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Detroit's Art Deco Masterpiece, Like Its City, Is Poised for Reinvention

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When you Google "Detroit," one of the first hits you get includes the description "post-apocalyptic." Low Winter Sun, a particularly terrible cable drama set in the Motor City, used a steady scroll of burned, broken houses to represent Detroit in its opening credits. A recent book, The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit, offers images of a city dying one vacant, wounded building at a time. But this isn't the real story, or at least not the current one, or the most complete. Detroit is home to some of the world's most beautiful buildings, both residential and commercial. The city has been chosen to represent the nation at the world's top architecture show, the Venice Biennale, this spring. People sometimes forget the city's history as a center for design and architecture, given the more usual public idea of Detroit as a broken city, ruined by poverty, crime, and corruption. Detroit has three centuries of history, though, including a golden age of architecture perfectly represented by one soaring structure, the Fisher Building.

Opened in 1928, this landmark skyscraper erupts out of Detroit's New Center. Called "Detroit's largest art object," the 30-story Art Deco masterpiece occupies a whole city block at the corner of West Grand and Second Street. The statistics on the place are astonishing. Over 40 types of marble were used in the Fisher: Golden-Vein Tavernelle from Tennessee, Cardiff Green from Maryland, Carthage from Missouri, Verdi Antique from Vermont, Mar Villa from Maryland, red marble from Germany, green marble from Austria, brown and black marble from Belgium, black and gold marble from France, white and black marble from Italy, and rose marble from Spain.

This summer, the building sold at auction for $12.2 million. While the Fisher's interiors feature marble floors, marble columns, and even massive marble wall plaques, the outside is the real story: an astonishing 325,000 square feet of marble tile covers the Fisher's exterior. It remains the largest marble-clad building in the world. Minnesota pink marble and Oriental granite coat the structure from its base to the top of the third floor. Next comes Beaver Dam Maryland marble, all cut and oriented to create the effect of different textures.

Famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn built the skyscraper for the Fisher brothers, carriage makers from Ohio who moved to Detroit just in time for the birth of the auto industry. They made car bodies—"Body by Fisher" became a popular tagline in the early part of the 20th century—and amassed a fortune, eventually selling their firm to GM for $208 million, an estimated $2.5 billion in 2015 dollars. When they decided to build in Detroit, they gave Kahn a blank check and purchased 32 parcels of the land for their new building. The bones of the place, 12,000 tons of steel, have a coating of 350,000 yards of cubic concrete and marble. The building has 1,800 bronze windows, 641 bronze elevator doors, 420 tons of bronze trim, and 1,275 miles of electrical cabling and telephone wire. Construction took 15 months, from Fred Fisher's first shovel strike at groundbreaking to the ribbon cutting in 1928.

Kahn used much of his budget on interiors, hiring his favorite architectural sculptors, Corrado Parducci and Geza R. Maroti, to carve a wide array of figures into the building's facade. There are eagles, gryphons, and a Greek god in bronze holding a tiny motorcar in his palm. There's a covered wagon and a ship. Maroti did the building's elaborate frescoes, too, painting the plaster on the massive barrel-vaulted ceilings with a riot of flora and fauna. There are glass mosaics; one depicts a large, fierce bird, its mouth open as if caught mid-scream.

The Fishers sold the building in 1971, and it sold again in 2001. After entering foreclosure, it sold at auction in 2015 to New York Developers HFZ Capital Group and their local partners, developers from suburban Southfield best known for building high-end strip malls. This summer, while covering the building's auction, I became fascinated by the place. It went for $30 million in 2001, but those buyers never came up with a workable plan for the building, stopped making payments, and allowed the bank to foreclose. The Spanish investor who bought one of Detroit's most famed ruins, the massive, decades-vacant Packard Plant, tried to buy the Fisher Building from Farbman Associates, but the firm opted for an auction instead. The Fisher Building fascinates because it represents nearly every Detroit trope: auto industry money, Albert Kahn's legacy, the still-devastating effects of the Great Depression, the continuing recovery from the Great Recession, foreclosure, auctions, and now real estate development. It's also an art treasure beyond imagination. When people say "they don't build them like that anymore," they mean this building. They build them taller and they build them bigger, but they don't build anything like this, and they probably won't again. I visited the Fisher Building hoping to see what life inside a nearly 90-year-old office building was like. I wanted to see if the past touched the lives of the people still working there today.

