Green City Diaries: Reclaiming the built environment

The last six decades haven't been easy on Detroit's old buildings. The large-scale flight of people and capital from the city has left dishearteningly few paths for much of our widely varied historic architecture to take. Anyone visiting the city for the first time can easily apprehend two of them:  abandonment and decay, on one hand, demolition on the other.

Historic preservation, emerging in the late 1960s, created a third option: the use of legal and financial tools to designate and preserve sites of architectural and historic significance. The efforts of preservationists have certainly made a meaningful difference here, but historic designation and preservation are not panaceas; they can be defensive, rigid and, at times, ineffective. (The Albert Kahn-designed American Beauty Building, being torn down by order of Wayne State University as I write this, is on the National Register of Historic Places, but that largely symbolic designation won't prevent it from coming down.) Perhaps more importantly, preservation is not as widely feasible in Detroit as it is in other US cities; the staggering level of disinvestment and neglect here has left too many of our buildings too damaged to preserve.

This is a grim and painful situation, and it will persist. "We're going to lose a lot more buildings in this struggle," Susan McBride of the Detroit Historic Commision told me bluntly. Just last week, as if on cue, the Free Press reported that the Toronto-based owner of the Beaux Arts State Savings Bank, built downtown in 1900, is considering demolishing it to make room for, you guessed it, another parking garage. (Let's all sigh together. Or would it be more satisfying to scream?)

There is, however, reason to hope for the future. A host of recent decisions by small business owners, artisans and craftspeople, and even the administrators of large institutions suggests that, slowly and imperfectly, a fourth way of thinking about our historic buildings is burgeoning here. This diary entry is dedicated to sussing out and tentatively exploring this new ethic, which finds many expressions but is rooted in a commitment to finding sustainable solutions to the questions our old buildings persistently pose.

Let's start with the American Beauty, which will probably be gone by the time you read this. WSU is turning the neighboring Dalgleish Cadillac building, another Kahn structure, into a biomedical research facility, and replacing the American Beauty with a visitor parking lot and an adjacent greenspace. New construction is intended for the site in the long term.

For many people (almost 700 of whom signed an online petition urging the university to halt demolition), this is a total loss. But what if it isn't? What if elements of the building could be saved in a way that would keep some of its stories alive?

Jason Peet regularly considers questions like these in his work with Mend, a small business he's growing at the Green Garage that's concerned with repurposing reclaimed materials into unique furniture objects. He successfully petitioned Wayne State to let him spend hours in the American Beauty before demolition to salvage dozens of pieces of original, cast iron factory furniture (left when the American Beauty company downsized and moved to a smaller location in Ferndale in the early '90s.)

Jason has been discovering the furniture's original uses by talking to longtime employees of the company who used to work in the original building. He'll eventually rehabilitate and transform the pieces, selling them with an accompanying narrative that describes their historical context. The building itself may be gone, but its memory will be scattered throughout the region in the homes and minds of Jason's customers and passed on, through conversations to come, to their guests.

The fact that Wayne State allowed Jason and a few others from the Green Garage to extract materials from building is notable, and points to an important evolution in local institutional thinking. An even more striking example can be found at Henry Ford Health Systems, which has partnered with a new Detroit company to deconstruct, rather than demolish, several homes near Henry Ford Hospital at Grand Boulevard and the Lodge.

Reclaim Detroit is a social enterprise organized by WARM Training Center that's "trying to build an industry that doesn't exist yet," manager James Willer told me. It's competing against a deeply entrenched, environmentally unsustainable demolition model that's dominated the way developers think about removing dilapidated buildings for decades. The steadily growing company employs 20 people who trained through Focus Hope's Earn and Learn program. So far, it has completely deconstructed six homes. The 20,000 square foot warehouse that currently serves as its headquarters is brimming with quality, historic wood that has been painstakingly cleaned and de-nailed, as well as other material like bricks, doors, and windows, all available for contractors to purchase.

According to Bill Schramm, Henry Ford's senior vice president of Strategic Business Development, the hospital has contracted with WARM to deconstruct 25 percent of the vacant houses it intends to remove in the neighborhood around the hospital. (Henry Ford works to eliminate blight both to make room for new construction and to improve the wellbeing of its neighbors. In Schramm's words, "place is a critical determinant of health.") The hospital administration has been interested in pursuing deconstruction for some time, encouraging partial deconstruction by Habitat for Humanity in the past. But it's been waiting for an organization to emerge with the capacity to perform it on this scale.

Schramm acknowledges the current limitations of deconstruction in Detroit. There's the issue of limited capacity, but also the process' typically higher cost and slower speed than demolition. But he champions its benefits -- environmental, of course, but also workforce development-related -- and future potential. His optimism about the industry's future is shared by James Cadariu, owner of the new Great Lakes Coffee in Midtown, who has a self-described "European fondness for old materials." James chose to build out the beautiful coffee shop-cum-beer and wine bar with materials from Reclaim Detroit, turning it into a demonstration center of sorts for the organization. One of the deconstructed homes that supplied material for Great Lakes was James's uncle's, and he built the table at which we met, in fact, out of wood from that house.

There are numerous other examples of this emerging ethic, on a host of different scales:  the transformation of vacant structures into venues for art experiences and performances, as in the case of the Power House and Imagination Station; the conscious attempts to fill urban voids left by demolished buildings in more humane and pedestrian-friendly ways, as in Compuware's construction of the Lafayette Greens garden on the former site of the Lafayette Building.

At the Green Garage, housed in a onetime Model T showroom from 1920, the construction team set a goal to reuse 90 percent of the building's existing materials during construction, and met it. (One stair railing, for instance, is fashioned out of old steam pipes. Bricks that were used to cover the building's windows after the city's 1967 uprising now line the walls of the building's workshop.)

SocraTea, a new tea shop opening soon inside 71 Garfield, a live-work space that, like the Green Garage, is both historic and remarkably energy efficient, is also being built out of materials from Reclaim Detroit. And remember those vibrant, colorful murals that adorned the sides of the American Beauty Building since 2010? The Detroit Mural Factory, which painted them, was granted permission by Wayne State to remove them before demolition, and they've been reinstalled at the Water Station on the city's northwest side. While they were deinstalling, the Mural Factory also did some deconstruction work, removing about 200 boards for the AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project to use to board up vacant homes.

Where is this all heading? What new ways of thinking about our beleaguered built environment are yet to come? Is it possible to reach a point where decisions that respect our buildings' complex histories and our deeply personal relationships with them are the rule instead of the exception? The future remains uncertain, but as we learn to be more creative about saving what we can and honoring what we can't, it's worth remembering that in a place that's part big city and part small town, every forward-thinking example has the power to inspire more like it.

Green City Diaries is a co-production of Model D & the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library. Over the next few months, the library would like to put together a comprehensive resource to help people think more sustainably about Detroit's historic buildings. If you'd be interested in lending your knowledge and passion, please contact us here.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

Read more articles by Matthew Piper.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at