Whither Madison-Lenox?

Feb 5, 2003 at 12:00 am

Two people stand on a sidewalk in downtown Detroit staring at a once-majestic but now sadly decaying building. Citizen No. 1 says, “Tear it down.” Citizen No. 2: “Save it.”

And so it goes. Yin, yang; up, down; the distant drumbeats of demolition morph into jackhammers and wrecking balls, and, as ever, Detroit is at the center of a save-the-building debate. Despite hundreds of pre-war structures aching to be restored, the pre-eminent enzyme in downtown development formulas always boils down to the unrestrained need to tear down one of these beloved buildings, eradicate an indelible slice of the past, and replace it with (ta-da!) a parking lot.

It’s a Manichaean-meets-Motown dichotomy, inevitably portrayed in the media as a black-and-white battle between well-meaning-but-naive preservationists and business-minded capitalists. But it’s never that simple.

The bull’s eye here is the uniquely situated Madison-Lenox Hotel, directly across from the Detroit Athletic Club. The Madison-Lenox drew the ire of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick as he sauntered down the steps of the Athletic Club in November. Taking a hard look across the street, the mayor wagged the proverbial digit and noted that “eyesores” like the Madison-Lenox need to go.

But how did the Madison-Lenox reach its current state? Who’s responsible? Why is it necessary to replace it with a parking lot? And why is the city loaning $700,000 to finance its demolition by those so-called dedicated “preservationists,” the Ilitch family, which still coasts on the now-distant renovation of the Fox while simultaneously sitting on countless historic structures across downtown and allowing them to rot? Apparently, one Fox restoration can get you a lot of leeway in downtown slumlord circles. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

With its double-wide expanse, turn-of-the-century architecture, mature trees and landscaped boulevard, Madison Avenue from Grand Circus Park to Music Hall offers a glimpse into the Detroit city scene of the early 1900s. The Albert Kahn-designed Detroit Athletic Club, the Opera House, the Gem Theater/ Century Club and Music Hall are all beautifully restored and preserved masterpieces. Each freestanding structure casts a century-long shadow on the avenue.

In addition, there’s the promising 1902 Fred Butzel Building, just beyond Comerica Park’s right field, which maintains an occupied presence while developers salivate over its location.

With the Ford Field/Hudson’s warehouse nearby, as well as the peripatetic Elwood Bar around the corner, this little stretch of downtown pavement has the potential to be the single concentrated adaptive reuse/historic preservation showpiece for Detroit. A 1996 report prepared for the city by Zachary & Associates called this stretch of Madison “an important historic resource due to its boulevarded appearance,” which “did not come under the same development pressures, thus preserving the earlier architecture.”

In the middle of this “historic resource” lies the Madison-Lenox, with its red brick and green-accented facade, desperately trying to keep up with its carefully coiffed neighbors. After withstanding the ravages of the elements as well as the negligent stewardship of its owners, it’s a surprise the building has lasted as long as it has.

The Madison was built in 1900 as a high-class residential hotel, with 300 rooms divided into 64 suites (each with a private bath). The adjacent Lenox was added three years later, and the entire complex was considered Detroit’s most fashionable residential hotel.

In 1993, architect David Schervish, the driving force behind the revitalization of Harmonie Park, took control of the building with visions of remaking it into a European-style boutique hotel. At that time, the Madison-Lenox was half-occupied, suffering with depressed rents and deferred maintenance.

Schervish, who declined to comment, shuttered the residential hotel as he attempted to line up financing to renovate it. Then the idle building embarked on its downward spiral. Around this time, the remaining windows were either broken out or removed, allowing the elements to invade the building, further accelerating the decaying process.

The property was still in relatively decent shape then, as evidenced by the Zachary & Associates report. Ernie Zachary, the firm’s president, says the twin eight-story buildings were structurally sound when the 1996 report was completed, and could be rehabilitated as a hotel or apartments. Even now, observes Zachary, “I don’t consider myself a preservationist per se, but maintaining the environment and character of better older buildings can give downtown a different and more attractive look.”

