Preservation Detroit takes us on a tour of the city’s most endangered historic buildings

The Preservation Detroit story starts in 1975 with the David Mackenzie House, a historic 1895 Queen Anne home scheduled for demolition by its owner, Wayne State University. Successfully working with the university to save the building, Preservation Detroit has since evolved to become a multi-faceted organization, advocating for the preservation of the city’s historic buildings and districts while serving as an educational resource all the while. Their popular walking tours have become a Saturday morning ritual over the years and, with the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings, they’ve recently returned.

A Preservation Detroit guide leads a tour downtown.Last week, we handed the keys to our Instagram account to Preservation Detroit. They took us on a tour of our own, showcasing both the historic buildings already lost to the wrecking ball as well as those that are especially threatened today. It serves as a cautionary tale, one that shows that when it comes to historic preservation, there’s always work to be done.

We asked Devan Anderson, president of Preservation Detroit's board of directors, all about it.

Model D: Starting with the organization’s initial success in working with Wayne State and saving the Mackenzie House, how big of a role has education and advocacy played in the Preservation Detroit mission from then through today?

Devan Anderson: I don't want to say that Preservation Detroit made this happen, but you basically have, over the course of the arc of this one example building, an institution that was a reluctant partner when it came to preservation. Our organization, through its community outreach and advocacy, was able to have a small part in changing Wayne State’s perception of their own buildings and the buildings around their campus. And they're now an amazing steward.

I think that's generally the point of the advocacy and outreach of Preservation Detroit. We're looking to be a better partner with Detroit's historic neighborhoods. We're looking to be a better partner with Detroit's historic institutions. Lately, we've been a little bit involved in the Brodhead Armory discussion. We're a little bit involved in the State Fairgrounds discussions. And we've been looking for opportunities to partner and help save some landmark Detroit structures in the process.

Model D: In what capacity were you involved in the Brodhead and State Fairgrounds discussions?

Anderson: With the State Fairgrounds, we really just played a support role there. There was already a group that was involved, and we were literally just partners at a bigger table — helping lend our points to theirs, to accentuate the importance of some of the structures that were in danger, like the bandshell, which I think is ultimately getting moved to Palmer Park. Friends of Palmer Park and the Bagley neighborhood had some of the prime seats at the table. And I've heard positive things about the preservation of some of the structures that the bus terminals are involved in. I think our outlook there was a little pessimistic, and we're waiting for the formal announcement of exactly what's being planned, but I think there's hope that good things are being done and that structures are being saved.

I think that with the Brodhead Armory, we took more of a primary role. We were negotiating with the city and the Parade Company, working with their architects to establish common sense best practices for that building, and with the understanding that the new owners of the building were going to be abiding by common sense best practices for preservation. And Preservation Detroit was willing to support their applications, whether that was for the building sale with city council and, assuming the partnership continues, we’ll be at the table for the Historic District Commission’s ultimate approval of the work that they're proposing.

Model D: Coming up in the future, what are some projects that you’re most excited about?

Anderson: A lot of our work has been tabled lately. And we're still exploring what's possible during the late stages of COVID. It interrupted a lot of our work, we had to shelve an entire tour season, and we're in a little bit of a holding pattern for the future. A lot of the programs and projects that we had been working on some 18 months ago now, we're ready to unpack and move forward. There were some partnerships with Detroit’s historic neighborhoods. We want to work hard on some broader advocacy efforts across the city.

We would like to be seen by the city, and by developers in the city, as potential partners, to help them through our advocacy and through our reputation. And then there are even some simple things: The organization will do more mixers and fundraisers and happy hours and things like that, where we give our members the ability to see projects under construction, or recently finished historic building restorations. We want to give a look at things happening behind the scenes to showcase some of the highlights in our community.

Model D: How can people get involved in preservation work — and why should they?

Anderson: Fundamentally, historic preservation is one of those interesting things where there's an intersection between art, architecture, the greater community good, and the health and vibrancy of the city. People can get involved in myriad ways. Not to be entirely self-serving, but they can join Preservation Detroit and help further our mission to advocate for some of these structures. And there’s work that people can do on their own. Most of the time when work is done on these historic buildings, there's public comment periods. At Preservation Detroit, a lot of times, we're organizing advocacy and letter-writing campaigns. More voices and stronger voices make for broader pressure and more support.

The historic structures that have survived in the city of Detroit are what make Detroit special. They're the beautiful hallmark buildings that people attend our tours to see and why people come to Detroit to visit. Not only are these buildings what make Detroit special and unique, they also — and I think Bedrock kind of proves this — they were also the buildings that were the first ones to be renovated, to spur the economic vitality of downtown's real estate landscape. Some of the new construction that's happening downtown wouldn't have been possible if we hadn't renovated 100 buildings first.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.