Category: restoration and renovation
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.
On my recent visit to Detroit, I was dismayed to note the ongoing installation of new “historic” lampposts along Boston Boulevard. Although all of us in urban neighborhoods prize good street lighting for safety and security, this is no way to treat one of Detroit’s finest historic neighborhoods. The new lampposts are poor replacements for the originals. They are dull reproductions; much shorter, cheaply made (including some plastic parts), and meaningless in their new context. The original remaining lampposts, with handsome curvilinear arms, unique design cues, steel armature and wooden shafts, date from the neighborhood’s birth, and are part and parcel of the Boston-Edison Historic District in the exact same manner as the houses themselves. The lampposts are contributing features, tying together the houses into a consistent historic fabric. Indian Village and other historic districts have similar beautiful lampposts. While they are often in rough condition, the same could be said of any number of houses which we wouldn’t dream of discarding. If the remaining historic lampposts are removed (as seems possible), the character of the neighborhood will suffer. I’ve been unable to learn more about how this was approved, and I’m hoping some of my readers (I see your page hits!) will shed some “light” on the situation.
There are admittedly too many dark spots along Detroit’s streets. We need more streetlights, and we need them to be reliably functional. But the original historic lampposts should be supplemented and repaired; certainly not replaced. As seen in the photographs, the installation of a new lamppost immediately adjacent to an original post strongly suggests that the original will be removed. If the original lampposts do remain in place, things are only half as bad as they look. But the other half of my concern deals with the inappropriate added poles, which belong on “Main Street USA” in Disneyland, not Boston-Edison.
Let’s review the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for rehabilitation, which were written to aid federal government agencies do conforming work in historic districts on the National Register. While the city of Detroit is not a federal agency, its own Historic District Ordinance restricts activity in similar ways. Some excerpts from the Standards:
Point 2: “The historic character of a property shall be retained and preserved. The removal of historic materials or alteration of features and spaces that characterize a property shall be avoided.”
If the historic lampposts remain unmolested, this is not an issue.
Point 3: “Each property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or architectural elements from other buildings, shall not be untertaken.”
(Emphasis mine). This is a critical one. By introducing “historic” reproduction lampposts, the city is muddying the waters of historic integrity in the Boston-Edison district. It is by now commonly accepted among professional preservationists that replacement material or features should be distinctively new and not attempt to “ape” original designs. See also point 9, below.
Point 5: “Distinctive features, finishes, and construction techniques or examples of craftsmanship that characterize a property shall be preserved.”
Its hard to argue against the distinctiveness of a one-hundred year old, wooden-poled lamppost! Again, your blogger hopes they are remaining in place.
Point 6: “Deteriorated historic features shall be repaired rather than replaced. Where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature shall match the old in design, color, texture, and other visual qualities and, where possible, materials. Replacement of missing features shall be substantiated by documentary, physical, or pictorial evidence.”
This is another key point, if the originals are really being directly replaced. The actions in Boston-Edison break almost every tenet of this standard: The design is radically different, the height difference is remarkable, and the general visual quality speaks clearly of “mass production” rather than “historic craftsmanship.” As an architect, I can show you my collection of catalogs of “historic” repro streetlamps, none of which have remotely the character of a B-E original. In fact they’re actually quite soulless.
Point 9: New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction shall not destroy historic materials that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and the environment.
The new poles are none of the above. So what’s my solution? If additional lampposts are needed for security, they should be spaced logically between the existing original lampposts, and match them in height. They should not slavishly attempt to mimic the original, but be a more modern interpretation thereof. At the very least they should match in height and general geometry!
Do preservationists really care about historic lampposts? You bet! In New York City, there is even a special historic designation covering “62 historic street lampposts” throughout the city. Detroit has had a tough time lately with streetlights, particularly in regard to the copper theft nightmare. We watched, also in horror, when thousands of historic streetlamps where shrouded in a plastic prophylactic designed to dissuade thieves (if not snowplows). But that was, and remains, a temporary measure. This is not.
You may think that all this worry about lampposts is a bit much in a city wracked by deeper problems. Yet, even in times of crisis, we cannot blithely ignore the fundamentals of what historic preservation is, and what a designated historic district is for. The whole point of a historic district is to preserve continuous fabric, not just individual landmark buildings. We have already lost so much to neglect; shall we lose more due to poor design decisions?
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Don’t miss Boston-Edison’s annual Attic Sale, this weekend! Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm. Come by and undertake your own analysis of the original streetlamps!
Summer is upon us. Here’s my recent photo of the new Pacific Wheel ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier. Last month it replaced the previous version, which had been in operation since the mid-1980s. The wheel is a landmark of the west Los Angeles beach strip, visible from Redondo in the south to Malibu in the northwest.
