Restoring Detroit

Restoring Detroit

In the early 20th Century, Detroit sprouted a crop of tall buildings, grand edifices that became the core of the booming city’s downtown business district. Many of them were ornamented with stone or terra cotta cornices, water tables, and decorative bands.

In 1958, a 20-foot chunk of cornice weighing many hundred pounds fell off the 7-story Ferguson Building at 1448 Woodward Ave., striking and killing an 80-year-old pedestrian named Myrtle Taggart.   The mayor declared that “dangerous gingerbread” must be removed. The city sent out cornice inspection notices to 1600 buildings. Many of the owners responded, not by bringing their decaying terra cotta up to code, but by simply stripping it off, leaving the tops of the buildings uncrowned, and looking rather violated. Some buildings were fully “modernized,” renovated into minimalist mid-century blocks, such as the David Whitney Building. Others just stood for decades showing naked, mis-matched brick where carved floral fantasies once were. It’s ironic that while Detroit’s car industry was cranking out elaborate, ever-more-outrageous, functionally useless tail-fins on cars, the city was denuding itself of ornament. But back then, Detroit didn’t mind. As Bob Seger put it, “We were making Thunderbirds.” Times were good.

Fast forward half a century, and the economic downturn sends the city of Detroit into bankruptcy. The bottom falls out of the real estate market.  Many of the grand old downtown buildings get sold for pennies on the dollar. With a generous tax credit available for historical restoration, an amazing thing starts to happen: new owners begin to restore the old gingerbread. The buildings are being renovated, some of them as residential or mixed-use complexes, and they’re recreating the architectural intentions of the original designers. Grandeur is making a big comeback.

And here’s where the composites come in: the new gingerbread isn’t terra cotta, it’s glass fiber composite.

One unusual example of this trend is the Gabriel Richard building at 305 Michigan Avenue. Completed in 1915, designed by an unknown architect, the building actually escaped the rape of the late 50’s and kept its original terra cotta. But it is a material that does not wear well when exposed to the elements. By 2007, some of the decorative banding and cornices were just falling apart.

The new ornamentation was fabricated by Glassline, Inc, a local firm that has provided the restoration materials for numerous downtown Detroit buildings. This case was unusual in that the original elements were still available for copying, although badly deteriorated.

Glassline works using traditional fiberglass techniques. If the original element is not available at all, they build a pattern, a full-sized, correctly textured mock-up of the thing they’re trying to fabric. (In the instance of the aforementioned David Whitney building, the restoration architect, Kraemer Design Group, had some historical architectural drawings, as well as photographs of the building, to work from.  Look for the July 2015 issue of The Construction Specifier for an extended discussion of that project.)

The pattern may be made of wood, fiberboard, cork, foam, wax, etc. From the pattern, they make a negative mold in fiberglass, and use that mold the cast the positive fiberglass elements that get attached to the building.

For the Gabriel Richard Building, Glassline was able to use original terra cotta elements that were intact to take silicone molds. From the molds, they cast new fiberglass components to replace 400 lineal feet of decorative band, and 30% of the cornice.

Glassline has more projects in the works in downtown Detroit, more cornices crowning the stately structures. Things are looking up.

Photos courtesy of Glassline Inc, except as noted.