Buildings in Detroit That Need to Be Saved in 2017

The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.
— Jack Kennedy
 
The Eastown Theater being demolished in 2015. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

The Eastown Theater being demolished in 2015. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

 

A couple weeks back I heard that there were plans for the CPA Building on Michigan Avenue to be demolished. I always thought of myself as somewhat of a preservationist by ideology, but lately it seems I have been slacking on those claims. The CPA is truly a gem of Corktown, and the good people of that neighborhood worked their asses off to save it. Here are some other buildings in Detroit I feel should be saved, a couple ideas for what they should be turned into, and how we can go about ensuring this happens.

The United Artists Theater

The tattered inside of the United Artists Theater in 2016. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

The tattered inside of the United Artists Theater in 2016. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

The United Artists Theater, which is currently owned by the Ilitch family, is in desperate need of a miracle. The Tigers Tycoon has threatened it with demolition a handful of times, but at this point, it still stands. The building has been secured (for the most part, my shattered heel says otherwise) and it sits empty on the corner of Bagley and Clifford. Originally Ilitch wanted to demolish the structure to make way for Comerica Park, but when the ballpark was moved to the other side of Woodward the empty movie palace was saved. It was then stated that it would be demolished to make way for more parking for the stadium/theater district that sits only a few blocks away, but Ilitch’s plans were met with uproar from preservationists. In the 1980s the theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Grand Circus Park Historic District, which makes it much harder for anyone to demolish it, but far from impossible. The United Artists Theater needs to be saved because it truly is a beautiful building, and in the right hands it has the potential to be the only venue in the city that can rival The Fox in terms of overall beauty. The venue is also said to have perfect acoustics, a feat that not many theaters in the world can boast. Another key reason to save the United Artists Theater is to preserve the rich history in film that the City of Detroit has. Detroit was by far one of the best cities for the theater, movies, and shows in its heyday. The United Artists Theater was said to be one of the most beautiful of them all, and not many of these palaces are left. Another abandoned theater downtown, The National Theater, is much smaller and located in an area that Dan Gilbert has had his eye on for years. Although it too is on the National Register of Historic Places, the rest of the block was once as well, but it is the only remaining building in the original theater district of Detroit. Assuming Dan Gilbert gets his way, as he often does, I do not think that the National Theater will be saved, or for that matter is as grand, magnificent, or breathtaking as the United Artists Theater. Another great aspect about the United Artists is the office tower that connects to the building. We are currently running out of room for offices in Detroit. Dan Gilbert recently announced he may have to start putting some jobs in the suburbs because there is simply no room left for him in Detroit. The United Artists’ office tower is 18 stories that upon my examination seem to be in alright shape. It wouldn’t be a cheap endeavor, but at the prices that office spaces are currently going for in Detroit, I can imagine it would be a profitable one.

Belle Isle Zoo

The gratified interior of the Belle Isle Zoo in 2015. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

The gratified interior of the Belle Isle Zoo in 2015. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

Many people have asked me when meeting on Belle Isle for various activities what the big chunk of fenced off land in the middle of the park that looks like a safari is used for. Well ladies and gentlemen, it used to be a zoo. A full-fledged zoo. Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! Believe it or not, Belle Isle used to be quite nice. Not that it isn’t now, but as you can tell driving around the park, it used to be truly magnificent. Since the DNR has taken over the park has seen an incredible turn around and I feel that the State Park System is responsible for that. Many do not see any reason to do anything with the abandoned zoo in the middle of the park because, well, it isn’t hurting anything and the park seems to be doing fine. Whereas that may be true, the park is doing well and attracting more visitors than ever, it still isn’t a destination for many folks outside of the city of Detroit. During the Summer months the park is packed with Wayne County Residents from shore to shore and everyone is having a lovely time. That’s nice and all, but I truly feel that if the park service was able to convert the old Belle Isle Zoo in to something new, fun, and unique, Belle Isle would become a destination for all those around Michigan and a must-stop location for people visiting Detroit. A number of times I have been into the zoo to find skateboarders riding on what I can only imagine was once some sort of water habitat for the illustrious Detroit-water-hippopotamus. Imagine boasting one of the greatest skate-parks in southeastern Michigan on Belle Isle. The influx of young people to the island would be incredible. Now I’m not saying that the redevelopment has to be something like a skate park or that the park needs to have a zoo again, I just really believe that if the park service could do something unique and cool with the land that Belle Isle would bring people to the park that had never been there before, or at least in a really long time. The land really should be redeveloped to enable Belle Isle to become even greater than it already is.

