Detroit on Display

Conference convenes in Detroit to discuss preservation, Modernism.
General Motors Technical Center
General Motors Technical Center. Photography courtesy General Motors

Historic preservation and urban renewal often come into conflict as some want to raze historic buildings to make way for new construction.

With successful examples of both at the heart of Detroit’s revitalization, two major conferences are coming to the city this spring to explore how Detroit has made it happen.

“Obviously, it’s a very important place for the whole state and there are a lot of really exciting things that are happening in Detroit — and preservation is part of that.”
— Ruth Mills

The Michigan Historic Preservation Network, the largest nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to preserving the state’s rich cultural and architectural heritage, is hosting its annual conference there for the first time since 2001.

“We’re very happy to be back in the city,” says Ruth Mills, president of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. “We try and rotate it around the state. Obviously, it’s a very important place for the whole state and there are a lot of really exciting things that are happening in Detroit — and preservation is part of that.”

The 36th preservation conference will take place May 12-14 at the McGregor Memorial Conference Center on the campus of Wayne State University. Themed “Resolve, Revolve, Evolve,” the annual gathering made up mostly of preservationists is open to the public.

The opening night reception and vendors’ showcase provides an opportunity for the general public to network, ask questions and view the latest products and services in the preservation industry. The conference is known for its keynote speakers, festive evening activities and an auction of Michigan items.

There will be tours of Michigan’s automotive heritage, historic downtown Detroit churches, developments in Midtown and downtown rehabilitation projects, and the Edsel & Eleanor Ford Estate.

This year, the conference celebrates three landmark events: the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, and the 35th anniversary of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.

“There’s just this tremendous interest in Detroit and understanding what happened there in the past and how we got here, and how that’s affecting how Detroit’s moving forward,” Mills says.

This year’s conference will include a session on developments with the Michigan Modern project, as well as a twilight tour of Wayne State’s Mid-Century Modern campus that is open to the public. The conference is headquartered in one of the state’s most significant Mid-Century Modern buildings: the McGregor Memorial Conference Center at Wayne State University, which was recently designated a National Historic Landmark.

Mills is helping to organize Docomomo US’s 2016 National Symposium “Beyond Modernism? Moving the Recent Past Forward” June 9-12 in Detroit.

Docomomo US is a nationwide advocacy organization for the documentation and conservation of Modernism. The two-day symposium will look at the diverging design and theory of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Portions of that event will be held at Wayne State and will feature similar tours of various sites, including the General Motors Technical Center and Lafayette Park, both recently designated National Historic Landmarks, Yamasaki in the Cultural Center, Downtown Detroit’s Modernist Architecture, and tours of Grosse Pointe, Southfield, Ann Arbor and Cranbrook Academy of Arts.

“Some of the most famous architects of the modern movement have buildings here,” Mills says. “It’s a really good chance to broaden our discussion about what is Modernism and how do we document it and how do we understand it?”

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