One step forward, two steps back. After the high spirits surrounding the restoration and renovation of the former Book Cadillac last fall, the Book Building and Tower is reportedly set to be shuttered in the next few days. The last tenant, Bookies Downtown Tavern, has closed up and utilities to the building are scheduled for disconnection.
This is a tough blow, but made tougher by what we’ve seen happen again and again (and again, and again, and AGAIN) to vacant Detroit buildings. After a half-hearted effort to secure said buildings, looters will gain entrance, and soon enough we will have 300 pound radiators crashing down marble stairs, original plaster walls chopped up in search of piping, stolen windows allowing rain and snow to enter, and hundreds of architectural features disappearing out the back door. Despite the obvious stripping, the authorities will claim they can do nothing about it without the owner’s complaint. After a few months of this, the absentee owner will suddenly reappear and claim that the building is “unsalvageable” and the city will quickly agree, pushing to demolish and create yet another vacant lot, upon which a “developer” will perhaps build a “convenience store” and trumpet the creation of five minimum wage “jobs", which will be duly reported as “progress” by our benighted media.
I’m a bit cynical today. Indulge me. I exaggerate, but this is not too far from the truth.
People! Sooner or later we’re going to run out of marquee downtown buildings. Do we want to look like androgynous Houston, or bland Phoenix? We need the character and quality of these historic buildings to distinguish Detroit from every other city in America desperate for new residents. There is already plenty of vacant land for the erection of new buildings, if so desired. Detroit’s art deco era downtown district, with its largely continuous fabric of historic structures, is unparalleled in America, and as such is a major untapped asset for our region. Preservation Wayne, as reported in a recent article, is promoting our existing buildings as a sustainable resource in the eco-sensitive world of 2009. Our civic attitude towards these resources seems to be forever stuck in 1989. Why are we so insecure about our “looks"?
I realize that in the eyes of many Detroiters, these buildings are drearily familiar and empty eyesores. But through the eyes of a one-time New Yorker, these are amazing treasures which have somehow survived through the last few decades. They are irreplaceable, and are a stock of wealth unique to Detroit that we squander at tremendous peril. The loss of every such remaining building indisputably harms Detroit’s future and beauty.
You blogger understands the high costs of maintaining vacant skyscrapers. But there are also high costs to the maintenance of freeways, or street-lighting, or fire stations, or city government; all of which are essential to the city’s appeal as a business and residential destination. Money spent “mothballing” our finest buildings is not wasted, but an investment towards a future where these buildings will be the envy of the nation.
While we’re worrying about the Lafayette and the Book Building, lets take a moment to savor the recent grand re-opening of the Book Cadillac on Washington Boulevard (at Michigan Avenue). The re-opening merited a large article in the New York Times in early November. Even better, the article includes a slideshow, with several great images of the renovated building.
I’ve dug up some older photos I have that were taken during the long renovation process.
Located on Washington Boulevard, the hotel was designed by Louis Kamper and opened in 1924. Kamper, a renowned Detroit architect, was also the designer of the already-mentioned Book Building and Book Tower, and several extraordinary mansions in Indian Village (where he lived) including the Book house at the corner of Jefferson and Burns. He was also the principal designer for the earlier Hecker House, the extraordinary limestone mansion at Woodward and Ferry finished in 1888.
The Book Brothers were Herbert, Frank, and J. Burgess Jr., and they played a large part in the development of the gracious pre-war Washington Boulevard. At its opening the hotel was the largest in the world with some 1200 rooms, each of them with a bath. By the 1960s, the hotel had been absorbed by the Sheraton chain, and much of its original splendor had been dulled with more contemporary renovation. The hotel’s glorious history and undeniable architectural grandeur entranced generations of Detroiters.
During the 1980 Republican convention, improbably held in Detroit, the hotel’s facade was famously redecorated with large red window awnings, giving it an aura of livelihood despite its silent interior. It sat this way for twenty years, alternately between doom and promise, and starring as one of Detroit’s most spectacular ruins. Its renewal was accomplished by the John Ferchill of Cleveland, who redeveloped the building over the last few years.
The revivified hotel is now run by Westin, and its goal is nothing less than a return to the apex of Detroit’s social scene. The hotel’s upper floors are populated by condominiums, with the lower floors dedicated to finely appointed hotel rooms. The combination of a stable residential population with a five-star hotel is a popular arrangement, and is also seen in the recent Time Warner complex in the heart of New York City.
For Detroit, the return of the Book Cadillac is nothing short of a phenomenon, and a harbinger of hope for the future. With increased federal attention to cities and urban infrastructure sure to come in the next four years, and with enough civic courage to keep from taking down any more of the historic skyscrapers, Detroit can leverage its historic downtown into a first-class business and leisure destination, a place that will be a refreshing change from the dull sameness of competing American downtowns. Believe it.
Two ancient French cities. The first, founded by Cadillac in 1701; the second, founded by Bienville nearly seventeen years later. Both predate the republic by several generations. Detroit and New Orleans have followed vastly divergent paths in the three centuries since their founding, but there are some interesting parallels between the two.
Both cities are a little ragged by time, studded with faded remnants of a more prosperous era. Both cities face struggles for new employment generators. Both have suffered cataclysmic devastation of urban fabric, and a precipitous population loss. Both have fabulous renovated buildings casually intermixed with brooding ruins. And both Detroit and New Orleans have some of the most creative and passionate residents in America; determined to maintain an urban lifestyle unique to themselves.
