building on a foundation.
Whether trekking toward a late-night Coney Dog, visiting the Auto Show, or just taking a stroll through Downtown, most Detroiters have, at some point, wandered by the stunning five-story brick and terra cotta building located at 250 West Larned Street.
What many of those Detroiters might not have known, though, is that for nearly 175 years the site was the headquarters for the Detroit Fire Department.
When they moved out in 2013, Chicago based Aparium Hotel Group purchased the building and announced plans to transform it into a 100-room boutique hotel. Four years of revitalization later, the Detroit Foundation Hotel opened its doors for the first time and became an overnight sensation with visitors and residents alike.
Bob Lambert has been managing the hotel since its opening, but he was building a hospitality business foundation long before he took the position.
“I’ve been in the business my whole life. I was born in California but actually grew up in West Germany, living in a restaurant my family was running. It was an Italian steakhouse — in Germany — so it was kind of an interesting place to grow up. I moved back to the states for college and worked at a restaurant as a server and sauté cook. After graduating, they made me a manager, and my career just grew from there. I’ve since worked at hotels in Las Vegas, Orlando, Miami and Washington D.C. — so big destination markets — but I came to Detroit because I wanted to be involved in a project that would be a part of the city’s culture.”
In fact, it was precisely that culture that drew Lambert to the city in the first place.
“I actually knew about Detroit’s resurgence before I moved here so when Aparium called about the opportunity I was happy to take the leap. In addition, we have family in the region so the geography was not entirely new.
It seems that leap of faith has paid off for Lambert.
“It’s been awesome so far. I mean there’s still room for improvement — I drive around all the time thinking, ‘If I hit another pothole I’m going to lose my mind!’ But that’s also what gives the city some character… From a business standpoint, we couldn’t have had a better year in few months of operation. The city has fully embraced our hotel, and the people here are truly some of the most genuine I’ve met in all the cities I’ve lived.”
As for the hotel itself, Lambert says the idea was born out of a practical need, but soon became something more.
“We initially wanted to do a project here because the market is very under-served when it comes to hotels. But the Aparium Hotel Group has Detroit ties, so the fact that we were able to purchase such an iconic building and do an adaptive reuse project, rather than build something from the ground up, was really special. There's a story behind that building, and even though its function is different today, that story lives on in this new space. We can be the ambassadors of all those people that came from before us — the people who occupied it or even took field trips there as kids — we can continue to tell those stories and be a part of that... That's the business model we try to embrace.”
That commitment to keeping those stories alive while writing a new chapter is evident throughout the hotel — from the design and décor to the food, and even the staff.
“We put a huge emphasis on maintaining the existing history of the building, and whatever modern amenities we’ve added, are designed to compliment that, not destroy it. For example, the original glazed brick and concrete floors throughout the property are still intact. Or, if you look at an original photo from 1929, you’ll see fire trucks parked in what’s now our restaurant and bar, The Apparatus Room. And, of course, the overall ‘industrial chic’ design was also inspired by the city’s industrial past.”
But besides drawing design inspiration from the city, the team also made it a point to utilize the wealth of talent in the Detroit area when bringing the space to life.
“We made a point to collaborate with local talent on this project. In fact, we have forty-five collaborations within the hotel right now. We sourced the wood for our headboards from local architectural salvage warehouses… We’re currently showing work by a local artist, Lisa Spindler, throughout the space… Urban Ashes created many of our tables, chairs and hostess stands... All of it has helped create what we have now, and you can feel that authenticity when you walk into the building.”
But that local thread is woven through more than just the building itself.
“Our Head Chef is originally from Battle Creek and has built relationships with a number of local suppliers. So, much of our food — from veal to vegetables to eggs — is sourced locally. We're not getting our eggs from Sysco — we're getting them from Al Kobiyashi in Mason, Michigan... It's really about supporting everybody in the local marketplace…Many of our associates are from Michigan, and they’re proud to be a part of what we’re doing here. But they’re even more proud of what’s happening in the city overall, and I think you can sense that as a guest of the hotel.”
Beyond raising the bar for hotels in the city, the Foundation is a business that makes outsiders not only take notice of Detroit but — as Lambert did — consider taking a chance on the opportunities it has to offer. But he does offer a word of caution to those considering making a move to the Motor City…
“There's a lot of opportunity in Detroit, so it’s a good time to be here from a business standpoint. But I also think that if you come here to do business, you should do it authentically and genuinely. Because if you’re not doing that in Detroit, it’s going to be recognized very quickly. You need to come here and embrace what the city has been through and what it has to offer. So, don't come here to capitalize on the city; come here to contribute to the city.”