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.
A lot of people hate this building. This is Boston City Hall, a famous (some might say notorious) brutalist concrete structure finished in 1968 by Kallman, McKinnell and Knowles. To students and admirers of 20th century architecture–including your blogger–it is a landmark building in every sense, important for architectural, historical, and civic reasons. For others it is a gloomy horror, a thumb in the eye of an historic American city. As such, it is a perfect lens through which we can examine the various tensions between modern architecture, sustainability, and historic preservation.
The building has always had its haters, and continues to be reviled by some today. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, heretofore a strong ally of historic preservation, has proposed selling the building and its site and building a “green” city hall elsewhere. Opponents of the sale cite an almost certain demolition if the property is sold, and additionally note that the construction of a new building, even a green building, always uses much more energy than the reuse of an already existing building.
When New York City’s Penn Station fell in 1963, says author Lorraine Diehl, its architectural character had been abused and neglected by its owner. Its architectural style was judged archaic and hopelessly inappropriate. Cleaning and maintenance had lapsed, advertising signage obscured architectural features, and unsympathetic modifications and renovations had disturbed the original design intent.
In Boston, the City Hall public plaza, designed for the gathering of people, is now used to park city vehicles. Defenders of City Hall note that maintenance has been poor, with light bulbs not replaced. When I visited last week, the windows were dirty, and visible rust was present on the window mullions. A close look at the above photograph will reveal a weed tree, 24 inches high, growing unmolested from the small roof projecting at the building’s corner (look for its shadow). Shall Boston have its own version of Penn Station, a modern monument lost to disinterest and cynicism? Take a trip this summer and decide for yourself.
The 1990 Eindhoven Statement is a statement of principles concerning the preservation of notable modern structures. Docomomo continues this advocacy work internationally today. It is a truism (if not a cliche) of preservation that buildings between 30-60 years old are typically the most endangered and least protected (Penn Station was demolished in its 53rd year). While most cities have made significant progress in protecting pre-war buildings and neighborhoods, post-war buildings are felled almost without protest.
Detroit has plenty enough to worry about regarding all of its historic buildings, but all the same preservationists cannot afford to ignore the importance of its rich collection of auto-age structures.
As you may have inferred, last week I was at the AIA convention in Boston, an annual event bringing together thousands of architects and designers. The convention was held in the recently completed Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) by Rafael Vinoly Architects. Although a bit obstreperous for the waterfront Boston context, as civic architecture the new convention center far exceeds other timid efforts closer to home.
Displayed within the BCEC is a scale model of Boston’s downtown, commissioned and maintained by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. City Hall can be located very near the center of the image below.
If you look carefully at the above image, you will note the strange disconnect in the fabric of the built environment between the North End (foreground) and downtown Boston. Between the two is a path of trees and greenery from left to right in the photograph, which traces the route of a former elevated interstate highway, the “Central Artery” of I-93. This is the famous “Big Dig“.
Today the elevated freeway is gone, replaced by the automotive tunnel underneath and a budding linear park at street level. Although the project was difficult, the results are heartening. There is one column of steel remaining, perhaps as a remembrance of the vicious things we have done to our cities, and furthermore the hope that there is always a way to reconstitute the civic beauty we have lost.
In June 1963, only two months before his most famous speech, Dr. King spoke in Detroit at the recently opened Cobo Hall; ironically, a venue named after a mayor hostile to civil rights. The speech concluded a march of more than 100,000 people down Woodward Avenue, including then mayor Jerome Cavanagh. The King Center has a transcript of this speech.
Many cities across America boast major boulevards and schools renamed after the civil rights leader, and Detroit is no exception.
Extending west from Woodward to West Grand Boulevard, Detroit’s Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard spans a wide section of central Detroit. At one point, MLK Jr. Boulevard intersects with Rosa Parks Boulevard (12th Street, the epicenter of the 1967 Detroit riot/rebellion).
Martin Luther King, Jr. High School, the former Eastern High School, is on Lafayette, across the street from Elmwood Cemetery. Yet another famous Detroit mayor graduated from Eastern before its relocation to a modern building in 1966. Eastern was renamed in 1968, after King’s untimely death.