"Maybe the role of this building, the Mackenzie House, could help tell that story—the story of the development of the university and its architecture."
Our past home in Detroit, the historic David Mackenzie House—that students and community fought successfully to save 40 years ago, and Preservation Detroit occupied since—was slated to be relocated in Fall 2018 to make way for the expansion of the Hilberry Theatre next door.
Today, on April 1, 2019, the relocation begins.
When we moved into the house in 2017, we thought we already knew most of the building's history. We were wrong. There is so much more.
It's a story of student & community resistance to urban renewal. It's a story of students challenging institutional power and learning how to navigate political winds. It's not just about a building, but about the power of people banding together to stand up for what's right and persisting through pushback.
On December 3, 2015, university student Danae Dracht sat down with Preservation Wayne's founding director William Colburn for an oral history about the building and the origins of the student group which would become the first full-time staffed historic preservation organization in the city.
The following transcript is edited for length. We hope you will read and share.
—Claire Nelson, Urban Consulate
THE SPARK OF RESISTANCE TO URBAN RENEWAL
Okay, so we’re in the Mackenzie House. This is December 3rd, 2015. I’m Danae Dracht and I’m here with William Colburn.
A little bit of background about William: he has a background in architectural history, program development, urban planning and affairs, and neighborhood conservation. He has been recognized as a leader in historic preservation in Detroit and on state and national levels. So, it’s good to have you here.
Well, thank you for arranging this interview. I’m pleased to respond to your questions as best as I can.
The first major project that I worked on that had anything to do with historic preservation was the Detroit Urban Conservation Project. The project was developed in 1976 as a historic building survey of the City of Detroit and Wayne State’s Urban Studies Center was the entity that conducted the survey and there were three clients—two clients—the City of Detroit and the State of Michigan.
So this was all while you were a student at Wayne State?
Yes, it was in 1976, and I had started at Wayne as a student.
The goal of that project was to create a survey of all the historic buildings in the city, of all the buildings in the city, actually, every building within the boulevard ring [West and East Grand Boulevard] was photographed individually and information was compiled to create an index card on every single structure and then outside the boulevard ring every block was photographed and any significant buildings on those blocks were pulled out and identified.
The intention for that project was that it would serve as a planning tool to influence—to help influence historic preservation of significant structures whenever something was proposed: a clearance project, a new freeway, anything of that sort.
There were a number of younger people who were employed by that project, myself included, to do photography, to do research on buildings, to compile the information into these index cards. Which, you have to imagine, there were no computers so this was like cutting out contact photos and pasting them on index cards and handwriting the information on index cards.
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"Interestingly, I think what it did was spark amongst all those who were employed, which would basically be people in their twenties, a real interest in the city and its architecture—very pivotal at the time."
So I learned about Preservation Wayne being formed, I heard about it. It was started in 1975; I worked on campus in 1976. I decided to attend one of the meetings.
Do you know what led the students to start Preservation Wayne?
I think the group’s formation came out of the students’ concerns themselves about not wanting to see Detroit’s historic buildings lost, but was also being influenced by what else was going on in the city in terms of preservation.
And was very much influenced and mentored by a woman named Beulah Groehn, later became Beulah Groehn Croxford. Her first husband passed away, her second was Mr. Croxford. Beulah and her husband, Mr. Groehn, moved to—were pioneers with West Canfield [Street] historic preservation.
They moved from Franklin, a suburb of Detroit, to West Canfield Street in 1962, if I’m remembering the year properly, when Canfield Street was basically drug dens, abandoned houses, or prostitution. There were no other stable residents living on the street.
So they bought the house [627 West Canfield], the house that’s directly across Second Avenue from the Traffic Jam, on the corner, that beautiful red brick house, and started restoring it and then encouraging other people to move onto that street.
So, really I think for a street that had gone completely downhill that needed to come back, that was probably the first example in Detroit of an urban pioneering effort to turn around a street, which was of course one block. But just that alone took many, many years to accomplish.
"Beulah was not satisfied with just trying to preserve that street. She wanted Detroit to become a leader in historic preservation."
So she took a major role. I think the group she first formed was called the Detroit Historic Preservation Society and she kind of found a sympathetic ear at the Detroit Historical Museum.
