Restoration of the Whitney Building provides hope for Detroit

Four years ago, Whitney Partners purchased the 253,000-sf Whitney for $3.3 million. Their mission was to turn the 19-story structure into a mixed-use hotel, rental apartment, and retail center that would serve as a reminder of more prosperous times in Detroit’s past.

November 10, 2015 |
Restoration of the Whitney Building provides hope for Detroit

A second skylight was placed above the hallmark atrium skylight; only the steel framework of the original was kept. Photo courtesy Whitney Partners.

Two centuries ago, Detroit, a city with more than its share of problems, was endowed with a prescient motto: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.” This declaration was pronounced, in Latin, of course (“Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus”), by one Father Gabriel Richard, a French Catholic priest, as he stood in the ashes of his parish school, a victim of the fire that wiped out the city in 1805.

The good father would probably feel right at home in modern-day Detroit, where even the most modest attempt at rejuvenation might be viewed as a sign from heaven. When such an undertaking is done with taste, skill, and extreme professionalism, it deserves the highest praise. That is why the jury for BD+C’s 32nd Annual Reconstruction Awards awarded Platinum honors to the Building Team for the David Whitney Building.

PLATINUM AWARD

David Whitney Building | Detroit, Mich.

Building Team
Submitting firm: Walbridge (CM)
Owner: Whitney Partners, LLC
Architect: Kraemer Design Group
Engineer: Desai Nasr Consulting Engineers
Electrical: C.D. Barnes Associates Inc.
Plumbing: Guideline Mechanical

 

General Information
Size: 253,000 sf
Construction cost: $92 million
Construction time: August 2012 to December 2014
Delivery method: CM at risk

Four years ago, Trans Inns Management and The Roxbury Group, a local developer, formed Whitney Partners, LLC. The joint venture purchased the 253,000-sf Whitney, originally designed by the successor firm to Daniel Burnham, for $3.3 million. Their mission: to turn the historic 19-story office/retail structure, vacant since 1999, into a mixed-use hotel, rental apartment, and retail center that would serve as a reminder of more prosperous times in Detroit’s past, when it was the fast-growing, fourth-largest city in the nation.

Financing for the $92 million project hinged on capturing as many federal and state historic tax credits, including New Market Tax Credits, as possible. This meant that Whitney Partners, Walbridge (CM), and Kraemer Design Group (architect) had to meet frequently with the Detroit Historic District Commission and city and state agencies (notably the State Historic Preservation Office) to make sure the redevelopment complied with all applicable historic preservation requirements.

To keep on budget, Walbridge engaged in what it called “constant and unending” value analysis and value engineering. The CM’s diligence paid off when the decision about whether to preserve or replace hundreds of windows in the Whitney came up. At first, replacement looked like the right way to go. Upon further reflection, the Building Team determined that such a course would diminish the historic character and economic value of the building.

 

The Building Team for the David Whitney Building (left, bottom) restored the original 1915 sign. Lightweight reinforced fiberglass was used to re-create the cornices, which keep water off the skin. Photo courtesy Whitney Partners.

 

Walbridge worked with glazing subcontractor Universal Glass and Metals to clean and restore the bulk of the windows. Wood framing was meticulously replaced; each window was re-glazed. Windows that were beyond repair were fitted with custom replications. Roughly 60% of the solid mahogany doors also were salvaged. All doors were equipped with electronic key-fob locks.

The Building Team faced additional pressure to complete the job by the end of 2014, or precious tax credits would be lost. This became even more onerous when deliveries of custom furniture, fixtures, and equipment were delayed. Walbridge used the waiting time to clean up punch-list items and get spaces ready for immediate installation as FFE deliveries came in. This Scout-like preparation enabled the team to meet the deadline with days to spare.

SHOWCASING THE LOBBY

To everyone’s surprise, the four-story lobby was in remarkably good shape. The Building Team was able to restore more than 90% of the existing assets in the lobby and main corridors. Original marble flooring and decorative glazed terra cotta block walls were reconditioned. In most cases crown molding and wood detailing required only minor touch-up.

The massive skylight in the atrium was another story entirely. Most of the glass panels were missing; replacing them would have wreaked havoc on the budget. The Building Team had no choice. The skylight had to be saved to maintain the building’s historic designation—and preserve those golden tax credits.

 

Original restored marble paneling adds a historic touch to the modernized lobby. The new Aloft Detroit Hotel occupies floors 3–9. Photo: John D'Angelo Photography.

 

The team came up with a clever three-step solution: 1) Remove all existing glass in the skylight. 2) Keep the steel framing. 3) Build a new skylight just above the original frame. This preserved the historic feel of the atrium while preventing further water intrusion. Visitors to the Whitney have to look pretty hard to determine which skylight is the real one.

New mechanical systems—plumbing, electrical, and more than 200 in-room, climate-controlled HVAC units—were installed, along with a backup generator and a comprehensive fire protection system. The original eight elevators were reduced to five modern lifts. A freight elevator was added.

The Whitney stands within sight of Comerica Park, Ford Field, the Detroit Opera House, and the Fox Theater, right at a heavily used stop for the city’s People Mover, so delivery logistics and traffic management were trickier than usual. At one point, Walbridge had to coordinate with the makers of the film “Transformers 4,” who were using an adjacent site to replicate a scene in, of all places, Hong Kong.

Attending to worker and pedestrian safety in the bustling, cramped location was paramount. The project came in with a commendable 2.61 recordable incident rate, a zero lost time incident rate, and a zero DART incident rate over the course of 307,000 hours worked.

This project even had a lemons-to-lemonade story. In 2011, a massive windstorm tore holes in the Whitney’s roof. The Building Team patched all but one, a big hole on the mansard roof pitch. Here, the team installed a permanent hatch that they used to haul waste out during demolition; later, it provided vital access to the mechanical suite on the 19th floor.

Today, the Whitney houses the 136-key Aloft Detroit Hotel and 105 apartment units, mainly 625-sf 1BRs, plus a handful of 1,200-sf 2BRs, a few 1,700-sf 3BRs, and several ADA-compliant units. A Grand Cirque Brasserie is scheduled to open soon.

Resurget cineribus, indeed!

 

The Whitney offers 105 apartments on floors 10 to 18. The Aloft Detroit Hotel lobby and bar are on the main floor, along with shell space for a planned brasserie and retail. The Aloft has 51 king rooms, 59 queens, 19 king suites, and seven ADA-compliant suites. The final hybrid redesign had to take into account designs from two different eras: the original 1915 design by the successor firm to Daniel Burnham, and a 1959 redesign. The 18-month, $92 million renovation project received the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation from Michigan’s State Historic Preservation Office. Photo: John D'Angelo Photography.

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