I’m presenting an album of New Orleans photos today, as a way to catch up with my readers and as a mea culpa for my long absence. I was married last month, and that combined with our honeymoon in the Crescent City somehow pulled me away from my blogging duties. You understand.
So what’s going on in New Orleans these days? A lot; in fact the oldest historic neighborhoods have largely recovered from the aftermath of Katrina. I learned that this is because, before the flood “protection” installed in the early twentieth century, residential construction occurred only on natural levees and ridges. In the deltaic floodplain of the lower Mississippi, the highest ground is actually closest to the river. Here’s where we find the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny, and Esplanade Avenue; and the Warehouse District, Lower Magazine Street, and the Garden District.
Which isn’t to say that the city doesn’t have a lot of work to do. New Orleans’ biggest employer, the tourism industry, was heavily damaged by the bad publicity after the hurricane. We were received like royalty at every shop or cafe we visited (not that this is all that different than my recollection of pre-storm hospitality!).
We found this month to be a good moment for a relaxing New Orleans getaway, before the intensity of Mardi Gras takes over much of the city in February. New Orleans is currently hosting a terrific contemporary arts exhibition titled Prospect.1, which has been running since November and will wind down on Sunday, January 18th. Featured in the New York Times, this exhibition is housed in high profile settings like the Contemporary Arts Center, as well as abandoned structures and fields in the Lower Ninth Ward.
The organizers have prepared an outstanding wayfinding map, and there is a reliable shuttle service connecting all the Prospect.1 venues.
I also made time for a visit to the Preservation Resource Center on Tchoupitoulas Street.
The PRC is a strong voice for presentation and sustainable urban living in New Orleans, and has been a critical player in the many post-hurricane debates concerning damaged historic buildings.
With more than a dozen staff members, a permanent exhibition and shop space, and a thick monthly magazine, they are a first-class, professional preservation organization. Since I’m sure all of my readers are already members of Preservation Wayne, I would encourage you to support PRC as well.
There is no reason Detroit can’t take inspiration from what’s going on in New Orleans; the rebounding neighborhoods, the entrepreneurs populating historic storefronts, the resurgent music scene, and a civic obsession with art, preservation, and culture. Forget Atlanta and its vapid glassy skyline; this haunting, idiosyncratic city is Detroit’s true southern soul mate.
I’m hopeful that the next several years will see a slow improvement in the fortunes of these two soulful American cities, which share more problems, and more potential, than most other towns in America.
From the intertubes today I learn of new Detroit Mayor Cockrel’s plan to implement selective demolition of Detroit’s vacant and foreclosed housing stock to remove the proverbial “blighted and abandoned structures". According to the Free Press, about half of a $47 million federal grant for assistance with the foreclosure crisis will be used to bulldoze more of Detroit’s housing stock. $8 million is set aside for “rehabilitating foreclosed homes” and $4 million for new construction. I don’t like these proportions.
Our President-elect, in last month’s debates, talked convincingly about using a scalpel instead of a hatchet in the implementation of government policy. Are we taking the same approach to our urban fabric here in Detroit? Obviously there are a lot of vacant structures that are in perilous condition that need to be taken down. But, in the process, will we see solid, fixable houses with fine details swept away merely because they sit empty? And what is the process for deciding on this house or that? The Planning and Development Department have carefully selected neighborhoods that are “nearing the tipping point” towards “long-term decline", but is there a house-by-house survey underway by trained preservationists, or is it up to the buildings department to condemn based only on a technical evaluation?
We can’t save them all. I know well enough the sinister pall that many of these structures cast over the health, safety, and security of struggling neighborhoods. And I know many of them are stripped bare. But we should be able to save some of them, to serve as historical and architectural anchors for the reinvigorated communities of the future. I’m hopeful this is the intent of the $8 million set aside for rehabilitation, and even more hopeful that there is a process in place before the bulldozers rush out into the neighborhoods again. But after so much experience with misdirected (and simply undirected) demolition in Detroit, its sad to see the greater pot of money dedicated to more of the same.
Demolishing a house employs three people for one day; renovating a house employs dozens of people for months.
Please vote today, no matter the wait! I won’t make an endorsement here, but one candidate has a very specific set of ideas for historic preservation which may be of interest to any undecided readers.
She was the lead counsel for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1975 through 1994, and was a key force in the successful Supreme Court case to save Grand Central Terminal. As noted by her New York Times obituary, she was innovative and relentless in her creative approach to preservation; under her guidance even the street grid of lower Manhattan was designated as a landmark.
Dorothy was my thesis adviser for my M.S. in Historic Preservation, and I have her to thank for developing my random passions into a thoughtful and analytical approach to urban preservation. She challenged my conclusions incessantly and without mercy, and guided me to an understanding of how to defend and promote preservation ideas within a regulatory and bureaucratic system all too often hostile to our finest buildings. She was also kind enough to write me a letter of recommendation for architecture school, and even more importantly, lectured me that “landmark” should never be used as a verb!
Her legacy is the beautiful and historic American cities that survive today, a rich history of case law and legal precedent, and her many thousands of grateful students and contemporaries who will continue to do good work.
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