Inside the Argonaut, Detroit's creative hub

It started over dinner -- just two friends meeting without an agenda. Still, when it's Rick Rogers, president of the College for Creative Studies, and Matt Cullen, then head of global real estate for General Motors and current president and chief operating officer of Rock Ventures, a casual aside about CCS looking for more space as it outgrew its campus snowballs into GM gifting the college a genuine Detroit architectural masterwork, the 760,000-square-foot Argonaut Building. Suddenly, CCS had more square footage in one building than it did on its original Walter and Josephine Ford campus.
Today, the Argonaut Building has been officially re-branded as the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, a result of that famous benefactor's financial endowment. A number of CCS departments have moved to the Taubman Center since it opened in 2009, including numerous automotive design courses, labs, and hi-tech equipment -- fitting, given the building's rich automotive history. Students reside there as well -- a full house with a waiting list to boot. On the top floor, the 11th, is the Benson and Edith Ford Conference Center has turned into a popular venue for not only CCS, but also outside groups like the recent Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium.

A CCS studio in the Taubman Center for Design Education
A rich design history
The Argonaut Building was designed by famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn and built by General Motors in 1928. It was a first for the automotive industry, a true design studio, then called the Art and Colour Department. There the world's top designers and engineers dreamed up and delivered hit after hit after hit. The Corvette was born there. So, too, was the world's first fully automatic transmission. Tail fins, engine driven fuel pumps, and the world's first concept vehicle were all products of the creative hive that they named the Argonaut. An elevator strong enough to lift a 20,000 pound truck would take models up to the top floor, where a curved ceiling allowed for light to shine from any angle, eliminating shadows for optimal assessment. It was here that workers first developed freon, room-sized air conditioners, and the hard lung machine. During World War II, the Argonaut was home to war planes.

The A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education at CCS
GM's design team left the Argonaut in the mid-1950s for the shiny modernity of its new Technical Center in suburban Warren. The company then moved its general offices to the Argonaut, where they stayed until 1999 when GM moved the remaining offices to their recently purchased Renaissance Center downtown.

For the next 10 years, the Argonaut sat in the dark, empty but secure, waiting for the right use until Rogers' and Cullen's fateful dinner. Fast forward through GM's gifting the building to CCS, a carefully constructed web of fundraising, and a $145-million renovation, and the Argonaut was transformed into the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education.
A design hub
When CCS envisioned the Taubman Center, it wasn't just as an extension of the school. Instead, the building was to serve as a hub for Detroit's creative culture and industries. The Detroit Creative Corridor Center and the Detroit Design Festival have offices there, the former focused on growing creative small businesses and the latter focused on cultivating Detroit's design culture. The Community Arts Partnership, a community outreach program bringing the arts to Detroit neighborhoods, has offices there, too.
And then there's Shinola, the trendy design behemoth that has opened stores in London, New York, and Chicago, among other cities, since its 2011 founding in Detroit. Shinola operates its global headquarters and much of its manufacturing out of the Taubman Center, recently expanding its footprint from one whole floor to add another half floor of operations. There they conduct much of their business, including designing and manufacturing watches and numerous other products.

Shinola's watch factory
Shinola's presence has helped CCS exceed its expectations for the Taubman Center, assisting the college in developing its brand new Fashion Accessories Design department, a move that President Rogers believes could spur a whole new industry for Detroit.
“When we went out to market, so to speak, to start raising money from trustees and friends, we projected that the project would generate 200 permanent jobs in the city. Now this was in 2008-2009, when the global economy had just crashed, the auto companies were on the verge of bankruptcy. Things were looking very, very grim. The city was on the verge of bankruptcy. So 200 jobs was a really big deal. And that was part of the economic development promise of the project,” says Rogers. “In fact, because of Shinola, the project has generated nearly 500 permanent jobs. It was 250 new jobs that CCS had generated from its own operations and then Shinola came in and they've now generated another 300 new jobs. This building really did fulfill the promise that we made for it.”
Growing the next generation of Detroit designers
College students and high-end design companies aren't the only ones reaping the Taubman Center's fruits. Children, too, are benefiting from the Argonaut overhaul. Four floors of the building are dedicated to the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies, a 6-12 grade public charter school whose curriculum integrates the arts into every subject.
HFA opened in 2009, a partnership between CCS and the Henry Ford Learning Institute. The majority of its 800 students come from the city of Detroit, and 90 percent of them qualify for lunch assistance programs. The children are accepted through a lottery program and, once enrolled, are subject to the typical classes of any student – math, science, etc. – but also daily art classes. Each grade has its own art teacher. Additionally, students routinely work with college professors and students located in other parts of the building. CCS's Rogers is also executive director of the charter school's board, helping to shape a curriculum that prepares the children for higher education and career opportunities in the creative arts.

Student work on display at the Taubman Center for Design Education at CCS
Anita Bates is a 12th grade art teacher who has been with the school since it opened. A visual artist herself, she taught art classes for 20 years before joining HFA's faculty. She taught 7th grade in the school's first year and got to see those students graduate in 2015, some of whom will enroll at CCS this very year.

Junior and senior students must go through practitioner programs, similar to internships, and some have done so with Shinola.
“This whole adventure has dispelled myths about what one can do with an art degree,” says Bates. “It's typical to imagine an artist as a starving artist, but we expose students to the idea that there's so much you can do with that ball of creativity that they have -- there's so much they can do in this world.”
It's not unreasonable to imagine a scenario where a sixth grader enrolls in the charter school, graduates from CCS, and gets hired by Shinola, becoming as familiar with a building as one reasonably can. The Argonaut actively demonstrates to students -- college, high school, and otherwise -- that studying the creative arts can lead to a legitimate career path. Through the many partnerships harnessed, bringing the Argonaut back online has helped students of many levels develop and utilize their talents, attracted new industry to the city, and created over 500 jobs. Community programming and Detroit's creative culture have also flourished.
Not bad for a dinner between friends.

This story is a part of a series of features on the impact of Detroit's anchor institutions. Support for this series is provided by a coalition of organizations, including Henry Ford Health System, Detroit Medical Center, Hudson-Webber Foundation, College for Creative Studies, and Midtown Detroit Inc.

MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.