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Kelly Ellsworth Takes on Detroit Preservation, Or Lack Thereof

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Meet Curbed Detroit’s newest contributor: architecture critic Kelly Ellsworth. From time to time, she’ll be bringing us detailed arguments about local development, buildings, marketing? or whatever else strikes her fancy. And she's quite fancy.

The preservation community in Detroit may be passionate, vocal and occasionally newsworthy but one thing they will never be accused of is being effective. You can chalk this up to any number of factors, among them the fact they have yet to get anyone with real money interested in the cause, but I say their number one problem is the inability to be proactive.

It’s all well and good to raise a ruckus when the demolition of a historic building is announced, but we didn’t see any big results from last summer’s histrionics before the demo of Cass Tech High School. Or the Lafayette Building. Or the Madison-Lennox. Or the ... well, need I go on? Wouldn’t it be more effective to start looking around to see what buildings are just beginning their slide into disaster?

The best place to look for this is in Detroit’s collection of mid-century modernist buildings. There are only a handful of significant buildings in the greater downtown area, and modernism isn’t necessarily in most historic preservationists’ songbooks. But it should be because at their best these buildings, often generalized as boring rectangles, represent the radical change in architectural thought of the mid-century period. As Mies van der Rohe famously stated, God is in the details: perfect proportions, dramatic lobbies, high-end finishes and rigorous attention to the use of space are all characteristics of these buildings. And the fact is, the architectural integrity of several local buildings is threatened.

The neglect of Mies’ Lafayette Towers, the rental apartment building now owned by New York’s Northern Group, has been covered at length before, and I’ll only add that it won’t take many more years of atrophy before that fab pool atop the parking deck will be dunzo.

Chase Tower

Chase Tower on Woodward, now owned by Dan Gilbert (Detroiter of the year, according to Hour), is another threatened building, this time not by neglect but by either ignorance or ignore-ance. The much-publicized plan to enclose the colonnade and extend the lobby 20 feet to the street betrays at best a complete disregard for one of the key characteristics of a modernist building. You aren’t enclosing a carport here – the colonnade is a significant architectural feature!

Just a bit north in the sleek 1001 Woodward building we have one of the most dramatic modernist lobbies in the city, including the former banking space of First Federal Savings & Loan. Soaring windows, marble-clad floors with integrated kiosks, spectacular Louis Poulson lighting at the banking counter and views of Campus Martius Park. Word is a beautiful plan had been drawn up to create a bar out of the old banking space, however recent news coverage reports that the University of Phoenix will be taking space in the building, including the old banking lobby. Am I wrong in worrying this can mean nothing good for the preservation of a glorious modern space? Has anyone thought to check?

Of course for poor Ford Auditorium it’s too late. The International Style auditorium – perhaps the only one of its kind – bit the dust this summer. It faced several challenges: an architectural style that had yet to be re-embraced by the masses, difficult acoustics and prime riverfront real estate. And of course Detroit’s total glut of theater space. So maybe it had to go. At least there is a plan to replace it ? with an amphitheater.

The time to push preservation is before you’ve got a disaster on your hands. Fifty years ago building owners saw no value in their “dated” 20’s-era buildings so they modernized them by removing cornices and adding enameled panels to the façade. The First National and Penobscot buildings saw their grand banking lobbies chopped up into office space. The ornate Mayan-style Fisher Theater got a snappy streamlined Lincoln Center-style renovation. Fast-forward 40 years and enjoy the hand-wringing.

This was the scene of the exterior and walled-off lobby at 1001 Woodward earlier today. Core elements are still in place so there is hope.

With only a handful of quality modernist buildings in this city, preservationists could chalk up some easy wins if they decided to work with (or on) these building owners. Hey, one is the easiest preservation project ever: just buy Dan Gilbert a book. Maybe then our kids will never have to push to restore Chase Tower. The fact remains there are architecturally significant buildings here that can be saved with some education, a little nudging and the threat of some bad PR – all core competencies for local preservationists. Relevance is within their grasp, they just need to stop reaching so far!

Kelly Ellsworth