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.