This story originally appeared in our sister publication Metromode.
For rehab royalty Ann Stevenson and Curt Catallo, repurposing Metro Detroit’s iconic structures is about more than just good business.
Co-owners of Union Joints, the couple are behind restaurants like the Berkley hot spot Vinsetta Garage (located in a former auto garage), Clarkston Union (in a former church), Fenton Fire Hall (housed in an old station) and Honcho (built on a former gas station site). For their next projects, they plan to renovate an art deco radio station built in 1936 in Oak Park and convert Ann Arbor’s Fingerle Lumber site into a restaurant and brewery.
For them, it’s important to respect the original purpose of the buildings they purchase. Stevenson, who does the design work, says she loves the nostalgia that patrons experience with a rehabilitated site like Vinsetta Garage—a location that closed only a few years before being renovated.
“People have these really vivid and sentimental memories of taking their cars there,” she says.
That sense of propriety from patrons adds an atmosphere to rehabilitated buildings, especially restaurants, that isn’t achievable in other locations, the couple explains. “These are places that mean something to the neighborhood,” Catallo says.
The logistics of carrying on a building’s narrative, albeit in a different way, and keeping the stories of the site going, isn’t always easy. Stevenson warns that developers have to be incredibly flexible to allow for inevitable surprises.
But Catallo says the work is part of what drives them. “Part of our passion for rehabilitation is that we are making these places safe for the long term,” he says.
Tom and Peggy Brennan, the couple who created Detroit’s Green Garage, agree. They admit historic renovation can take longer in the building process, but believe it’s worth it.
“This history is what brings and keeps people in Detroit,” Tom Brennan says. “It's what they love about our great city.”
Thanks to the wider development trend that celebrates rehabilitation, Detroit’s neighborhoods are dotted with unique repurposed buildings, so Metromode took a closer look at 10 interesting turnarounds.
3 E Church St., Village of Clarkston
This quirky restaurant celebrates the mish-mash of cultures that often graces Detroit suburbs, serving up Latin street food, and caffeine fixes, in a former Clarkston gas station. Stevenson and Catallo took a round-about way of settling on the site, purchasing the attached car dealership site first and then acquiring the former Morgan’s Service station, but are thrilled with how it turned out.
“We never take the easy route,” says Catallo.
Repurposing locations like gas stations involve serious remediation work, but the Union Joints couple felt confident that—with their previous experience—it was something they could take on. Now the roll-up garage doors serve to let in plenty of natural light in the eclectic retro-style dining space, while the car lot has taken on a new life as a trendy patio area.
Tom and Peggy Brennan renovated a former Model T showroom using eco-friendly designs.
Tom and Peggy Brennan saw potential in this former Model T showroom, which dates back to the early 1900s. The couple spent two years consulting with the community about how they would develop it, and two further years in construction to create the Green Garage. The space is now a bustling co-working community and business incubator, providing room for approximately 50 small businesses and nonprofits.
The building was re-designed with eco-friendly goals, with solar thermal heating and the extensive repurposing of materials in the construction. As a result, the Brennans estimate they currently use about a tenth of the energy of a traditional office building, a tenth of the water and a tenth of the waste. It’s not the only upside to rehabilitating a building, says Peggy Brennan.
“Saving a building has all sorts of advantages,” she says. “Usually there is value in keeping the original architecture, as was the case with this building and its lovely front windows. In addition, we loved the bow trusses that spanned the interior ceiling of our building, they would have been difficult to replicate.”
Alexandra Clark didn't know just how trendy her obscured store in a former Coney Island would become.
11360 Joseph Campau Ave., Hamtramck
Alexandra Clark readily admits the location of her first bonbon shop wasn’t ideal. Difficult to get into and unseen from the main street, it wasn't a retailer's dream—but it was hers, and she was proud of it.
Despite the drawbacks, the secretive spot turned out to be part of the appeal for her dedicated customer base. The confection extraordinaire took an old Coney Island and transformed it into a (somewhat accidental) exclusive boutique kitchen, initially only open one day a week. Clark and her team were so inundated by neighborhood fans that they had to hang a sign reading "Knock Again if You Have Champagne," and even then they soon amassed quite a bubbly collection.
