March 25, 2024

When Detroit was imploding buildings, Michigan architects had another idea: Save them

JC Reindl | Detroit Free Press

Photo Credit: Ryan Garza


It was Oct. 24, 1998, and business partners Michael Poris and Douglas McIntosh of McIntosh Poris Architects weren’t feeling good about the controlled explosion that had just leveled the massive and empty J.L. Hudson store building in downtown Detroit.

Not simply for the resulting dust cloud that enveloped blocks, or the structural debris that rained down on the nearby People Mover track, forcing it out of commission for the rest of the year.

But rather for the loss of a unique and historic downtown building — once the largest department store in the world — that, in the young architects’ assessments, could have been preserved and adaptively reused with some design ingenuity and enough motivation.

If downtown Detroit was to ever experience a real resurgence, they thought, it couldn’t continue to lose all its one-of-a-kind buildings and rich architectural history.

“It was 2 million square feet — it could have been 600 lofts and a hotel and retail,” Poris, now 61, said in a recent interview.

“We actually had six developers from around the country who were like, ‘No, we’ll redevelop it.’ But nobody back then was thinking of tax credits and they just wanted it down. And people from the city actually said, ‘Come back when it’s down,’ and they were like, ‘No, you don’t understand. We want the building,’ ” he recalled.

“But it was a learning experience. It taught us how to go about saving other buildings, which we did after that.”

Much has changed since that now-famous day in Detroit history: for downtown in general, for the old Hudson’s site especially and for the Birmingham-based firm McIntosh Poris Architects, which this year is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

The architectural firm has completed hundreds of commissions in Michigan for a wide variety of projects, including designs for newly constructed apartment buildings, rehabs, adaptive reuse, private residences and restaurant designs.

Many of the projects have been in Detroit and involved historic restoration. One of the latest was the design architecture for a new multilevel sports bar in downtown Detroit, Gilly’s, at 1550 Woodward, which was conceived by Nick Gilbert, the late son of businessman Dan Gilbert, and is set to open April 5 for the Tigers opening day.

Poris, a founding partner, is now one of the firm’s three principals, along with Laurie Hughet-Hiller and John Skok. The other founder, McIntosh, died unexpectedly in July 2006 at age 44 of a pulmonary embolism.

“We like projects that make an impact,” Hughet-Hiller said. “So whether it’s designing a restaurant with impact on the community for people to come in and have fun, or a mixed-income residential development that is going to be a catalyst for more development in an area.”

The firm today has 20 employees and continues to keep McIntosh in its name.

“We wouldn’t be here without him, and he still lives on in the work we do,” Poris said of the late Doug McIntosh. “He had a big influence in the direction we went and a lot of the preservation work and the advocacy we did early on — much of it was led by Doug and driven by Doug.”

Downtown Detroit has undergone a genuine resurgence over the past 20 years and numerous once-empty buildings have come back to life. It is teeming with more activity and entertainment options than at any time since perhaps the 1960s, although the number of office workers has been down since the COVID-19 pandemic.

As for the old Hudson’s site, after the implosion the city built an underground parking garage there that opened in 2001.

Dan Gilbert’s real estate firm later bought the underground garage as well as development rights to the site, and in December 2017 broke ground on an ambitious $1.4 billion project: a 49-story skyscraper with a luxury hotel and condos, next to a wider 12-story building with office and events space. Both buildings are expected to be finished or nearly finished by the end of this year.

Childhood Friends
The cofounders of McIntosh Poris Architects grew up in Farmington Hills and were childhood friends. Poris and McIntosh each studied architecture as University of Michigan undergraduates, then left the state for further education and to start careers. Later, at McIntosh’s suggestion, they returned home to open a firm together in October 1994.

After observing how some urban areas in the country that had been struggling in the 1970s and 1980s went on to make dramatic comebacks, they saw similar potential for downtown Detroit — and wanted to be there and help with the resurgence.

“We’d seen these happen in the ’80s and early ’90s, and Detroit had sort of missed the ‘80s,” Poris said. “And we thought that was kind of a good thing, because it missed post-modern. So there were these great buildings here from the early 20th century and mid-20th century and they were still intact.”

A few of McIntosh Poris Architects’ higher-profile projects include:

  • Transformation of a former Detroit Fire Department headquarters in downtown into the Detroit Foundation Hotel and Apparatus Room restaurant.
  • Conversion of the Park Shelton, next to the Detroit Institute of Arts, into condos.
  • Transformation of a 1919 auto shop in Berkley into the Vinsetta Garage restaurant.
  • Designs for converting the former Higginbotham School in northwest Detroit and the Cadieux School in Grosse Pointe into housing, both projects now underway.
  • Architecture and interior design for Townhouse and Prime + Proper restaurants in downtown Detroit, and the former Kid Rock’s Made in Detroit restaurant and current UWM District Market food hall, both in Little Caesars Arena.
  • Transformation of the historic Garden Theater in Midtown into a special events space and design for the neighboring 61-unit 3909 Woodward apartments.
  • Design of the 185-unit DuCharme Place in Lafayette Park in Detroit.
  • Layout and design update for the Detroit Athletic Club kitchen.
  • Future plans for redeveloping the long-abandoned Fisher Body Plant No. 21 in Detroit into more than 400 apartments.

Poris said he doesn’t consider the firm as having a signature style, per say.

“We start every project by listening and trying to have no preconceptions, so the project comes out of our dialogue,” he said. “I’d say it is sort of modern contextual.”

A Dramatic Proposal
In the mid-1990s, Poris and McIntosh belonged to a group of local architects and planners who advocated for preserving — and not razing — the many empty buildings at the time in downtown Detroit.

“That was back when everyone was saying, ‘Last one out, turn off the lights,’ and you could shoot a cannon down Woodward,” Poris said.

Poris said there was a proposal at the time to demolish not just the Hudson’s department store, but all of the buildings that line the east side of Woodward Avenue from Campus Martius north to Grand Circus Park in order to clear the area for a new giant park.

The group of architects and planners, known as the “New Avenues” group, strongly opposed the idea and encouraged then-mayor Dennis Archer to consider redevelopment as a future option instead.

“We had this idea that the downtown was empty — there were 90 vacant buildings — we thought that it could be a world-class entertainment and cultural and residential district. That was basically what we were envisioning back in like 1995,” Poris said. “The mayor was like, ‘Why don’t we have a SoHo?’ And it was like, well, you can’t have a SoHo if you tear everything down.”

Let’s Just Mothball
While the preservations didn’t succeed in saving the Hudson’s building, Poris believes their efforts did help to spur more city officials and downtown property owners to board up and “mothball” empty buildings and await some future redevelopment possibility.

Mothballing is ultimately what saved dilapidated downtown buildings such as the Book Cadillac hotel, the Metropolitan Building at 33 John R and the iconic Michigan Central Station until Detroit’s economic prospects turned.

McIntosh Poris Architects even did some conceptual sketches in the 1990s for Michigan Central Station for how to turn the 1913 train depot into a casino — complete with a hotel and apartments in the depot’s tower.

Some 20 years later, Ford Motor Co. stepped forward as the abandoned station’s long-awaited savior, buying the building to be the centerpiece of its new Detroit mobility campus. A grand unveiling of the rehabbed landmark in now set for June. While the building won’t contain a casino like in the McIntosh Poris sketches, the top floors of the tower could eventually feature hotel rooms.

“It’s one thing to design expensive pretty buildings,” Poris said, “but there is something fulfilling to helping bring a city back and make a difference where you live.”

Read the original article here.

Categories: AIA Detroit News   Uncategorized  
Back to News