Jim Conway was on staff there at the time and was particularly supportive of her interests and meetings were held and the Historical Museum kind of became a place for people to organize.
And the only tool that was really available at that time to try and have any impact on, or—how can I say—to have any legal authority on trying to preserve a building was the National Register of Historic Places. The National Preservation Act was only passed in the 1960’s, providing a tool for people to try to get a building historically registered and therefore some level of protection or at least identification.
So that was the only tool available. The State of Michigan Historic Register was established, but even up ‘til today it has no powers. It cannot stop a building being torn down, it is basically an honorary designation which allows you to put up a plaque on the building that has some value in itself, but doesn’t have any teeth.
The federal legislation at least would require a review by federal bodies if federal money was being used in the demolition of that building. And at the time there was so much federal money coming in for freeway development, for the Model City neighborhood urban renewal program, a lot of projects that were threatening historic buildings did have federal funding coming in, so it was a tool.
Beulah’s idea was "Let’s get as many buildings that are historic onto the National Register as possible. Let’s grab people off the street and train them how to fill out a National Register nomination form and then submit those to the State."
And then hopefully the State would approve them and they would go on to the federal government. And then the Department of the Interior would approve them and we’d suddenly start getting a lot of buildings in Detroit listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
So [students] Marilyn Florek and Allen Wallace somehow met Beulah and started taking training sessions on how to fill out National Register forms and she said, “Wayne State is our major issue.” Because Canfield is not very far from Wayne State campus, it’s only a few blocks away.
At that time, there was a lot of—Wayne’s main expansion efforts were south of main campus, so from Warren all the way down to Cass Park, Wayne State really viewed as being future campus expansion.
And so the students’ first project really was to survey the neighborhood and try and identify not only buildings on the Wayne State campus, but in the immediate surrounding areas, identify buildings that were historic and start to either process them for National Register nomination forms or start an awareness campaign that these are important buildings, not just a slum or ghetto ready to be torn down.
I really think that Preservation Wayne came about not from focusing on any specific small building, but from a very broad vision—a desire is to see preservation fostered throughout the city of Detroit. But deciding to focus on this one area, and then Beulah Groehn saying:
"You are students at Wayne State, and Wayne State is one of the biggest issues that is threatening historic buildings in the area, both on campus and in the surrounding community. Why don’t you focus on Wayne State and see what you can do?"
That’s what you were saying earlier, a common misconception is that Preservation Wayne was founded to fight the destruction of the Mackenzie House. But that is not the case at all. It has a more of a broader scope.
THE BATTLE TO SAVE THE HOUSE
So the battle for the Mackenzie House was very important in Preservation Wayne’s history. Can you tell me more about the origins of the battle for the Mackenzie House—and how that all went down from. It was a long process, right?
Yes. Well, we should step back from that just to establish that Preservation Wayne was formed as a student organization, an official student organization at Wayne State University and was registered with student government. It had a faculty advisor, Nola Tutag, and applied for budget funding in 1975.
So, really I think the first year to year and a half of the organization’s start was focused on surveying the campus to identify historic buildings in the immediate communities, especially that south of the campus into the Cass Corridor. The first—I think the group decided to focus on a particular building that was threatened with demolition around 1976, and that house was not the Mackenzie House, you understand me, it was a house called the Parshall House.
Okay, so the Mackenzie House was not the first one.
Not the first, right. And really, there wasn’t—it wasn’t formed to focused on a specific building, it really was formed with this broader vision of “let’s try and produce an urban planning approach that incorporates historic buildings on the campus and in the community.”
Then of course, it comes down to a building being threatened and having to take that philosophy to a specific case situation. And that first one that came up was the Detroit Historical Museum was tearing down a historic house that it owned, an 1890’s house called the Parshall House that was on Kirby and Cass. And the students engaged, I mean we went right to the top and tried to appeal to the Detroit Historical Commission that runs the Historical Museum. We tried to appeal to the director whose name was Solon Weeks at the time.
The chair of the Detroit Historical Commission at the time was a gentleman by the name of Charles Hagler who was the Vice President of Urban Affairs at General Motors and Preservation Wayne
(Side note: the group’s original name was Wayne State University Historic Preservation Association with the heavy acronym of WSUHPA. [Laughs] And fortunately, Allen, who had a very good mind for public relations and branding, changed the name to Preservation Wayne within about a year I think.)
