Tag Archives: Detroit

DETROIT: The Freer House

31 May

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Many years have passed since our last visit to The Freer House, there’s a special tour today and we have tickets! First, let me tell you a little bit about the man who lived here. Charles Lang Freer made his fortune manufacturing railroad freight cars, a very lucrative business in the late 1800’s. In 1887 Freer began amassing his art collection; while other collectors purchased pieces by Rembrandt, Monet and daVinci, Freer was attracted to Asian art and works by contemporary  American artists; Dwight Tyron, Abbot Thayer, Thomas Dewing, Frederick Church and most notably, James McNeill Whistler. Freer often developed friendships with the artists he collected. At the time of his death he had accumulated 9,500 art objects, more than a thousand of them by Whistler.

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 The home, designed by Wilson Eyre Jr, was built in 1892 in the American shingle-style. Take a good look, it’s elevated slightly from the street, it definitely feels masculine to me, dark colors, leaded glass windows, stately, handsome. Step inside to a large open area, doorways lead to separate rooms. Off the front door is the parlor, if you came to visit this is where you would wait for your host. Much of the house, including this room is undergoing restoration, our docent passes around a case filled with swatches of the original paint colors. Everything was made precisely for the room, the fireplace tucked into the corner, the art in designated spaces, I like all of the unusual angles. This was not a family home, Freer never married, the house was built as the setting for his art. As his collection grew so did his home, additions were made three times. In the main room a large fireplace sits central, furniture is tucked tight against the walls creating a wide walkway to view the art, light fixtures are unique, they look like leaves and twisted vines made from metal.

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We traverse the main floor, reproductions of original art hang on the walls, it’s like being in a tiny art gallery. In a room off to the side is the only original painting to the house, Flapjacks by Frederick Stuart Church. It’s a whimsical piece with bears making and eating flapjacks; they look pretty happy. It was a housewarming gift from Church to Freer. After Freer’s death the painting changed hands several times, it recently showed up at auction, donors bid on it and brought it back home. The original doorbell; a bronze bear with his head cocked listening for the bell to ring, sits in the main room on a side table along with a sconce. In the corner is a safe built by the Detroit Safe Company; in those days people would lock up their silver, Freer also stored art in his. The dining room is a pleasant buttery yellow, just as it was originally. Each room has built-in cabinets and a fireplace along with uniquely shaped ceiling angles.

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I’m pretty excited because on today’s tour we will see the entire house. On the second level many of the rooms are occupied by the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute and Wayne State University and not generally open to the public. Much of the interior has been painted that institutional taupe color, restoration work is ongoing, the hope is to one day have the rooms back to their original colors.The stairway is wide, the side is solid wood panels and a basket-weave screen, it feels very open. Pausing on the landing I notice more of the same leaf and vine light fixtures, wood beams cross the second floor ceiling, a window faces in giving the feeling of being outdoors. At the top of the stairs we have a lovely view of the home’s architectural details, lots of leaded glass windows, arches, wood and of course the art. Bedrooms are now offices, each has a fireplace, built-ins and a window seat.

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The remainder of the house is dedicated gallery space; we move from room to room, a skylight remains in one, a couple of fireplaces have Pewabic tile, leaded glass windows are decorative art themselves. In areas under renovation photographs are displayed showing the original space. We reach what used to be the Peacock Room. In 1904 Freer purchased the Whistler-painted dining room of Frederick R Leyland’s London home. Freer had the room built to the exact dimensions of the Peacock room, for many years peacock’s roamed the grounds here on Ferry Street. I love the giclee reproduction of Rose and Silver: The Princess From The Land Of Porcelain, it hangs in the exact spot the original once occupied. Color photos show how truly spectacular the room was, not only the paintings but the globe pendant gaslight fixtures, the ceiling design. In 1906 Freer donated his entire collection to the Smithsonian Institution with the agreement that everything stayed in Detroit until his death, he funded the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C. at a cost of $1 million. After his death in 1919 everything was moved to the Smithsonian.

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The rain has let up enough for us to walk around the newly revitalized courtyard gardens. Trees and plants reflect Freer’s original combination of American and Asian plants. My favorite thing is the hand-carved, exact replica of the Japanese stone garden lantern. Feel free to check it out next time you’re in Midtown. It’s exciting to see the progress the Freer House members have made from reproductions of original paintings, restoration of rooms to the beautiful courtyard and landscaping. We look forward to our next visit.

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How about some lunch? Shield’s Pizza opened on Woodward across from the DIA on April 8th. For those of you who don’t know, Shield’s was one of the original Detroit-style pizzerias. Shield’s Bar opened at the corner of Davison and Shields Street in Detroit in 1937, they later began making square, deep-dish pizza; that location closed in the 1980’s as they expanded to the suburbs. The space here in the Maccabees Building has turned over several times in the last few years, it now has a completely new look; televisions, sports memorabilia, Detroit nostalgia, funky light fixtures. We sit at the bar, order a square, deep-dish veggie pizza and an antipasto salad. We have great service and the food is delicious. Crisp greens in the salad, their unique dressing, lots of meat. The pizza is that great Detroit style, a little crispy on the edges, tender crust, fresh toppings. After a 30+ year absence, we say Welcome Back!

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Not ready to go home just yet we stop in at Detroit Shipping Company on Peterboro. Located on the upper track is -320 Coffee and Creamery. Here you can get a great cup of coffee or homemade ice cream made right before your eyes with liquid nitrogen. The pizza and salad did us in, having room only for coffee Kris gets a nitro-cold brew and I enjoy a steaming hot cup o’Joe. We relax at a table overlooking the ground floor, lots of food being distributed from the 3 restaurants below. Bold colored canvases peek out from the gallery space opposite me, Kris and I walk over to check them out. Phillip Simpson’s colorful cartoon art lines the walls; I suppose with the name Simpson, you would naturally paint characters from The Simpsons. I like the different smiley-face renditions, as intended, they do their job, I’m smiling.

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Detroit: Just A Taste

31 Jan

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Detroit has always been a city of makers; today’s subject is booze. Alcohol was big business in Detroit; in 1850 Stroh’s produced an annual capacity of 500,000 barrels of beer.  The largest distiller was Hiram Walker, (yes he was an American and a Detroiter) he started out as a grocer distilling cider vinegar in 1830, he moved on to whiskey 1854. During prohibition Detroit became a bootleggers paradise, the Detroit River is less than a mile across in some places making Canada a short trip by boat, sled or automobile. It’s estimated that the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River carried 75% of the liquor supplied to the US during Prohibition. Bootlegging, smuggling, rum-running, whatever you want to call it, was Detroit’s second largest industry in 1929. 

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Two James Spirits has the unique distinction of being the first licensed distillery to open in Michigan since Prohibition. Today we’re doing a tour, grab yourself a drink and c’mon along. Founders David Landrum and Peter Bailey opened the distillery and tasting room in 2013. The name comes from the coincidence that both of their fathers are named James. The building is an oldie, a Dodge/Chrysler dealer in the ’20’s, an auto repair facility & cab company later in life. We have about 30 minutes to kill before the tour  starts, just long enough to enjoy a Nutty Irishman. Andreas places the cocktail on the bar, a layer of half and half floats above the dark brown spirits, I combine the layers, stirring gently with my straw; I love the way it looks as the cream swirls in the glass. Kris and I chat as we watch lemons and limes being sliced, egg whites dropped into shakers and cherries being skewered; all for your drinking pleasure.

