August 5, 2015

How One Woman Gave Rise to Detroit's Historic Preservation Movement

  • By: Saving Places
By Amy Elliott Bragg

Beulah Groehn Croxford (left), a native of Detroit, was a catalyst for the campaign to create a historic designation ordinance in Detroit. When she returned to Detroit years later, Croxford bought the house at 627 Canfield St. (right).

"There's a newness in Detroit," said Mayor Jerome Cavanagh in the introduction to a 1965 film, "Detroit: City on the Move." Made to promote the city’s bid to host the 1968 Olympics, the film shows off Detroit as gleaming, modernist and promising. The camera takes in the city's newness in generous sweeps: the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, Cobo Hall, Ford Auditorium, Lafayette Park. “New buildings put solid roots in the ground and stretch toward the sky," the narrator intones. "New office buildings alter the landscape, each in turn becoming a bright landmark of progress."

That same year, an antiques collector and retired executive secretary named Beulah Groehn drove into the city from Franklin to shop at an estate sale. The house, at 627 Canfield, was a beautiful but decrepit Victorian in the gritty Cass Corridor. The neighborhood was built for well-heeled Detroiters of the late 19th-century, but over the course of 90-some years, the mansions of Canfield Street had become boarding houses, bohemian crash-pads, and drug dens.

There was no newness on West Canfield. But Beulah Groehn had discovered something she loved. Instead of buying antiques at that estate sale, she bought the house.

For the rest of her life, at a time when many of Detroit's planners and politicians felt that the city's past stood in the way of urban progress, Beulah fought to save places like West Canfield -- not simply because they were old, but because she believed that saving old places would attract residents, create jobs, and make neighborhoods safer, stronger, and more beautiful. Her legacy includes not only stately, brick-paved West Canfield Street -- today one of Detroit's most desirable blocks -- the city's local historic preservation ordinance, and along with it, the Historic Designation Advisory Board and Historic District Commission, the legal mechanisms and governing bodies that help make saving Detroit's old places possible.

Though few except a few old-timers -- and a few residents of West Canfield -- recognize her name, Beulah Groehn Croxford deserves to be remembered as a founding mother of historic preservation in Detroit.

West Canfield (circa 1970). Beulah Groehn Croxford's house is on the left.

The power to preserve: Seeking a historic district ordinance in Detroit

Beulah grew up on the east side of Detroit in a diverse neighborhood at Crane and Forest Street. She and her husband Henry Groehn moved to the suburbs after they got married so they could live in a large house with plenty of room for gardening.

But "Detroit kept drawing me back," she wrote in her notes for a 1975 interview with WDET. For eight years before purchasing her house on West Canfield, she volunteered for the Detroit Historical Society, which, after learning about her impressive collection of antique inkwells, had recruited her to help catalog theirs. Her service there connected her to many Detroiters who were active in advocating for the city's history and its landmarks, including the Society's director, Henry Brown, and his successor Solon Weeks, both of whom were involved in the campaign to create a historic designation ordinance in Detroit.

Her own activism began shortly after she purchased the home on West Canfield, when two houses across the street were proposed to be demolished to make way for an apartment complex. After appeals to the zoning board failed, Beulah and a few of the neighborhood's residents began to explore what it would take to pursue a local historic designation for West Canfield -- something that had never been done in Detroit before and had no legal foundation at the local or state level.

In order for historic designation to mean anything, Detroit would have to adopt a historic district ordinance, which would allow the City of Detroit to "regulate the construction, reconstruction, addition, alteration, repair, moving, excavation, and demolition of resources in historic districts" (according to the City's current historic district ordinance, adopted in 1976). It would also give the city the authority and a process by which to designate new historic districts.

Homes in what is now the West Canfield Historic District.

But proposing a historic district ordinance was a "step into the unknown," says Bill Worden, the retired director of Detroit's Historic Designation Advisory Board. The State of Michigan had not yet passed enabling legislation that would give municipalities the authority to enact and enforce their own historic district ordinances. So a stand-alone local ordinance was "shaky in its underpinnings -- it wasn't crystal-clear that the city had the power to do the things they said they were going to do," Worden says.

Far from a last-ditch effort to save two threatened houses, Beulah saw the historic designation of West Canfield as an opportunity to show how historic preservation could work as a tool for community redevelopment and reinvestment -- especially in blighted neighborhoods that the city's planners would just as soon flatten and rebuild, as they had with Black Bottom and a significant swath of Corktown in the 1950s and1960s.

Read more about Beulah Groehn Croxford  fight to give West Canfield a local historic designation here.

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 33 places preserving Black history.

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