DETROIT: New Center Vintage

1 Mar

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A few times a year A Detroit Flea takes over the Jam Handy building on East Grand Boulevard; we’re excited to check it out. The building itself has lived several interesting lives, if my digging is correct here’s what I found. It was built in 1919  as the Maranatha Baptist Tabernacle, then in the late 1920’s the building was home to the Bellows-Claude Neon Co. factory. Bellows refers to Mr. L. F. R. Bellows, a licensed manufacturer of Claude neon tube electric signs and Claude refers to George Claude of France, the man who invented Neon lights. It was here that the neon signs were manufactured for Olympia Arena, the GM Building, the Penobscot Air Beacon and the Ambassador Bridge. An article in the February 1929 Detroit Free Press describes the sign like this, “Two main towers emblazoned on the sky in fiery letters 6 feet high, nearly 400′ above the river will be the words Ambassador Bridge.” Wow! Not long after, Henry Jamison Handy (Jam Handy), a 1904 Olympic bronze medalist swimmer, turned the building into a film studio making industrial, educational and commercial films. He made over 7,000 films for the armed services during WWII, he was hired by GM to make short training films, he did 1965’s “Detroit: City On The Move”, a promotional film for the City of Detroit. Jam was contracted as the Chicago-Detroit branch of Bray productions, he produced animated films–that’s cartoons to you and me.

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On this gloomy Saturday the white terracotta building sits non-nonchalantly on the boulevard, its blue marquees blank. It has been turned into an event space; weddings, parties and today a Flea Market. The wooden entry doors are unlocked, the lobby greets us with long tables of homemade food; snacks, hot food and baked goods, yum. At this community flea market vendors bring their own tables and decorate their space as they wish; all it costs is the donation of a baked good. There’s a buzz in the air; music plays in the background as we traverse the space, they have everything here. Vintage clothing fills multiple racks, the old guitars are cool, metal tins, typewriters and sewing machines rest on tables. Shoes, cowboy boots and old-fashioned suitcases are neatly stacked on the floor. Some people have a knack for arranging items into attractive displays. Beautiful old linens mingle with kitchen items, jewelry and perfume bottles join purses and matchbooks on a gold tablecloth.

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The building is pretty interesting too; we walk on old wooden floors, decaying sound-deadener clings to brick walls, there’s a lot going on in the ceiling–check out the skylights. I look through boxes of books, smile at board games I played as a kid, admire antique glass pieces and try to think of a reason to buy them. Flea markets are exciting, there’s such an array of items you never know what you’ll find. Need an old VCR, ceramic ash tray, money bag or a funky 70’s tunic? I know just the place…

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On to the Fisher Building, since the new owners of  have taken over the building has come alive; renovations, new shops, a bakery and people wandering about in awe. You have got to see this boutique, The Peacock Room, 3,000 sq. ft. of pure elegance. Check it out. Walls are cool shades of blue and cream with plenty of gold trim, the ornamental detailing in the plaster is stunning. Opulent crystal chandeliers hang from the barrel-shaped ceiling. Look at that wreath pattern on the upper section of the walls, beautiful pastels all hand-painted by Theresa DeRoo of Paintwork Detroit; it’s a magnificent space.

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Crossing the threshold is like being transported to a Parisian boutique. The formal dresses are as lovely as the space they inhabit; bridal wear, gowns, shawls and jackets for that very special occasion. Clothing hangs on racks that seem to disappear into the walls, built-in display cases exhibit new and vintage items. Mannequins wear flirty vintage-style dresses, tables, racks and glass cases offer glamorous jewelry; handbags range in size from petite hand-held to over the shoulder bags. The shop has an assortment of fun socks, greeting cards, candles and gift items. The merchandise is well curated, everything looks hand-selected, displays are extremely attractive; Rachel Lutz (owner) has really outdone herself. If there was absolutely nothing in the space I’d still come here just to admire the surroundings! It’s hard to believe all of this was covered up for years when this was a bank. 

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Shopping always makes me hungry, let’s eat. Down the hall and to the right from The Peacock Room is the newly-opened City Bakery. This is their first location outside of New York City and Japan; it seems they have a thing for old buildings. The white-painted space is drenched in sunlight, be sure to notice the beautifully embellished plasterwork. We walk to the counter to see what’s on the menu today, there isn’t really a menu (yet), large bowls are filled with colorful salads and pastas, muffins, cookies and scones fill serving platters. This is how it works, everything is the same price, pick out the items you want, then choose the size of bowl you desire. Small bowls are $5 and hold one item, medium bowls are $7, large are $10, you can mix as much or as little of anything you want in the larger bowls. We’re having a small roasted brussel sprouts with bacon and dates, and a medium rice noodle salad with carrots and peanuts with a scoop of the butternut squash salad, it’s all delicious! Everything is made from scratch in the kitchen below the bakery space. You can’t come to City Bakery and not get the hot chocolate…have you ever had Spanish hot chocolate? This stuff is the best; rich, thick, deeply chocolate, like drinking warm chocolate pudding, it’s heavenly.

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Our last stop in New Center is blvd beat; a fun, quirky, vinyl record, vintage shop on Woodward. Hours are kind of hit-or-miss, we’ve lucked out today. This is one of those fun places where you can buy anything from a vintage apron to a rare vinyl pressing of some obscure band. I love the white ball lights that dangle from the ceiling, hhmm, I wonder what hides beneath those ceiling tiles; the floor is still terrazzo.

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Record albums have the largest footprint in the store, I don’t know anything about the collectability but the cover-art is super-cool. Items are grouped into eye-catching displays, pieces from different decades hang out side by side. They have an eclectic variety of clothing, home goods and knick knaks; hey, my mom used to have one of those chairs that open up for storage. Hats, handkerchiefs, throw pillows with Mod patterns, so much to explore. Vintage photographs, a stereo, loads of VHS movies. Pop, Mod, Mid Century, Art Deco, funky; everything is priced reasonably. Nothing we have to buy today but we’ll be back, shops like this are like traveling through time.

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