So, the group focused on that house and really, as I said, went to the top and wrote letters to Mayor Coleman Young. [The students] tried to appear before the Detroit Historical Commission to appeal for saving that building.
They lost that battle.
The idea at that time was that the museum wanted to tear down that house and the one next it, the Joy House, which is still standing today, to allow for a new addition to the Detroit Historical Museum, which has, of course, never been built. So that’s now a vacant lot today.
"But I think that the students learned, a lot going through that exercise and shortly thereafter the Mackenzie House was surveyed."
The Mackenzie House was at 4735 Cass between Hancock and Forest. It was threatened by—it was the last building to be torn down for a Department of Housing and Urban Development sponsored college housing program. It was a student apartment building that was being built on Forest.
So all of the buildings, including an historic church that was on Forest, from Second to Forest to Cass on the south side of the block had all been torn down or were being torn down.
The Mackenzie House was the last one to go. And construction was scheduled for this site for a student apartment building, which only lasted twenty-five or thirty years, it has since been torn down because it had been so poorly constructed.
So the Mackenzie House was the last to go, and the rationale for it being town down was that a sewer line needed to come through this site to service the new student apartment building. Forest Apartments was the name of the building, otherwise known as “Teflon Towers” because it looked so cheap.
Yeah, that’s terrible. Twenty-five years?
The building [the Mackenzie House] was significantly deteriorated. It was still owned by—it was owned by Wayne State University, but Wayne State wasn’t using it actively and hadn’t used it actively for a number of years. They were allowing an entity called the Campus Treasure Shop, which was an architectural salvage operation that was run by Marguerite Hague, who was a Wayne State alumna and her husband was very active with the university and she ran this architectural salvage operation to raise money for campus beautification.
She was in her heart a real preservationist and she helped play a role in saving the building. But the building was filled with bathtubs, sinks, stained glass windows, radiators, things that had been saved—that she had saved from houses that were being torn down in order to encourage people who were restoring houses to repurpose those items.
Can you tell me about the fundraising project that went into the Mackenzie House? Wasn’t there a massive fundraiser to—to preserve?
"Well, to be honest I don’t think that any of us involved in Preservation Wayne at that time had any idea that we would be the ones ending up having to not only fight for the preservation of the building, but then raise the money for it, to find the architect who would donate services to do the planning for it, to identify the tenants that would come into the building to then oversee the restoration."
I think, you know, from perhaps a naïve perspective, it was the students’ idea to go before the University and make a case that this building needed to be preserved and somehow convince them and then they would step forward and do what was right.
Yeah, that’s not the case, though.
It’s not the case at all. What happened was a very, very intense year of really a battle of the student organization, which was attracting community members as well, but was still registered as a student organization at Wayne State.
And appealing—having to go all the way up the chain of command at Wayne State University to the Board of Governors and to the President George Gullen.
"Wayne State had already signed a contract for demolition of the building and they were preparing to vacate the building, it would be torn down at any moment."
But you did talk to the President?
Well, yes, the first conversations were held I think with the chain of command, the President’s assistant, and I don’t think we were ever able to meet directly with the President at that time, but his assistant, Mr. Ben Jordan, was assigned to meet with us so we knew that he was communicating with the President.
The President took a very firm stand that the Mackenzie House would be demolished.
And I think that they understood, as did the group, the symbolic value of this building. I mean Preservation Wayne focused on this building in part because it was the home of Wayne State University.
I mean David Mackenzie is the most important person in the creation of Wayne State. Frank Cody would be a second person who was very instrumental. But really Mackenzie had the heart and soul of the university in mind.
I mean, he was principal of Central High School, he even founded the junior college and became dean of the four-year liberal arts college which is the basis for which the medical school and the nursing school and all the independent schools gathered around to create essentially what eventually became Wayne State University campus by the 1950’s.
"So this house had a very strong historical relationship with origins of the University itself. And the students’ feeling was that if Wayne State didn’t respect its own history, how would it ever respect the history of the community around it?
By the same token the University felt at that time and going into the 80’s and even through to the early 90’s all the older buildings were scheduled—that Wayne State owned—were scheduled for demolition and replacement.