Around 1997, the property changed hands, and the Ilitch family’s Olympia Development took control, as the Ilitches amassed area real estate holdings in anticipation of Comerica Park’s opening. A sign hung on the Madison-Lenox indicating it was for lease. I called the number on the sign, and I have spoken with others who called it. We never heard back, though the sign is still there.

In 1999, Embassy Suites was said to be interested in the Madison-Lenox. I contacted Al Sebastian of Olympia, who denied the rumors, commenting that company was in the process of “master planning” its downtown real estate holdings. Apparently, that “master plan” basically involved sitting on buildings and letting them molder, with the Madison-Lenox and the once-glorious United Artists theater on Bagley being just two of the more egregious examples.

Now, fast forward another year, and we find that the master plan is paying off, as the Detroit Downtown Development (or is that Demolition?) Authority is loaning the Ilitches $700,000 to demolish the Madison-Lenox so a parking lot can be built.

Denise Ilitch declined my request for an interview, but issued a prepared statement, which asserts that “Olympia Development reviewed many proposals regarding the Madison-Lenox site, and the decision was made to demolish the building so the space can be used for much-needed parking that features landscaping, lighting and paving. There is a greater demand for parking in the area.” Moreover, she adds, it’s “not economically feasible for the structures to be restored. The building is part concrete and part wood, and all portions of the wood are completely rotted. The structure also is filled with hazardous materials, including asbestos.”

Such rationale could easily lead to the demolition of entire city blocks.

In any case, others hotly contest Ilitch’s analysis. People who have been inside tell me that while the top floor has some water damage due to a hole in the roof, the lower floors are in relatively good shape.

Although few are willing to go public and combat the Ilitches on the issue, it is particularly galling to those working to restore other structures to see the city loaning the Ilitch family $700,000 to destroy buildings, especially when the only thing replacing it is a parking lot … oh, wait, correct that, “ a landscaped, lighted and paved parking lot.” Much better.

Wait till the folks at the DAC get a look at the butt end of the Milner Hotel and the Harmonie Club — both of which will be exposed once the Madison-Lenox comes down. Be careful what you wish for, Mayor K. — that view is only getting worse.

According to Ann Arbor builder Fred Beal, who walked through the Madison-Lenox two summers ago with developer Jon Carlson, the $700,000 the Ilitches are getting to demolish the building could go a long way toward stabilizing and preserving the entire structure with windows and a roof, as well as getting started on basic improvements.

Carlson was enamored with the building, and was convinced it could be restored. His subsequent calls to Olympia following the inspection, however, were never returned. Carlson tells me he still wants to show Olympia how it could use historical tax credits and other financing tools to preserve the building.

Beal now estimates that a total renovation into a half hotel/half apartment project with attached parking structure would cost approximately $21 million (remember, devout readers, parking garages downtown are costing $17 million to $40 million).

In a downtown desperate to attract residents, it is inconceivable that a property such as this would be torn down for a parking lot. The Madison-Lenox is clearly at the epicenter of the Detroit entertainment scene. Residents could walk out their door to the opera, to a football game, to Harmonie Park, to Greektown. Performers at the Gem and Opera House would have a nearby address for temporary lodgings.

Equally important, the historic Madison streetscape would remain intact.

Detroit architect Douglas Mcintosh of Mcintosh & Poris, the incoming president of Preservation Wayne, notes that “if you crunch the numbers, even in the long run, it’s absolutely astounding how foolish it is to tear down the Madison-Lenox and replace it with surface parking.” Mcintosh says he would welcome the opportunity to sit down with the Ilitch organization and make his case.

It’s a sad commentary when a city which purports to be desperate for hotel space, which is welcoming a skeptical Super Bowl crowd here in 2006, would plow this building under and replace it with a surface lot.

It’s even sadder when $700,000 in public funding is loaned to a resource-rich organization like Olympia Development to accomplish this act.

And a parking lot awaits. Et tu, Little Caesar?

Casey Coston writes about development in downtown Detroit. E-mail him at [email protected]