Steve Thompson in Detroit: The Design Guy Does The Motor City, Part III of III

John Varvatos 1

The tour continued down the Merchants Row shopping area on the city’s most famous street, Woodward Avenue. We passed by the block with the curious painted steel beams sticking out of the ground which Bruce told us was…

…it was the site of the famed J.L. Hudson Department Store, now a parking lot with steel girders exposed like a contemporary sculpture (also owned by Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures). The building was constructed in 1911 and ultimately had 2.2 million sq. feet on 25 floors and was demolished in 1998 leaving a gaping hole on Woodward Avenue.

Then (1951)
Hudson’s Department Store site: Rendering 2
Hudson’s Department Store site: Rendering 2
The city leaders employed some insight and a huge underground parking structure for 955 cars was constructed with foundation support beams erected in place for a future building, and that’s what
protruded from the ground at street level that looked like dwarf Mark di Suvero sculptures.
Still in our tour group, one of the most interesting things was passing by buildings that were once the headquarters of well- known household brands like Singer, Wurlitzer, Ford, Fisher (remember “Body by Fisher”?), names in faded paint still visible on the façades though the  business’ had moved long, long, ago.
Old Singer Headquarters
Old Wurlitzer Headquarters
The newest name on the street is fashion designer and Detroit homeboy, John Varvatos, who has opened the first high-end store on the planned Merchants Row.
John Varvatos opened in Downtown Detroit
John Varvatos Store: The 1st floor
Now, in the last 48 hours I have been told about “John Varvatos opening a store in downtown Detroit. I saw it on the internet, my seatmate (a manicurist) on the plane on the way to Detroit told me about it, and our tour guide Bruce showed it to us.
John Varvatos is a rocker (who knew?), so there is a stage on the first floor
John Varvatos Store: The 2nd floor
Now, I’m curious to know who thinks a John Varvatos store is a match for Detroit? It’s an expensive line with an urban, grungy edge which I don’t really see as a match for Detroit. Heck, it’s barely a match for LA or New York!  I was curious and asked the group I was with, “How many of you wear Varvatos?” Everyone looked at me with a blank response…I wasn’t surprised. Oh, and for the record, I happened to be wearing Varvatos that day.
The Downtown People Mover
We pass under the People Mover (their new privately funded monorail with future plans to connect other areas of the city to downtown), and walked past the beautiful 100 yr. old Detroit Athletic Club.
The beautiful Detroit Athletic Club
The newest Bedrock tenant, Punch Bowl Socialis a Restaurant/Bowling Alley/Arcade Room, Karaoke, concept store. 
I lunched at Punch Bowl Social Club and was surprised to see Kale on the menu… where’s the beef? This is Detroit! I settled on the hamburger- though was tempted by the chicken breast on a waffle combo!
Todays tour ended at NOJO Kicks Detroit, a couture high-top shoe store where you can buy a pair of ‘Back to the Future’ kicks for $7K. NOJO was a very cool store with an art installation composed of tail pipes suspended on wires from the ceiling, apropos for the Motor City don’t you think? Odd, though, all of the shoes were shrink wrapped in plastic. 
A $7,000 per of kicks
All of the display shoes were shrink wrapped in plastic
An inventive use of tail pipes: Tail pipes as art
The historic Guardian Building: Aztec style
The grand marble staircase

After lunch I had a meeting and driving tour of the city with Mark Denson the Director of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. We met at the historic Guardian Building, in what was the former banking district of Detroit and home to the gorgeous FORD Building, their former corporate headquarters.

The elevator lobby and shaped ceiling
The original bank lobby with groin vaulted ceilings

The Guardian Building is an Indian themed brick skyscraper with a remarkable and unusual combination Art Deco/Indian motif interior. This tour included the future Redwings hockey stadium location, where he shared the vision for the Illitch family’s massive development plan; the planned walking/jogging path that will traverse the city from North to South; the opening of broad boulevards with wide sidewalks that run from East to West; the extension of the People Mover from downtown Detroit to the museum/arts district; the future waterfront redevelopment plans; and a handful of commercial successes to date. He was a most informative person who knows Detroit, now and then!

1944 Willys
My last appointment was with a local residential real estate hotshot, Austin Black, and a tour of his listing of the Willys Building Lofts, the original home of the Willy automobile, the precursor to the Jeep Willy. It was interesting to actually tour such a cool conversion and the rebirth of a historic building that had been abandoned.
Above: The Willys Building before renovation (original signage visible on the right side)
Above: The Willys Building after renovation
I was encouraged by this project with its exposed brick walls, high ceilings and penthouse views of the city.
A loft penthouse in the converted Willys Building
1931 Duesenberg Model J (a long way from a Willy)
Willy’s tidbit: Willy’s once owned Duesenberg Motors. Now that seems like a bit of a stretch but you can Google it for yourself!
Above and below: The Detroit Opera House, c. 1922
Finally back at the hotel in time to change and get to a performance at the Detroit Opera House by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company from New York. The opening number was contemporary and abstract which showcased the dancers athletic abilities in such an amazing light.
The dancers are seriously athletes
Revelation performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company
The finale was Revelation, their famed dance number, and it was as wonderful this time as it was the first time I saw it.
Café D’Mongos Speakeasy
After the show I walked over to Café D’Mongos Speakeasy (open only on Friday’s), a local neighborhood haunt which was recommended to me, is located between a synagogue and a strip club. Larry D’Mongo (the owner) was there and the place was packed, a true dive with live music, Xeroxed pictures of Motown greats and gangsters in little plastic frames, records (vinyl) spray-painted gold and bolted to the counter tops!
 Above and below: The interior design of the café is…I’m just not sure what it is.
D’Mongos didn’t really have a menu but the chef came to the table and pointed out a list that was under the Plexiglas table top cover, five different tapas. I ordered one of each and the food was incredible!
Cliff Bell’s jazz club, c. 1935
After dinner, I decided to walk off my tapas feast and stopped in Cliff Bell’s for some Detroit jazz. There was a huge circular bar straight out of the 30’s, dark wood walls and floors, curved leather upholstered booths, brass railings and an art deco inspired domed silver-leafed ceiling. This was definitely old Detroit at its best!
Above and below: The interiors at Cliff Bell’s jazz club
  
At the end of a very long day, as I was taking a shower I had a moment where I truly couldn’t remember if it was the end of my first day or the end of my second day!
Please join me tomorrow for Part IV of V.
Good night moon.

Source: A Design Guy

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