Post-industrial deluxe

The sun pours through skylights made from car windshields. A small plane wing serves as a handrail along an interior balcony. Steel joists and driveshafts form two crooked columns. And layers of aluminum cover the wall along an oak staircase.

Despite the building’s dramatic decor, I barely notice it when I first enter the doors of the Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA) on West Vernor. After all, I’m not here to admire the neighborhood organization’s unique penchant for industrial scraps. This news reporter is after a story and heading to the SDBA to meet with a source. But the smooth metal catches me off guard, quietly requesting my attention — and temporarily knocking me off the track of my original mission.

I examine the wall’s grand aluminum and raw-wood slats. Where did the builders find the large steel grill that also serves as a balcony handrail? And what about the amorphous metal form poised on the first floor and shooting up through the second? Unable to comprehend what is before me, I conclude that the nonprofit used this odd assortment of junk scraps to renovate the nearly 70-year-old building because that’s all it could do. Not until I’m sitting in a red-carpeted waiting room between two driveshafts (my favorite features) does the truth settle in: This intriguing vista is not the result of a cash-flow problem, but bold intent.

“We think of ourselves as an industrial and working community, and incorporated that in the design and interior of the building,” says Kathy Wendler, SDBA president.

The mission of the 43-year-old nonprofit, nestled in the heart of the Latino community, is to revitalize neighborhood commercial districts. The group also restores historic buildings, and fosters community planning and partnerships between businesses, government agencies and residents on the southwest side.

Wendler, who has headed the program 16 years, says that in 1995 the organization decided to venture into real-estate development when it took on the building it currently occupies. The group didn’t intend to purchase the 14,000-square-foot structure until Wendler’s longtime friend Stephen Vogel persuaded her. Vogel, dean of the architecture school at the University of Detroit Mercy, suggested that his students — and a few from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada — design and renovate the building’s interior. The SDBA bought the building for $80,000.

“They asked us how we were going to use the building and what our vision of the community was,” says Wendler about the 17 students who worked on the project. After laying out an initial plan, the class drove to nearby junkyards to gather car parts and other pieces to incorporate into the design. Plane wings came from a scrap yard near the Willow Run plant. Some pieces were scavenged from vacant buildings, such as the sensually curved steel structure that rises up from the first-floor lobby. The enormous piece is Vogel’s favorite. He suspects that the steel was contorted from intense heat.

“I think there is a natural aesthetic that comes from found objects in the urban environment,” says Vogel. And Detroit is a natural place for finding material, with its wealth of vacant buildings and scrap yards, he says.

The exposed wood planks that line the walls of the office lobby give the room a warm, earthy feel. Handrails — perhaps from the nearby crumbling train station — line portions of the interior balcony. An immense plane wing occupies an entire wall of the conference room. Even the bathrooms incorporate the old and new, with broken blue and green tiles forming a mosaic collage along fresh white walls. Textured metal cradles the sinks.

The building’s interior not only reflects its urban setting, but the SDBA’s vision for the area.

“We wanted to create a first-class space,” says Wendler. She explains that the nonprofit’s building should be an example of what is possible for the neighborhood.

Before the $1.3 million renovation — which includes engineering, legal, accounting and other costs — the building’s second floor had not been occupied for about five years; the roof leaked; there was no central air; the plumbing and heating had to be replaced and the second-floor structural loads were off by about a foot. So SDBA installed steel reinforcement beams to prevent the building from moving.

“It’s not easy to get a building into this condition when there has been no investment in it for about 50 years,” Wendler says.

Unfortunately, few have seen the SDBA’s interior since it was renovated. But those who do, says Wendler, are blown away.

Present company included.

Be sure to visit the Southwest Detroit Business Association at 7752 W. Vernor, Detroit — Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., or call 313-842-0986.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]
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