A few weeks ago the Grande Ballroom on Grand River Avenue was given one of the highest distinctions a building can have bestowed upon it, having been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Popular Detroit locations on the NRHP include the Fisher Building, Belle Isle, the Corktown Historic District, the Eastern Market Historic District, and over a hundred other churches, apartments, hotels, districts, and miscellaneous buildings.
Whereas making the list is an honor, the biggest gift from this move comes in the form of tax credits. When it comes to structural work, any ‘certified rehabilitation of a certified historic structure’ is allotted a 20% tax break on money spent to secure the structure of the building, district, or object. Meaning that if you spend $1 million to fix structural items like roofing, walls, foundation, etc., you would receive $200K back from the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of the Treasury.
Unfortunately in Michigan, the largest local preservation tax credit was removed in 2011. This tax credit was similar to the one presented by the National Parks Service, but offered a hand to both large projects and smaller projects not listed on the NRHP as well. There is currently talk of reactivating this historic tax credit in Michigan, allowing for local historic buildings to receive up to a 25% tax credit for their work, and buildings that are on the NRHP up to 5% in addition to the 20% they already receive on a federal level. Although this bill died in the House as a lame-duck effort from those about to leave office, it is hoped that Gretchen Whitmer’s support of the tax credit will bode well for preservationists in 2019.
Being added to the National Register of Historic Places is a huge honor, but it far from saves a building from the recking ball. Just down the street from the Grande Ballroom stood the Grand Riviera Theatre, added to the NRHP in 1982 and designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1980, but was demolished in 1996. The Alexander Chene House, St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church, St. Thomas the Apostle’s Church, Tiger Stadium, among a dozen or so other Detroit properties were all designated to the NRHP but subsequently demolished.
Many buildings on the list also still sit abandoned, including Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church, Whittier Hotel, Lee Plaza hotel, the fire-burnt Ste. Claire stream ship, St. Stanislaus Bishop & Martyr Roman Catholic Church, and the Grande’s sister, the Vanity Ballroom, among others.
Alongside the possibility of 25% of the costs to secure the structure of the Grande in place, the largest factor in saving the building is that there are hoards of people who care about it, its history, and its future. The 2012 documentary Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story directed by Tony D’Annunzio was selected by a handful of film festivals around the country and was screened in dozens of states. The 2016 book The Grande Ballroom: Detroit’s Rock ’n’ Roll Palace by Leo Early has been very successful, heralded by musicians far and wide for its vivid descriptions of the groundbreaking turning point in rock & roll music the Grande represents, especially when considering the turmoil-ridden era of Detroit’s history in which it coexisted with.
Leo Early, the author of the book, has been researching and tirelessly fighting for the Grande for a decade and a half. About a year and a half ago I was able to catch up with Early, when the papers were first being submitted for the property to be added to the NRHP. At that time he told me that he had been working with the current owners, Chapel Hill Missionary Baptist church, who congregate just down the street on Joy Road, for over 8 years to try and have the building submitted to the registry. Without the tireless work of Early and the approval of Reverend Dr. R Lamont Smith II, the building would most certainly not be on the registry today.
The Grande Ballroom was truly one of the most influential music palaces in the world. Acts like the MC5 and the Stooges first performed here, moving on later to change the genre of rock and roll globally. The Stooges were inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, and the MC5 were nominated in 2019 but didn’t make the cut.
The Grande Ballroom opened in 1928 as a place for young Detroiters to dance the night away listening to jazz music, eventually transitioning to a place for young folks to come together and meet new people. By the 1960s, it was the only ballroom in Detroit still catering to a wholesome crowd. Due to a lack of a liquor license and a refusal in ownership to change their ways, the building closed, subsequently having a short stint as a ‘roller-skating rink and then a storage facility for mattresses.’ (via HistoricDetroit.org)
In 1966 Russ Gibb began renting the property, and the rest was history. Regional acts like the MC5 and the Stooges made the joint famous locally, but acts like Led Zeppelin, the Yardbirds, Cream, Pink Floyd, Chuck Berry, and the Velvet Underground made it an international hot-bed for up and coming rock & roll acts. The music finally stopped echoing out of the Moorish Deco walls of the Grande in 1972, and it has seldom been used since other than as a backdrop for urban explorers, a bed for the homeless, and a place for addicts to fulfill their vices.
In October of 2018 Gabe Gault painted a commissioned mural on the front and side of the Grande with help from Detroit-based artist Zak Warmann. The mural was funded by MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, who is featured on the front of the mural. Kramer also funded a structural integrity report to be done on the building. The Friends of the Grande performed a coordinated inspection of the interior of the Grande with a team of engineers, roofers, and carpenters in November.
If anything is true about the Grande, it’s that there is unwavering support to bring the building back to its former glory. It is unsure whether this support will turn into monetary aid, but with such a wide variety of people supporting the building, there is still a lot of hope for fans of Detroit’s rock & roll history, historic preservation, and people who live in the area who want to see 8952 Grand River Avenue prosper once more.
I am hosting a free screening of Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story on Monday, February 4th at the Detroit Artists’ Test Lab with a discussion led by Leo Early and Tony D’Annunzio to follow. More information here: https://www.facebook.com/events/602571503511061/