The Michigan Architectural Foundation (MAF) is pleased to announce that Detroit Sound Conservancy (DSC) is the 2023 recipient of MAF’s Evans Graham Preservation Award. The grant will support the preservation and rehabilitation of The Blue Bird Inn, a historic jazz club located on Detroit’s Old West Side, which is being restored for use as a neighborhood music venue, and multi-use community and arts space. The $20,000 MAF grant will help complete the restoration of the building’s facade, masonry, and exterior envelope. The announcement was made by MAF’s Evans Graham Preservation Award jury.
Created in 1998 to honor the memory of preservation architect David Evans, FAIA, MAF’s Evans Graham Preservation Award provides financial assistance and recognition to groups or individuals seeking to preserve historic Michigan architecture. Ralph and Jeanne Graham, co-founders of the award, guided its development until their passing; the award was renamed in 2015 to honor their leadership and contribution. The award is granted annually by a jury based on the merits of the project.
“From the 1940s to the 1970s, most neighborhoods had a place where you could hear music, but The Blue Bird Inn is one of the last neighborhood clubs still standing from this pre-Motown Golden Era of African American musicianship,” said Jonah Raduns-Silverstein, Director of Operations of Detroit Sound Conservancy (DSC), a community-based nonprofit music archive devoted to the preservation and celebration of Detroit music. “The Blue Bird also served as a vital social gathering space for the Black community. DSC intends to build off that legacy while incorporating uses that will benefit both the neighborhood and broader region.”
The Blue Bird Inn closed to the public in the early 2000s and remained vacant until DSC purchased it from the city of Detroit in 2019, actively fundraising and securing resources for the project’s restoration and rehabilitation since then. In 2021, DSC replaced the deteriorated roof, and earlier this year, finished construction documentation with its project architect, Saundra Little, FAIA, LEED, NOMA. DSC anticipates the restoration will be completed in the next 12-18 months.
“The Blue Bird was the spot for jazz in Detroit, and when the big acts came to the city, it’s where they were playing,” said Raduns-Silverstein. Musicians, including leaders in modern jazz such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, played at the club regularly in the 1950s, and local musicians, such as drummer Roy Brooks and saxophonist Wendell Harrison apprenticed there.
The legendary landmark also served as a key hub for Black life and culture in its neighborhood and the city of Detroit throughout the 20th century. The Blue Bird Inn’s former owners, Clarence & Mary Eddins, and The Dubois Family before them, were innovative Black entrepreneurs working to create opportunity in a heavily segregated Detroit. During the Civil Rights era, the club was a community hearth, where Black workers and their families could relax, commune, engage, express, and listen.
“Many don’t know the importance of Detroit’s music history,” said Raduns-Silverstein. “Detroit has many different music stories but they are all part of a shared narrative of our city. The renovated Blue Bird Inn will be an active music venue that not only signals its past, but is also about the musicians that are here now and making music today, and in an environment that puts the musician first.”
The restored venue will feature a publicly-accessible music archive, along with a cultural heritage center, and intergenerational, collaborative community art and neighborhood gathering space to meet modern organizational and community needs. Since 2017, DSC has completed extensive community engagement work to identify project objectives, with each interaction contributing to DSC’s decision-making process for the venue’s renovation and planned future uses.
“The neighborhood, like so many in Detroit, has been disinvested in,” said Raduns-Silverstein. “The restoration of the Blue Bird has the power to build a more positive narrative, one of community pride that can catalyze future community reinvestment and preservation projects across Detroit and with regional and global impact. Culture and art can activate change in new ways. That’s what this project is leaning into, and DSC is hoping to lead a path for other cities to do the same.”
Raduns-Silverstein adds, “Music lives and breathes differently in Detroit. It is woven into the fabric and lives of its residents which makes it different than anywhere else in the world. The power of the Blue Bird’s restoration is that it will emphasize the importance of music on a global scale, and at the same time, its importance at the neighborhood level in a physical space that can be shared with residents. DSC is grateful to the Michigan Architectural Foundation and all of those who have supported the project.”
In addition to Jonah Raduns-Silverstein and architect Saundra Little, the Blue Bird Inn project team includes Michelle Jahra McKinney, DSC Director and Director of Collections; Larry Williams, DSC board president and judge, Wayne County 36th District Court; Alyson Jones Turner, DSC board vice president. owner-operator of Source Booksellers and chair, Blue Bird Building Committee. For more information on Detroit Sound Conservancy, visit http://detroitsound.org.
MAF’s Evans Graham Preservation Award jury members are Park Smith, AIA, Randy Case, AIA; Annie Graham; Bill Graham; Jackie Hoist, AIA; Gene Hopkins, FAIA; Lis Knibbe, FAIA; Jessica Green Quijano, Assoc. AIA; Jennifer Radcliffe, Hon. AIA; Carl Roehling, FAIA; Les Tincknell, FAIAE, and Ilene Tyler, FAIA. For more information on Michigan Architectural Foundation’s Evans Graham Preservation Award, visit michiganarchitecturalfoundation.org/grants/evans-graham-preservation-award.