Repurposing historic buildings on Detroit's medical campuses

One-hundred-year-old medical equipment is the stuff of horror flicks; yet for all the antique blades, clamps, and hinged doodads that make us cringe today, many of those tools were innovative in their time. The same is true of aging medical facilities, which quickly can become obsolete as medical science advances.
Yet many outdated medical facilities are noteworthy historic buildings. Two local hospital systems have worked diligently to balance the preservation of the historic character of their campuses with the need to keep their facilities state-of-the-art.
Women's Hospital
When the original Women's Hospital building opened in 1910, its focus on women's health and maternity practices was revolutionary. According to the Detroit Medical Center, beginning in 1928, the hospital was the first to keep maternity patients separate from medical and surgical patients on a routine basis, limiting maternity patients' potential exposure to disease and infection.
As women's health care has evolved over the last century, so, too, did the Women's Hospital building, receiving annex after annex, each new wing representing state-of-the-art medical facility design of its era.
Women's Hospital was renamed Hutzel Women's Hospital in the 1960s, and by the mid-2000s, as Hutzel ran out of space to build new wings, its need for modern facilities persisted, prompting a move. Hutzel now occupies a good portion of the main Harper Hospital. Left behind was the old Women's Hospital complex, which was pegged for demolition.
But something funny happened along to the wrecking ball: it made more economic sense to repurpose the building than to spend tens of millions of dollars to demolish it.
Still, finding new uses for the building isn't the easiest of tasks. While the newer wings of the complex mostly have been adapted for modern uses, the oldest part of the building has proven difficult to utilize. Construction methods of the early twentieth century make it very difficult to knock down interior walls and realign the infrastructure to serve the needs of a 21st-century major medical center. For that reason, most of the original building is currently being used as office space.
The adaptive reuse of one of the hospital's later wings has been a huge success story for the Detroit Medical Center. In order to upgrade its Children's Hospital facilities, the DMC had to convince the Ronald McDonald House to leave its long-term home in front of the Children's Hospital, a natural location for a charity that offers affordable housing for the families of children patients. DMC took a long-abandoned wing of Hutzel and put it through a complete transformation, making the tired old building look like the most modern of hotels.
Facilities planning on medical campuses is something of a game of Tetris. While the DMC central campus in Midtown has a staggering 5 million square feet of floor space, it has very little space on its grounds to expand. Which building stays and which building goes is a financial question with little wiggle room for sentimentality. In fact, it's the saving of the old Women's Hospital that betrays a common misconception about historic preservation -- that preservation is an act of impractical whimsy. The decision to preserve the Women's Hospital building was very much a pragmatic decision based on the bottom line.

Adaptive reuse at Henry Ford Hospital
Designed by one of Detroit's most celebrated architects, Albert Kahn, for one the city's most celebrated of families, the Fords, the old nurses' building on the campus of Henry Ford Hospital was a center of health care innovation when it was constructed in 1935. It was in this building that Henry and Clara Ford once personally handed diplomas to the graduating nurses.
But in the early 20th century, the old nurse's building had fallen into a state of disrepair. The roof was leaky and the circa-1940s HVAC system had long been obsolete.

Enter the Henry Ford Innovation Institute (HFII), which launched in 2011. HFII took control of the facility and pushed through a major renovation. Now the 80-year-old building has become a center for commercializing the innovations of people working throughout Henry Ford Health System, nurturing a number of inventions including a hospital gown that offers all the access of the traditional gown without the potential for showing off the patient's backside.

The Innovation Institute is a reclamation project notable for its design elements as well as its utility.
“It's a Kahn design with a history that celebrates innovation. As you walk in, you feel that interplay of nearly 100-year old architecture with modern design elements,” says founding and still current CEO of the HFII, Dr. Scott Dulchavsky. “You're walking on the marble that Henry Ford is responsible for laying.”
From hospital beds to two-bedroom apartments
Back at the DMC is McLaughlin Hall, a beautiful, nearly 100-year old building currently being used as hospital office space. During a tour of their campus, Ronald Henry, chief facility engineering and construction officer at the DMC, revealed plans for a complete conversion of the building into nearly 60 studio, one-, and two-bedroom rental units.

Ronald R. Henry, DMC senior vice president and chief facility engineering/construction officer
Though the DMC is constantly pressed for real estate, it would be a shame to lose what Henry characterizes as one of the original hospital buildings.
“There's a lot of history with the building,” says Henry. “As an architect, once it's refurbished, it's a really nice old building. And to keep some of that history on our campus rather than just tearing it down and everything being new -- I'd hate to tear it down and put up a parking deck, that's not embracing the community.”
Hope for Herman Kiefer
Then there's the city-owned Herman Kiefer health complex. Closed in 2013, Kiefer was a victim of then-Mayor Dave Bing's budget crunching on the brink of Detroit's eventual financial takeover by state-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. Of the 10 buildings on campus, most prominent is Herman Kiefer Hospital, a 450,000-square-foot former Albert Kahn-designed hospital that opened in 1928.
According to a recent report by Dan Austin of the Detroit Free Press, the historic 800,000-square-foot campus is on the verge of a $75-million—at least—redevelopment by New Yorker Ron Castellano.
Austin notes that a residential conversion of such a building, let alone the entire campus, accomplishes a number of things: the surrounding neighborhood should benefit from an influx of residents and ensuing investment in infrastructure, and the city of Detroit could save roughly $12 million in potential demolition costs, as well as the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to secure the vacant property.
And its successful redevelopment would, like the adaptive reuse of buildings on the campuses of the DMC and Henry Ford Hospital, be a strong signal that Detroit's historic buildings, even antiquated medical facilities, can be assets rather than obstacles to development.

This is the second in a series of features on Detroit 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.

Mike Galbraith is development news editor at Model D. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni.

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

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