Renovations Poised to Make Detroit Gems Sparkle

Posted on December 29, 2011

Architect Daniel Burnham designed some of the world’s first skyscrapers and has been credited with inventing urban planning. Now, a Burnham revival is taking place in downtown Detroit.

Burnham, who died in 1912, built four downtown Detroit buildings, and three remain; the other called the Majestic was demolished in 1962. Two of his surviving Detroit buildings gained new owners this year, and both plan major upgrades.

The long-empty David Whitney Building in Grand Circus Park is expected to undergo an $82 million renovation and development that may turn a four-story rotunda, with white terra cotta columns, marble floors and a glass roof, into one the city’s trendiest spots. And the real estate unit formed by Quicken Loans Inc. founder Dan Gilbert is restoring the Dime Building, which may soon get Chrysler Group LLC as a tenant. The Dime at 719 Griswold St. is a block away from the Ford Building, the other Burnham-designed building.

“Make no little plans,” is the famous quote from the Chicago architect, and it wasn’t hype. Burnham directed construction of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, commonly known as the Chicago World Fair, that inspired the “city beautiful” movement. He also created plans for Washington, D.C., Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco and Manila, Philippines — all before the creation of the profession of urban planning, which attempts to shape how and where development will grow.

Burnham is one of the main subjects of the 2004 best-seller “The Devil in the White City,” a nonfiction book by Erik Larson set in 1893 Chicago.

Burnham created more than 500 structures, including such architectural icons as the Marshall Field’s Building in Chicago, the Flatiron Building in New York, the Merchants Exchange Building in San Francisco and Union Station in Washington. His style is described as Beaux Arts, the Chicago School or simply the Burnham style.

“The David Whitney is an excellent Burnham creation,” said David Di Rita, a principal in The Roxbury Group. The Detroit development group, along with Troy-based Trans Inn Management Inc., bought the David Whitney for $3.3 million in March. Earlier this month, Aloft Hotel, part of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, announced it will open a hotel in the David Whitney, which is expected to open by July 2014.

The 19-story Whitney building may have been the last Burnham designed before he died, Di Rita said, and much of its interior is intact. That includes the four-story rotunda with a glass roof in the building’s center. The area would serve as both the hotel lobby and location for two bars and a restaurant. The original exterior, which was redesigned in 1959, will be restored.

“To be able to restore this kind of building is a lot of fun,” Di Rita said.

The Dime Building doesn’t need such extension renovation, though Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services, co-owned by Jim Ketai, is fixing some of the building’s empty 14 floors. The building opened in 1919 and is 58 percent leased, according to CoStar, a commercial real estate information service. Bedrock has purchased eight downtown buildings this year. Gilbert has vowed to fill the buildings with a mix of retail and tech-oriented firms.

Chrysler Group LLC is close to signing a lease for a small office space in the Dime Building, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. Chrysler is said to be interested in leasing about 20,000 square feet, which amounts to about 11/2 floors of space. That amount of space usually accommodates 100 to 120 workers, said John DeGroot, vice president of research for the Southfield office of Grubb & Ellis.

Kalamazoo-based Rehmann, an accounting, consulting and financial services firm, has agreed to set up an office in the Dime Building, but it’s not clear how many workers the firm will have in the space.

By Louis Aguilar – Detroit News