Tag Archives: Historic Buildings

DETROIT: Kahn Artist…

24 Mar

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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.

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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…

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

DETROIT: Library After Dark

20 Dec

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Detroit is extremely fortunate that many of its outstanding 20th Century buildings still exist; the Detroit Public Library on Woodward is one such place. In 1912 Cass Gilbert was commissioned to construct the building; WWI and other delays slowed the completion, finally, in 1921 the amazing Italian Renaissance library opened its doors. This is the 4th largest library in the United States, it welcomes 222,000 visitors a year. 

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Tonight the Detroit Public Library Friends Foundation is hosting “The Library At Night” tour. For over 70 years the Friends Foundation has provided funds, books, materials, and special programs to the library community through gifts, grants, general contributions and event fees. Tonight’s tour will highlight the architecture of Cass Gilbert, craftsmen and artists, followed by appetizers, wine, craft beer and live music in the Fine Arts room. Using the Cass Ave entrance we walk the long hall toward the front of the building, we pause at the front entrance, majestic bronze doors have been permanently folded to the sides. Wreaths, garlands, red bows and strings of white lights decorate railings, columns and stairways. We meet up with our tour group in the original Children’s Library, we’re ready to begin…

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The large room is an eclectic mix of old and new, funky lighting hangs from the ceiling, benches are upholstered in olive-green, cinnamon and navy. Original architectural elements have held their ground for over 150 years. Our guide points out the Pewabic Tile fireplace surround; done in shades of blue, tan, yellow and gold it depicts scenes from favorite childhood stories, it’s gorgeous. Above it a pictoral map of Michigan by Frederick Wiley shows the arrival of the French to the wilderness of the territory. I never noticed the little door hidden in the bookshelves, we get a peek inside the secret room. In the hall, I’m once again reminded of how much I love this building. Tonight between the holiday lighting and the darkness beyond the windows it looks extraordinary. 

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Walking from the original building to the 1963 addition we find ourselves surrounded by mid-century design. The transition between old and new is thoughtful and seamless. We enter the new Children’s Library, here stuffed animals, picture books and rhyming stories entertain youngsters; be sure to check out the mosaics hanging on the wall, kids from Detroit Public schools had a hand in making them. The library is also an art museum of sorts, beautiful art can be found everywhere and it’s all out in the open. The hall leading to the Burton Historical Collection is lined with rows and rows of card catalogs, they’re over 100 years old and span the history of Michigan and Detroit from the 1700’s to the present– there’s no plan to modernize or get rid of them, some things should stay the same. The 2-story room that holds the collection is very 1960’s in style, the tall narrow windows allow natural daylight to saturate the space. One of the highlights is Stalin’s Gift, a lovely jewel chest commissioned for the Russian Royal Family in 1883. Joseph Stalin gave it to Charles Sorensen of Ford Motor Company for Sorensen’s help establishing Russian auto plants during WWII; his widow donated it to the library.

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We’re on the move again, we pause at Frank Varga’s mosaic of Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish mathematician and astronomer, it was donated to the library in 1974. The Friends Foundation used tour proceeds to purchase the spotlight that illuminates it tonight. The Grand Staircase is made entirely of marble, it’s exquisite, as we ascend the stairs we get glimpses of the spectacular Italian Renaissance ceiling. Throughout the building you will find gold leaf, symbols, figures, Greek and Roman motifs and themes of books, knowledge and wisdom. Every room on the 3rd floor features a ceiling designed by Frederick Wiley, most are reproductions of ones found in European palaces, all are stunning.

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The 3rd floor is my favorite, the view of the ceilings and murals is fantastic; then there’s Adam Strohm Hall… Adam Strohm was the first library director to work in the building, there’s so much beauty in one place it’s mind-blowing. Check out the bronze entrances around the doors before you step in. Immediately our attention is directed to John Stephens Coppin’s “Man’s Mobility”, the painting features three era’s of transportation from horse and buggy to rocket ships. The mural on the opposite wall is Detroit’s early history by Gary Melchers. The windows you see are not stained glass but painted, the idea was stained glass was too dark, painted windows would let in more light for reading. Then there’s the ceiling, I’d like to just lay on the floor and stare at it for a while, take in the whole room…The ceiling in the Art and Music room was a new design, it’s very simple compared to the others; Cass Gilbert liked it so much he used it again in the US Supreme Court Building.

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The tour ends in the Fine Arts Room, another gorgeous space. Tonight we’re in for a special treat, they have opened a window and allowed us access to the loggia. There are 7 mosaics underneath the loggia windows, each depicts quotes from Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” monologue from As You Like It. The mosaics were created by Mary Chase Stratton (Pewabic Pottery founder), Horace Caulkins and Frederick Wiley; you can see their names affixed in gold leaf at one end, Cass Gilbert’s at the other. Just being out here is amazing! We have a picturesque view of the DIA lit in red and green for the holidays. Most people don’t even know the loggia exists, it’s a special privilege to be standing outside, under the stars on a Friday night. One of the volunteers has removed a colored gel from the spotlight so we can see the mosaics in their true colors–awesome. We climb back in the window; a woman sings as I stand in line for appetizers and wine. Kris ducks out into the hall for pictures, he has the floor to himself. It’s been wonderful to revisit this treasure and extra special to do the tour at night.