Approaching the 30-story building, I found the massive structure almost impossible to process. Standing next to it, or just approaching from the street, the iconic shape of the place cannot register—it's simply too enormous. You don't see the golden tower (just a nickname now—the building's pinnacle is currently green terra cotta tile) or the rough, disconcertingly natural shape. In photographs taken from the right distance, the Fisher Building looks carved out of an ancient mountainside that somehow landed in New Center. Walking next to the building, though, all you get are vertical planes of marble and a great and uneasy sense of the building's enormity.

Up close, the bronze doors on this side of the building seem a bit off, age having given them a spotted patina, leaving swaths of grey metal visible against the remaining gold brown original finish.

Just inside the entrance, if you can tear yourself away from the spectacle of the soaring barrel vaulted ceiling, you'll find an unimposing marble-lined doorway and the Pure Detroit retail space. The shop offers every conceivable Detroit notion, in the form of hoodies, pillows, knit caps, coasters, tote bags, mugs, t-shirts, belts, jewelry—even a whistle. There are Pewabic tiles and cushions printed with scenes from Belle Isle, the city's largest public park, along with a wide array of coffee table books about the city and purses in a variety of bright colors.

There are Wallace guitars, with tags proudly declaring that they're made in Detroit. Song for No One plays on the shop's speakers, then a Feist song. Julian DeSandy works the register at Pure Detroit. A slight 20-something with long brown hair in a neat ponytail, he says he's worked for the retailer since last December. One of the best perks is the Fisher Building itself, he says, while a customer sorts through the panoply of seat belt accessories in the shop's central space.

"It's awesome. You notice something new every day," he explains. "Parducci did all the etchings and the bronze by the elevators. It's great to be able to admire his work."

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Pure Detroit offers free tours of the building every weekend, and Julian can speak knowledgeably about a number of the structure's features and its history. He tells me that Albert Kahn was "Detroit's architect." Before WWII, Julian says, Kahn traveled to Russia to help build factories and prepare for the war. He moves seamlessly from describing 20th century factory design—"We owe it all to Albert Kahn"—to more recent events.

"The building was just auctioned off, and we're getting the new people in now," he says. Employees of the new owners come and go daily, and they talk about big plans for the Fisher. "The building across the street will be all residential," Julian tells me, pointing to the adjacent Kahn Building. The Fisher's architect constructed his own offices next to what was arguably his greatest work in Detroit. His firm still operates today, though that building was sold to HFZ and its partners along with the Fisher Building during the auction in June.

"They only paid $12.2 million for it—they got it for a song," Julian says, quickly adding that the new owner will put $88 million into restoring the Fisher, and that work has begun already. The new owners have replaced all the doors on Second Street and refurbished the bronze over the doorway. When you stand in front of that particular entry, there's no wonky patina, no age spots. The bronze glows brightly, and every detail in the sign looks freshly cut.

Julian says workers in the building worried that Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans and the owner of over 13 million square feet of prime Detroit commercial real estate, might come in and buy the Fisher Building, too. "We like what Dan is doing, don't get me wrong, but it's nice to see other people interested in the city," Julian says.

Julian moves away to help a customer with a belt made, of course, out of seat belt material. I depart to check out the rest of the first floor, occupied by retail. In addition to Pure Detroit, there's the Detroit Gallery of Contemporary Crafts and Workshop, a furniture maker whose open doors release the scent of freshly cut lumber. Like many businesses in the city, Workshop focuses on salvage, reclaiming timber from derelict structures across the city to build varnished, steel-legged tables. Their website touts the sourcing–the wood, structural pine pieces, comes from demolished buildings, and each piece has a tag with "the street address of the building in Detroit from where the lumber was reclaimed." A coffee table from Workshop retails for $1250. Apparently, the Fishers weren't the only ones to arrive at Detroit at exactly the right time.