Michigan Central Station

Photo of MCS under a fresh coat of snow. Photo by Felicia Fullwood

Photo of MCS under a fresh coat of snow. Photo by Felicia Fullwood

Ah, the building of all buildings, the preservationists dream, and a billionaire’s hostage. Michigan Central Station is by far the most recognizable abandoned structure in the world. People once came from far and wide to trespass inside the building and it quickly became a symbol for the decline of Detroit. The colossal structure has since been fenced off and new windows put into place to make it seem like the property is savable. Where I do believe the building is savable, and do believe that it will indeed be saved, it is a preservationist’s job to make sure that this happens sooner rather than later. Since the late 90s it has been owned by Detroit billionaire Matty Maroun, who also owns the Ambassador Bridge to Canada. It was under his reign that the building was vandalized, all of its valuables stolen, and that the property became a trespasser’s dream. Maroun, surprisingly, did finally secure the station and put new windows in it about two decades after he purchased the property. Many saw this as a play to make the city happy with him, because at the time he was still trying to gain access to build a second bridge to Canada directly next to his current bridge, a plan which makes literally no goddamn sense because there is already a bridge going in down in Delray. Remember when I said that the building was a billionaire’s hostage? Now you might understand what that statement means. The fact of it is, Michigan Central Station would cost an arm and a leg to renovate. Estimates range from 100 to 300 million USD to repair to its former glory. But, at the end of the day, it was, and still is in my opinion, the most beautiful landmarks in the city. Many can argue that the Fisher or Guardian beat it out, but when it comes down to it, nothing compares to the old depot. There is nothing else like it in the world. It is truly one of a kind, and that is why it needs to be saved. Lofts. A trendy hotel. Another Casino. Sea-World Detroit. I don’t give a damn, just put something in my station that isn’t a police headquarters, prison, or trade processing center.

Hotel Fort Wayne / American Hotel

The American Hotel perched next to its neighbor, the Masonic Temple. Photo by Paul Hitz for Historic Detroit

The American Hotel perched next to its neighbor, the Masonic Temple. Photo by Paul Hitz for Historic Detroit

As a kid coming down to Tigers games with friends or family it seemed like we would always park somewhat near the big building with the tattered ‘American’ sign on it. I never knew what this building was or why it was left to rot, but then again, I was a dumb twat of a child, so I’m not really that surprised looking back. The Hotel Fort Wayne opened in 1926 (the same year as its neighbor, the Masonic Temple) and was renamed the American Hotel in the 1960s after a renovation. As many Detroiters know, the Cass Corridor wasn’t always that pretty. Dan Austin described the area in the 1960’s as being ‘well on its way to becoming a home for those down on their luck,’ which really hurt business for the American Hotel and other businesses in the area. The hotel finally closed in the early 2000s, and just as many other abandonments in Detroit, was heavily hit by scrappers and vandals. The building is dangerously close to the new pizza stadium, which could mean one of two things for its future. It will either be knocked down for parking, or it will see new light under renovation. I think that Detroiters should fight for the renovation of this building because it truly is a beautiful and historic place. The views from the higher floors are breathtaking, the ballroom quite beautiful, and the skylight very unique. Not only would the renovation be great for The Masonic Temple and the new hockey arena, but it would really show a commitment to renewal of the Cass Corridor, an effort that has seemed half-fought at times. With the new arena going up fast, I think we can expect to hear news about this building very soon.

