A weekend in Detroit: architecture, kayaking and Faygo cocktails
DETROIT – When friends and I across the country tried to find a place to meet for our annual fall vacation, we kept having headaches. Seattle? A great city but too far away for those who live on the east coast. Savannah? Charming but no nonstop flights from Houston. New York? Much to do, but almost overwhelming.
“What about Detroit?” I recommended.
As a reporter, I had visited the city several times in the past few years to cover the financial collapse and revitalization efforts. In doing so, I fell in love with the history, the character and the Art Deco aesthetic, not to mention the demeanor of the residents, who, despite the headwind, had unstoppable pride and hope in their city.
“Trust me,” I assured my travel companions. “You will love it.” You bit.
For those planning a weekend getaway, Detroit seems like an unlikely choice. The city’s decades of economic and population decline – along with the crime and disease that accompanied these trends – is well documented. There is a lot to blame for Detroit’s fighting. Bourgeois residents have been fleeing the city for more than 50 years. Several generations of politicians irresponsibly ran Detroit’s finances. US automakers have failed to innovate in the face of international competition and have decimated the region’s bedrock industry.
Today, however, Detroit’s outlook could change. To be clear, Detroit is still struggling, and its heavily sponsored renaissance has been uneven. Many of the neighborhoods outside of the city center have not improved much, although the inner city and inner city are flourishing. But the city has emerged from its bankruptcy and is attracting young entrepreneurs, artists and other creative types who see opportunities.
“Can’t do it like that anymore”
Detroit is a city known for its architecture, largely because it is home to much of Albert Kahn’s work. To learn more about it, I met with volunteers from the Detroit Experience Factory, which is popularizing the city with both locals and visitors. They featured the Guardian Building, a Mayan Revival style Art Deco skyscraper, a short-lived but intriguing architectural movement that incorporates Mayan and Native American iconography into modern buildings. (Detroit is a hub for movement, and Houston has its own example of style in the Great Southwest Building downtown.)
The 40-story skyscraper was originally the home of Union Trust Co., one of the city’s leading banks. I craned my neck and was impressed by the bright orange, blue and green tiles on the ceiling. The inner dome of the building, together with a floor plan that mimics a nave, led to its nickname: “The Cathedral of Finance”.
The tower is made for great stories. Allegedly, a unique color (called “Guardian Brick”) was specially formulated for its exterior. And an African marble mine was reopened after many years of closure, so the story goes, so that the builder could get the perfect shade of red for the lobby. At first glance, the ceiling on the first floor seems to be made of even more complicated tiles. In reality, it is a painted horsehair canvas that is used to muffle noises that would have occurred on a busy bench. Unfortunately, the timing of the opening of the building was not ideal. It was opened in 1929 just in time for the Great Depression.
“The advantage is that people ignore us for so long,” says Detroit-based Jeanette Pierce, who started the Detroit Experience Factory 11 years ago. “We didn’t rush to demolish these buildings. You literally can’t make them that way anymore.”
Buildings tell the story of urban development
While the Guardian Building remains in exquisite condition, other structures have vanished from their former glory but remain eye-catching in their own way. A few blocks away, after the official tour ended, I visited the Michigan Theater, a 4,000-seat venue that opened in 1926 and housed everyone from Frank Sinatra to Louis Armstrong to David Bowie before finally closing its doors after 50 years . But the theater is not open to the public and there are no guided tours. That’s because it’s no longer a theater. Rather, it’s what one media company called “America’s Most Unusual Parking Garage”.
In fact, there is a garage in the bones of the theater, which itself is attached to the inconspicuous office tower of the Michigan Building next door. Once the owners tried to remove the theater and build a garage in its place. However, the engineers were determined to weaken the office building. So the owners went with Plan B: Good to the venue and put a garage in it.
When you go
Spirit Airlines, United and Delta offer non-stop flights from George Bush Intercontinental Airport to Detroit.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Honor & Folly: Elegant apartment / guest house with twee decor on a redeveloped section of Corktown that is home to some of the city’s hippest bars and restaurants. 2132 Michigan; honorandfolly.com. From $ 165 per night.
Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center: Modern hotel on the Detroit coast near General Motors headquarters. 400 Renaissance; marriott.com. From $ 249 per night.
Republic Tavern: Gastropub with seasonal cuisine in the recently renovated Grand Army of the Republic building, a historic “castle” from 1942. 1942 Grand River, 313-446-8360; republictaverndetroit.com.