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We’re grabbing a bite to eat at The Peterboro in Detroit’s historic Chinatown. We were here for the soft opening and keep meaning to come back, tonight’s the night. Serving contemporary Chinese American cuisine they offer both small and large plates.  I find the space really attractive, large red lanterns cast a warm glow over the otherwise dark room, red and white lights wrap black-painted ducts, a large canvas features a fierce looking tiger. We decide on several small plates, each arrives at the table as it’s prepared. The Seaweed salad is the first to arrive, crispy quinoa and pickled mushrooms add crunch and unique flavor. The Market Veggie Rolls are nice, I like the sweet chili sauce. Mom’s Roast Pork is boneless rib tips marinated in hoisin and honey, nice flavor, odd texture. The Crab Rangoons are our favorite dish, crabmeat and cream cheese deep fried in a crunchy shell, what’s not to like? 

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DETROIT: The Colony Club

7 Apr

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They say, “you can’t judge a book by its cover”, they’re right! There are so many beautiful building interiors in Detroit hiding behind ordinary facades. Today we are visiting The Colony Club on Park Avenue. Let me set the stage. It was the Roaring 20’s, the United States was experiencing economic prosperity never seen before; electricity, automobiles, radios and telephones were attainable by the average working man. Charles Lindbergh made his first solo, non-stop, Trans-Atlantic flight from NY to Paris, Duesenberg’s Model J was unveiled, Jazz music blossomed, movie stars and sports heroes graced magazine covers. Women joined the work force and were given the right to vote. Here in Detroit, women were keeping pace with the changing times; four women’s clubs opened within four blocks of each other providing a place for women’s functions, recreation and socializing. The Colony Club opened in 1928.

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Kris and I haven’t been in this building for almost two decades, we have arranged a special tour with Director of Sales and Marketing, Nicole. The red brick, Georgian-style building was designed by the Smith, Hinchman and Grylls architectural firm (think Buhl, Penobscot & Guardian Buildings). At seven stories tall the exterior is simple, limestone and iron grill-work add a touch of elegance. The lobby is stunning! An artist by the name of Victor is responsible for the gorgeous restoration paint work. The lovely peacock pattern is not original but fits the time period perfectly; gold and silver dance off delicate lacy designs. The black and white marble floor gleams, years of being covered with carpet protected the finish.When the building opened in the 20’s, three small shops were located on the ground floor, today, these are used as reception areas. We ascend marble stairs to the third floor, the ballroom.

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Done up in Louis XVI style, lavish, opulent, resplendent and grand are just a few of the words I would use to describe this space. Decorated in Versailles cream and gold gilt with a splash of bronze, Victor has done his magic once again! Original crystal chandeliers sparkle in the sunlight, plaster details are impressive, huge arch-shaped mirrors make the room feel so open and airy. Delicate wall sconces are also original, pale blue inserts appear to be Wedgwood, iron grill-work creates faux balconies. It’s easy to imagine Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly gliding across the dance floor. Speaking of the floor, it’s unique in the sense that it’s wood and not carpet, re-laid about a month ago, it too is splendid. Twin stairways lead to the next level, I’d guess many a bride has stood on these steps for photos. From here we have a panoramic view of the breath-taking ballroom. The 4th floor was the original dining room, a commercial kitchen resides in the same place as the first kitchen. The dining room itself has been transformed into another rental space for smaller gatherings; today it is set up for a wedding ceremony. Soft yellow, peach and more dazzling gold cover the walls and plaster details, quite stunning. Chandeliers and sconces are brand new, made special for the space. 

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Back in the day men were not allowed above the ballroom level, it was a women’s club after all. There were 16 sleeping rooms on the 6th floor, card rooms, salons, squash and badminton courts on the 5th, even a solarium on the roof (currently being restored). The Depression brought economic hardship, the building fell into foreclosure and the women of the club disbanded. Occupied by several businesses, the UAW purchased the building for its Detroit headquarters in the 60’s, after that, Wayne County Community College had it for a while. Preservationist Charles Forbes bought the building in 1984, thank goodness! It was leased to the Detroit Police Department to be used as its Police Academy (this is the time period we were here). With Superbowl XL on the horizon, Forbes management began an extensive restoration of the club, ESPN used the building for Superbowl functions. Today Colony Club has become a popular venue for weddings, dinners and special events.

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Moving forward in time to 1936, we are having lunch at Elwood Bar & Grill, another of Chuck Forbes buildings, it seems a natural choice. If you’ve lived in the metro Detroit area for a while, you may recall in 1997 the Elwood was relocated, as was the Gem/Century Theatre which moved 1,850 feet to make room for Comerica Park and holds the Guinness World Record as the heaviest building (2,700 tons) ever moved on wheels. Today the cream and blue enameled steel Art Deco diner resides on Adams Ave behind the Detroit Tiger’s left field. The swanky interior has been completely restored. Today the whole area is bustling with activity in preparation for opening day.

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Sitting in a booth window-side we take in the details of the diner, walls are painted green in a textured technique, narrow chrome strips orbit white globe lights , two-toned wood  makes up the bar. The most unique feature is the mural street map of Detroit that fills the circular recess in the ceiling, it details the path of movement the Gem and Elwood took to their new permanent locations. A large plate of food is set on the table, we are sharing the Blackened Chicken Melt: Cajun-spiced chicken breast grilled and topped with pepper jack cheese, tomato, Dijon and mayo served on egg-dipped grilled sourdough bread–delicious! Alongside the sandwich is a side of tasty cole slaw and a pile of fresh hand-cut fries, yum! Detroit is filled with treasures such as these. These days it seems more and more buildings are being restored and re-purposed,  that’s good news for all of us!