The Detroit Free Press
April 4, 2001


Preservationists winners & losers

Penobscot Building, Orchestra Hall have been restored.
Old City Hall, Hudson's building were torn down

By Maureen McDonald / Special to The Detroit News / photo David Choates

The Penobscot looks as dazzling as an ingenue in its new after-five lighting. The Michigan Central Depot just gained an 11th-hour save from Detroit City Council, thanks to Mandy Maroun, the bankroller, and Douglas MacIntosh, the architect.

Preservationist Lowell Boileau sits in front of the former Parke-Davis Building designed by Albert Kahn. The building was renovated and is part of Stroh River Place.

Preservation Wayne member Jim Turner is proud the beautiful architecture of Orchestra Hall has been preserved.

Preservationists collectively weep for Ford Auditorium, a structure on the Detroit River facing an imminent wrecking ball.

If Detroit would hold an Academy Award celebration for its stellar, last minute saves of doomed buildings or for its tragic failures, what structures would be included?
On Detroit posed this question to several preservationists, including Lowell Boileau, who rates his best and worst with poetic and photographic embellishment on his Web site, DetroitYES and Katherine Clarkson and Jim Turner, the pillars of Preservation Wayne, which sponsors annual awards to revitalizing efforts around town. Other panelists were Stewart McMillin, who leads architectural and cultural tours around Detroit, and Michael Davis, former president of the Detroit Historical Society and a longtime member of the Algonquin Club, the Windsor-Detroit historic group.
Here are some of their suggestions:

Penobscot Building
The Penobscot Building, on Congress and Griswold, vintage 1928, was sinking lower in the morass of Class B office space when Capstone Advisors, a San Diego firm, arrived in 1998 and sunk $10 million into sandblasting and renovating. McMillin conducts walking tours of downtown, showing how the firm lights up the top 19 floors every night in art deco style. Inside offices have been converted to high tech office suites.

GAR Building
In 1895 the veterans of the Civil War erected a building to reminisce about the Grand Army of the Republic with friends and family. The GAR Building has stood empty for 20 years while warring factions battle over turning the castle-like structure into a theme bar or restoring it as a military museum. Lack of a clear title is the biggest hindrance, according to Davis, who studied the building for a doctoral thesis.

Packard Plant
The Packard Plant, a 37-acre complex at East Grand Boulevard and Mt. Elliott, built in 1904, has been used minimally since the last cars rolled off the line in 1956. Clarkson notes the owners, Dominic and Robin Cristini are recruiting funds to transform the building into an auto museum, technology park and racetrack venue, but for many years the city of Detroit stood in the way.

Stroh River Place
Peter Stroh and family members plowed $100 million, beginning in 1985, into renovating the defunct, 100-year-old Parke Davis laboratories at Jos. Campau and the Detroit River into Stroh River Place, a multi-use space with loft apartments, a four-star restaurant, Class A offices, hotel and parking structure. Turner said it is one of the most sizable preservation projects in the city.

Michigan Theater
The Michigan Theater on Bagley was built in 1926 to entertain 4,000 movie patrons in palatial style. In 1977 part of it was converted to a parking structure and the remainder into an office building. Clarkson takes participants of Preservation Wayne's annual downtown theater tour through the structure, where pigeons fly past crumbling frescos. Several other theaters downtown are mothballed and crumbling.

Orchestra Hall
Orchestra Hall on Woodward Avenue was saved from the wrecking ball in the mid-1970s when a bassoon player pleaded with the city not to put a fast-food joint on a building designed by national architect C. Howard Crane. Turner glows with pride as he tells how investors have pumped millions into the theater and the adjacent Orchestra Place, which now boasts rehearsal space, a four-star restaurant and new deli. Condominiums are rising nearby.

Gem and Century Theatres
The unanimous choice of a winning restoration by historians and preservationists is the Gem and Century Theatres on Madison. These twin buildings were rotting their way into ruin when Charles Forbes bought the property in the late 1970s. He won a suit against the Ilitch family in the early 1990s and plowed all the money into moving the building to 333 Madison, next to the venerable Detroit Athletic Club. Now it's a hot venue for theater and club goers.

Old Detroit City Hall

The old Detroit City Hall, built in 1871 and torn down in 1961 to make way for a new chrome and glass skyscraper, represented a first step in a long series of downtown tear downs, according to Davis, who worked in vain to stop it.

Hudson's building
The Hudson's Building on Woodward Avenue at Farmer, erected in 1891, was imploded in October 1998, after more than 14 years of neglect. Hundreds of preservationists tried -- to no avail-- to stop the process and convert the building to lofts and theme restaurants. Boileau boasts of the best demolition photographs. See his Web site,

Wayne County Building
The Wayne County Building, a majestic Beau-Arts structure built in 1902 and restored in 1986, features the majestic bronze Victory and Progress statues of mythic figures, horses and a chariot on the roof. It also has carved ornamentation of cherubs and wreathes. The renovation respected the integrity of the structure especially the marble council chambers -- converted to a temporary courthouse for the 1996 movie Hoffa.

What other buildings are in grave risk? Ford Auditorium, a $2.5 million structure built in 1955 on the river, faces an imminent wrecking ball. The Ford Highland Park Plant, (1909) home of the $5-a-day wage, is surrounded by shopping plazas. Tiger Stadium (1890) has yet to find a new use now that the Tigers play in Comerica Park. Cass Technical High School is worn out and city fathers are seeking a new building.

"In other words, the infrastructure of the city is endangered because the city doesn't have enough tax base," said Katherine Clarkson, executive director of Preservation Wayne.