Removing a landmark and replacing it in situ with a near-duplicate is a touchy corner of preservation theory. It is famously practiced at the Ise Shrine, which is rebuilt every 20 years in a ceremony called shikinen sengu. The eminent preservationist James Marston Fitch discusses this form of preservation in his academic companion to the field.
My own encounter with this strange phenomenom was in New York City, and actually had a profound effect on my thinking. The original Hayden Planetarium, built during the Great Depression, was a city-designated landmark. When the American Museum of Natural History (to which the building is appended) proposed its replacement a dozen years ago, opposition was fierce. The preservationists lost, and the building fell.
But the replacement, designed by James Polshek and presided over by Neil deGrasse Tyson, is a luminous wonder that has reinvigorated the Museum and nearby park. Critical to this success was the fact that the building is a marvel of architectural design, and engages beautifully with the surrounding historic landscape of New York’s upper west side. Although the original building is gone, its replacement has brought thousands of new visitors to the museum. Nearby businesses have reaped the benefit of crowded sidewalks. A preservation fundamentalist might still mourn the original building; an urban preservationist sees the success of the new and celebrates the urban vitality created therefrom. There are always trade-offs.
I will freely acknowledge that it is quite rare to pull off this sort of thing. In Detroit, most of our fallen landmarks have been replaced by weedy lots or half-completed parking garages (ahem, Hudsons). When design-minded replacements are built, pressure to be “contextual” too often results in a stunted historical pastiche that only degrades and mocks the surrounding context. For the Detroit of the future, remember that the goal is preservation of a living city; not individual grand buildings in a dessicated and empty landscape. And if a new building is to be built–even in a historic district!–let it be stridently new and confidently modern; designed by architects who design in a present day language, use contemporary materials, and don’t clumsily mimic the past. Generations from now, our heirs will want to preserve buildings that represent 2008, not the 2008 version of 1908!
Stepping down from my soapbox, I can’t resist bringing this post full-circle, back to the ferris wheel. For although Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park is only a memory, we still have a very prominent landmark of the amusement park variety. The Uniroyal tire on I-94 has a much richer history than you might think. Originally proportioned as a bias-ply tire, with sharp lines and attractive lettering, it stood for years as an unmolested monument to the optimism of the 1964 World’s Fair, only to be “renovated” by the fine folks at Michelin (Uniroyal’s corporate parent) in 1994. It was transformed into a fat radial tire with a hubcap suitable, perhaps, for a 1995 Dodge Intrepid. The nadir of its recent history was surely the several years it spent with an unsightly “nail” protruding from its top.
Here’s another good article with several excellent photographs. I can dream that someone at Michelin was smart enough to hide the original tire sections away for safekeeping. In this case, we find that replacing a landmark with an “updated version” has cheapened our landscape. Instead of a vintage piece of Americana from the 1964 Worlds Fair, we are left with nothing but a big ol’ tire sitting at the side of the road. There’s a trade-off I’d like to get back.
Continuing our appreciation of modern “landmarks", here’s one of the pop culture variety: the Frank Gehry designed mall in Santa Monica is being (partially) demolished and rebuilt.
Gen X’ers of a certain age (and other fans of Amy Heckerling) will recall the mall as the mythical location for many of the scenes in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Follow this link to see a Google street view pre-demolition.
In fact, the mall’s exterior, shown in the movie’s opening sequence, was Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica Place…the interior was filmed at the Sherman Oaks Galleria in the San Fernando Valley, from whence the world was introduced to the Valley Girl. This site notes that the Sherman Oaks Galleria was subsequently damaged in the 1994 earthquake and completely rebuilt in an open-air style. Looks like the Orange Julius stand is long gone.
We won’t lament too much about Santa Monica Place, excepting the obvious waste inherent in demolition. Your blogger is currently on exile from Detroit and within walking distance of the building, which boasted only second-rate eating places and not a few empty stores, no doubt due to the stiff competition along the far more attractive commercial street next door.
The new complex will be open to the air, utilizing the Pacific Ocean breezes to cool the public areas and trying to recreate the experience of the adjacent Third Street Promenade. Unfortunately, where the Promenade is a 24-hour public street (limited now to pedestrians), the exterior areas of the new mall will remain private land and thus be closed to public access overnight. This will result in an ersatz public space, not open to the full range of activity found in true public squares. As such, while being more environmentally and aesthetically responsive to its context, the new mall will be the same as its predecessor in terms of public engagement. But it will surely be an improvement, even if we have to bid goodbye to a small fragment of movie history…
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