The lunch crowd at Stella Good Coffee occupies industrial chic tables and chairs in the lobby. The coffee shop itself is small, with reclaimed wood counters. Snippets of conversation relay the score of Tuesday's Red Wings game (exciting, a win). People tap smartphones while their lattes cool. Over the course of a day, people come and go. Janitors push plastic carts of cleaning materials, a strange utilitarian contrast with the opulence of the first floor.

The lighting, provided by huge glass pendant fixtures, never changes, so noon and nine and five p.m. all feel roughly the same. Unless you stand quite close to them, the glass doors provide little in the way of views to the street. Here, large clocks tell the time, but more to the point, phones and tablets and laptops manage the hours. After five, the shops start to close, and a lone figure occupies one of the steel benches by the Grand Avenue exit.

LaDorse Carter sits gracefully, her posture as impeccable as her smart black pantsuit. She wears a neat black bowler hat, large pearl earrings, and an elegant white silk scarf woven with subtle gold accent threads. Ms Carter tells me she's worked at the Fisher for 18 years. She answers phones at the Fisher Theater, a deco entertainment palace within the larger palace of the Fisher Building itself. She loves the theater, she says, and attends shows herself frequently. I ask what her favorite has been, but she shrugs that off.

"I love all the shows," she says. "Although I do love some more than others." She thinks the current show running at the 2,000-seat theater, a touring production of the Broadway musical Jersey Boys, will be a great draw in the city.

LaDorse Carter moved to Detroit in 1952, as part of a wave of African-American migration from the deep south. Her sister worked as a public school teacher in the city, and moving from Alabama to Detroit seemed both practical and like an adventure. "I'm 80 years old," she says. "I'm happy I made it this far."

"I worked in catering before the Fisher," she says. "I like to work where people are. There's been a lot of changes in Detroit," she says of her sixty years in the city. "Especially after the [1967] riots, but this area is the same," she explains, gesturing towards the street and the heavy thrum of New Center as office workers depart for the evening. A steady stream of exiting Fisher Building employees eddies past at the close of business. Women in beautiful clothes—dresses, suits, street wear in a wide array of interesting shapes and colors—pass us, heading for the exit. Many wear tennis shoes with their work gear, the rubber soles making soft squeaks against the mosaic marble floor.

Ms. Carter knows the Fisher, inside and out, and even down below. She tells me that there are tunnels that link the Fisher Building to nearby structures, tunnels that help the district's workers get from building to building while avoiding snow and busy sidewalk traffic.

"I think this building is beautiful," Ms. Carter says as they pass us. "It's a jewel, that's for sure," she adds, before pointing to the barrel vault, excitedly.

"You never think to look really up high, but then you see the colors." She pauses, clearly moved by the dense array of art, glass, and marble all around her. "There's a tunnel, and you can go to the building across the street," she explains. "You can go two blocks without going outside."

Outside, the sun has set, and the Fisher's pinnacle glows green against a black sky. While the developers are quick to discuss ideas about the arcade, new apartments, and bringing in more retail, specific plans for the building, including the timeline, remain a closely guarded secret. People worried about the 90-year-old building's future can take heart knowing that HKZ has a long track record of doing exquisite restorations. Most of their projects turn grand old buildings into the real estate item Detroit is very familiar with: mixed-use residential and commercial space. So many of these broke ground or were announced this summer and fall, a person could lose count. There's new construction at Orleans Landing on the city's riverfront and at DuCharme Place in Lafayette Park. This week, Kraemer Design Group began whitewashing the Valpey Building, part of the work of adding it on to The Lofts at Merchants' Row. Developers working on the Metropolitan Building, formerly a center for Detroit's jewelry industry but vacant since 1977, say the structure will have 71 brand new apartment units, along with retail spaces on the first two floors. New Center hasn't had the revitalization experienced by downtown Detroit. Dan Gilbert, Quicken Loans' founder and CEO, who many assumed would buy the Fisher when it went up for auction, has poured tons of money into downtown, renovating older structures and moving 8000 Quicken Loans employees to his collection of buildings surrounding Campus Martius Park. New Center awaits similar treatment, and pundits see it coming any day, along with the M1 Rail, a new transit loop of trolley cars currently under construction and slated to open for public use in 2017.

