finding our foundation.
For nearly 100 years, Detroit’s City Hall was its crown jewel. The decade-long construction cost roughly $15 million by today’s standards and was heralded as a municipal masterpiece.
In the years that followed, however, evolving architectural trends, tightening safety codes and rising maintenance costs put the building’s future in jeopardy. Then, in the summer of 1961, after decades of debate, the decision was made to demolish Old City Hall in favor of a modern skyscraper, which still stands today on the corner of Woodward and Jefferson.
Indeed, debates about preservation are nothing new in Detroit; and as development continues to transform historic areas of the city, they are likely to continue.
For years, Marisa Gaggino has found inspiration and opportunity amid the rubble of those debates, salvaging and repurposing relics from the city’s bygone buildings to sell at her store, Heritage Co II Architectural Artifacts, in Royal Oak. It’s work that is as much about purpose as it is profit.
“My older sister is married to a guy that started a salvaging business in Kalamazoo, so I learned about historic preservation from him. As I got deeper into the work, it became sort of a political mission to raise awareness in Detroit about the heritage we were losing by taking down all these buildings with no thought as to what we were sacrificing.”
Similarly, her husband and longtime creative partner, Rick Gage, has always been inspired by the inherent creativity he observed growing up near the City.
“The automotive industry had such a huge impact on Detroit and its people. Whether someone was working on the line, or designing machines and machine parts, there was this whole tiered system of creativity. Of course, the industry also brought in money, which, in turn, brought in outside cultural influences that were reflected in our architectural sensibilities at the time. So, people who didn't or couldn’t travel outside Detroit were able to see that breadth of architecture and design — from the Italian Renaissance to Albert Kahn — and be influenced by it.”
Marisa points out that, today, much of that architecture — and the distinctive communities it helped create — has been eroded by either the hands of developers, or simply the hands of time.
“There’s still good historical stock downtown, but as you go beyond it, so much has been lost, like the beautiful Victorian homes in Brush Park.” She says. “Despite investment in some new urban developments like the City Modern Townhomes, you cannot manufacture community. The cities that have strong communities are the ones that have kept their landmark buildings while knitting in new development. It’s what makes places thrive, gives them distinct personalities, vibrant and diverse cultures. That’s what people are drawn to and that’s what makes them stay.”
One major reason we can’t manufacture community is the financial realities of building or rebuilding the sort of spaces that fostered them in the first place.
“You just can't really build incredible things as cost-effectively or sustainably today. The Wayne State Business School looks great because Illitch had the money to do it, but otherwise, it’s hard to find investors who understand the value of design enough to justify the expense that comes with using quality materials and hiring great talent to build it. That’s why modern design is more focused on sustainability and affordability rather than aesthetics.”
“It reminds me of the ‘70s when E.P.A. regulations were coming into the auto industry.” Says Rick. “At that time, priorities shifted from design to technology to keep pace with those regulations, so we had some really sad looking cars. The state of architecture today is similar in that we have these ‘rubber stamp’ signature features like certain awning styles or window looks… I think that’s what happens when there’s limited money to invest in large projects.”
Thus, a paradigm shift back to craftsmanship on large-scale projects is unlikely — but according to Rick, the abundance of small-scale projects in Detroit present big opportunities for creative designers.
“Creativity can happen on a smaller scale because the money usually comes from private investors who can afford to be more thoughtful. DuCharme Place is a great example of how that level of investment pays off in terms of who it attracts. These types of developments bring in outside investment and that I think that’s what can squash this suburban detail, plug-and-play architecture that I see happening. That said, I also think we have many architectural firms here that are up to that creative task; they just haven’t been given the free reign to do it.”
“Definitely.” Says Marisa. “Just look at what McIntosh Poris Associates did with the Detroit Foundation Hotel. It really shows how much value a historic building like that can have versus a blank piece of land. You really can’t build that old fire station anymore, even if you had the money, because the people who knew those traditional building crafts hardly exist and not enough people are taking them up.”
But whether it's reviving classic buildings or starting from scratch, the expectation that Detroit’s development will seed a new slew of modern architectural marvels is somewhat unrealistic. But if you consider Rick and Marisa’s perspective, that’s OK, because much of the potential for more character-rich developments can still be realized by smaller, private investors with a keen eye for design.
More than that though, in a city like Detroit where so many neighborhoods have fallen into decay, it can be just as beautiful to see residents old and new come together and repurpose forgotten spaces to help reinvigorate their communities — even if they can’t fully restore those spaces to their former glory.
“Another thing I think is exciting, and people are getting really interested in, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with beautiful architecture.” Says Marisa. “For example, a young couple we know started Popps Packing in Hamtramck. It was built in the 1930’s as a meat packing plant, but they took it over and transformed it into an arts venue. It’s not anything special from an architectural standpoint; what’s special is how they're using it. They host visiting artists and shows, they’re growing vegetables in the yard… It’s a cool community — and building communities will ultimately drive good aesthetic design. There are limited resources so it won’t happen overnight… But if you build upon one project, then the next one, and so on, you will begin to attract people because you’re meeting their needs — and that’s what makes that modest old place beautiful.”
Marisa and Rick agree that development at the community level can also help us build a more inclusive Detroit by honoring the respective heritages of our immigrant populations.
“I think the more architecture reflects diversity, the more effective we’re going to be in attracting the people and resources needed to address some of the bigger problems in Detroit, like education. So, we should create a city where people feel not only welcome, but truly at home. So, what does ‘home’ mean to these cultures? What are some distinctive characteristics of Lebanese, Syrian, Chaldean or Muslim cultures, and how might we share those through architecture? These are essential questions to ask as we move forward.”