Buddy’s Pizza: The original supplier of Detroit-style pizza, a unique square deep dish cake with sauce on top. Multiple locations, original at 17125 Conant, 800-965-0505; buddyspizza.com.
Cafe D’Mongos Speakeasy: Eclectic bar in the city center with retro flair, live music, a relaxed atmosphere and powerful cocktails. 1439 Griswold.
WHAT SHOULD I DO
Detroit Experience Factory: Tour of Detroit’s neighborhoods on topics such as art and architecture, volunteering, food, and wine. Some tours are free, others are paid. 313-962-4590; detroitexperiencefactory.org.
Detroit River Sports: Offers kayak tours along the Detroit River and around Belle Isle Park in warm weather. The morning canal tour is $ 45 per person. 313-908-0484; detroitriversports.com.
Detroit Institute of Arts: World-class art collection anchored by Diego Rivera’s massive frescoes depicting workers at Ford’s River Rouge plant. 5200 Woodward, 313-833-7900; dia.org.
MORE INFORMATION visitdetroit.com
Portions of the theater’s ceiling, lobby, and stairs are intact, offering visitors the chance to witness the dramatic juxtaposition of modern cars in the ornate historic venue. It’s important to note that visiting and photographing such structures – which Detroit abound – is viewed as a little gauche by Detroiters who refuse to allow tourists to marvel at its decay. Even so, the buildings tell the story of the city’s unusual development. Since the Michigan Theater is not exactly open to the public, visitors will have to sneak in by asking the office lobbyist for permission to enter. Offering a donation helps.
After spending a day downtown, I went to the speakeasy at Cafe D’Mongo, where the vibe is inviting and the drinks are stiff. Nestled between a parking garage and synagogue on an otherwise quiet street, the scene inside was busy, and the owner himself greeted my group warmly as we entered.
Despite its name, the bar doesn’t have the sexy look of the modern speakeasy that has become a popular trend in bars. Instead, it has more of a flea market aesthetic. The funky band and eclectic decor made it a hit with locals, visitors, and even celebrities (Quentin Tarantino and Ryan Gosling were each spotted here). Many of the cocktails have a local flair and contain ingredients from Detroit such as Vernors Ginger Ale and Faygo soft drinks.
Kayaking offers a unique vantage point
The next morning we woke up bright and early – perhaps an ill-advised choice after those Faygo cocktails – and headed for the Detroit River. It’s a journey that few would have taken not so long ago. In the 1950s and 1960s, the river was oily and polluted due to untreated discharge from industrial equipment that found its way into the water. But the environmental regulations of the 1970s and recent environmental efforts have turned the tide.
“For a long time it was viewed by people as an industrial, polluted river, even though it is constantly being cleaned up,” said David Howell, chairman of the Detroit River’s Nonprofit Friends, who are committed to preserving the river and its banks.
Now the water is in good condition – and cleaner than most people think. A much-noticed sign of progress: In 2009, a beaver was seen in the river for the first time in about a century, which experts have called a sign of environmental recovery. Bald eagles, deer and turtles can also be spotted on its banks.
I left a marina on the eastern edge of town with a crew from Detroit River Sports. Our kayak tour started with a meandering paddle through the canals in eastern Detroit. They’re not exactly Venice, but they provide a unique vantage point from which to see some of the city’s lesser-known neighborhoods, where Detroit’s maritime tradition has thrived for a century. Today the area is home to a mix of grandiose McMansions and stricter accommodations. Both are connected to the river by a small network of canals.
“A lot of people don’t even know these channels exist,” says Alex Howbert, owner of Detroit River Sports, who grew up nearby.
These canals also made the area a major center for illegal rum operations during the Prohibition Period, as Canada is on the other side of the Detroit River – where alcohol was legal – nearby.
A riverside highlight is the Fisher mansion, home of Lawrence Fisher, a member of the Fisher Brothers clan who made his fortune as a body shell supplier for General Motors in the early 20th century. The massive house, which is home to many of the soirées hosted by Bachelor Fisher, is said to be based on the design of the Hearst mansion in California. It is now owned by a Hare Krisha group who use it as a meeting place.
After hearing this story, we paddled back through the calm canal waters and out into the choppier current of the Detroit River, where our circle came full circle: from there we could see all the way downtown to GM’s sleek, modern headquarters Tower over the city.