A ghost hovered over a table at the rear of the Motown Café and Grille last Saturday as a handful of preservationists gathered for their monthly meeting to discuss and — they hope — help shape the future of Detroit’s Book-Cadillac Hotel.
Opened in 1924, the 30-story Italian Renaissance architectural gem at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Washington Boulevard suffers the effects of neglect, pillaging and exposure that occurred during the 18 years it’s been shuttered.
Still, the elegant, ornate building, with its sculptures of Detroit historical figures standing guard over one entryway, is especially revered by those who advocate for renovation over demolition. Designed by architect Louis Kamper and billed at one point as the tallest hotel on earth, the B-C has a storied past, having played host to presidents from Truman to Nixon, Danish royalty and movie stars such as Errol Flynn and Spencer Tracy.
Those glory days faded as Detroit’s population declined and, after failed attempts to revive it, the hotel closed in 1984. Title is still held by the bankrupt Cadillac Associates Partnership, but the city has the legal right to name the partnership’s controlling owner and set parameters for what can and cannot be done with the building, according to Peter Zeiller of the Downtown Development Authority.
The DDA, a quasi-public agency, is overseeing a study to determine whether the building is salvageable, but preservationists who’ve formed Friends of the Book-Cadillac are confident the building is structurally sound enough to be saved — provided the political will to promote reuse can be summoned.
“Time and time again, there are examples from cities all over America where these types of beautiful old buildings are being renovated for reuse,” says Steve Haag, a 32-year-old Hamtramck resident and chair of Friends of the Book-Cadillac, a nonprofit group with about 35 members that formed in November.
Haag and the Friends hope that by “agitating” they will be able to create enough public pressure to keep the structure. Which is where the poltergeist of preservation efforts past comes in. Several Book-Cadillac aficionados also toiled to keep the mammoth Hudson’s building in the heart of downtown from demolition. By the time preservationists mounted a full-scale attempt to save Hudson’s, its fate was sealed. Developers were turned away without even being given a chance to air their plans because the administration of Mayor Dennis Archer had determined Hudson’s must come down to make room for what became the Campus Martius project, anchored by the new Compuware headquarters now nearing completion.
The Book-Cadillac may suffer from neglect, but it’s not yet dead, and its supporters hope that the lessons learned during the Hudson’s campaign will help them this time out.
“It was like Hudson’s had a mark on it,” says FOBC member Dan Kosmowski, 21, of Detroit. “It was going to come down no matter what. But we know how to play the game better now. If we can get information about the Book-Cadillac out, get a plan out there with money behind it, things will be different this time.”
But it’s not just capital-starved preservationists who advocate renovating the Book-Cadillac. Doug McIntosh, a partner in the Detroit architecture firm McIntosh/Poris, says his company is working with the Hilton hotel chain and Acquest Realty Advisors on a comprehensive plan for the building that includes a combination of hotels and condominiums, with restaurants and retail shops on the street level.
“There’s no doubt in our minds that this building is salvageable,” says McIntosh. “This is an ideal building for the reuses being proposed.” Renovation costs are projected at $100 million to $150 million. Marriott Hotels is also developing a plan for the building, says McIntosh.
Like the members of FOBC, McIntosh hopes that by getting out in front of the politicians and redevelopment bureaucrats, Book-Cadillac can escape the fate of Hudson’s.
Also working in favor of the Book is that its size, 630,000 usable square feet, is much more manageable than Hudson’s, 2.2 million square feet. If Hudson’s had been converted to something such as lofts, as was discussed, it could have overwhelmed the market and inhibited any similar development nearby. That wouldn’t be the case for the Book-Cadillac.
The building has definitely taken a beating over the years. The upper floors have extensive water damage. Heating and cooling systems are out of date. Two levels of basement are flooded. Nonetheless, supporters of renovation say they will be shocked if the building is found to be fundamentally unsound.
“Structurally, that building has about twice the amount of steel that’s needed to support its size and weight,” says architect Lucas McGrail, a member of FOBC.
The building, which is part of the Washington Boulevard Historic District, has already survived the first stage of evaluation, which involved a comprehensive visual inspection. Now, with preservationists seeking to get it local designation as a historic structure, tests are under way to determine the strength of the building’s steel and concrete, as well as the exterior condition and the extent of any hazardous materials such as asbestos, lead and mercury.
That phase of the study is expected to be completed within several weeks.
Although a new administration occupies the mayor’s office, preservationists and others familiar with the Hudson’s saga worry that destructive forces may again be at work behind the scenes. Officially, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is taking a wait-and-see position.
“Since assessment is going on to determine the status of structure, the mayor doesn’t have a preference at this point,” says Kilpatrick spokesman Jamaine Dickens. “If the building is structurally sound, he would like to see it redeveloped — if that’s feasible to a business. If not, he would like to see it come down so that something else could be put in its place. It’s all contingent upon the assessment.”
There is a third possibility: The building could be deemed viable but requisite development plans and financing might not materialize. In that case, the building could be “mothballed” to stave off further deterioration until a workable plan is created.
That, however, is the least desirable scenario from the city’s perspective. There is a keen interest in revitalizing the area around the Book-Cadillac, and the longer it remains in limbo, the more difficult that is, says Zeiller, who managed the Book-Cadillac analysis for the Downtown Development Authority.
“We need a resolution one way or the other,” says Zeiller. “As it is now, this building is a drag on development in that area. We’ve had a number of developers doing some preliminary tire-kicking around there, but the future of the Book-Cadillac has to be resolved before anything will happen.”
More information about the group Friends of the Book-Cadillac can be found on the Web at www.book-cadillac.org.Curt Guyette is the Metro Times news editor. Call 313-202-8004 or e-mail [email protected]