
 
It may have been a political misstep, but Beulah never saw preserving Detroit's history as a rarefied pursuit. Quite the contrary: historic preservation, Beulah believed, was a “people project,” one that would instill pride in Detroit among people of all races, ages, backgrounds, and creeds. It would provide opportunities for Detroiters to learn about their cultural heritage, about architecture and architectural history. And by putting skilled laborers to work on rehab and restoration projects, preservation would provide an immediate economic impact in a depressed city.
 
“We aren’t just a group of blue haired old ladies in tennis shoes, arbitrarily trying to preserve the past just because it’s the past,” Groehn was quoted as saying in an article in the Detroit Sunday News in 1974. That year, she was working on a preservation plan for the Farwell Building in Capitol Park that would include historic designation as well as business attraction. Though the building lost its last tenants in the mid-1980s, today the Farwell is finally being rehabilitated (by Lansing-based developers Karp and Associates) and is part of a larger redevelopment plan for Capitol Park that takes advantage of the neighborhood's outstanding 1890s-1920s residential and commercial building stock. Without the protection of historic designation, the neglected Farwell, along with a few of its neighbors, might have been torn down a long time ago.
 
Creating a "people city" through historic preservation
 
The historic district ordinance is not and never has been a fail-safe, and every history lover/preservation advocate in Detroit has experienced a sore loss. Beulah's was the block of 19th-century commercial buildings on Monroe Street that was razed in 1988. Today the only building left standing on Monroe is the National Theatre, which is in a state of neglect. 
 
Since the dawn of the preservation movement in Detroit, advocates of saving our history have been at odds with the city's mayors, the City Council, developers, neglectful property owners, and sometimes the apathy of the general public. But seen in the long view, Detroit's preservation ordinance is about more than saving individual historic buildings, or even entire neighborhoods.
 
The real magic of the ordinance is that it gives Detroit's citizens the chance to participate in decisions about the future of the fabric of their streets. Not everything can or should be saved. But a public process for deciding what to save, and how to save it, has had an enormous impact on Detroit over the past 50 years. Just take walk down West Canfield or stop in for coffee at Astro or cocktails at Sugar House on Michigan Avenue and you'll see its fruits.
 
Historic preservation, Beulah wrote, was a way to tell the powers that be: “This is what we want our city to be: a people city, with freedom to walk where we want to in beauty.”
 
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Amy Elliott Bragg is the director of content for Issue Media Group, Model D's parent company. She is also the president of Preservation Detroit, city’s oldest, largest, and most accomplished historic preservation organization. Follow her on Twitter @thenighttrain.
 
Research assistance for this story was generously provided by Kim Schroeder, who keeps an archive of Beulah's papers, letters, and clippings. A two-part series by Tina Noor published in New Center News on Feb. 4, 1974 ("The Woman Behind Canfield West") and Feb. 11, 1974 ("Detroit's Strongest Block Club") was particularly informative.

Portrait of Beulah Croxford by Martin McClain.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni.

Read more articles by Amy Elliott Bragg.

Amy Elliott Bragg is director of content for Model D's parent company, Issue Media Group. She blogs about pre-automotive history in metro Detroit at The Night Train. Follow her on Twitter @thenighttrain.
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