While looking to a bright future, Detroit also is embracing its dynamic past. During the height of the automotive boom of the 20th century, many incredible buildings were constructed, and neighborhoods with their own unique character flourished. A number of those buildings have fallen into disrepair over the years, but Detroit’s renaissance has given designers and developers new opportunities to bring these classic structures back to life.
One example is the impressive restoration of the former Strathmore Hotel. Located in the historic Willis-Selden area of Detroit, the hotel was originally built as two separate hotels in 1924 and 1925. The two buildings came under the same ownership in 1930 and the joint property was named the Strathmore.
In its early days, the Strathmore was surrounded by a flourishing working-class neighborhood that attracted scores of autoworkers. It was also part of an apartment hotel trend that began in the 1910s and ’20s. These high-density structures could house many workers and provide a place for long-term residents and short-term travelers alike.
As times changed, however, the building fell out of favor and was eventually abandoned in 2004. The windows were even removed and sold for their aluminum, so many of the upper floors of the building were left exposed to the elements for nearly a decade before the team at Detroit-based architectural firm Hamilton Anderson started to examine the prospect of restoring the building as apartments in 2012.
“Midtown Detroit Inc. partnered with St. Louis developer McCormack Baron Salazar to see if it was feasible to renovate the building,” says Sandra Laux, FAIA, with Hamilton Anderson. “Our first step in 2012 was to come up with a concept plan, which would identify the number of units, the size of the units and a basic plan for the ground floor. This would enable us to create a financing document and to pursue historic tax credits and HUD development funds.”
In surveying the building, the renovation team quickly discovered it had quite a challenge ahead of it. On the exterior, most of the windows were gone, graffiti marred the façade, the brick was in questionable shape, and the picture inside was even more grim.
“The building was covered with debris throughout the corridors and throughout every room,” Laux recalls. “It was dark, we had flashlights and we were sometimes wading through water. We, at one point, thought there was green carpet, but it was actually moss. All kinds of life had been through the building.”
Road to Recovery
Every building retrofit has its challenges because of the simple fact that an old design is being adapted to serve a contemporary intent. But in the case of the Strathmore, the design and construction team had to walk a narrow tightrope between often competing design goals.
On one hand, the building was in rough shape and needed a lot of work just to be habitable, much less attractive to potential tenants. Graffiti had to be cleaned up, the brick needed to be repaired in many places, and debris had to be cleared out from the interior. Floor plans were changed, and the living spaces basically needed to be reinvented.
But on the other hand, a very careful eye needed to be kept on the historic value of the building. Ultimately, the building needed a major overhaul but it couldn’t change too much or it would risk losing its historic status.
“Our big picture view was to try to live with the structure as opposed to fighting it,” Laux says. “We wanted to allow the historic character to come through. When something is new and it’s a new intervention, it still must speak to the history.”