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Our glass is empty, time for the tour. We cross from the tasting room to the distillery, the temperature drops noticeably. My attention immediately goes to the 500 gallon custom-made copper pot still,  it’s a real showstopper. We’re surrounded by heavy-duty shelving stacked with American Oak barrels, stacks of cardboard cases on pallets, tanks, hoses and pipes.  Up first, 28 Island Vodka. The name references the 28 islands in the Detroit River that served as a safe-haven for Detroit’s clandestine distillers during Prohibition. The Barrel Reserve Old Cockney Gin lets the gin rest in new American Oak for a minimum of 6 months before being bottled.  How about a little rum? Doctor Bird Jamaica Rum  is actually made in the Caribbean then blended and aged in a special moscatel barrique in Detroit.

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Whiskey anyone? Try Grass Widow Bourbon, Rye Dog, Catcher’s Rye or Johnny Smoking Gun. The newest spirit in the arsenal is J Riddle Peated Bourbon. Look at the label for a minute, see that cute little ‘red fox’? Hhmm, J Riddle, could that be James Riddle Hoffa who disappeared from the Machus Red Fox in Bloomfield Hills? I’m not tellin’. The Nain Rouge Absinthe Verte starts with the traditional 19th Century French recipe and then gets Two-Jamesd. It has great depth of flavor and a pretty green color, I’m a fan of licorice so I really like it. We scope out the production area learning about the distilling process, different grains used and the bottling process. Up a few stairs we have an up-close view of the mash tub, the yellow-ish goop inside bubbles and pops, we even get to taste it. Pipes lead to fermentation tanks, finishing tanks and the gravity bottling machine; It’s all very technical. 

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In 1993 Joe Mifsud purchased the building that now houses Two James and his recently opened restaurant Cork and Gabel. We’ve admired this building for years and are really excited to finally go inside. Joe has a deep affection for these old Detroit buildings, he likes to re-use what’s there in addition to adding other Detroit found objects–like the giant oil drum used for the entryway to the restaurant. What a super-cool way to enter a building, I like the graffiti. I’d describe the interior as rustic industrial, there are old pulleys and other things left from the building’s automotive days, there’s an old bell, even the light fixtures were rescued from an old structure. Chairs are mis-matched, tables are made of old bowling lanes, can you find the Easy Bake Oven? An eclectic blend of old and new giving the place a modern, cozy feeling.We sit at the bar only to learn the kitchen doesn’t open for another half hour, so we order a cocktail… The menu is a fusion of Italian, German and Irish offerings, everything sounds good. When the time comes ours is the first order to reach the kitchen. We start with the Caprese Salad which can be a no-no in January, the tomatoes are ripe and tasty, nice slices of mozzarella drizzled with balsamic vinegar, set upon pesto; well done and a nice surprise in January. The Schnitzel BLT is huge! A crispy, well seasoned, breaded slice of pork loin sits atop Ma’s rye bread (made in house, it’s fabulous!), slices of crispy thick-cut applewood smoked bacon, bibb lettuce, tomato, the other slice of bread is finished with boursin cheese. Yum!

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Have you ever heard of Brew Detroit? They have a 68,000 sq. ft. facility in Corktown. In addition to brewing their own beer they are a contract brewery, making beer for Stroh’s, Motor City Brewing Works, Bad Ass Beer, Lake Brothers Beer Co and others. Guess what? They do tours too! We pay for the tour and choose our ‘walking beer’, this is the one we get to take on the tour; Kris chooses a stout made with Germack coffee, I’m drinking the East Sea Baltic Porter, it’s delicious. The production area is home to eleven 400-barrel and two 200-barrel fermentation tanks, they’re gigantic. Our guide talks about tanks, vessels, grain, fermentation, temperature-controlled yeast propagation, spectrometer, alcolyzer and all kinds of other things I’ve never heard of while Kris and I just look around and think, WoW! The place is huge, the tanks are enormous, there’s just so much BEER! We have journeyed from the brewhouse to the canning and bottling line or as they say, from “hops to glass”.

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The tour ends in the merchandise area where we are given souvenir Brew Detroit pint glasses and wooden tokens good for a beer in the tasting room. Taking a seat at the rectangular bar we enjoy a beer while checking out the selection of 30 rotating draft taps of beer, wine, cider and meads. There are pinball and air hockey machines, arcade games, shuffleboard, darts, billiards and foosball spread out over two floors. This place is definitely worth seeking out for a beer, tour or just to hang out with friends.

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It’s dark and it’s cold but we can’t leave Corktown until we check out Winterfest at Michigan Central Station. Ford has put together a celebration of the to-be-restored 1913 train station that includes a 3D light show, fire pits to keep warm and roast marshmallows for S’mores, food trucks and an exhibition of “found” objects from the building. We park on the street and make the trek to the building, a crowd of parka-wearing, scarf and mitten laden pedestrians have gathered around heaters and fire pits to watch colorful images flashed upon the 18-story building. Magically the building comes to life, the past and future splashed across the surface, a train thunders by. It’s graffiti covered, draped in newspaper then covered in blocks of colors, windows appear to light up, a hand draws the Ford logo; it’s a constantly changing canvas of amazement. As much as I’d like to stay, my face is frozen and I can’t feel my toes; it’s been fun.

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Detroit: The Train Station

4 Dec

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Finally…. For years Kris has avoided taking photos of Michigan Central station. It wasn’t that he didn’t love the building, the architecture, the history; he has fond memories of this place. The family vacation to Colorado in ’72, the Freedom Train in ’76, remembering the beautiful castle-like space from his childhood. But it had become the symbol of the death of the city, the ruin porn capitol, an iconic image of Detroit’s decline. Time after time we’d pass by watching the cars with Illinois, Ohio, Ontario license plates snapping photos and selfies out front, propagating the image of Detroit as the graveyard of skyscrapers… Kris, ever the contrarian, was having no part of the cliche’. Today all of that changes, today we’re going inside and for all the right reasons; the station will live again!!

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It’s Friday evening Kris and I have the unique opportunity to see a film inside Michigan Central Station (aka the old train station) in Detroit. Ford, History and the Freep Film Fest are hosting a special screening of Detroit: Comeback City inside the building that inspired the film.  The film explores the rise, fall and epic re-birth through a single building; Michigan Central Station. Detroit, once one of America’s richest city’s is now America’s comeback city. After the film we have about 45 minutes for a self-guided tour. I’ve never set foot in the building, I’m so excited!

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The temperature tonight is below average–it’s downright cold, an email suggests we bring blankets so I do. Standing in front of the building I am awestruck by the sheer size and grandeur; it’s beautiful. I have never been this close before, walking with my head tipped back I have to be mindful of where I’m stepping, Kris competes with other tourists taking photos. We pass through that grand arch, a smile plastered to my face, we sign waivers and are given packages of hand warmers, I only half-pay attention, the building and the exotic lighting are captivating. Rows of folding chairs are set up in front of a large screen, we sit in the back, there’s no escaping the frigid breeze that blows through giant window openings; I’m glad I brought a blanket. As I wait for the film to start I gaze at my surroundings, all of the rubble from years of decay and vandalism have been removed, a net clings to the ceiling in case a random brick comes loose, architectural details are highlighted by cool LED lighting. The film begins. Sit back and enjoy Kris’s photos while I tell you about MCS.