Now, the quirky confections are also available at a second location in downtown Detroit, but Clark still loves her rehab base in Hamtramck, especially since they’ve opened the upstairs area—a former 1970s gambling hall, no less.
This former garage put Union Joints on the map, with its cool grungy vibe and auto-inspired decor. The popular restaurant pays homage to its past life with a menu built around the kind of fare Detroit mechanics and technicians would have enjoyed and its retro neon signs light up the Woodward stalwart.
Previous owners, the Kurta family, still frequent the site and there’s even a mechanics’ 100-year reunion event planned for the dining hot spot soon.
Adachi (aka the Ford-Peabody Mansion)
325 S. Old Woodward Ave, Birmingham
This 11,500-square-foot mansion was originally constructed in 1878 and underwent a renovation in the 1990s that allowed for modern office space. Now, the quaint building in downtown Birmingham has a new life as Adachi Restaurant, featuring the Japanese-inspired cuisine of chef Lloyd Roberts.
Local real estate developers Kenny Koza and Clint Mansour say they fell in love with the mansion from the moment they saw it, and wanted to bring out the building’s rich style. Now, carved wooden doors at the entrance, a geisha mural, and images of pink cherry blossom trees on the ceiling blend Japanese decor with the Victorian-style construction.
“While the exterior and paint colors and stains were off-limits, we wanted to make sure that the inside spoke to our concept while remaining true to the original architecture of the building itself,” says co-owner Mansour.
This brewing company didn’t just settle for rehabilitating the industrial building they established their taproom in—they went as far as repurposing Michigan dairy tanks to create their brewing system. Co-owners Zach and Mary Typinksi renovated a 5,000-square-foot paint filter manufacturing facility using green building principles to create the popular Ferndale brewery, and they continue to focus on sustainability in their ingredients, using produce grown locally.
The former Strand Theatre was recently restored and is seen by many as a centerpiece for the rejuvenation of downtown Pontiac. The historic building went through a $20 million restoration to be redesigned as a 900-seat entertainment and education center.
The theater’s owners, brothers Kyle and Brent Westberg, had to wade through hard-won financing (think Flagstar Bank and both state and federal financial aid) and strict safety standards to bring the 1921 venue back to its former grandeur.
James Scott Mansion
81 Peterboro St., Detroit
When Joel Landy purchased the historic James Scott Mansion from Detroit in 2002, observers were skeptical about its renovation prospects. The castle-like structure had been abandoned since the mid-1970s, had suffered interior collapses as well as fire damage.
But, after initial trouble getting funding for the rehab, renovations started in 2016 and this year Landy proudly showed off the finished product. Now home to 26 apartments, the historic building (originally constructed in 1897) has a new lease on life. And Landy gets to say “I told you so.”
1265 Washington Blvd., Detroit
You can’t really talk about Detroit rehab without mentioning Dan Gilbert’s work. One of our favorites is the vision from Gilbert’s real estate firm, Bedrock, for downtown’s Book Tower. The 38-story structure has been a prominent feature of Detroit’s skyline since 1926 and a $313 million restoration plan for both it and the attached Book Building includes 95 residential apartments, as well as retail space, offices and a hotel.
However, the benefits of projects like this one aren’t just in the end result. Bedrock will be following the City of Detroit’s requirement for 51 percent of the work hours to be performed by Detroit residents, and the project is estimated to generate 820 construction-related jobs and 650 new permanent jobs in the city.
One to watch: Michigan Central Station
2001 15th St., Detroit
Keep an eye on the work being done at this iconic train station. Ford Motor Company purchased the crumbling building for $90 million last year and have entered Phase 1 of its reconstruction, which involves stabilizing the premises. While plans are still unfolding for the end result, the 105-year-old station will be part of a $350 million restoration project and is the key to the automaker's vision for a $740 million mobility-focused campus around Michigan Avenue.
Bill Ford, the company’s executive chairman, says the investment isn’t just about making a bet on Detroit, but about backing the future of transportation in the city too.
“Michigan Central Station is a powerful symbol of Detroit’s struggles and now its resurgence,” says Bill Ford, the company’s executive chairman. “It’s exciting to imagine what’s possible as we build tomorrow, together.”