Once considered a lost cause, deteriorating Vanity Ballroom may get new life

The Vanity Ballroom. Photo by Steve Neavling.
The Vanity Ballroom. Photo by Steve Neavling.

There’s still hope to save the deteriorating, Aztec-themed Vanity Ballroom on Detroit’s east side.

Once billed as “Detroit’s most beautiful dance rendezvous,” the ornate venue that attracted musical acts as diverse as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, MC5, Velvet Underground and The Stooges has fallen into serious disrepair after closing in the late 1980s along a bedraggled stretch of East Jefferson.

The Vanity Ballroom was damaged by a fire about five years ago and was open to trespass. Photo by Steve Neavling.
The Vanity Ballroom was damaged by a fire about five years ago and was open to trespass. Photo by Steve Neavling.

As part of a sweeping effort to clean up blight and hold owners accountable for neglecting their properties, the city of Detroit has taken legal action against the theater’s owner, Rosemary Burgess. If successful, the city would force the owner to make improvements or gain ownership of the historic ballroom, which opened in 1929 and was among Preservation Detroit’s 10 most endangered buildings. The next step would be finding a developer willing to resurrect the venue.

The ballroom also was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 but was never protected on the state or city level.

For an extensive history on the ballroom, check out HistoricDetroit.org.

The Vanity, which is often open to trespass and has been ravaged by scrappers, would require extensive renovations. The roof is leaking, and decaying chunks of the building are scattered across the spacious dance floor that was once covered in shiny maple and held up to 2,000 people.

But if ever the time was right for such an ambitious project, it’s now. The Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood – not far from Grosse Pointe Park –  is making a rebound in large part because of major improvements under Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration and the Jefferson East Business Association.

The ballroom was designed by architect Charles Agree, who also was the mastermind behind the long-deteriorating Grande Ballroom on the west side.

Duggan’s office declined to comment because the legal case is ongoing.

 

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

  • Harry Palmer

    It’d be great if someone could restore that building. Too many historic buildings in the city are left to rot by slumlord owners, then bulldozed and left as a vacant lot, or replaced with some cheap looking strip mall that would be more suited for the ‘burbs . Look at where the building that was the Deck Bar used to be on Alter. Now a vacant lot with a few (dead) pine trees planted. Why doesn’t the city have an Urban planner with some authority that can advocate for buildings like this that can’t be replicated??

  • javierjuanmanuel

    this sounds nice ” If successful, the city would force the owner to make improvements or
    gain ownership of the historic ballroom, which opened in 1929 and was
    among Preservation Detroit’s 10 most endangered buildings. The next step
    would be finding a developer willing to resurrect the venue.”

    But the city is the biggest slum lord. They cannot manage to keep up their fire or police headquarters, or significant historical old schools. They owned the train station, did nothing with it, and made matty moroun take it, knowing he did not want it, and had no use for it.

    They are not custodians of fine places.

    This is crazy, it is just PR blame game. Yeah, the city would be great if everyone who owned anything was made to fix it up to high standards, unfortunately this is a city where no one wants to pay water, taxes, heating bills, buy car insurance. How the hell can you make some poor retired old black woman on SS fix her house up to high standards?

    You can’t, and for that same reason you cannot make someone build a music venue out of a rotted old shell.

    If it was so damn easy, and so profitable, she would have done it 30 years ago, it would have never fallen into disrepair, she would be have kept it original, fixed it up a bit, put new roof on over the years, new sound system, etc, sold out every night and the old lady would net 500k per year on the old place hardly putting in any work. I mean its so easy.