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Michigan Central Station opened in 1913. It was put into service before it was finished; the old train station caught fire, trains were rushed over to the new station where they came and went until 1988. Designed in the Beaux Arts Classical style it was the tallest train station in the world at that time. The main waiting room stretches the length of the building, it was modeled after the public baths of ancient Rome with walls of marble, vaulted ceilings, bronze chandeliers and massive Doric columns. A large hall called an arcade housed a cigar shop, newsstand, pharmacy, barber shop, telephone booths, baths and an info booth. Brick walls and a copper skylight surrounded the concourse, a restaurant was at the far end. Detroit was a thriving city, an industrial powerhouse; this is where it greeted its visitors and new residents.  I’ve looked at a ton of vintage photos; the massive main waiting room, broad coffered arches, the reading room with potted palms, leather chairs and wood-beamed ceiling, white table cloths in the restaurant, light streaming through the grand Palladian window. It made a statement about the city; when you stepped into MCS you knew you were someplace great.

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Soldiers heading off to forts, boot camps, WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam left from these tracks.   At the beginning of WWI more than 200 trains left the station daily, in the 1940’s more than 4,000 passengers a day passed through its doors. Whatever was going on in the city or the world the activity centered around MCS. Think about it, at one time the majority of autombiles came from Detroit, trains delivered them across the country. When the factories needed workers, trains brought a huge influx of men from the south. Presidents, movie stars, industrialists arrived in the Motor City by train. We were the Arsenal of Democracy, the capital of innovation, the Silicone Valley of the early 20th Century; from the Model T to music there was a feeling there wasn’t anything Detroit couldn’t do. And then it changed. Here we are today; after decades of decline the city not only survived bankruptcy, it’s thriving. It’s only fitting that MCS, which has become a major symbol for the city through both good and bad times will be restored to its original glory.  Ford Motor Company plans to move 2,500 employees into the building which will be Ford’s research campus for autonomous vehicle development and deployment. The main floor will be public space with shops and cafes.

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With my blanket wrapped around my shoulders I follow Kris’s lead through the main floor of the building, I feel minuscule in the space. Historic photos explain what we are seeing, for the most part each area is still defined; the arcade with its inset spaces, the ticket windows, the restaurant. Much of the detail remains, surprising considering rain, snow, explorers and vandals have trespassed the building for 3 decades. The roof over the concourse has been removed, yesterdays rain lays in puddles on the floor, the brick walls are intact.  Volunteers are positioned throughout to answer questions, I enjoy listening to people telling their stories about the building; coming to see the Freedom Train, the trips they took or coming to pick up a relative, there are great emotional ties to the building. I stand off to the side to take it all in, just seeing the people here tonight it’s easy to imagine excited travelers arriving and departing. When it was announced that Ford purchased the building an anonymous caller told them where they could find the iconic clock that he had been ‘safekeeping’, there have been more than 2 dozen calls offering the return of a historic fountain, a plaster medallion and light fixtures, no questions asked. It’s a weird thing, somehow we Detroiters feel like the building belongs to all of us.

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We’re having dinner at Rocco’s Italian Deli in the Cass Corridor. The red-brick building has a parking lot on the side, very convenient. The interior is one big open space in white with concrete floors, open ceiling, retro lighting and table or counter seating. A pantry area features dry pasta, canned tomatoes, vinegar, oils and crackers. Refrigerated cases are filled with cured meats, cheeses and olives, the chalkboard menu is filled with delicious sounding sandwiches and salads. We sit at the counter and place our order, I’m having a glass of the house red wine to help warm me up. The chicken noodle soup is set in front of me, there’s nothing like a good bowl of soup! Kris digs into the Chop Chop Salad; cubes of cucumber, tomato, beet, garbanzo’s and carrot tossed in house balsamic, the veggies have a nice crunch, it’s delicious. The Breast Chicken Parm sandwich is a fried chicken cutlet topped with tasty marinara, mozzarella and grated parm on the perfect Italian bread, it’s so good. Easy parking, fast and friendly service and excellent food, a nice addition to the city.

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Willis Show Bar opened on the corner of Willis and Third in 1949. The facade of the building is burgundy and pink with a great curved entrance. It opened in the glitzy show bar era of live entertainment and Jazz, it was a Detroit hot-spot. Same old story; neighborhood declined, bar turned seedy, padlocked in 1978. Investors from California partnered with the Detroit Optimist Society to breathe new life into the old building. Upon our arrival we are greeted by the official doorman, the entryway is a wood-paneled circular space with a terrazzo floor, a big “W” sits in the middle. The waiting area is closed off from the main space by a thick velvet curtain, we pay our $7 cover charge, get handed glasses of champagne and are led into the bar. I love it.

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The only thing left of the original interior was the curved Art Moderne ceiling which has been completely restored, the new bar follows the same curves as the ceiling, the elevated main stage rests snugly behind the bar. One long banquette runs nearly the length of the bar with tables pulled up in front, a second level of booths sit against the back wall; every seat faces the stage. The band starts their set and suddenly it’s 1949 again; the decor, the music, the craft cocktails, the burlesque dancer. Waiters wear matching suits, service is top-notch, no detail has been left out.  Wills Show Bar is reborn.

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When the city of Detroit burned to the ground in 1805 Father Gabriel Richard said: Speramus meliora; resurgent cineribus. We hope for better things, it shall arise from the ashes. It seems that is the story of Detroit, a testament to the resilience of Detroiters. We rise, we fall and we get back up again. 

Detroit: This is Weird….

3 Sep

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To some Weird is distasteful, uncomfortable, unpleasant. In others it piques their interest, curiosity, a sense of adventure. Kris and I definitely fall into the second group, which is why when we learned Detroit was hosting its first Weird Homes Tour we purchased tickets immediately. WHT are given in Austin, Portland, Detroit, Houston and New Orleans; 10% of gross ticket sales go to a local non-profit. Addresses are not given out until a day or two before the event. The tours are self-paced, self-driving visits to homes of artists, architects, collectors; you never know what you’ll see.  

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We decide to attack the map from east to west; I feel like I’m on a scavenger hunt, I’m really excited about what we’re going to see today, one never knows what hidden gems are right under our nose… I love when things exceed my expectations, the first house definitely does. From the art gallery just inside the front door to the art on the walls, bold colors, vintage furnishings, to the hand painted murals to the pool on the roof, all I can say is Wow! Down a narrow hall, we enter a vast space filled with great pieces of furniture arranged around a very modern and unique fireplace. The building is constructed of grey cinder blocks, huge windows make the space bright, a circular theme is carried out in the round kitchen, circular stairway and black and white spiral on the kitchen floor. The owner created much of the art work herself, including the fireplace; furniture and accessories have been collected for more than 20 years. We exit through a doorwall onto the patio, a small table and chairs rest against a mural, up a flight of metal stairs we reach the roof. On the deck another mural serves as a backdrop to a small circular pool surrounded by lounge chairs and seating areas, greenery fills planters, massive trees in the distance make us feel far away from the city. What a way to start the tour!

