Still Standing: The Russell Industrial Center is thriving

1600 Russell St., Detroit;; 313-872-4000Russell Industrial Center

The cool thing about the Russell Industrial Center is that on the outside, it doesn't look like much. It looks pretty beat up. It looks like it might even be abandoned. But inside is a culture and community that is thriving, utilizing a space that's nearly 100 years old, a space that was meant for something completely different.

Construction for the Russell Industrial Center started in 1915. It wasn't completed until 11 years later in 1926. Albert Kahn, the same guy who designed the Fisher, the Griswold Building, the Garden Court Apartments, and many other historically significant sites, laid the plans for the Russell Industrial Center. John William Murray commissioned him to build it for the Murray Body Company, but by the time the building was finished, business had already decreased so much, the company no longer needed the sprawling space.

The Russell encompasses seven buildings and 2.2 million square feet. It's huge.

But that space didn't go to waste, even though it was essentially unnecessary to the Murray Body Company by the time it was finished. In fact, the Russell has had many purposes and uses in its nearly 100 years. During World War II it was used to manufacture airplane parts and other military supplies. Wings for the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B29 Superfortress were made here, and by the end of the war 13,000 people worked in the complex.

After the war, Murray got into the print business and renamed it the Michigan Stamping Plant. He leased space to printers and printing companies until the space was finally sold in the 1970s. Harry and Leona Helmsley owned the space for 20 years, during which time a tornado destroyed several parts of the building in the '80s. Insurance money covered the building's renovation, including upgrading some windows — you can tell the parts of the complex that were left untouched because they have the original leaded-glass windows. The Helmsleys sold the complex to Wintor Swan in 1991. The company printed catalogues for Kmart, but only lasted in the space for six years.

In 2003 Dennis Kefallinos bought the Center. Originally he only hoped to purchase one of its buildings, but a week before the entire space was to be closed, he decided to buy the lot.

Eric Novack is the Russell's senior project manager. He's worked there on and off since Kefallinos took ownership over a decade ago. He oversees the massive space and leases studios to artists, photographers, woodworkers, metal fabricators, painters, and musicians. Those studio spaces are the Russell Industrial Center's main purpose now.

"The reason we're not the Packard Plant is because of the artists," says Novack. "Dennis has always been a proponent of the arts."

The Arts Building, where all the studios are located, was the last to be finished during the original construction of the Russell Industrial Center. Now, it's probably one of the most active parts of the complex. In fact, it's the largest artistic community in the Midwest. Over 140 artists have studios here, spaces that range from 1,200 square feet to 20,000. The spaces are built to suit, meaning tenants can do anything from rip up the floor to install a loft. Some spaces have kitchens, bars, living rooms, or even a place to crash if artists are working late. The Russell is pet-friendly, so you'll likely encounter a furry friend, as well as any number of artists of any number of mediums, in the building.

Though the artist studios are a big component of the Russell's success, the complex continues to be used for myriad purposes. In fact, that seems to be the spaces' fate to have no singular identity. The exhibition center, a 36,000-square-foot space with a capacity of nearly 2,000, hosts auto show parties yearly. The 2014 Corvette Stingray was actually revealed here. Many Hollywood films have been shot on the grounds and interior of the Russell. Vanishing on 7th Street, Transformers 4, Hostile 3, and Crave were all shot here. Eminem recorded his "Rap God" video here, as well as his MTV promos.

The weekends see the Russell Trade Center become a place for commerce. Sixty vendors hawk anything from clothing and shoes to vintage finds to basement bargains. In weeks leading up to Black Friday, the Rummage at the Russell happens every weekend. Vendors pack the trade center, purging old home goods and clothing to make way for the materialistic onslaught of Christmas.

Next year the Russell Industrial Center will celebrate 100 years. In the century it has stood, it's seen many uses. In the next 100 years, it will surely see just as many more.

About The Author

Alysa Zavala-Offman

Alysa Zavala-Offman is the managing editor of Detroit Metro Times. She lives in the downriver city of Wyandotte with her husband, toddler, mutt, and two orange cats.
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