The National: A Facade of Silence

Posted by & filed under EDUCATION, ENDANGERED, Preservation.

On Monday September 11th, the property management company Bedrock Detroit publicly announced their plans to demolish the National Theatre and move a portion of its façade to serve as a pedestrian walkway.

We are deeply concerned.

On August 24, the first public kickoff meeting for Bedrock’s proposed Book Tower and Monroe Block development projects was held as part of the Community Benefits Ordinance (CBO). The goal of Detroit’s new CBO process, that was passed by ballot initiative last November, is to advise the developer of concerns within the community impacted by a proposed development.

One of the buildings contained within the Monroe Block development footprint is the National Theatre, the last remaining theater designed by Albert Kahn and recognized nationally for its historic significance. Built in 1911 and the oldest remaining theatre in Detroit, the National was notably saved from demolition in 1990 while the other 12 of the 13 buildings in the Monroe Avenue Historic District were razed. It is now the last remaining building standing from Detroit’s first theater district.

Beyond its architectural history we here at the Conservancy also know the National has a rich visual and sonic cultural heritage. Over a decade ago our dear friend, writer Sarah Klein, reminded us of that history in an article called Paradise Regained for Metro Times. Originally a vaudeville house, the National later became “Detroit’s biggest and best” burlesque/burlesk theater. And just two weeks ago, Lottie “The Body” Graves told us at her home where we were interviewing her for our Detroit Sound Hall of Fame program about the importance of the National and how she wishes developers would renovate, not destroy, the National.

The National is more than a pretty architectural novelty item which can be preserved by saving only its facade. Its demolition means not only the destruction of a unique last-of-its-kind historic building but also the erasure of a site of extreme significance in Detroit culture. Detroit is not a blank slate to be shaped into any one developer’s vision for the future. The National is an opportunity for Bedrock to engage seriously with Detroit’s rich musical and cultural heritage. If not now, when?

As we prepare an excerpt from our oral history interview with Lottie to be presented to City Council, we ask our followers to be aware of this process and speak their minds. The City of Detroit still owns the National and City Council has yet to approve transfer to Bedrock.

Thursday, 5:30 pm, September 21st at Coleman A. Young Municipal Center Auditorium, will be the last public meeting before the developer responds to community concerns and concludes the CBO process.

3 Responses to “The National: A Facade of Silence”

  1. Mary Kennedy

    Please preserve this unique and historic building. European cities cherish and celebrate their architectural masterpieces as should we. Buildings such as this, and especially one with a reknown designer, should be revitalized and become a gathering place for the community. The Fisher and Guardian buildings are great examples of Detroit’s heritage. This building has the potential to flourish if restored. Please do not allow another piece of our past to become just another

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