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The next stop couldn’t be more different. The owners of this quirky Victorian home have lived here for about 30 years. Through the Detroit Land Bank Authority the owners were able to purchase the rubble-filled side lot for $100. They’ve turned that space into a gorgeous cut flower farm called Detroit Abloom . Their office is located here along with a flower arranging shed, a hoop house and a root cellar. A few blocks away they have a larger flower farm, a few blocks from that is their vegetable garden; yep, farms, in a neighborhood, in the city. We walk under the purple pergola and step into the hoop house to find baskets of heirloom tomatoes and bars of lavender soap for sale. The place is amazing, so green and lush, so many plants, so many beautiful things. We walk next door to the multi-hued home, the purples and blues give it a whimsical feel. Inside we find all of the lovely characters of an old home, wet plaster walls, archways between rooms, built-ins, hardwood floors.

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There’s a funky little house near Eastern Market that seemed to just pop up one day out in the middle of nowhere, it’s the next house on our tour. If you’ve been to eastern Market you’ll recognize the house immediately, its covered in colorful hand-painted murals, lots of bright blue, red and a guy’s head with a house coming out of the top–yes, that one. The 900 sq. ft. home was built by Cranbrook Architectural Masters students; the home is their thesis statement. We spend a lot of time walking around the outside admiring the paint job, I really like the green and blue, lacey, spiro-graph-thingy’s all along the bottom. I learned that it is built of a mix of modern and salvaged materials and the upstairs wall is finished with tongue and flooring from a 1913 house. Want to see it for yourself? You can book a stay here through airbnb.

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You’ve probably heard about homes and businesses being built out of steel cargo shipping containers. Did you know that these containers naturally meet all building and safety codes? Using containers saves about 25% over lumber construction, buildings go up in about half the time and can cut energy costs by 70%. How do I know this? I learned it at the next house on the tour. We’re at the Model Center of Three Squared, this 2,800 sq. ft. home itself was constructed of 6 containers; 3 layers of 2 side-by side containers, 3 more were stacked to create a balcony on each level. The exterior has that sort of modern look about it, it’s attractive in olive-green and russet. The open-concept interior is well laid out, family room, kitchen, island, dining room, all well decorated; my favorite thing is the black and white photo-wallpaper of the old Corktown Neighborhood sign. It’s really nice, the corrugated walls add interest. Giant blueprints of the home line the stairway wall, this is actually 2 units, a 2-story, 2 bedroom unit (the first and second floor) and a 1-bedroom unit on the third floor. 

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How about some lunch? We go from the shipping container house to Detroit Shipping Company, a restaurant collective, beer garden like space made from 21 refurbished shipping containers on Peterboro. Right now there are three food-truck-style eateries, two full service bars, indoor and courtyard seating and a gallery. At Brujo Tacos and Tapas we order 3 of today’s tacos. I grab a table and wait for the food while Kris gets us a beer. The corn on the cob from Coop Caribbean Fusion is outstanding! Cooked perfectly it’s loaded down with tamarind aioli, toasted coconut, queso fresco and cilantro; seriously the best corn we’ve ever had. The tacos are delicious; bbq chicken, the pickles on top are a nice touch, lamb chorizo, just the right amount of spice and curry vegetable, a nice twist on a taco. When we’re done eating we take a look around, it’s a really great place, upstairs in the West Gallery the featured artist for August is Jacinto, “A Detroit State of Mind” we really like his work. We walk through lounges and exit to the balcony overlooking the courtyard, what is it about those strings of white lights that we all like so much? Armadillo Printwear does on-demand screen printing, stop in pick out a shirt, a design and bam they print it up for you while you wait. They are also responsible for all of the Detroit Shipping Co merch. A coffee and ice cream shop along with two more restaurants are in the works, come check it out.

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Back on the road we arrive at our 5th house on the tour. Wrist-banded tourists from across the country mill about the 3-story craftsman style home in a vibrant, historic neighborhood. The owners, both artists, have a fascinating collection of art and novelties like the antique pigeon racing clock from Belgium. There are mini-collections everywhere; yarn sculptures, pigs, pop bottles, lots of odd do-dads. The hand-made, stop motion, photography pieces were created by the owners.  Upstairs everyone is marveling at the beer-cap-mosaic floor in the bathroom, must have been fun getting supplies for that one…

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The Bankle Building on Woodward in Midtown Detroit is not your ordinary building. This is the half-time home of automotive designer and artist Camilo Pardo. Inside, large automotive oil paintings are a blast of color against stark white walls, a messy work table and blank canvases are a sign of works-in-progress. Tulip chairs, Egg chairs, chrome sculptures show the artist is clearly a fan of mid-century and pop art. The art in the adjoining space is more female-centric. We even get to see where he stores his ’67 Mustang.

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The next house is a little further away but worth every mile to get here.  The exterior of the home provides no clue to what we’ll see inside, kind of mysterious.  Immediately we understand the owner is a collector with an amazing talent for displaying her treasures. Every wall is a collage, each room has a theme. The yellow room is an homage to music; boom boxes are grouped together, she even has a boom box pillow, cassette tapes, vinyl albums and then the unexpected–necklaces, fun right? Every room holds another surprise; video games, religious items, Jazz, framed magazine covers, a sassy red couch. The basement is her showroom for her business Dollface Couture, along with her statement clothing we find a far-out couch, a burger telephone and a sweet doll collection. Fun and stylish indeed.

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We’ve reached the last home on the tour, as soon as we see the exterior and the vintage green Oldsmobile in the driveway we know we’re going to love it. Mid-Century and Magnificent is the description in the booklet, they nailed it. The house was built in 1963, miraculously it has made it to 2018 without any remodeling. The couple that lives here now totally get the house, they’ve embraced and furnished it just as it would have been 55 years ago; it’s awesome. Look at the fireplace, the bar, the original Nutone built in radio, the booth-seating in the kitchen, and the light fixtures…Did I mention the geometric wall of mirrors? How cool is that. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the owners have been collecting mid-century decor for a couple of decades. It has been a wild, wonderful and delightfully weird day, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Detroit: Corktown Bound..

22 May

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Detroit is a city known around the world for its past. We were a manufacturing mecca; we built ships, stoves, war planes, we put the world on wheels. The city gave birth to Motown, Techno. We are known for Coney Island hot dogs, cocktails such as the Hummer and the Last Word. Detroit was a city of inventors, artists and beauty. For a while the lights went out in our bright city but the spirit of Detroit never dimmed. Here we are, reinventing ourselves, again. The world has taken notice, Detroit is on the lips of people across the country and across the oceans. Urban farms, amazing architecture, an international waterfront, award-winning chefs, builders, makers and artists; the past and the future colliding. Downtown is lively again, people crowd the sidewalks on Woodward, something new opens in Midtown every week, restaurants are lined up out the door; it’s hard to keep up. Join us today as we explore some of Corktown’s latest offerings.