All of them?
All of them. I mean it was even envisioned that the Hilberry would be gone and a new theater would be built. I mean all the old houses that once held classes or administration would be demolished for new classroom buildings. Even Old Main, there was discussion that just a section on Cass would be kept and that newer additions in the back would all be demolished. The newer additions were still historic.
And so all those—I think it was called the Condition Three category—that every older building that Wayne State had repurposed and renovated for use would be torn down.
"I think the University felt that if they gave in and allowed the Mackenzie House to be saved, that it was going to create a precedent that cases would be made by the community and by students that other historic houses on campus should be saved. And they didn’t want that to happen."
And the planning, the Director of Planning at that time for Wayne State was a gentleman by the name of David Layne and he was firmly opposed to the Mackenzie House being saved.
So this was what the group was facing: the President, George Gullen, was firmly opposed to saving the house, the Director of Planning was firmly opposed to saving the house, the Board of Governors already had approved demolition of the house and allocated the money for its demolition.
"Unfortunately, as is common in Detroit, a last minute effort to try to save the building."
So the group was up against enormous odds and, you know, I think at first did things that student groups do like petition signing.
I think I remember us going out and gathering like 3,000 signatures on petitions and thought that this was just incredible and showed it to one of the Board of Governors’ members and she said:
"Anyone can get people to sign petitions. That’s not going to work. Here’s how you do it."
And we started to get information on how to lobby the Board of Governors. They’re all elected officials and had to start answering the points the university put forth for why the Mackenzie House had to be torn down.
And how many people were involved at this time?
Um, I think there were about—well, there was probably a core group, you know, those who thought they were, felt like we were working at this full time as well as working our jobs and going to school—probably fifteen of us.
And there may have been a larger circle, you know, concentric circle, of support of another fifteen or thirty community members like Beulah Croxford, whom I mentioned earlier, and others who started to rally around this effort.
"We realized right away that we had to be politically astute."
We had to be prepared to deal with the questions about money to restore the building, we had to be prepared with how the building would be used and had to find tenants for it, we had to be prepared to answer concerns about it not being structurally sound or worth saving.
So we had to address all of those issues and we went before the Board of Governors of the University and asked for the opportunity to present our position and presented information to address each of those items.
And the Board of Governors—and then the Detroit Free Press, an editor of the Detroit Free Press [Louis Cook], started to pick up on this story and he was attending those meetings with the Board of Governors and we got the support of Charles Hagler who was the President of the Detroit Historical Commission that had recently torn down a building and he saw an opportunity to improve the public face of the Museum by telling Wayne State they should save their building.
And so the first presentation to the Board of Governors—I remember Allen presented, I presented at certain points, but I remember that either Allen or I, it was probably Allen, said, “We’re Preservation Wayne and joining us in the audience is Charles Hagler, Vice President of Urban Affairs for General Motors […], Dolores Slowinski with the Michigan Council for the Arts…”
"And we assembled five or six pretty significant community people and they were not expecting that."
They were expecting a group of students who would come and make the case and everyone would say, “Very nice,” and be very patronizing and say, “how sweet of you, wanting to save this building. But you know kids, it’s just not going to happen. You just don’t understand what’s going on.”
And we had some really solid information that the building was historically significant, that it was salvageable, that there would be tenants that would be interested in coming into the building if the University wasn’t using it, and that it was possible to find funding.
And, especially that the sewer line could be relocated because we went down and met with the City of Detroit because Wayne State’s position was, “it’s not us saying the sewer line has to come through here, it’s the City of Detroit saying the sewer line has to come through here.”
So we said, “Okay, let’s meet with the City of Detroit.”
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"We happened to meet with a very sympathetic city planner named Candyce Sweeda who said: 'I kind of like that house, and we could relocate that sewer line around it, it doesn’t have to go through the house.”
So we went back to the Board of Governors saying—and that’s in one of the South End articles—the sewer could be rerouted just south of the building, it didn’t have to go through the building, which was the rationale for that [demolition].
That started to dismantle all of the University’s arguments when we said, “The City of Detroit said the sewer line doesn’t have to go through the house.”
