Detroit Votes To Demolish 1923 Lafayette Building
By Ashley Nanco | Online Only | June 25, 2009
In the shadow of Detroit's restored Westin Book-Cadillac Hotel, the future of its neighbor, the Lafayette Building, is bleak.
This morning the city's Downtown Development Authority voted unanimously to tear down the 1923 Lafayette Building, which has been empty for more than a decade. It also awarded a $1.4 million contract to a demolition company.
Brian Holdwick, the executive vice president of business development and finance for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, says the ailing building is a public safety hazard and would cost "well north of $50 million, depending on what you do with it."
Constructed out of brick, terra cotta, and limestone, the unique V-shaped tower was built on a triangular plot. The 14-story Italian Renaissance skyscraper, designed by C. Howard Crane, was once home to the Michigan Supreme Court and the state Tax Tribunal, among other offices.
"Detroit has some of the most fabulous resources in its downtown area. It's really dense with them. [The Lafayette Building] was so cutting-edge for the '20s," says Karen Nagher of Preservation Wayne, Detroit's largest and oldest preservation organization.
Earlier this year, the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. requested bids for the complete demolition of the building, which were due on April 2. That day, former Detroit mayor Kenneth Cockrel Jr. ceased demolition due to a petition that 815 people signed, urging him to save the city-owned building.
This week, however, Detroit's city council turned down local landmark designation for the Lafayette Building, a designation that would have delayed its demolition again.
"What's a shame about all of this is that designating the Lafayette Building would have allowed preservation groups to work to find potential developers who could have rehabilitated another resource that would build on the revitalization success of the Book-Cadillac," says Genell Scheurell, senior program officer of the National Trust's Midwest Office. In 2005, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the historic buildings of downtown Detroit to its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
After years of mismanagement and changing ownership, the Lafayette Building closed in 1997. Today trees sprout from the roof, and windows are either shattered or covered with graffiti. A fence has been put around the building to protect passersby from the crumbling slate facade additions added in the late 1960s.
"The building was not properly stabilized. The roof wasn't protected; a water tank left filled with water rusted through and ruptured, dropping a lot of water into the building. But it still doesn't mean the building is irretrievable. We believe and have been told it can still be restored," Nagher says.
Nagher points out that, with historic tax credits, it can be less expensive to rehabilitate an existing building than to develop an empty lot.
"It's disappointing that the preservation community is not better understood for their knowledge and experience in the areas of economics, environmental concerns, and energy conservation," she says. "In Detroit, we are serious about the city and its development. We promote the use of a building that's already built, wherever appropriate. Detroit has a great inventory to work with."
Nagher also expresses concern for the American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island, two famous Detroit restaurants adjacent to the Lafayette Building that have been popular for decades. "Once the skyscraper is down, I don't know what will happen to them."
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