Detroit as a Cultural Landscape Palimpsest

by Brenda Williams, ASLA, and John Zvonar, FCSLA

Conference attendees in front of the Detroit Public Library
AHLP Detroit conference attendees in front of the Detroit Public Library. / image: AHLP

The Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation: Conserving Cultural Landscapes (“the Alliance”) met for its Annual Conference in Detroit, Michigan, in May 2019. The theme of the conference was “Detroit as a Cultural Landscape Palimpsest.” The group spent three days immersed in presentations and site visits focused on learning about cultural landscapes throughout the city. We learned how MoTown is addressing dramatic demographic and economic change through innovative approaches to create a positive, resilient future, while embracing, celebrating, and preserving cultural heritage. Following the palimpsest theme, the Detroit landscapes were viewed each day through the lens of a different time span. If Detroit is on your bucket list (and it really should be) you’ll find lots of great information and ideas in this post and associated links.

The Alliance is an interdisciplinary professional organization which provides a forum for communication and exchange of information among its members. It is dedicated to the preservation and conservation of historic landscapes in all their variety, from formal gardens and public parks to rural expanses. If you are not familiar with the Alliance, you can learn more about the organization on their website,

During the conference, we learned of the importance of the Detroit region to Indigenous communities prior to the arrival of Europeans, and ways current Indigenous Peoples are continuing relationships with the landscape. The Honorable Grand Chief Ted Roll of the Wyandotte of Anderdon Nation, and Joshua Garcia, Wyandotte Nation Youth-Intern Ambassador, introduced us to the land of the Anishinabeg (First People). Representing the voices of Indigenous communities directly associated with the area, they led visits to and taught us about Wyandot sites.

Joshua Garcia at a Wyandot site that is part of the River Raisin National Battlefield Park. / image: AHLP

Scott Bentley, Superintendent of the River Raisin National Battlefield Park, took us on a journey beginning in the early seventeenth century (and the Iroquoian Wars) to the establishment of New France (in 1671) and its implications in what is now the Detroit area. The landscape’s abundant natural resources and strategic location proved vital to the eighteenth century fur trade economy and to subsequent European settlement. Fort Detroit became a contested territory between French, British, and American armies and their Indigenous allies. Vestiges of war, removal, settlement, and development remain in the landscape. We visited Fort Wayne, led by Tom Berlucchi (Chairman, Historic Fort Wayne Coalition) and Jim Conway (Manager Historic Fort Wayne, City of Detroit).

The interior of Fort Wayne. / image: AHLP

To establish the geopolitical ‘baseline’ for the conference, Paul Sewick presented an overview of “The Inception of Detroit’s Grid.” He explained the eighteenth century ribbon farms, the arrival of the US government (read ‘army’), and the establishment of Fort Detroit in 1796. He then told us of the plan for Detroit initiated by Augusta B. Woodward, a unified system of diagonal streets and grand public circles laid out in a symmetrical pattern, effectively the organizational system of the city today. His well-researched blog, Detroit Urbanism, is excellent. We walked part of the grid with historian Ruth Mills, visiting iconic buildings, lively urban parks, and inspirational alleys along the way, then headed to Frederick Law Olmsted’s Belle Isle.

New urban park in Detroit. / image: Greg De Vries, ASLA
The Woodward Plan of Detroit, 1824, Philu E. Judd. / image: courtesy of the Clark Library, University of Michigan

Community historian and activist Jamon Jordan took us to several sites north of Midtown, explaining early city policies that limited opportunities for minority citizens and eventually led to a rebellion in 1967. We visited the neighborhood where Motown was born, in a home that is part of a cluster of businesses run in residences by minority owners, to circumvent discriminatory past city ordinances. The area is slated for nomination to the National Register as a historic district.

Jamon Jordan with Alliance members at Hitsville, USA. / image: AHLP

The history of the automobile industry is tangible in Detroit landscapes. Although we did not have time to connect with the wide range of industry-related sites, we visited the Ford Piquette Plant where we learned about the origins of the automobile. An optional tour took us to Fair Lane, the home of Henry and Clara Ford. The landscape on the Rouge River was designed by landscape architect Jens Jensen.

Alliance members at the Ford Piquette Plant / image: AHLP

Our focus on the third and final day of the conference looked toward the future as we learned about planning, design, and actions underway to prepare Detroit for an inspiring future. Michael Johnson spoke to us about the focus of planning on Detroit’s neighborhoods. We visited the Fitzgerald neighborhood where community organizers introduced us to the new Ella Fitzgerald Park and other work occurring to enhance the neighborhood, including the new community center Neighborhood HomeBase.

Neighborhood organizers talking to the group at and about Ella Fitzgerald Park. / image: AHLP

Maura Rockcastle, ASLA, and Kemba Braynon, AIA, provided an on-site overview of two of the finalist proposals for the DIA Plaza and Midtown Cultural Connections competition. Kristen Nyht, AIA, introduced us to the exciting work of the Ford Company at Michigan Central Station and the Ford Corktown Campus. We then proceeded to Lafayette Park, the Midcentury Modern National Historic Landmark development designed by Mies van der Rohe, Alfred Caldwel, and Ludwig Hilberseimer.

Kemba Braynon discussing the design competition. / image: AHLP

Our meetings were held at the McGregor Memorial Conference Center, a stunning National Historic Landmark designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki. The building is set in a landscape framed by terraces and a recently restored reflecting pool. It is on the campus of Wayne State University, in the heart of Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood. Dr. Dale Gyure led the group on a walking tour of the campus focused on buildings and spaces of significance.

Minoru Yamasaki’s McGregor Memorial Conference Center. / image: Ruth E. Mills
Inside the McGregor Memorial Conference Center. / image: Ruth E. Mills
Motor City sidewalk. / image: AHLP

I hope you’ve enjoyed this overview of our Detroit conference. There is so much more to tell, but space and time are limited, so we will leave you here. Please consider joining us in 2020 as we travel to Natchitoches, Louisiana, where we will immerse ourselves in the Creole culture. You can learn more on our website—2020 conference information will be posted in November.

Brenda Williams, ASLA, is the Director of Preservation Planning at Quinn Evans/Architects, a consulting firm dedicated to preservation and sustainable stewardship with a perspective informed by history and place. Her career has focused on the conservation of cultural landscapes, through interventions that preserve historic character, enhance visitor learning and enjoyment, and provide sustainability. She facilities a collaborative approach to planning for places of cultural significance and building common ground among stakeholders to develop inspirational visions and inspiring plans. Over the last decade she has led several projects emphasizing integration of voices of marginalized communities into the planning process for significant landscapes including the Cultural Landscape Master Plan for Xe’/Blood Run, in northwest Iowa, which was awarded a 2018 ASLA Honor Award winner in Analysis and Planning.

Brenda will be speaking at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego this November as a panelist for the Historic Preservation Professional Practice Network (PPN) Education Session, MON-A03 – Leading Change: Emerging Opportunities and Challenges for the Practice of Historic Preservation.

John Zvonar, FCSLA, is a Senior Landscape Architect who has worked with Parks Canada and Public Works and Government Services for almost 20 years.

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