So we did several presentations before the Board of Governors, collected more information, and one of the great finds, in doing research and going through the university archives found that David Mackenzie’s sister [Janet Mackenzie] had left money to the University to be used, “in a building in her brother’s honor.”
You found this?
We found this. This money had been left in the 1920’s and there was still about 60,000 dollars in this fund, which of course, this is the 70’s, so 60,000 dollars would be much more today.
And we said, “Hey, Wayne State, you actually have money left by David Mackenzie’s sister to be used in a building in her brother’s honor. What better use of that money than to have it go towards helping to preserve the Mackenzie House?”
So, we just kept chipping away at that and coming back to the Board of Governors.
We had different presentations on providing more support for saving the building, so the Board of Governors started to—and The South End was covering it very actively and in one article they wrote, “Board of Governors Mislead by Administration.” And the Board was aware that somebody from the Detroit Free Press, an editor of the Detroit Free Press, was sitting in the audience, listening to these presentations and writing about it.
And they’re getting—because we—nobody ever thinks to lobby the Board of Governors at Wayne State. They’re all elected officials. So we started sending out notices to people saying, “Call the Board of Governors at Wayne State. Here’s what you say, ‘I want to see the David Mackenzie House saved. It’s very important for Detroit and Wayne State’s history…’”
"They never get calls or letters from the public at all. Suddenly they’re starting to get calls, they’re starting to get letters, things are going on."
Suddenly their meetings, which hardly anybody would ever attend, unless you went to Wayne State...
[Now the issue is] being backed by the public.
And being promoted, you know, in the newspaper.
So they started questioning the university administration. What happened is the Board of Governors—I don’t think this had ever, it certainly had never occurred in that president’s administration—voted against the President. The President had a recommendation that the Mackenzie House should be demolished immediately. The Board of Governors said, “No.”
As a result, the Director of Planning resigned because he was upset that his position wasn’t being backed. And you know the Board of the University is kind of like a parliamentary system. If you vote against a presidential recommendation, it’s almost like a vote of no confidence in the president and the administration. So there was some real—it was a huge issue.
It was very political and tense.
"Yeah, it was very tense and we felt it. And we were under a lot of pressure and we really were wondering if we were going to make it. But there was such an incredible passion and commitment in getting this to work."
And one of the things that was interesting was, this was a federal project, building the college housing that was going to be—that was affecting the Mackenzie House—there is a provision within the National Register of Historic Places, it’s called—506—I’m afraid I’m going to miss it. Do you know it? Is it the 506 Review Process? I can find it here to make sure I am referring to it properly but, yeah, it’s the section 106 Federal Review Process.
And the battle for the Mackenzie House sparked the first ever—Section 106 Federal Review Process of a historic building [in Detroit]. In other words, there was federal money involved in the project to tear this building down.
It was already submitted for consideration for listing on the National Register. Because there was federal money involved, the agency that’s funding the demolition has to stop and do a review to find out if their project is adversely affecting an historic building that is eligible for a the National Register for Historic Places.
This had never happened in Detroit before and it was in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. So what really freaked the University out was that Saul Green, who was the attorney for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Detroit, actually sent a letter to Wayne State saying: “We understand that one of our projects to build student housing, the Forest Apartments, may be adversely affecting an historic building on that site, the David Mackenzie House.
"We ask you to withhold demolition until we have an opportunity to review this project.” And Wayne State had never had a federal agency tell them stop a project.
And this is all mostly student led at this time?
Yeah, a group of fifteen or more, just lobbying together and pulling members of the community and government to stop this. That’s…amazing.
Yeah, and we also had to hit on all cylinders. We had to hit on public relations, community support, legal issues, federal government issues, funding issues, adaptive reuse issues, we had to answer/deal with all of it.
So, basically what happened then was that the University stopped the demolition [because of] the Board of Governors’ [decision], and then said:
“Okay, we won’t tear the building down, but we’re not going to restore it, either. So you basically have a year to figure out what you’re going to do, students.”
So the idea was that, “Well, of course they’re going to fail.” You know, a group of students whose main fund raising up to that point was bake sales. I think that’s where we got most of our money, our student government money, you know, was only an 800 dollar-a-year budget. We started doing memberships and that raised a little money. We had no experience in fundraising.
