William Colburn will receive the Michigan Historic Preservation Network’s (MHPN) 2016 Lifetime Achievement award. The prestigious recognition is bestowed upon those who, through personal effort and involvement in historic preservation, have made a significant contribution to preserving Michigan’s heritage.
Colburn, executive director of Wayne State University’s historic Charles Lang Freer House, will receive the award on May 13 during the MHPN’s annual Preservation Awards Reception and Ceremony at its statewide conference being held at WSU.
“I am humbled and honored to be given this award,” Colburn said. “I am just one of the many people who worked to lay the groundwork for the revitalization of Midtown, through historic preservation activism at Wayne State, the Cass Corridor and Cultural Center community, starting in the 1970s to the present.”
Colburn’s work in historic preservation began at age 21 as a buildings surveyor with the Detroit Urban Conservation Project. He joined the Preservation Wayne organization and soon rose to a leadership role as chairman and then founding executive director. During his 20 years of association with Preservation Wayne, Colburn transformed the WSU student organization into Detroit’s first full-time, citywide, nonprofit preservation organization. Today, the group is known as Preservation Detroit.
In addition to the successful battle to halt demolition and restore the Mackenzie House, home of WSU’s founder and first dean, Preservation Wayne also spearheaded an effort for more than three decades to preserve and revitalize the E. Ferry Avenue Historic District. Other accomplishments by the group during Colburn’s tenure include the first comprehensive surveys of historic buildings on the WSU campus and surrounding community, resulting in more than 20 buildings and three historic districts receiving designation on the National Register of Historic Places. The group also undertook public education initiatives in the form of preservation workshops, tours, research and publications. Preservation Wayne was the first organization in Detroit to receive a Preservation Honor award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“The 1970s to 1990s was an era when many older and historic buildings on the WSU campus and surrounding neighborhoods were threatened with demolition and neglect,” Colburn said. “The work of Preservation Wayne, together with other key individuals and organizations, helped to shift the WSU and Midtown area from clearance to preservation and restoration.”
In addition to Colburn’s past leadership role with Preservation Wayne, his work has included other positions in the preservation field in Detroit and service on the boards of several state, national and international historic preservation organizations.
Colburn currently serves as director of the Freer House, built in 1892 and ranked as one of the most important historic buildings in Michigan. Its fine architectural detail and rich cultural history are both locally and internationally significant. In 1920, it became the home of the Merrill-Palmer Skillman Institute (MPSI). The Freer House is the location for MPSI/WSU research offices and meeting room facilities. The building is undergoing phased restoration and is periodically open to the public for lecture programs and tours.