Detroit building renovations uncover ceiling architecture
Hidden gems of Detroit’s architectural past are slowly re-emerging, a side-effect of building renovations across the city.
Long-shuttered structures like the Metropolitan Building are reopening as hotels, residences, and shops, revealing the lost architectural details in ceilings, floors, moldings, and facades that once defined Detroit’s main structures.
In recent years the beautiful skylight lobby of the former Dime building, now Chrysler House, which had long been hidden by a false ceiling, has been restored to its original appearance. The lobby of the former Detroit News building has also been restored, with the false ceiling removed.
The facades of early 20th century buildings on Woodward Avenue have also resurfaced after removing false fronts installed half a century ago.
And developers are rebuilding some of the ornate cornices that towered over numerous buildings downtown. These cornices were removed as a misguided security measure after 1958 when a piece of one fell, killing a passerby.
This uncovering and rediscovery of lost architectural details can only intensify Detroit’s efforts to revitalize itself. The type of classical architecture that was once prized here but was later lost during the half century of Detroit’s decline emerges as the type of architecture that draws residents and visitors alike.
And it brings to light again the work of designers like Albert Kahn, Louis Kamper, and many other designers whose work graced the Detroit area in the early 20th century.
“Think about the cities you love to visit while on vacation,” said architect J. Michael Kirk, director of Neumann / Smith’s Detroit studio. “When you go to these places, you are drawn to the historical surroundings. If they were all built from scratch, they wouldn’t have the same feel or the same emotional appeal, especially when you think of Europe’s older cities.
“I think we’re finally realizing who we were and what we did, and we’re ready to celebrate.”
Too much lost already
Given that Detroit’s architectural heritage has been lost to demolition and illegal stripping over the years, we’re fortunate that it still remains that way. And the good news is that almost every day, more of these lost details are coming to light.
Ford’s renovation of Michigan’s historic Central Station will bring back to life perhaps the best example of lost architectural greatness. Some buildings in Capitol Park on the west side of the city center are also being renovated after years of closure.
Former factories, warehouses, schools, and other abandoned buildings that contain high ceilings, brick walls, wooden floors, oversized windows, and intricate details are valued by both investors and tenants.
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Why we lost it
In the 1950s, modern architecture created many new masterpieces, but regrettably promoted the attitude that the past was ugly and could be discarded. Later, in the 1970s, when fuel became so much more expensive, dropped ceilings that hid heating and air conditioning ducts also obscured many notable architectural details.
That combination of cost savings and changing architectural tastes has resulted in the classic architectural details falling out of favor, said architect Michael Poris, whose McIntosh Poris firm has worked on dozens of renovation projects in Detroit.
“And now we have come full circle and we appreciate the amount of work as well as the time and costs involved,” said Poris about the classic architecture. “We just can’t imagine what went through their heads when they dropped those blankets. It was crazy. “
In fact, classic architecture has become a selling point for the next generation of downtown employees, Kirk said.
“Millennials and Gen Xers like the old details,” said Kirk. “They like the combination of historical details with contemporary touches. Many business owners and builders encourage this to create an environment for talent recruiting and retention. “
And of course, restoring Detroit’s architectural past is a way to appreciate the city’s rich heritage.
“It’s part of the city’s history and we want to show it,” said Kirk.
Restore the tax credit
Here’s one way to bring even more of Detroit’s architectural gems to light: have the state of Michigan recover the lost historic preservation tax credit that allowed investors to deduct part of the cost of renovating historic buildings from their taxes.
The state set this tax break to zero in 2011. Legislators almost restored it last year. A measure that led to this was passed by the Senate with a veto-safe majority, but could not leave the State House. Backers have promised to try again this year.
And it would also help more or less stop the demolition of all older buildings in and around downtown Detroit. We have already lost too much of our surface parking heritage.
It’s time to appreciate what we’ve already built here and bring more of it back to life.
Contact John Gallagher at313-222-5173 or [email protected].Follow him on Twitter@jgallagherfreep. Read more about the business and subscribe to our business newsletter.