And so suddenly we had a year’s reprieve to figure out what had to be done and if we didn’t make any progress in a year—so within that year, that’s when we identified 60,000 dollars and I hope I have the right amount, that was left by David Mackenzie’s sister that was still in the university’s funding.
We were able to get a 60,000-dollar grant through the Michigan Bureau of History, from the federal Department of the Interior, towards the building. So suddenly we had 120,000 identified. And then we started a corporate campaign. We got the President of Michigan Consolidated Gas Company, which is now DTE Energy, to agree to head up a corporate campaign. About, I think about 40,000 dollars came in through that corporate campaign.
So, suddenly we had to switch to becoming like grant writers with no understanding of how to do that, or any background on fundraising.
Yeah, all learning on the job.
And we also started to do fundraisers in the [Mackenzie] House. I think the first fundraiser we did was a benefit in connection with Hilberry Theater. We did a theater event, a Moliere play and then had the actors come over in costume in the House, which was unrestored, and did benefit events.
We—the architect that helped develop the preservation plan for the building, who was Lewis Dickens, donated his services, we got donated services in as well, and he created a poster of the house and signed them. We had limited editions of the posters, we sold those.
We created a campaign, a “Restore a Square Foot Campaign” for the House, where you could get a certificate for restoring a square foot of the House, which was like twelve dollars and fifty cents to restore [a square foot of] the House.
So with all that stuff combined, within about a year and a half, we’d managed to nail down or identify about 200-225,000 dollars.
And the next issue was, the university said, “Okay, great, you’ve got money, but we as the University own the building and have no intention of putting any university use into that building at all.” So we said, “Okay.”
They’re just not working with you at all, are they?
[Laughs] So the answer to that was, “Okay, you’re telling us that we should go out to find tenants for the building.” Essentially, that’s what we decided [to do].
And at that time, the University Cultural Center Association had just been formed [circa 1978], that is today’s Midtown Detroit, Inc., the powerhouse organization that is responsible for so much of the revitalization over the past twenty years in the whole Midtown area. They had one director there in the basement over at CCS [College for Creative Studies], next to the metal shop. A windowless room, she had her office.
So I went to her, Mary Hubbell, who was the first director, and said, “If we could get the Mackenzie House restored, and if Wayne State agreed, would you become the main tenant of the building?” And she said—she took it to their board and they agreed.
"So suddenly the University Cultural Center Association, whose board was made up of the Director of the DIA, the Director of the Detroit Public Library, the Director of the Detroit Science Center, the Director of the Engineering Society, said yeah, we will be paying tenants of that house if it’s restored."
"So we went back to the University and said, “We have a tenant, and they’re ready to pay, and they’re all of your colleagues. You don’t want to say no to them, right?”
And then, somehow we negotiated to get the second floor for Preservation Wayne.
And the University agreed to that, amazingly. So, every, you know, all the ducks lined up with a whole lot of work.
And then the next task came, which was—we had to oversee the coordination of the restoration of the building.
At a certain point within this whole controversy that first year when there was a reprieve, “no demolition of the building,” the Board of Governors passed a motion that said at the President’s recommendation I think, that no university monies would go into the Mackenzie House effort.
The University translated that literally, Preservation Wayne is a Wayne State University organization; we couldn’t just go out and raise money because people have to write their checks to Wayne State.
Preservation Wayne was not a 501c3 non-profit organization, it was a student organization, so the Development Office of Wayne State took that literally that their staff could not spend any time processing grants or donations that were made to Preservation Wayne for the Mackenzie House.
So we couldn’t get anywhere with the Development Office. So we were told to go out and find money, but at the same time, the Development Office was saying, “We can’t work with you because we’ve been told no university money can go into that building.”
So we go back to the Board of Governors, and say, “You authorized us to go out and raise money, but your administration is blocking us from being able to do so by literally interpreting this “no university money will go in,” so [that meant] even soft money or labor.
"So, it was just kind of like it never stopped. There was always another hurdle to go over, but we got over that hurdle."
The Board said, “Okay, that’s ridiculous, of course. Administration, allow the Development Office to work with you [Preservation Wayne].”
So we became the only university student group that had an account at the Wayne State Fund Office. So that then facilitated the fundraising piece.
