From Grime to Prime

The Book Cadillac Hotel today is a structure in transition. It's not yet restored to the head turner it was when it opened in 1924, but it's far removed from low point it reached in recent years. Nowhere is this dichotomy more visible than when looking at the Italianate beauty's skin. Grime lines stripe the building, revealing what the brick-and-limestone exterior once looked like in its glory days next to the crumbling plastered shell it had become. Few Detroiters have seen the downtown skyscraper as clean and impressive as it's becoming today.

A large number of downtown's historic structures, both tall and small, have either undergone, are undergoing or set to undergo similar cleanings. Ninety-one buildings are going through such improvements to their exteriors as part of the city's façade-improvement program, according to Scott Veldhuis, a project manager for the Detroit Economic Growth Coalition.

The program matches up to half of the restoration costs and so far has given out $8.3 million in grants which have spurred about $11 million in private investment in the buildings. The program makes the properties more desirable. Additional renovations to the buildings will make downtown "look better," improving its overall image, Veldhuis says.

Restoring energy

Imagine a statue sitting on a garage floor close to where the family car is parked, right next to the exhaust pipe. Like so many things in the garage, the statue is forgotten and neglected. Thick layers of dust accumulate on it over the years and the tail pipe covers it in exhaust day after day. Leave it there for a few decades and that statue becomes caked in grit.

Think of that and you have an idea of how the Book Cadillac became so dirty. Dust, dirt and air pollution from passing traffic piled onto the exterior of landmark hotel for decades, soiling its skin. Since it happens so gradually it's hard to fully comprehend the extent of the structure's dirtiness until it's cleaned. But when the building is cleaned it can make the structure look like a completely different building.

"It makes a huge difference," says Bob Mazur, president of Livonia-based Western Warterproofing which is cleaning the Book Cadillac. "It looks brand new and you forget how dirty it really was," he says. "It just re-energizes the whole area."

Building facades should be thoroughly cleaned once every 10 or 15 years. Mazur estimates the Book Cadillac has gone 40 or 50 years without a scrubbing. Going that long between baths means cleaning the exterior is more like a renovation. The crews spray the surface with water to moisten it while checking for areas needing repair. Crumbing masonry is fixed or replaced.

Then the cleaning crews spray the stone with a detergent similar to dishwasher soap and start scrubbing. Statues and sculptures often need personal attention and are sometimes scrubbed with instruments comparable to tooth brushes.

"There is a lot of intricate hand work that needs to be done," Mazur says.

This is all done at great heights on skinny platforms. The Book Cadillac is 32 stories tall and has a lot of ornamentation toward its top. That means most of the work is swinging in the wind and in cold temperatures. The whole job is expected to take six weeks to a couple of months worth of work.

"This is an enormous undertaking," Mazur says.

Several other landmark downtown structures have recently gone through similar cleanings. The list of buildings includes the Kales Building, the Milner Hotel and many of the storefronts along Woodward Avenue.

The Detroit/Wayne Joint Building Authority spent just under $100,000 on landscaping improvements and power washing the white marble on the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center last summer. The Federal Government invested $650,000 in cleaning and restoring the lime stone of the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse last year. Today the Great Depression-era skyscraper shines in the sunlight in stark contrast to the abandoned and filthy Detroit Free Press Building across the street.

Inviting places for people

A similar comparison can be made with the Vinton Building at the corner of Woodward and Congress Street and the storefront adjacent to it that now houses Eph McNally's deli. The Vinton, which has been abandoned for years, is at the tail end of a renovation that includes a complete restoration of its exterior. Workers scrubbed decades worth of grime off the gray bricks and replaced masonry when needed. Even though some of the replacement bricks stand out compared to the originals they are expected to blend in over time.

"It's structurally sound for at least another 50 years and it will remain aesthetically pleasing for a long time," says Scott Martin, a co-managing partner of the Vinton Building LLC, which is restoring the 12-story skyscraper.

He is also a partner in the restoration of the five-story storefront next door that houses Eph McNally's. That building shows all of the marks of haphazard "renovations," such as paint and fake brick, which date back to at least the 1970s.

Martin and his partners plan to do away with all of that this summer in an $110,000 historical reinterpretation of what the building once looked like.

Ornamentation will be reinstalled over windows and at the top of the building. Balconies will be added on the top two floors. They will be the only balconies immediately overlooking the lower Woodward corridor. Martin says such changes are necessary for Eph McNally's — and an antique store planned for the second floor — to succeed.

"It's all about having an inviting place for people to come in and see the beautiful restaurant we have here," Martin says.

Jon Zemke is a regular contributor to Model D.


Book Cadillac Hotel

Workmen at the Book Cadillac Hotel

Theodore Levin Courthouse

Kales Building

Vinton Building

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

Read more articles by Jon Zemke.

Jon Zemke is a news editor with Model D and its sister publications, Metromode and Concentrate. He's also a small-scale real-estate developer and landlord in the greater downtown Detroit area.
Signup for Email Alerts