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A couple of charming brick buildings reside at the corner of Trumbull and Bagley, it doesn’t seem that long ago an aging market occupied some of the space, the buildings in need of some TLC. Now the buildings have been restored and repurposed, patios host diners, flower boxes mark off the perimeter, pedestrians are a common sight. The Farmer’s Hand is a compact, gourmet grocery store with a busy take-out counter. Fresh food and artisan products are all sourced from Michigan. The space is quaint, like an old-time corner store, here you can purchase fresh produce, regional cheese, wine, healthy snacks, specialty products like Gus & Grey‘s Sweet Jesus Jam or My Funny Clementine Marmalade. Fresh flower bouquets are beautiful, the pastries look delicious, dairy, juice, water and a variety of sodas fill the fridge. I like the old tin ceiling and the way everything mixes together creating a distinct aroma. They serve Hyperion Coffee, grab a latte and sit inside or head to the patio.

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Next door is Mama Coo’s Boutique, I love this shop. It’s kind of hard to describe; vintage, handmade, new, resale, art, themed pieces, all nestled together in one tiny space. Owner Lana Rodriguez was born and raised in southwest Detroit, she’s done a fabulous job hand-picking items and arranging them into eye-catching displays. An antique trunk, old tables and shelves are filled with interesting things; roller skates, canisters, ceramic ash trays, handbags. I’m a fan of old jewelry boxes, I remember when I was growing up how much I liked opening my mom’s jewelry boxes, taking out the pieces and putting them back, arranging them by color or size–costume jewelry of course. Racks of clothing, shoes, hats, knick-knacks, macrame, walls wear for-sale art. Southwest Detroit’s influence shows in Frida Kahlo charms, loteria and Mexican skull art. Every year Lana hosts a Prom dress drive and giveaway for local girls who otherwise would not have access to fancy, special occasion dress. If you have a prom dress, or two or three just sitting in the closet, consider donating them, there are so many girls who would love to have them. Did I mention I bought the cutest pair of hamburger earrings?

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Time to eat. FOLK is an artisanal cafe serving seasonal, made from scratch comfort foods. The restaurant is an extension of The Farmer’s Hand and owned by the same ladies. The restaurant is open until 3:00 pm and serves breakfast and lunch dishes. The corner space is light and airy, lots of white tile, live plants, communal tables, islands and a counter that overlooks the kitchen. We sit in a sunny window and decide quickly what we want to eat. The restaurant is paperless so we are given a number held in a tall metal stand. The yogurt bowl arrives first, turmeric tints the yogurt a pale yellow, a scoop of fruit compote and a helping of chia seeds complete the dish; it’s pretty tasty. The Big Guy is a breakfast sandwich with two eggs, cheese and a thick sausage patty, drizzled with sriracha sauce, served on a soft roll. A little pricey, but good. We are sharing a table with 2 women, one is having the daily special the other some sort of ‘bowl’, everything looks good. When we are finished we take our number to the counter where we are given a total and pay. 

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Over on Michigan Ave we pop into Metropolis Cycles, a full service bike shop. I really like this single-story building, the exterior brick is painted black and surrounds a large expanse of windows. Inside, bikes hang from exposed rafters, walls and stand in neat rows on the wood floor.  Exposed brick, antique wooden doors and potted plants make the shop cozy. Customers browse the selection of bicycles by Bianchi, Surly, Raleigh and Fairdale, lots to choose from.  Accessories are plentiful along with bike shorts, pants and shirts. A guy drops off his bike for a spring tune-up, everybody is anxious to get riding after the long winter. George Gregory is a men’s shop offering clothing and lifestyle goods. The shop is super-attractive, we are greeted by a sign that reads Hello Detroit, a bourbon-something-or-other candle burns on the counter and smells wonderful. Items are laid out in a way that encourages you to wander, pieces range a variety of price points. Khaki’s, casual shirts, swanky hats, shorts, t-shirts and belts share space with evening clothes, ties, shaving accessories and gym bags. The owner has a great eye. Definitely a place to keep in mind next time Kris updates his closet.

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The Happier Camper has an indoor showroom tucked away on Beech Street, a block or so off of Michigan Ave. We don’t camp but curiosity has gotten the best of us and we want to check out the trailers. We receive a warm welcome when we walk in the door, a campground scene is set up before us. A cute little trailer in white and fern green is on display, doors are open for easy access, modular pieces from the camper are laid out on a floor cloth. Happier Camper makes vintage-looking trailers with a modern, modular design. You can configure and reconfigure the modular interior system to suit your needs from camping to hauling to guest quarters; it’s not only cute it’s extremely clever. There’s a large rear hatch that makes loading and unloading a breeze, it can sleep 5 people. You can even upgrade your trailer with a stove top, shower, toilet, awning and 100 watt solar panel.All of the camper parts are made in the US–nice. Out in the loading area we take a peek at a Detroit Tiger’s themed unit, orange and navy blue with a Tiger’s logo. The colorful mural on the wall is pretty cool too. Click on the link above and watch the video on their website, looks like fun doesn’t it?

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Motor City Wine isn’t exactly a new business but it is a nice way to end the day. Part wine shop, part wine bar, live Jazz, DJ’s and a patio make MCW a popular place to hang out. The unassuming exterior gives way to a long bar, surprisingly busy; corks decorate the wall behind the back bar. A hand-written menu tells you today’s selections. In addition to wine they have a pretty good beer list and spirits. Hungry? Snack on Marcona almonds, potato chips, olives or how about a cheese or charcuterie plate? Kris and I order sangria’s at the bar, tables are laid out near the u-shaped retail section, we have this area to ourselves. I sip my sangria as I browse the wine selection from all over the world. You can purchase a bottle and drink it here for an $8 corkage fee. Our glasses are empty, must be time to go home. 

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Hamtramck: How Sweet !

25 Mar

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Have you heard there’s a new French pastry shop in Hamtramck ? What about the new reclaimed woodworking store or vegan restaurant ? Let’s go check ’em out. le detroit macaron resides on Evaline in a narrow brick building formerly occupied by bon bon bon. The black and white striped awning is new, the sandwich board on the sidewalk signals us the shop is open. I step inside to the pastel-colored world of macarons. The shop is adorable; turquoise paint, black and white tiled floor, tin ceiling and a glass chandelier. The main attraction is the display case filled with the authentic French pastry known as the macaron; made in the traditional method, these little bundles of meringue have a firm outer shell and soft insides–they are extraordinary. The shop makes 10 signature flavors and a couple of seasonal options. I order a cup of coffee as Kris and I mull over our choices, this is not an easy task! We choose chocolate malt, fruity pebbles and Bailey’s, they are absolutely delicious, the texture is perfect, chewy but not gooey; the chocolate malt is my favorite.

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Woodward Throwbacks inhabits the old Garrity Dodge building (circa 1939) on Joseph Campau. Detroit residents Bo Shepherd and Kyle Dubay  learned that abandoned buildings are full of usable materials and relics. Through their salvage efforts they have filled this building with reclaimed wood, materials and vintage finds that have been repurposed into attractive, useful items. In the showroom I find really cool pieces like the tool box end table, a coffee table made from a slice of tree trunk, vintage mid-century chairs, wood bottle openers, signs and Michigan-shaped magnets. Wire bins and metal drawers hold hinges, knobs, hairpin legs, hooks and hardware to build your own piece. A fun mural covers one wall; artwork pays homage to Detroit, Hamtramck, Dodge and Garrity, a 1954 green Dodge truck is parked by the large front windows, reminding us of the buildings days as a Dodge dealership. 

