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Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood named Michigan’s first National Treasure

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The restoration of the Vanity Ballroom will be the centerpiece in revitalization efforts

Vanity Ballroom
Robin Runyan

Today, the National Trust for Historic Preservation gave the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood in Detroit’s lower east side the distinction of a National Treasure. This is the first in the state of Michigan and the first project under the National Trust’s ReUrbanism initiative.

Jefferson-Chalmers was seen as an opportunity because of its concentration of early 20th century historic buildings, including the Vanity Ballroom, which will be the centerpiece of the revitalization.

The Trust will work with the city, Jefferson East Inc., Preservation Detroit, and the neighborhood itself to bring increased capacity and pinpoint the best rehabilitation and reuse strategies to ensure the older buildings evolve into assets for the community.

ReUrbanism is based on the idea of reusing, reinvesting, and revitalizing and using the powers of preservation to spur economic growth.

David Brown, executive vice president and chief preservation officer from the National Trust, says, "It's about putting people first, and using the remarkable powers of preservation and creative reuse to spur economic growth to help solve the problems neighborhoods and cities face today, and position them for an even brighter future. We believe that reuse should be the standard bearer for urban regeneration and that the demolition of historic places always the option of last resort."

Jefferson-Chalmers has seen many community efforts in the past few years, including rehabbed apartment buildings, protected bike lanes, and new retail.

Josh Elling, executive director of Jefferson East Inc., noted its location, commercial structures, and engaged residents as some of the neighborhood's biggest assets.

Vanity Ballroom, which we were able to walk through today, has long been abandoned and scrapped. But much of it remains intact. The Art Deco building was designed with a Mayan theme by Charles Agree in 1929 and hosted everyone from big bands to the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. It closed in 1988.

The National Trust will work with Jefferson East Inc. to plan a viable reuse of the space. Whatever the plan turns out to be, it will be community driven, according to Mary Lu Seidel, Field Director at the National Trust.

Here are a few pictures from today’s walk through. The masonry will need to be stabilized in the beginning phases, and it will need a new roof (clearly).

Seidel also noted that they will work with the city to rebuild Guyton School in a way that benefits the community.

This designation has been a combined effort from the National Trust, Jefferson East, Preservation Detroit, and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.