Renovations polish historical treasures: Detroit building renovations bring the past out of the vault
Detroit—Vintage elements of Detroit’s old saloons, auto factories and warehouses—many of which have sat empty and crumbling for years—are finding new life as entrepreneurs preserve the historic structures that house them.
Whether it’s old-style factory glass windows, 100-year-old tin ceilings or smaller items such as antique electric clocks or wooden doors, Detroit’s new wave of business owners is going to great lengths to retain the past. Some apply for historical preservation tax credits to help with the rehab; others take on the additional work— and costs—to maintain original structural and decorative features.
It’s a trend common in other cities as well, but design experts say today’s Detroit is attractive because of the abundance of uniquely designed buildings available for purchase.
“People are wanting to move into structures that have a lot of history and character,” said Ryan Smith, an architect with Detroit-based Kraemer Design Group who’s helped rehab a number of historic buildings. “You don’t have to convince developers anymore. They know what they want; it’s bringing these old buildings back to life.”
The examples are numerous, but among the more recent are entrepreneur Andy Didorosi’s nearly two-year-old Detroit Bus Co., which moved into a 90,000-square- foot former industrial warehouse in Hamtramck in October. Didorosi plans to purchase the building, which he named Eight & Sand, and has spent about $20,000 to maintain its original features, including a zig-zag shaped roof and an original telephone switch board from its former incarnation as a school.
dPop!, a design firm that’s part of the Quicken Loans family of companies, opened in the basement of the former Dime Savings and Loan building (now called the Chrysler House) on Griswold, and built its offices around two former bank vaults with massive, circular vault doors and hundreds of safe deposit boxes.
Watch and bicycle-maker Shinola kept the exposed sky lights, brick work and floor at its new retail store in Midtown, which was formerly a service warehouse for Willys-Overland Motors.
Restoring these buildings helps set cities apart from the suburbs or other urban areas in which developers have built new structures, or gutted the character out of old ones.
“These old buildings often create this very different sense of character and tie somebody to a sense of place and history that you’re not going to get from most new construction,” said Wendy Hillis, a member of the American Institute of Architects Historic Resources Committee. “I think when you look at a creative class, there’s a huge desire to have creative space and … they’re saying it’s real cool to have this character and grit and reclaim this.”
Bars in Corktown and Greektown have recently rehabbed old saloons and uncovered 1900s-era tile and brick work; and even MotorCity Casino payed homage to its building’s original tenant, Wonder Bread, by keeping old signage when the gaming house opened in 1999.
“It’s extremely popular right now to move into these historic structures,” Smith said. “If you build a new building now, it’s hard to get a building with the same character ones in the 1800s had.”
Rehab takes extra time, care
Tony Piraino loves the location of his new bar, Firebird Tavern, in the heart of Greektown on Monroe. But he loves the building’s 19th-century features more.
Piraino, who bought the building last March, spent eight months rehabbing. He uncovered original brickwork, tin ceilings and wooden floors. Built in the 1880s, the building has housed a saloon, a car seat upholstery manufacturer, barber shop and coffee shop.
“It was a pleasant surprise to see what was here and take that little extra time and care that goes into rehab,” he said.
Didorosi’s Eight & Sand project has taken a while, too.
Since moving into the space, Didorosi has enlisted help from friends and family in a construction project that likely won’t be finished until summer.
The warehouse was built in 1920 and was a storage facility for machine tools, heat treatment furnaces, welding rigs and huge cranes. Didorosi unearthed and un-shuttered old steel- case windows and tore down drywall to reveal original wood doors.
Now, the warehouse is home to his bus company, which offers public and private transportation, as well as florist Pot & Box, Reclaim Detroit, a business that works with reclaimed wood, and others. He said the tenants appreciate the warehouse’s “super cool history.”
“I feel that there aren’t many of these buildings left,” Didorosi said. “There needs to be an effort toward this preservation downtown and in the neighborhoods.”
Projects can get tax breaks
These types of rehab projects can earn tax breaks from the state, Kraemer Design’s Smith said.
If approved and certified through the National Park Service and State Historic Preservation Office—and, for Detroit projects, the Detroit Historic District Commission—builders can receive up to 20 percent off their costs.
“It’s pretty significant,” Smith said.
He helped design Detroit Labs, an app-development firm that occupies two floors of a 1909 building on Woodward, once home to retailer Lane Bryant and now owned by Bedrock Real Estate. Smith said Bedrock is applying for tax credits, and he was able to salvage original wooden floor joists and studs as decorative design features.
Despite the possibility of financial relief, dPop!, Firebird and Eight & Sand did not apply for the tax breaks.
Melissa Price, director of facilities for Quicken Loans and CEO of dPop!, said the company still saved time and money by keeping some original features, such as the massive vault doors. If they had tried to remove them for a more traditional office, the demolition costs would have been great.
Employees, she said, enjoy working in the midst of the old bank’s past.
“It’s an honor for us to continue to cel- ebrate its history,” Price said. “There’s a real beauty of the old Detroit mixing with the new Detroit.”