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Through an open doorway we find a bounty of reclaimed wood, antiques and great finds. Canning jars, tin signs, table bases and doors compete with tin ceiling tiles, tin molding, manufacturing molds, coolers and church pews for our attention. Reclaimed lumber leans against the far wall, tree trunks have been cut into lengthwise slices, I like the live edge. The scoreboard and locker room benches came from Mae C Jemission Academy in Detroit.

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Around the corner are more remnants of the old dealership, the 5-star Chrysler Dealer sign was probably from the Deeby Dodge years. Curiosity leads Kris to a ramp leading to the second floor, what a cool feature, walking the ramp you really get a feel of the age of the structure. This level is home to the workshop part of the business, an old Powermatic planer shares floor space with a ban saw, work tables, and handmade goods-in-progress. The original paint booth is still being used in some capacity. The whole place is a fun, tasteful, thoughtful mix of old and new. There’s something different each time we come.

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Out on the sidewalk, I hear something, I stop to listen and realize it’s chocolate and it’s calling my name… bon bon bon relocated their shop from Evaline to a much larger space on Joseph Campau at Caniff; their manufactory. The signature orange and pink bon bon bon covers the front door and back wall.  Inside the ‘babes’ are hard at work making chocolates using classic French technique. Behind the glass wall a chocolate fountain flows, blending 7 different chocolates to create bon’s secret recipe.  I watch as chocolates are being made and packed. When you’re here you have to get the ‘Hot Mess’; a chocolate shell filled with warm liquid chocolate, we always get dark chocolate. This one has to go right in your mouth, the whole thing at once, let it sit there, close your eyes, revel in the warm chocolatey goodness, yum. You can’t get just one so Kris chooses the End of the Rainbow, Harp lager caramel, 4-leaf clover ganache in a dark shell. I pick the Irish Car Bon, stout chocolate cake and Bailey’s ganache in a dark shell, it’s so good!

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Over on Yemans the folks who operate the Nosh Pit Detroit food truck have opened a restaurant, after all of our treats a nice, healthy meal is in order. The low brick building sits across the street from Polish Village, glass block front windows give no clue to the cozy interior that awaits diners. One large room holds several community tables, the one on the left is huge. The floor is made of wide wood planks, a star-shaped light and a couple of wrought iron fixtures light up the space, funky art decorates the walls. The dining room immediately feels welcoming, like I’m attending a big family dinner. We’re the first ones in the door when they open so we have our choice of seats, we’re instantly greeted, given menus and water. The Nosh Pit food truck has been roaming the streets of Detroit and the Metro area for almost two years, serving tasty vegetarian and vegan food to hungry patrons. We’re happy they’ve opened a brick and mortar space. We start with the Amanda, a layered salad of lentils, hummus, collards, pickled carrots, roasted red peppers and roasted beets, it looks pretty and tastes delicious! Next up is the Mac Un’Cheese, their house made vegan mac and cheese, the macaroni is cooked perfectly, the dish has a nice taste even though I was expecting something creamier. The Kaz is a house made veggie patty topped with Granny Smith apple slices vegan cheeze and  garlic aioli on a bun; very nice. The patty itself has a nice texture, not too mushy, and nice flavors. It comes with a side salad that was great too. From the moment we sat down Kris has been eyeing the desserts; cookies, cupcakes and brownies sit on pretty serving plates tempting customers. After much debate we decide to split the vegan brownie with sweet potato caramel; super moist and sweet, a nice ending to a nutritious, pleasurable meal.

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Highland: Pony Up…

15 Mar

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You may be surprised by the rural feel and amount of open space that still exists in Oakland County. Townships such as Highland, Milford and White Lake are home to sprawling horse farms and pastures, horse trails and training facilities. We’ll be spending the next few hours driving down natural beauty roads as we visit 6 locations on the Highland Equestrian Conservancy (HEC) Barn Tour. The mission of HEC is to conserve and protect the natural resources while preserving the rural character of and equestrian heritage in and around Highland MI. We purchase our tickets at the Huron Valley Council For The Arts, we are given a map and a tour booklet, the barns are further apart then we expected, it’s about 56 miles from first to last. We better get started.

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Our directions lead us into a Milford subdivision, we must have taken a wrong turn, we continue on the street, wait a minute there it is, Berwyck Saddle Club. That’s pretty cool, they built the sub around the saddle club. Riders have access to Berwyck Bridle Trails, Kensington Metro Park and Proud Lake State Recreation Area. The property has in indoor and an outdoor arena, a clubhouse and 43 stalls. As we approach the barn I stop to pet a couple of miniature horses, they’re so cute. Inside the stable we walk the long corridor, friendly horses peek out of their stall looking for some attention, each of them has their name posted where I can read it and call them by name. A black horse is being groomed, he looks as though he’d rather be outside. We wander over to the indoor arena, nothing going on right now.

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Next up is the Miracle Ranch and Rach Riding Academy; all styles of riding are taught here: Western, Trail, English, jumping, vaulting and Western Dressage, a demonstration is about to begin. Visitors gather in the arena, a girl dressed in a black and red costume appears on a black and white horse. Music plays as the horse circles the arena, she stands up on the horses back and does tricks, how does she stay up there? The audience applauds. Next up is a group of 4, the horses are wearing gold, the girls are in casual dress. This time the horses are doing the choreography. Music from the movie Frozen plays as horses trot, gallop and move to the rhythm of the music, moves are coordinated like synchronized swimming, it’s fascinating to watch. When the routine is finished the horses exit the arena and so do we. Outdoors a rider is practicing  jumps, she looks like she’s having fun. We walk through the stable, it’s empty right now, we head out the back to find the animals eating lunch and enjoying the afternoon sun.

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We drive through pretty countryside on our way to Karner Blue Stables in Highland Twp. We find an old hay barn, indoor and outdoor arenas, pastures and forested land, it’s picturesque. A horse farm and training facility, there are horses all over the property. I’m excited to have a chance to get up close to these magnificent animals, they are extremely friendly, lowering their heads so I can pet them. Once you pet one the others come over to see what the human has brought; the absence of carrots, apples or sugar cubes send some of them back to eating grass while others are happy for the one on one  attention. There’s an observation and tack room, a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies is offered to guests. This facility offers lessons, training and boarding.

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We travel from Highland to White Lake to Fenton visiting Tristan Manor, where 50 years ago the first symposium for the United States Dressage Federation was held bringing trainers from Europe to Michigan. Check out the rusty, old Ford tractor, I love the wheat on the emblem. In the distance I can see Sugden Lake; what beautiful countryside.

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Equinox Farm, a certified in Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue works with first responders and veterinarians to safely rescue livestock from mud, ice, trailer accidents and barn fires. Lots of ponies here, they all seem content on this lovely day. The landscape is serene; the rolling hills of Highland in the distance.

