Metro Detroit preservationists battle to protect region's history

Local historic preservationists won a significant victory this April when the new Cass Park Historic District was approved to preserve the Masonic Temple and 18 other properties surrounding Detroit's new Little Caesars Arena.

But Preservation Detroit executive vice president Dawn Bilobran says there's "still a real pull and cause for advocacy" in that burgeoning area of the Cass Corridor.

"Many of the buildings that are now included in the Cass Park Historic District are ripe for redevelopment and rehabilitation," Bilobran says. "Our advocacy efforts relating to that part of the city will continue as we encourage and advocate for the thoughtful inclusion of existing structures into the comprehensive arena district development."

Dawn Bilobran, Preservation Detroit executive vice president. Photo by Nick Hagen.

For Bilobran and numerous other preservationists across Metro Detroit, protecting local historic structures is a near-Sisyphean task. Take for example the Macomb County Historical Society, which focuses its efforts on a single home: the Crocker House in Mount Clemens. The structure was built in 1869 by that city's first mayor and the historical society now operates it as a museum.

"It's a wood frame structure, so the restoration never ends, inside and out," says the organization's director, Kim Parr.

Macomb County Historical Society director Kim Parr. Photo by Nick Hagen.

For Preservation Detroit, the most robust preservation organization in the metro area, those challenges are multiplied. Bilobran says the topic of preservation has become more relevant than ever as Detroit—and the metro area in general—rethink and redevelop their neighborhoods. In that process, Bilobran says, structures of historical significance tend to get left out—and not just major landmarks like the Masonic Temple.

"We're talking about valuable structures that, maybe from an ornamentation standpoint, aren't deserving of preservation, if you will," she says. "They're much more vernacular. But those are the lifeblood of the city, where people lived and worked and immigrated."

Protecting the vernacular

Last year in Farmington, a brand-new preservation organization formed to protect a group of architecturally notable homes that may fall more on the "vernacular" side Bilobran describes. Farmington residents Jena Stacey, Maria Taylor and Marilyn Weimar founded Preservation Farmington to advocate for the protection of a row of Queen Anne houses on Grand River Avenue. The structures date back to between 1900 and 1915. Despite the homes' good condition and historic status, they lie outside of Farmington's established historic district, and the Farmington Downtown Area Plan proposes demolishing the houses to develop the Maxfield Training Center, an abandoned Farmington Public Schools property that lies behind them.

"They're always going to be under threat, regardless of whether a developer uses them in conjunction with the Maxfield Training Center," Stacey says. "They're located right in the central commercial district downtown. They're low-density. Farmington doesn't really have any areas to expand, so to increase density, that would be a place where they would tear down the historic buildings."

Since its formation, Preservation Farmington has worked to educate citizens on the homes' significance and launched a petition asking city government to preserve them. Two responses to an initial RFP on the site last year were rejected. Stacey says she'd like to think Preservation Farmington had a hand in that, but it's hard to say. A second RFP is underway.

Preservation Farmington isn't solely dedicated to that single project, however. The organization has also launched a then-and-now photo column and produces a series of workshops and lectures related to preservation. Stacey, who stepped down from the Farmington Historical Commission along with Taylor and Weimar to form Preservation Farmington, seems to be enjoying the greater freedom she now has to pursue preservation work.

"When you're part of the commission appointed by the city government, your ability to express your opinions isn't quite as far-reaching," Stacey says. "You have to be a little more diplomatic, and we wanted to be able to get out there and interact in a way that we felt was more in keeping with advocating for the buildings."

Modest goals, modest resources

For some metro-area preservation operations, goals are even more modest than the physical protection or rehabilitation of even one entire building. George Purdu, president of the Wyandotte Historical Society, says the society's efforts are mostly dedicated to commemorating existing historical structures by installing informational plaques. Over the past five years, the society has started a "Museum on the Streets" program that presents a guided route of 20 to 25 such structures. A main plaque for the program will be installed soon on Biddle Avenue.

"We're not large enough to be able to say, 'Okay, we're going to take over a building and keep that and try to preserve that,'" Purdu says. "I think what we try to do is focus on what is there, what we can preserve and let people know about."

George Purdu, president of the Wyandotte Historical Society. Photo by Nick Hagen.

One of the key challenges facing local preservation organizations is a lack of financial support for their work. Local preservationists interviewed for this story agreed that they receive plenty of moral support from other area preservation organizations, as well as guidance from statewide bodies like the State Historic Preservation Office and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. But funding is hard to find.

Parr notes that in 1976 when the Crocker house stood in the way of a planned road widening project near the house's original location on Gratiot, a state grant helped to save the house from demolition and relocate it. These days, she says, that probably couldn't have happened.

"It's very, very hard," Parr says. "There's a lot of competition for grants because grantors want to put their name on something larger. They don't want to put their name on a little Crocker House Museum. They want to put their name on a Henry Ford Museum to get the exposure."

So it falls to the metro area's preservationists to rally more individuals to their cause. Bilobran says she's particularly interested in breaking the stereotype of preservationists as "old, gray-haired ladies." Preservation Detroit has pursued that goal by leading public historical tours in Detroit, and members are currently working to develop a preservation-related curriculum in an effort to get their message into public schools. Bilobran says there are more preservationists out there than most would think.

"There are many, many, many different individuals that identify with saving cultural and architectural heritage...but they may not identify as a preservationist," Bilobran says. "I think one of the interesting movements, if you will, in the preservation community right now is making sure that historic preservation is seen as an inclusive movement."