Today was a good day in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood of Detroit. The east side neighborhood, situated just before the Grosse Pointe Border, the Detroit river, and Jefferson Avenue, was named one of the United States National Treasures from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
This is the first National Treasure site in Detroit and in the state of Michigan. It is also the first time that an entire neighborhood has been given this status.
The National Trust has also announced a new initiative called ReUrbanism. This initiative puts healthy and vibrant adaptive reuse as a priority in the revitalization of urban neighborhoods. Renovating and preserving historically significant buildings is a top priority with the National Trust.
It is one of the few neighborhoods that still has buildings from the early 20th century. The majority of the buildings in the area were built in the early 1920s.
“Jefferson-Chalmers is Detroit’s diamond in the rough—and we’re excited to bring our expertise and national spotlight to the great work happening here,” said David J. Brown, Executive Vice President and Chief Preservation Officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Not only do the buildings have the reuse potential to move Detroit forward, but the neighborhood’s revitalization also has a lot to teach the rest of the country.”
Jefferson East Inc. received $25,000 from the National Trust to conduct an environmental assessment and a current structural study on The Vanity Ballroom. Jefferson East Inc. acquired The Vanity in July.
The Vanity Ballroom was built in 1929, and it was the last ballroom to be built in Detroit before the Great Depression hit.
When it first opened couples danced to music from Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Later bands like the MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges filled the ballroom with their rock.
“Well, for starters, it’s an incredibly beautiful building, like an Aztec temple out of ‘Indiana Jones’ or something. It’s also one of the only survivors of Detroit’s ballroom craze, and certainly the one in the best shape,” said Dan Austin, the founder and curator of HistoricDetroit.org. “With its sister, the Grande, they entertained generations of Detroiters. It’s a link to a grand age of Detroit history and architecture. Put simply, there is no other place in Detroit, or even the state, like the Vanity.”
We were able to take a tour of the Vanity Ballroom after the press conference. There is a lot of work that would need to be done to renovate the Vanity back to its former glory.
If you’re interested in finding out more history about The Vanity, including pictures of it in the heyday, you can go to Dan Austin’s website Historic Detroit.
Josh Elling, the executive director of Jefferson East, a key organization in the area, estimates that fixing the roof alone will cost between $500,000 to $1 million.
The development action doesn’t stop with the Vanity, although it’s the centerpiece of the area. Two apartment buildings are getting an overhaul, as well as Jefferson East moving into the former Kresge building at the corner of Lakewood and Jefferson. The current Jefferson East building will turn into a Caribbean restaurant, Norma G’s Caribbean Cuisine.
“This is great news for the district. Jefferson Chalmers is a stable community with long term residents and it has survived the loss of homes that has taken place in the adjacent area. The “National Treasure” designation will help to insure it’s future and will bring focus to the community. Josh Elling and the Jefferson East, Inc. organization has been working on this for a few years and is doing a fabulous job of supporting and promoting the community,” said Tim Quinn, a Detroit realtor and former Harbor Island resident, a part of the Jefferson Chalmers area.
It seems like after years of hard work, people on the east side of Detroit are finally starting to see the fruits of their labor. The journey is far from over, but Detroit’s comeback story is beginning to add chapters that are located outside of downtown.