We’re at Lawrence Technological University’s Detroit Center for Design + Technology in Midtown. The 30,000 sq. ft. building rose from a long-empty lot in 2014; it was one of the first new structures built as part of the redevelopment of the Woodward Corridor. This building is home to the Architecture and Design programs; classrooms and meeting space allow for co-working and collaboration between students, faculty, designers and professionals. The star attraction today is Albert Kahn At The Crossroads: The “Lost” Belle Isle Aquarium and Horticultural Building Blueprints. I’m very excited, you see, these particular blueprints are made from the original 1901 architectural drawings used to build the structures; they are the only known surviving copies of the originals and have been kept in private hands. The blueprints lead the way for the Belle Isle Conservancy’s continuous renovation of the aquarium and conservatory.
We talk about Albert Kahn a lot on DetroitDvotion, he was the ‘architect of Detroit’. He is the foremost American industrial architect of his day, he revolutionized the design of industrial buildings around the world. Together with his engineer brother Julius, they developed a new style of construction using re-inforced concrete instead of wood in factory walls, roofs and supports. Kahn helped to create industrial America; designing more than 1,000 buildings for Ford, several 100 for GM, he designed 500 factories in the Soviet Union not to mention the many commercial, institutional and residential structures here in Michigan. Here’s a smattering of his buildings: The Fisher, Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, Packard Plant, Temple Beth-El (now the Bonstelle) SS Kresge World HQ, Cranbrook House, Detroit Athletic Club, Willistead Manor, Russell Industrial Center and multiple structures on the University Of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. That’s just the tip of the iceberg…
We step inside the gallery, white-legged tables are covered with black cloths, we have the place to ourselves, we head up the stairs to have a look around. Long work tables sit empty in conference rooms, drawings are tacked to walls, scale buildings are in the process of being assembled. We are surrounded by glass and windows, like we’re sitting in a nest above Woodward. From the landing we can look out over the gallery, let’s take a look at those blueprints. One by one we take the cloths off the tables revealing the original blueprints under glass. We study the North and South Elevation of the buildings, the entrance of the Beaux Arts style aquarium with its spectacular pillars and carvings. Opened in 1904 this is the oldest public aquarium in North America, it is also the oldest aquarium/conservatory combo in the world. How’s this for cool; the basement of the aquarium served as a speakeasy during prohibition!
The conservatory was originally called the Horticultural Building, this is how it is referred to on the blueprints. The oldest continually running conservatory in the U S, it was modeled after great garden pavilions of the late 19th century, specifically the Crystal Palace and Palm House at Kew Gardens in London. Moving from print to print we take in architectural ornamentation long missing from the horticultural building. Sections of the cornice, palm house, vestibule and lantern of the Palm House are all familiar to us, I really like the one of the dome. One of the drawings reveals the walkway that once connected the two buildings, the conservancy hopes to restore it making it possible to go from building to building without ever stepping outside. Black and white photos show construction of the structures from 1902, I stare at the frame of the dome before the glass was installed, another shows the progress of aquarium rotunda, fascinating!
Outside we get our first up-close look at the QLINE in action, streetcar #288 is out on a test-run. Rock City Eatery is just across Woodward; we haven’t been to the new space since they moved from Hamtramck, I’m anxious to give it a try. The interior features a Detroit Rock theme, the space is raw with exposed rafters, Rock and Roll Icons grace the walls, patio lights are strung across the ceiling. The menu retains its creative style of offerings. We start with today’s special: BBQ Potato Chips, homemade chips loaded with bbq pork, green onions and a sprinkling of feta cheese, so good…. The Middle Eastern Pizza is topped with Harissa, date, lamb sausage, onions, goat cheese, zakatar, caramelized fennel and parsley; great combo of flavors, delicious!
Moving on, Kris is thinking ice cream, Treat Dreams is just a block away on Cass, let’s go. We find an open space right in front of Mills Pharmacy + Apothecary, I’d like to take a look inside. Mills has been a staple in Birmingham since 1946, the Stuber-Stone building is currently their additional location while they hunt for a permanent Detroit spot. This is one of those stores that smells really good; the shop is filled with skin care items, bath and spa products, fragrances for you and your home. They carry global brands such as Mad et Len, Panier des Sens, Leonor Greyl and Korres. Products are displayed on tables, shelves racks and cabinets, labels are pretty. Soap, candles, perfume and lotion, I sniff my way through the store.
Now for the ice cream. Treat Dreams features unique flavors of homemade ice cream, baked goods and coffee. The interior is a cheerful combo of purple and white, chalkboards call out today selections. On the ice cream board they have Holi Canoli, Blueberry Paczki and Dirty Martini to name a few; there are also vegan flavors and sorbet to choose from. Kris and I are having an espresso shake made with Salted Caramel ice cream, the woman behind the counter promises we’ll like it. Sitting at a table that overlooks Cass we drink our shake, the only words coming from our lips are about how good it is. The cup is empty faster than either of us would like, we leave the shop feeling sweetly satisfied.