HFZ and Redico, the Southfield firm they partnered with to buy the building, haven't given any details at all all about plans for the building since buying it nearly six months ago. But Detroit Developer Peter Cummings, son-in-law of Detroit's other famous Fishers (of Detroit Symphony Orchestra fame) helped shepherd the sale of the Fisher, and is working on the project alongside HKZ and Redeco. Cummings, who is probably best known in Detroit for bringing a Whole Foods to midtown in 2013, said that there have been surprises since the purchase, but nothing the group can't handle. "When our group underwrote the building, we obviously understood we would find deferred maintenance and there would be a lot of work to do," Cummings said. "That's proved to be the case. There have been operational issues that we discovered that were more challenging," he said.

Initially, Cummings said that the developers focused on the mixed-use potential of the building. "When we were trying to evaluate Fisher and colonize investments, were were focused on the opportunity to balance the use, take down some of the offices and convert them to residential space," Cummings explained. "We are planning to introduce a residential component," he added, before explaining that retail has become far more of a focus for the investor group.

Cummings says the plan is to focus on adding new retail options to bring people in. Retail in New Center, he added, wasn't a consideration for the developers when they bought the Fisher, but it quickly became apparent that retail will be a huge part of the Fisher's redevelopment plans.

"The biggest surprise has been the interest in retail," Cummings explained. Cummings won't name any of the potential retail tenants his group is courting, but did describe the type of tenant he hopes to bring in.

"We do have interest from national and regional retailers and our goal is to curate those retailers and mix them with local and emerging retailers so we have something that is granular and reflects Detroit. That's what drives our leasing strategy," Cummings explained.

In an interesting twist, the Fisher Building's initial pitch to tenants is part of the new owners' strategy. Posters in glass display cases in the building show original ad copy, promising executives shorter commutes because of the building's proximity to highways and the suburbs, a nice added bonus to its convenience to downtown.

"New Center is that much closer to the suburbs," Cummings said, echoing the 90-year-old poster. "And there's best access to the Lodge [Freeway] and I-75. It's got a great geographical proximity to everything that's happening to downtown and with the advent of M-1 Rail, I think we're going to see New Center reborn as a retail destination, something that wasn't part of our initial calculus" he added.

While projects like redoing the bronze on the Second Street entrance have already taken place, and the group is currently assessing the full facade of the 30-story marble-clad building, Cummings says that the most pressing project on his mind is putting the building's main arcade to the best possible use.

"The number one most important project is to reanimate the arcade," Cummings said. "With the potential exception of Rivera Court at the DIA, the arcade is the most spectacular interior space in Detroit, and we want to give lots of people lots of reasons to visit it." When pressed for details on how the group plans to "animate" the space, Cummings laughed. "Magic," he joked. "And it will take lots of magic to make it happen. That arcade should be the premiere public space in New Center."

Whatever comes next for the building—residential units upstairs, more retail, restoration—the Fisher Building will continue to occupy its place as Detroit's art deco jewel box. LaDorse Carter has no plans to retire. She likes having something to do, she says. She'll be here to see what unfolds for the nearly 90-year-old building. Detroit waits, too, while the sun sets over New Center, and the weather shifts from prolonged summer to whatever the polar vortex has in store for Michigan this year.

UPDATE: We have updated the story to include additional links regarding the history of the Fisher building.

· Fisher Building coverage [Curbed Detroit]
· Made in Detroit archive [Curbed]
· Detroit Distilled: How the City's Modern Past Could Inspire Its Future [Curbed]