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Carole Grant’s facility on Pleasant Hill Dr. Situated on 40 rolling acres she has 19 stalls, a feed room, tack room, wash stalls, grooming areas, hot walker, large indoor ring, 2 outdoor rings, all with state-of-the-art footing. It’s quite a place! The wood on the barn and stable has acquired that perfect gray, weathered look; bright red cannas and marigolds flank the sliding doors. Inside, the wood reminds me of knotty pine, it has a quaint feeling, it’s amazingly tidy for a stable. A white horse has big black patches on its coat, chest and neck, the main is braided; she even poses for the camera. Standing on the concrete walk on the side of the stable we have a panoramic view of the land, it’s so peaceful. In 2006 Highland Township was recognized as Michigan’s 1st Horse-Friendly community.

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We cross the border into Livingston County to the tiny hamlet of Parshallville. The name sounds straight out of Disney or Dr. Seuss doesn’t it? It was actually named after founder Isaac Parshall. It’s been a busy day and we could use a little pick-me-up, cider and donuts will do the trick. Historic Parshallville Cider Mill on North Ore Creek started life as a flour mill known as Success Flour oh, about 145 years ago. After that it was Tom Walker’s Grist Mill grinding grain for animal feed; today it is a charming cider mill. This is one of the few remaining water-powered mills in Michigan. Heirloom apples, local honey, apple pies, cider, spiced donuts, caramel apples and cider slush are available for purchase. We take our slush and warm donuts outside and sit near the creek. We eat to the sound of falling water, every once in a while a breeze rustles the leaves, donut-scent fills the air. This is perfect.

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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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Detroit: Alive & Noel…

13 Dec

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Tonight we’re just wandering around Detroit; we’ll dip our toe into Noel Night, visit the downtown Holiday Markets and finish up with dinner and drinks in Southwest. All of the featured places are new to Detroit’s growing list of places to eat, drink and shop. Let’s begin with Noel Night, being seasoned veterans of this event we tend to steer clear of  the crowds at larger venues such as the DIA, Library, Science Center and the like. Instead we head over to Third Street, the Detroit Design Center has a sculpture park next to the building, one-of-a-kind pieces decorate the open space, flood lights illuminate the art casting funky shadows on the wall. Tonight the building is open to the public, artists are busy putting on the finishing touches. Huge carbon steel sculptures reach toward the ceiling,  metal statement pieces are grounded to the floor, I’m crazy about the swing. Pieces are made of glass, metal and wood, you can purchase art for a wall, a tabletop or desk; the metal skyline organizer would look great on my counter.

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In 1949 the Willis Show Bar opened on the corner of Willis and Third Street, it was an entertainment hot spot featuring live Jazz. As the area declined so did the clientele; the building was closed down and padlocked in 1978. Today the building wears a fresh coat of paint, the Art Moderne exterior shines, a sign painted on the Willis side of the building announces the re-opening of this memorable venue. The Detroit Optimist Society and a group of L.A. investors plan a January 2018 re-opening, the 75-seat bar will serve 1960’s inspired cocktails and bar snacks, the stage will host live Jazz, Blues and Soul artists cabaret style. I can hardly wait!

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Does anybody remember the Hammer and Nail building on Woodward? This 12-story Mid-Century building was built in 1965, the hammer and nail was originally intended as a tribute to a local carpenter’s union. The building, now called The Plaza, recently underwent a complete restoration and is now home to 72 apartments. As part of the Noel Night festivities the building is open for tours, let’s take a look. A lovely Christmas tree adorns the lobby, through a glass doorway the neon hammer and nail have found a new resting spot on an interior wall, we are told this space will be a public bar in the future, it’s fun to see this landmark lit up again. A tour guide loads 5 of us into an elevator stopping on the 10th floor, we are seeing a 1-bedroom corner unit. From the dimly lit entrance we follow a short hall past the laundry room into the living space, one left turn and we’re looking out a wall of windows at the Detroit skyline. Everybody stops in their tracks, our host has not turned on any lights, giving us a clear look at the spectacular view, each of us gravitates toward the windows; Ford Field glows in Christmas colors to the left, Little Caesars Arena to the right, the Ambassador Bridge further in the distance–wow! We see pedestrians crowding the sidewalk on Woodward, the towers of the Renaissance Center are red, I can see Motor City Casino too. 

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Next we drive over to Capitol Park for the holiday markets; from now until January 7 a series of pop-up businesses will fill the park. At first I don’t even know where I am, I mean, I know the surrounding buildings, but the outdoor space has been completely transformed. Local shops fill terrarium-like little glass booths; you can purchase art, a toboggan, a wreath or even a fresh-cut Christmas tree. The air smells of evergreens and food, deck chairs surround a log table, people are making s’mores at the fire pit, visitors are packed into Eatori’s booth drinking cocktails by the Christmas tree. White lights are strung everywhere, zig-zagging above public spaces. We walk down State Street to Woodward and find trees tightly wrapped in miniature lights, fresh landscaping includes garlands and branches spray painted in red and white, it’s a winter wonderland.

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Campus Maritus is buzzing with activity, ice skaters fill the rink, the Christmas tree is the prettiest one yet, the line to rent skates is long, with hot chocolates in hand, nobody seems to mind. We cross over to Cadillac Square, picnic tables, deck chairs and fire pits fill the space between to long rows of glass booths. Food trucks, Detroit City Nut Company, fudge and popcorn are available to hungry spectators. The Cadillac Bier Garten is a good place to rest and take in the city, and have a beer of course. At the far end a large tent has been transformed into a Lodge; couches, comfy chairs, blankets and rugs welcome chilly pedestrians. Chandeliers are made of branches, strings of white lights make the tent festive. People are waiting in line to get in, we take a peek inside then continue walking. 

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The Woodward Esplande is gorgeous; the concrete pathway leads us though grapevine arches, surrounding landscape is lit with spotlights and miniature lights, people are taking advantage of the many photo ops along the way. The pathway opens up, here LED lights are strung above us, colors rotate from one shade to the next, it’s stunning, I feel like I’m in a Hallmark Christmas movie. The One Woodward building is decked out for the holidays; a tall, slender tree, elegant in white stands on one side of the lobby while a trio of gold and white ornaments anchors the other side. Standing at this level we overlook the Spirit of Detroit Plaza, clear igloos offer passersby food and drink, while large blocks make up an ice-cube maze; we need to get a closer look. This is amazing! In one igloo we find ping-pong and air hockey tables, another sells goodies from Good Cakes and Bakes, how about a cup of coffee from New Order? Unfortunately we’re here after most of the shops have closed for the evening. Families giggle as they make their way through the ice-cube maze, again everything lights up and changes colors, I swear the Spirit of Detroit is smiling…

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How does pizza sound? PizzaPlex opened a few short months ago on W Vernor in Southwest Detroit. It’s more than just another pizza joint, there’s a strong sense of community here from the employees to the events that take place in the adjoining space. The pizza oven came straight from Napoli, a pizza cooks in just 90 seconds, that’s good news for us, we’re starving. I order at the counter, #17, the Nikolette is a combo of fresh mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, roasted poblanos, parmigiano, basil and olive oil. I add a house salad and a pour-over coffee. In addition to tasty food, offerings also include coffee drinks and a limited selection bar. Sitting in a booth we are awash in blue LED light, basil grows on shelves mounted to the wall, a movie plays on the screen in the community room. Our food is brought to the table; the pizza is delicious, the crust the perfect amount of crisp and chewy, a nice balance of toppings, we eat the whole thing…

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Just down the street the Detroit Optimist Society has opened a Tiki-themed bar called Mutiny. Inside, the casual space has all the thing we’ve come to expect from a tiki bar; Hawiian-shirt wearing bar tenders, bamboo, the ceiling a mass of colored lights, netting, high-back wicker chairs, large paper umbrellas, thatch, framed vintage menus from high-profile bars back in the day, you get the picture. Tiki mugs and interesting serving glasses line the back bar, check out the photo of the waterfall. The tropical cocktail menu lists all your favorites, with a twist. We order drinks at the bar and watch as the bartender measures shots, shakes concoctions, pours them into specific mugs, he even sets some on fire. Kris’s drink comes in a stemmed coconut glass, mine in a fish mug advertising Plymouth Gin. The drinks are good, the atmosphere laid back; a nice ending to an incredible night.