The Free Press Building

Photo of the Free Press Building from above by Dan Austin of Historic Detroit

Photo of the Free Press Building from above by Dan Austin of Historic Detroit

Whereas this may be one of the more boring stops on the list, the former Free Press headquarters is an interesting piece of downtown. The structure is pretty weirdly shaped, making it very recognizable and unique when compared to most others surrounding it. The 250,000+ square foot building was designed by notorious Detroit architect Albert Kahn in 1925, but it’s been empty since 1998. Since the Free Press left just before the millennium not much has happened other than a couple sales and a number of renovation plans that never came to fruition. Offices, lofts, and a numerous other ideas have been tossed on the table, but no sort of plans have made it off the printing press yet. Recently it was rumored that the building was sold again, but the details from that transaction have not been confirmed at this point. I really hope this is true, because the last owners don’t have a spectacular track record for renovations, considering they owned the Stott for a number of years before selling it to Dan Gilbert. I really hope that it can be saved, because it too is one of a kind. It has a really unique shape and its tower really should be used for more than just acquiring all the different flavors and assortments of pigeon shit (I swear I saw a bogey flavoured one once). The building is an Albert Kahn masterpiece, which Detroit has been blessed with a number of, but regardless it will hopefully someday make a great complex of offices or a nice little pack of lofts just outside the main drag of downtown. And I mean, who wouldn’t want to be closer to the coneys?

The Old Wayne County Building

The Wayne County Building during a thunderstorm in 2015. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

The Wayne County Building during a thunderstorm in 2015. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

Believe it or not, there are a number of Detroiters that do not know that the majestic building on Randolph Street is a National Historic Landmark, let alone that it has literally nothing in it or that it has been for sale for more than half a decade. The building used to house numerous city offices and services until Wayne County left it in 2009. All the other tenants were gone by 2010, and it has sat vacant since. Luckily, the Old Wayne Co. Building has been able to remain safe from scrappers and vandals, a sort of rarity not many properties downtown have had the pleasure of knowing. The inside of the structure is truly magnificent, even with not much left other than the walls. Nailhed covers the five story building in-depth and was even was able to reach the top of the tower. The structure is truly about as stunning as they come, which might make some believe that it has a simple case for renovation, but the splendor that makes this particular stop on the list so unique also holds investors back. Not only would doing any renovations to the interior be expensive to complete, the final product of the renovation is limited to a short number of proposals. Buildings such as this would be very difficult to convert into anything, the layout doesn’t meet the needs of a modern office, and the size of the building limits Wayne County from moving back in. The remodel and reuse of this building is very specific, but even with that being said, it needs to be saved. The city thought about demolishing it in the 1980’s but it was saved due to the expensive cost to demolish it, a factor that saves a lot of vacant or dilapidated properties. Luckily, it was saved, and it lives to see another day. Hopefully one day I can pay my parking tickets in this beautiful building again.

Harvard Square Center

Harvard Square Center in 2015. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

Harvard Square Center in 2015. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

The only thing that most people know about the Harvard Square Center is that there used to house a club on the main floor called the Paris Club, Detroit’s premier gay night club. I never made it to the establishment, but from the reviews I’ve seen online it had cheap drinks and a cool interior. The club was the last thing left in the building, and the rest has been abandoned since 1998. The tall-and-skinny tower was built in the 1920s and sits on Broadway Street. The view from the roof is absolutely spectacular, and the interior is somewhat clean from the information I have seen online. Although this is another somewhat boring property, the rehabilitation of this building could add much needed office space to an already crowded downtown, and the floor retail space may be a hot commodity when the Metropolitan Building hotel conversion is completed sometime within the next year or so. Beautiful terracotta buildings such as this deserve to be saved, and have a niche in the new Detroit.


Now, you didn’t think I would tell you about all these great buildings in Detroit waiting to be saved and not tell you how, did you?! Well, here’s how you can start, as told by somebody who knows literally nothing about preservation.

  • Stay informed. Websites like Curbed Detroit, Historic Detroit, and local papers often share information pertaining to old and historic buildings, their renovations, and demolition plans. You can’t do much if you don’t know what is going on. I also highly recommend Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit and Lost Detroit by Dan Austin. These books really help tell the history of preservation in the city of Detroit.

  • Join a preservation group like Preservation Detroit. Groups like this dedicate their time and money to preserving the City of Detroit, and by joining you will be keyed into new information and also your membership fees go towards raising money to save these buildings.

  • Write your councilmen and councilwomen before, during, and after demolition permits are filed. Discuss why you think certain buildings should be saved and their historical significance. These are our elected officials, and although they may not know the history of a particular building, and at the end of the day they are in office to serve the people of Detroit. If you and your super cool new preservationist friends all send letters to members of city council, they are bound to hear your cry.

To reiterate on the first point, staying informed to things going on in the city is key. Keeping up with renovations, demolitions, and abandonment are key to understanding how to properly give reasons for why buildings should be saved. We can’t save every old musty old building in the Motor City, but I’d be damned if we don’t give it a shot.