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.]]>
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.]]>
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.]]>
The 2nd Annual “Living in the V” Real Estate Open House is this weekend; Saturday, Sept. 27 from 1-5pm. The “V” is for Villages, referring to several of Detroit’s most historic and interesting east side neighborhoods, including Indian and West Villages.
The Welcome Center for the event is at the Parkstone Apartments at 1415 Parker in the West Village, from which you can grab a list of houses for sale and pick up coffee and crepes for energy. Several dozen homes from $10,000 to over $1 million will be featured; click here for the official press release [PDF].
This year the event includes a “Lonely Homes” tour of ten bank-owned properties led by a licensed Realtor. These tours start from the Welcome Center at the Parkstone at 1:30 and 3:30pm. No reservations are required for any events. The new website of the Villages Community Development Corporation is a must-see as it is a terrific overview of the area.
For those of us concerned about preservation and the future of Detroit, perhaps the single most powerful action one might take is to live in the city and be a tax-paying resident. I know that many of my readers are already Detroiters and have been for decades, if not generations, and have accomplished much in preserving residential fabric in the city. Living in Detroit, we bind the fate of the city to our own, we are forced to pay close attention to issues of preservation, planning, and policy.
As such, I’m thrilled to announce to my readers that I’ve recently closed on a home in one of these great Detroit neighborhoods; my first home purchase after almost a dozen years wandering through NYC and LA apartments. Watch for more updates in coming months as I share some of my renovation and restoration work with you on this blog (yeah, of course mine’s a fixer-upper!). While I’m not yet in the city full-time, I’m closing down my affairs on the west coast and will soon be voting in a swing state again!
The deals right now really are amazing, and if you’ve ever considered buying a classic house in a walkable, diverse, and historic neighborhood now is the moment. There are houses in every architectural style, size and condition; from homes that are going begging for repairs to homes where you could receive the Queen of England for tea tomorrow afternoon (should you have the proper connections and decent bone china).
This weekend, take the time to explore the east side, but don’t forget about Boston-Edison, Arden Park, Virginia Park, and any one of many other great and varied Detroit neighborhoods. I can’t believe some of the prices for solid, historic houses. Let’s get them in safe and caring hands before they are stripped or vandalized. The housing crisis has created a lot of pain in Michigan, but if it helps a few more preservation-minded folks buy into Detroit’s future then we can emerge with strengthened neighborhoods and a revitalized urbanism.]]>
I’m cautiously optimistic about future transit development in Detroit. The Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) seems to have shaken off the doldrums of recent years and seems to be entering the 21st century. Only this month they have launched a pilot program for bicycles on buses [PDF]. This has been available for years in Los Angeles and is a terrific way to expand the use and reach of a transit trip. It also helps remind us that bicycles are not just for recreation, but are also full-fledged transportation devices with zero carbon footprint. Give DDOT a call to express your support for this progressive inter-modal initiative.
Additionally (and this is the design geek inside me editorializing), I find the current DDOT pocket maps (e.g. Jefferson route [PDF]) to be graphically engaging and nicely done. This is not unimportant; a strong graphic vocabulary helps build an organizational culture of professionalism and pride, and (most importantly) attracts new riders. You can find and download the map for your route here. Incidentally, the iconic “green and yellow” colors date back to the founding of DDOT as a municipal entity back in the Roaring Twenties.
Neighborhood organizations and church groups (or even enthusiastic individuals) have another way to help transit in Detroit. DDOT’s “Adopt-a-Shelter” program [PDF], modeled after those in other cities, allows groups to commit to the maintenance of a nearby shelter. For anyone familiar with the discussions concerning Broken Windows theory (and everyone reading this blog should be!), the care and maintenance of your local bus shelters should be a top priority. Planting a few flowers or scrubbing off some graffiti is only a few hours work on a Saturday morning.
I would love to hear about some DDOT bus experiences from my readers…good or bad, just add your comment below (and your suggestions for improvement). Detroit buses have had a mixed reputation in recent years, and I’d like to think that things have gotten better for riders and drivers. Safe, reliable, and convenient transit is a lodestone of a pedestrian-oriented culture and preserves walkable neighborhoods. It also reduces pressure for traffic-generated changes to historic landscapes (bad things like street widenings, paving over vegetation, and planning parking lots where historic buildings still stand…)
Next time you have a chance, take the bus, and park the car for the day. The Woodward or Jefferson routes are good for newbies. If you’re coming down from the ‘burbs, try SMART. The city thanks you.]]>
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!