Back to the future: Make no little plans for next big thing

Next Friday night, the David Whitney Building on Grand Circus Park plays host to Model D’s Next Big Thing. This one night extravaganza celebrates the resurgent and creative forces of Detroit as chronicled in over 300 issues of Model D. And while the Next Big Thing seeks to highlight how a sum total of many little things makes Detroit hum, the Whitney Building is a moving testament to how grand vision and monumental space can marshal the imagination. 

Next Big Thing event designer and planner extraordinaire,  Melinda Anderson, whose dad worked at the Whitney Building, concurs. 

"The Whitney Building is Detroit’s vanguard. It represents the spirit of our city. Working in its historical space is truly inspiring, and I cannot wait to see the results," she says. "There is such a great mixture of beauty and rawness. Next Big Thing will be a great juxtaposition of past, present, and future."

For the uninitiated, the Whitney Building stands, along with Broderick Tower, one of two slumbering sentinels looming over the south side of Grand Circus Park marking the gateway to lower Woodward. Nearly one hundred years young, the Whitney was constructed in 1914, a time when Detroit’s fortune was on the rise, the future beckoning as the city began to flex its manufacturing muscle.

In the 1910s, buoyed by the city’s growth of people and wealth, Detroiters must have thought enough of themselves to hire the country’s best architects. In the case of the Whitney Building, the Whitney family’s vast fortune from lumbering Michigan’s virgin forest secured the services of Daniel Burnham for the construction of a nineteen story office tower. A prominent Chicago architect, Burnham made a name for himself with Chicago’s master plan and earlier notably transforming the soot stained rail yards and fetid swampland of Chicago’s Lake Michigan waterfront into the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, arguably the most influential world’s fair in history. 

At Chicago’s World’s Fair, Burnham and an army of artists, designers, skilled craftsmen and laborers endeavored to birth a new aesthetic for America’s burgeoning cities, to uplift the human spirit through beautifully designed pavilions, parkland and plazas. Places like New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Detroit embraced what would become known as the City Beautiful movement, the construction of grand scaled building projects with generous public spaces and sumptuous classical proportion. 

The Whitney Building is no exception. The last of four Detroit "skyscrapers" that Burnham designed, the Whitney’s exterior was originally festooned with classical detail, but “modernized” about fifty years ago, giving it a fairly drab appearance today. A shortsighted subversion of Burnham’s City Beautiful vision? Yes, maybe. But fortunately, Burnham didn’t stop with the façade. In typical Detroit fashion, sometimes the city’s best kept secrets are hidden in plain sight.
Because inside the Whitney is another story altogether. And here attendees of The Next Big Thing are in for a treat, since the Whitney has been shuttered for years. Burnham’s brilliant response to the Whitney’s odd shaped lot was the creation of a multi level courtyard and skylight covered atrium. It is a space of beauty and grace, soaring and glowing in its wonderfully wrought classically styled white terra cotta cladding. However, it is also practical, as this configuration allowed natural light to penetrate to the building’s interior and created opportunity for Burnham to lay out gorgeous commercial space for the building that was accessible from the street. 

"The Whitney is a very unique building in Detroit. I think of it as the crown jewel of Grand Circus Park," says James Van Dyke, V.P. of Development at the Roxbury Group, the Detroit-based developer hoping to revitalize the Whitney Building with a hotel and residential project slated to start next year. 

"It was built in a different era and ranks up there with the Guardian as one of downtown’s best," Van Dyke says.
Mr. Van Dyke and his colleagues at Roxbury see the potential of the Whitney as a mixed use building, bringing new life to another Detroit landmark. "It’s in the perfect location, prominent and accessible to the entertainment district," he says. "The market has matured to a point where downtown has become a destination in its own right."

Working diligently to secure the last of state historic and brownfield tax credits to make the Whitney project work, Roxbury feels bully about their plans for the $82 million redevelopment, anchored by a nationally known boutique hotel, with residential units on the upper stories. 

"Imagine an interior garden, with retail, a coffee shop, bar, and restaurant with café tables. In the Whitney, it’s like you’re able to extend the street into the building," Van Dyke says, "For me, as a former resident of the neighboring Kales Building, seeing the Whitney rehabbed would be very special."

One of the Whitney’s last residents was Shawn Santo and her first Pure Detroit location, in what had originally been Watkin’s Cigar shop. Santo recalls living across Woodward at the Wright-Kay building in the late 1990s as being "dreamy," with a number of her friends and associates in the Wright-Kay and other nearby buildings. 

"I had favorite walks with my Great Pyrenees, Sniezka, and having work and home so close, I could keep many of my relationships intact," Santo says. "My roommate was a filmmaker. My neighbors were graphic designers, photographers, architects, fashion designers, and people like the Carleton brothers who were rehabbing the Library Lofts."

Santo and her business partner conceived of Pure Detroit as a "local culture shop," originally meant to be part of an adaptive reuse of the Hudson’s Building. But the Whitney’s old cigar shop was also a perfect fit, even with certain challenges like the "hodge podge" display cabinets glued to the floor, hacked metal shelving, a floor covered in lotto tickets, chip bags, and "at least" 16 Michigan Lottery signs. 

On the other hand, there was also a little stairway leading to a mezzanine space that had leaded glass beveled doors looking down on the lower space, remnants of the original soda fountain, an intact cherry wood humidor and even pipe holders. 

"The space was entirely charming...I loved it so much and felt that others had to see it too!" Santo says. "We opened in Thanksgiving of 1998. From the start we had a steady stream of folks paying us a visit and showing their support." 

And even though they had not intended to have an elaborate reception, the Whitney impressed Santo so much that she and her fiancé, Kevin Borsay, decided to have a pre-wedding party in the atrium space, before exchanging vows in Rome. 

"It kind of snowballed," Santo says. The owner at the time arranged for the atrium lights and the iconic clock to be restored and the marble polished. Members of the Rackham symphony choir sang a capella from a German opera. Santo and Borsay served glass-bottle Towne Club soda, Motor City beer and champagne. Opus One did the hors d'oeuvres and tea service. Alinosi's brought spumoni. The city allowed the underground parking at Grand Circus Park to stay open. 

Not bad for a wedding send off!

Reflecting, Santo believes that things really are changing since the 1990s, when city leadership had a "bulldozer mindset" and Santo and her friends were forging a community of urbanites downtown.

"Today, in 2011, there is growing recognition in Detroit that our built heritage is significant and has a value," she says.

On a deeper level, Santo believes that the spiritual meaning of rehabbing the David Whitney Building should not be underestimated: "To me, it is a joyful step of a city healing and a different mind-set taking hold in Detroit." 

Well said, Ms. Santo, we hope for better things.

Upon his death, Daniel Burnham was quoted as saying, "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood…"

Francis Grunow is a periodic contributor to Model D. He is currently working on a start up public policy firm with three other fine folks.

Images of the David Whitney Building courtesy of Dan Austin of Historic Detroit
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