Then it came to overseeing the restoration. We knew we had to play a role with the University’s Facilities Department because we now had people committed to the preservation of the building.
The University was more used to tearing buildings down than restoring them, so we wanted to make sure we had the right craftspeople coming in, the right contractors coming in, an appropriate architect who knew how to deal with a historic building.
And they were cooperative. The Facilities Department was very cooperative. By that point things started to shift and the whole attitude of the University started to shift.
Was there anyone from Wayne State that was on board, or like, guiding you through this, even professors or faculty?
That’s really interesting—from a power position, on the Board of Governors, yes.
One of the first Board of Governors we talked to was the first African-American female elected to Wayne State’s Board of Governors, Dauris Jackson. And she actually signed the petition in support of saving the House when all her board members were opposed.
The second was another female board member, Mildred Jefferies. Mildred Jefferies was very instrumental in the labor movement and the women’s rights movement and she was sympathetic to the cause and was very astute politically and so she started to inform us on how to approach the Board of Governors and in a more sophisticated, political strategy.
So we started to make inroads with board members and we asked to meet with the board members. Michael Einheuser, who is probably the only board member still living from that time, he was the youngest member of the Wayne State Board of Governors when he was elected. He was an attorney; he came behind it.
Mr. Leon Atkinson, an African-American member of the Board of Governors also came behind it.
There were a few members who were very supportive of the administration and took a negative view. But one by one we started bringing them around.
So it was a matter of lobbying them individually and privately as well as a group publicly.
HOUSE SAVED! WHAT NEXT?
So the Mackenzie House wasn’t your only success. Of course, there were other buildings. What were the other buildings that you saved in addition to the Mackenzie House?
Well, certainly the Mackenzie House took the total focus up until 1981, which, the building by that point was restored and Preservation Wayne and the University Cultural Center Association, today’s Midtown Detroit Inc., moved in.
So at that point, yeah, we were able to free up time to figure out what to do next. And there were two questions: One was what project to do next, but the other was what to do with the organization because we had evolved so quickly within a few years, way beyond what the group was when it was first started and had this success under our belts and learned how to kind of work the politics of preservation while still maintaining the passion for preservation.
So, and the original founding members of the group had moved on, basically graduated. Allen had moved to New York, Marilyn was still supportive of the group and I remember she got very involved with the effort to save the downtown Hudson’s building and later became instrumental in founding Cityscape Detroit, which is another group that no longer exists, but was active at the time downtown.
So, I was kind of left, everyone else had left and I was still here, because I was still at school and still working, but I needed to recreate the organization because we were losing our original members to graduation and life and careers.
"So we did kind of a self-study analysis of what we should do and decided that there really wasn’t any citywide preservation organization at that time."
There were various other groups trying to become that, but we decided we should try and become a professional preservation organization, even if it would take many years to accomplish that.
And we started to refocus on surveying, identifying historic buildings in the area, doing National Register nomination forms, going back to how the group formed originally, the major project it was involved with, and also keeping track of where Wayne State was going with its own historic properties.
There were a number of buildings that were scheduled for demolition in the immediate community either by the City of Detroit for Wayne State or by Wayne State. And several buildings came up.
Of other buildings that I can think of that are there today as a result of Preservation Wayne’s advocacy is the Robson-Dodge House on West Forest, which is the house between Second and Third on the north side that was part of a whole block that was scheduled for demolition. That is the area that has since been hosting Dally in the Alley for many years…
"It's kind of the activism around trying to save that block of buildings that sparked Dally in the Alley. It all takes place within that block."
Another house, which is at Second and Hancock, was known as the Butler House. It was later purchased by the Detroit Federation of Women's Clubs and by the 1970's was known as the Central Alliance Church.
The Smith House on Woodward, which is right next to the Maccabees Building, one of the five surviving mansions of Woodward.
The Linsell House on the main campus, which we lost two other buildings that were next to it, the Monteith Center [an historic house on what is now Gullen Mall, which was the student center for the Monteith Honors Studies program] and another building. There were three houses, historic houses there, but that building got saved.
[Publisher's Note: Cut for length here is one of Preservation Wayne's most significant success stories, East Ferry Avenue and the Inn on Ferry Street, which had all been scheduled for clearance. This is a whole other chapter, but ties back to the Mackenzie House, as well.]