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DETROIT: New Center

10 Oct

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The city of Detroit was booming in the 1920’s; throngs of pedestrians crowded downtown sidewalks, elaborate movie palaces surrounded Grand Circus Park, skyscrapers began to fill the city skyline. Large plots of land were hard to come by, available lots were expensive. About 3 miles north of downtown Henry Ford was building a new hospital, railroads traversed Milwaukee Junction, the Piquette plant attracted large numbers of workers to the area. From 1900 to 1930 the city’s population swelled from 265,000 to over 1.5 million! In 1922 General Motors headquarters opened on Grand Boulevard, the Fisher brothers followed suit, the Fisher Building opened in 1928. Automobile wealth created what they hoped would become the new downtown or New Center. Professionals and executives built spacious, lovely homes, large apartment buildings housed the influx of workers in the automotive and manufacturing trades. Life was good.

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By the 1960’s the area had become run-down. Instead of moving out of Detroit, GM spent millions of dollars on a project called New Center Commons; they renovated existing homes, added new commercial development, added landscaping and then they did something really daring, they re-routed traffic around the historic neighborhood to the north of New Center, transforming Pallister Street into a scenic park. The hope was to stabilize the neighborhood and encourage executives to move back into the area. It didn’t happen. It did stabilize the neighborhood and in the long run it protected the historic houses. Let’s take a walk.

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Pallister Street is a narrow, brick, tree-lined, picturesque, pedestrian-only road surrounded by elegant, beautifully restored homes lovingly tended to by their owners. Old-fashioned street lamps add to the feeling of going back in time. No two houses are the same; Neo-Georgian, Arts and Crafts, Neo-Tudor and bungalows are rooted side by side. Ornate chimneys, leaded glass, columns, cedar shingles and decorative brick patterns adorn the homes. Bright accent colors surround windows and doors, shrubs are neatly trimmed, flower pots are bursting with color. Porches are big, ferns hang from hooks, wide overhangs protect residents from bad weather. I stand at the end of the block overlooking the street while Kris takes pictures; it’s so pretty, so unique, a treasure tucked away from the traffic of the city.

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We walk and we walk some more, up and down adjacent streets past more historic homes and apartment buildings, the architecture of the time was really quite magnificent; tile roofs, glazed brick, tile ornamentation. Squirrels are busy gathering up nuts, leaves rustle under our feet. Now a commercial and residential Historic District the work continues as more houses, apartments and buildings are being restored. General Motors moved to the Renaissance Center in 1996, their old building is now called Cadillac Place, it houses the State of Michigan Detroit offices. The QLine transports people from downtown to nearby Grand Boulevard.

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As usual I’m hungry. Avalon just opened a new cafe and biscuit bar on Grand Blvd in the 1920 Boulevard West Building. Enter through the main entrance, make a quick left and you’re there. The cafe is bright, large windows allow the sun to illuminate the space, yellow and black pop against the otherwise white room; the decor is distinctly Mid-Century. I really like the open section of the ceiling with the floating white tiles, the giant whisk light fixtures are pretty cool too. Enclosed in glass cases are the usual Avalon offerings; bread, cookies, baked goods. Here we also have light offerings such as fritattas, soba noodle salad, and the reason we’re here, BISCUITS! I stare at the chalkboard menu, mouth watering as I read. Kris and I each select a biscuit to split. While we wait I’m drawn to a piece of art made from the seat of wooden chairs arranged in a shingle-like pattern. The painted scene depicts the streetscape of the original Avalon on W Willis, the way the pieces are layered almost gives it a 3-D effect. The Food: Delicious. I mean, here we have a perfect, delicate, buttery biscuit, split and layered with creamy ricotta cheese and a mixed berry jam, the outer edge of the biscuit has that slight crispness, what’s not to like? The other biscuit is the ALT; avocado, lettuce, tomato and herb mayo, sinfully good. It was hard not to get the biscuit with vegetarian sawmill gravy… next time. The cafe also has a full coffee bar and serves all day breakfast and lunch. 

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Over on Brush Street we are visiting America’s first sustainable urban ‘agrihood’. The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) has transformed a long-vacant apartment complex and about 3 acres of land into a farm in Detroit’s North End. Founded in 2011, MUFI is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization looking for solutions to urban problems such as vacant land, poor diets, nutritional illiteracy and food insecurity. General Motors, BASF, PPG, Borg Warner, Weber Shandwick, Herman Miller, Stanley Black & Decker and others are working together to turn the former apartment building (circa 1919) on the property into a community center for residents and visitors while also being a showplace of innovation and energy efficiency. The goal is to uplift and empower urban neighborhoods.

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From the moment we see it, it’s clear this is a farm. We start at the mural-covered structure; flowers, veggies, a bee, a skyscraper, all painted in pretty colors represent Detroit. A billboard of sorts credits organizations responsible for making the project happen. A strip of Zinnias add a splash of color between the sidewalk and the curb. There’s a hoop house in the distance, we follow a wooden walkway toward the orchards; a split rail fence surrounds 200 young fruit trees. A sign tells us Scott’s Miracle Gro gro1000 Initiative is a contributor. I see Bees in The D has a honeybee hive here too. Raised beds are overflowing with marigolds, an antique red tractor is parked off to the side, rows and rows of vegetables are laid out in the distance.

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More than 300 vegetable varieties are grown here, which yields about 20,000 lbs of produce annually. MUFI volunteers harvest the vegetables, the fresh produce is available on Saturdays from 10-4. The food is FREE to the more than 2,000 households, food pantries and churches within 2 sq. miles of the farm. I watch an oscillating sprinkler give thirsty plants a drink, mounds of yellow and orange marigolds grow at the end of rows. Leaf lettuce appears in deep greens and red, cabbages are green and purple varieties; I’ve never seen so many eggplant plants. Kale and Swiss Chard grow in a rainbow of colors, peppers cling to tall plants. Tomatoes are plentiful, they have their own section, plants are tall and lush, branches are heavy with unripe fruit, sizes range from the tiny grape tomato to beefsteak. A plant I’ve never seen before has piqued my curiosity, what is it that grows on these large-leafed, burgundy-stemmed, stunning white flower plants? I ask a volunteer, okra is his response. It’s absolutely gorgeous, I may have to plant some next year. As Detroit moves forward re-making itself I’m happy to see it’s honoring its past; renovating buildings, revitalizing neighborhoods, instilling a sense of community. Hazen Pingree would be proud to see all of the community gardens and farms. 

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