DETROIT: Behind closed doors…..

18 Nov

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Ever driven by a cool old building and wondered what’s inside?? Us too, today we’ll get a chance to show you a few….It is DoCoMoMo Tour weekend in the United States, coast to coast the whole country is celebrating Mid-Century Modern architecture and design with 50 tours in 40 individual cities. In Michigan we have four tours going on this October weekend, today we are joining the Detroit Art Deco Society for “Modernism Reinvisioned at 1528 and 1520 Woodward” in Detroit. We meet our tour group in front of what was originally known as the Arts League Building, in 1960 The United Foundation renovated the structure, then moved their headquarters into the building; you may remember the massive U/F on the facade. Our guide, Rebecca Savage from DAADS explains the history of the building and that it went from its original classical design to Mid-Century Modern style; ground level exterior walls were finished with tiny blue tiles, the upper floors were covered with a stainless steel grill. The ground floor was once home to the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company, I am told you could come here back in the day to get free light bulbs. Today a bicycle rental station sits in front of the newly renovated building, Dan Gilbert purchased it in 2012, it is now simply called 1528 Woodward, he has wasted no time getting it ready for new tenants, Yay!

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Just inside the doors we find ourselves in the lobby, original tiny blue tiles cover the right wall, elevators are stainless steel, the wood around the reception desk remains from the 1960 renovation, a seating area is arranged off to the left, the design complimentary to the existing elements. We take the elevator up to the floor inhabited by Sachse Construction; floors are polished concrete, wood is very light, much of the space is bright white accented by lime green, it looks fantastic! Desks are arranged in an open workspace, I would most certainly be distracted by the outstanding view afforded by the huge Woodward-facing windows. Near the back a giant vintage black and white photo of Detroit is used as wallpaper around and over the elevator door. The next level greets us in bright blue and lime green, walls are covered in designs from Detroit Wallpaper, seating areas sport funky, cool furniture, I would say it’s ‘groovy’, each floor has great city views.

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Down a level we are led into a meeting space, original wood designs from the 60’s are still in place as are the great light boxes, my affection for the darker wood of the 60’s continues to grow. We are led down a hall, past what Rebecca calls the Lego wall, picture a wall made of massive white Lego’s and there you have it; it too was part of the 1960 renovation, reproduced during the current resto. We pause outside a door, a small sign to the right says “Sterling Cooper Room”, the door opens and indeed we feel as if we have arrived on the set of Mad Men. The room is amazing; gorgeous wood panels surround the room, the conference table is original, gorgeous, huge. Light fixtures are new versions of the old ‘sputnik’ fixtures popular in that time period. Again you have that marvelous street view. It is nice to see how the current designers have embraced the past and make it work with the present.

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Back outside we walk over to 1520 Woodward, built in 1917, it was purchased by Lane Bryant in 1945 and redesigned to the current facade. It was the flagship store for the women’s clothing chain for nearly 40 years. Dan Gilbert purchased the building in 2011, having sat vacant since the 80’s much of the interior had to be gutted. An elevator awaits us in a small attractive lobby area, artwork hangs on the walls, a cool fixture lights the space, a swanky railing lines a down staircase. Currently mobile App developer Detroit Labs occupies the top two floors, today they are hosting an event so we will not be able to see their space, bummer… Instead we roam around an empty floor, a work-in-progress, so to speak. The space is wide open, you can see new plumbing and mechanicals, huge steel beams run the length of the room. On one floor old “sale” signs are still visible on some of the walls, rafters are exposed, rusty steel beams act as support columns. These first four floors are just awaiting tenants. Our tour ends here, but our adventure continues.

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We could use a little pick me up, Chickpea in the D has taken over the tiny space at 2 John R formerly occupied by Good Girls Go To Paris Crepes. Serving gourmet hummus, sandwiches, soups and smoothies, it’s a great place to grab a quick lunch or snack. As we wait for our Sunny Day smoothie made from Strawberries, bananas, pineapple juice and yogurt, we try samples of the pumpkin and the asparagus hummus, both were quite good. 