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"I’d say really the other historic houses on campus survived in part because of the effort to change the way the University approached campus development, or all those buildings were going to be demolished."
Wayne State as a result of pressure from Preservation Wayne hired a firm to come in and survey all of its older buildings and identify which buildings had sufficient condition to be preserved, which ones were in a deteriorated state, but could be preserved with investment, and which ones were beyond any hope. And which ones had historic value and which ones didn’t.
It was Louis Redstone and Associates, an architectural firm, was hired to carry out that architectural survey and the results came in to the—the strategic planning group, I forget the official name it was given at that time, but I was a member of that, and the results were actually quite positive for most of the historic houses where Redstone and Associates had identified that many of those buildings, with appropriate investment, could be saved and reused.
The vice president of the University, a man named Charles Sturtz, came behind the scenes to us and said, “Okay you guys, you kinda got us. So, let’s go in a back room and make a deal. Which of—you know—which five buildings,” I forget what number he identified, like six buildings, “do you think absolutely have to be saved and the rest have to go, but you can decide which ones have to be saved.”
So, they just kind of gave you an ultimatum. Said, “Choose.”
Yeah, it was really interesting and I remember us coming back to the Mackenzie House and thinking, “What do we do? Because we could go to the back room and negotiate and save a couple of buildings..."
We decided to go for broke, which was:
“No, our goal is to change the way the university deals with planning. If we go in a back room, this isn’t going to change that. We want to affect the way decisions are made for the future as well, not just for right now..."
...that all buildings would always be evaluated to see if they’re worthy of preservation rather than just being thrown into a “to be demolished” category.
But that was a lesson you regretted?
It was a—it was a lesson, yeah, yes, I do regret that.
Because what happened was that of course we were outgunned and outflanked. We decided to take the high road, “We’re going to affect the way the university plans,” we didn’t have the power to do that.
But we would’ve had the power to save more buildings than were saved if we had agreed to go in and do the back room deal.
So there are times when I think, you can’t save as much as you like. It’s going to take maybe another ten or twenty years before the situation really does change.
"Your power is not as much as you’d like to think it is as an activist. Sometimes going in and doing the dirty deal will at least be better than if you lose."
And we lost that one. All those buildings except for the Linsell House came down.
Nevertheless, I think we started to have an impact and the University started to move away from this idea that all older buildings would be torn down automatically with a few rare acceptations like the Beecher House and the Mackenzie House, which we had to fight for anyway.
And, the planning process had started to shift and the way we redeveloped the city started to shift.
"I think that Wayne State being proud of that and proud of the fact that it’s probably, aside from maybe Detroit Public Schools, the largest single owner of historic buildings in this city."
It has an incredible range of historic buildings now and continues to acquire them.
So, promoting that, educating people about that, educating students about that, how the campus formed, how it developed, how it connects with Detroit’s development, Detroit’s architecture, helping people feel connection between the community and the university physically, geographically, architecturally, and creating public awareness of that, and learning how to maximize the benefits of that I think is something that is unique to Wayne State.
Maybe the role of this building, the Mackenzie House, could help tell that story, the story of the development of Wayne State University and its architecture.
Well, I just want to thank you so much for your time, coming in and sharing your story and the story of Preservation Wayne.
You’re welcome. It’s very kind of you to ask.
Interviewer’s note (December 2015): The Mackenzie House is currently occupied by Preservation Detroit, the historic preservation organization first established as Preservation Wayne. The address of the Mackenzie House as of December 2015 is 4735 Cass Avenue on the northwest corner of the intersection with West Forest in Detroit's Cass Corridor. However, the projected $7.5 million Valade Jazz Center has been scheduled for the Hilberry Theater and will be part of the proposed theater complex, which will cause the Mackenzie House to be moved. The fate of the Mackenzie House is once again in question.
Update (April 2018): The University has pledged $1 million to preserve & relocate the Mackenzie House in Fall 2018 to make way for the Hilberry expansion. Preservation Detroit & Urban Consulate have requested to remain in the building after it is moved. This is under review by the University, who owns the property and has not yet announced future plans for the house.
Update (July 2018): Preservation Detroit & Urban Consulate vacate the house
Update (April 2019): Mackenzie House relocation