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Tarnished Jewels: A look at Detroit Architecture

July 11 2013 | 1 comment

If you look toward the sky in downtown Detroit, you will be rewarded with examples of some of America’s finest architecture.   The buildings that many of us take for granted are considered extraordinary by others.

Bob Kraemer, principal of Kraemer Design Group told us, “To an architect some of these buildings to us are unbelievably beautiful.”

The design.   The detail.  The majesty.


Stephen Vogel is a professor of architecture at University of Detroit Mercy.  He says, “When architects visit from all over the world, all over the country, they are just blown away at the building stock that we have.”

Detroit architecture is unique because 95-percent of the downtown skyscrapers were built during one 5-year boom period in the 1920s.

According to Professor Vogel, “The 20’s of course was a particularly special time, I guess you could say in terms of design and construction and these buildings really show that.”

Those buildings are now approaching the one-hundred year mark.  Some received facelifts during middle age.  Others were left to age gracefully.  And others were abandoned, left to face an uncertain future.

The poster child for architectural neglect is the Michigan Central Depot.

Professor Vogel feels, “It really hurts to see what has happened to that building.”

Bob Kraemer feels  “It’s a great building to redevelop.  I just wish it weren’t so prominent off the freeway to see it in its symbol of Detroit’s decay.”

The implosion of the Hudson’s building in 1998 was a big disappointment for both Vogel and Kraemer.

For Professor Vogel, “ Not so much for its architectural character, but for its position and its context downtown. “

They both think the building would have been saved if the store closed today.

Kraemer says  the challenge right now is it’s a giant site and “Someday I think something great will go there, but I think we lost an opportunity.”

But some opportunities have not been lost.  Kraemer’s company worked to restore the Broderick Tower…and is currently working on the Whitney Building.

One tarnished jewel Kraemer would like to tackle – the Book Tower on Washington Boulevard and Grand River. “That’s the key one to be developed, I think it’s the single biggest empty building in downtown.”

He sees turning it into 300 apartments, along with retail and other elements, “That would be the largest development downtown in a long time, so it scares the classic financing community.”

Kraemer would also like to see the Wurlitzer building gleaming again.

Not every building is worth saving – for instance the Hotel Charlevoix was unsound.

But the successful renovations of buildings like the book Cadillac, and the opera house  give us hope that some of Detroit’s tarnished jewels can be returned to their original luster.






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  1. Jeff Poling July 12, 2013

    I have been very fortune to have traveled to Europe and to have seen London, Paris, Rome, Venice and several other historic cities. Even though their buildings are many centuries old, they are maintained with loving care. They value what they have. Somehow, someway they manage to find the funds to preserve the architecture and their history. Why can’t Detroit do the same?

    I recently learned that not only Scott Fountain on Belle Isle, but Dodge Fountain in the middle of Hart Plaza have been stripped of their copper plumbing by scrappers! The street lights have suffered the same fate. How can this possibly happen? Can anything be more visable? Where are the police? Someone must have seen this happening. Why didn’t they report it?

    I can only conclude that the people of this city don’t care. Hudson’s may not have been an architectural masterpiece but it was world class. It represented everything that was worthholding on to – quality, loyalty, pride, character and respect. When Hudson’s came down, Detroit lost all of that – and the people cheered.

    Detroit is now virtually bankrupt and while we can easily blame factors beyond are control, it is our declining character, our lack of responsibility and absense of pride which have brought us here. The decay of our buildings, the inclination to look the other way while others destroy is proof of that.

    We still have architectural beauty left – the Guardian Bldg, the Fisher Bldg and a few others. How long before we look the other way while scrappers do their work?


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