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By the time we arrive at Detroit Vegan Soul on Agnes St our smoothie is gone and we are ready for lunch. Co-owners Erika and Kirsten started out as a meal delivery and catering company before recently opening the restaurant. The cozy little space is lovely; today sunshine pours in through the large front windows, the room is painted in earth tones of green, rust and brown, the right wall holds a series of street sign photos. The menu consists of “veganized” comfort foods; Mac-n-Cheese, collard greens, black-eyed peas, yams, they even serve catfish tofu. We sip on house made Hibiscus Punch as we wait for our food. The sesame kale salad is piled high in a shallow bowl; sun-dried tomatoes, sesame seeds and a homemade sesame dressing that is absolutely delicious. The DVS Burger is a veggie millet burger patty, cucumber, lettuce, tomato, red onion, pesto aioli served on a whole grain bun, it is hands-down the best vegetarian burger Kris and I have ever had. Served with a side of cole slaw and yam fries the combination made for a tasty and satisfying lunch!

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We are driving over to the Milwaukee Junction area, named for the 1858 intersection of the Detroit & Milwaukee and Chicago, Detroit & Canada Grand Trunk Junction railroads, it became the automobile industry’s central location for manufacturing in Detroit. By 1910 Ford and Everitt-Metzger-Flanders were the world’s largest automakers, other nearby plants included Anderson Electric, Brush, Cadillac, Dodge, Hupp, Packard and Regal; their suppliers chose locations in the area, creating a hub of auto body and stamping plants. A host of machine shops producing tools, dies, jigs and fixtures for the stamping companies were also found here. While today some stamping operations remain here what we mostly find are unoccupied American industrial buildings from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century; buildings range from basic frame and brick to Art Moderne and Romanesque Revival designed by notable names such as Charles Agree, Smith, Hinchman & Grylls and you guessed it, Albert Kahn. There has been a movement over the last decade to convert these obsolete structures into artist studios, such as the Russell Industrial Center, and our next stop the Pioneer Building.

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Located at 2679 E Grand Blvd the Pioneer Building began life in 1908 as the Trippense Manufacturing company, producing stamped metal planetariums and tellurions, in the 1920’s the company also produced open auto bodies for Ford, Chrysler and Rickenbacker. Somewhere along the way the building was renamed The Pioneer after the furniture company that once occupied it, the name has stuck ever since. Today this sturdy old structure has been divided into studios rented by artists from all over the metro Detroit area. Generally not open to the public, today is a special occasion, it is the annual open house, all are welcome. The atmosphere is festive, crowds of people fill hallways and individual studios, one room is dedicated to food, drinks and music, everyone seems to partake. We traverse the art lined hallways stopping at each studio, all mediums are represented; oil, watercolors, ceramics, photography, sculpture-you get the idea. I can barely drag myself from the studio of Teresa Petersen, her pieces are eclectic and humorous; collages, sculpture and even trading cards, each telling a story that is sure to make you laugh…a lot. In the main hall a kids area is set up, youngsters don oversized shirts and try out their painting skills. One studio features courtroom sketches from the Kilpatrick trial, the likeness and emotions captured on paper are amazing. One artist makes sculpture from found objects, it is fun to try to identify the components of a piece. 

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As we are about to exit the building I notice a small square of paper that says: “You’re invited to an Exclusive first look: The Historic Art Stove Building”, just around the corner at 1401 E Milwaukee, we’re on our way. We park on the grassy lot, without hesitation we enter this long vacant century-old building, it even smells old. New owners have just recently taken possession, they are on site to chat with visitors. The building was constructed in 1907, this ornate brick structure was the showroom for Art Stove’s production of the Laurel brand of cast iron stoves, ranges and furnaces; it was one of five major stove companies in Detroit, before becoming the Motor City, Detroit was known as “The Stove Capital of the World”. In 1923 Art Stove was absorbed by the Detroit Stove Company. Today the main floor sits empty sans a pile of old lumber resting in the middle of the space. Kris and I follow one of the owners as he leads us to the rotunda that served as the buildings grand entrance. We climb the dark, creaking, wooden circular stairway, it is still beautiful. The second story looks much as the first, fallen plaster, peeling paint, but somewhere beyond all that a lovely building remains, most of the wood moldings and window frames are in tact, a fireplace sits empty…for now anyways. The owners are filled with energy and determination, if they have their way a new group of studios will fill the empty rooms and artists will make themselves at home. I am looking forward to the day when we come back and see it all finished.

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2 Responses to “DETROIT: Behind closed doors…..”

  1. The Detroit Foodie November 24, 2013 at 9:58 pm #

    Another stellar posting!!!

    Love the story-telling & photos on your blog, awesome write-up!

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