By Kevin Blind and Todd Sachse
In a city like Detroit, an ongoing urban renaissance and an abundance of historically significant buildings presents exciting opportunities for renovation and reinvention. However, transforming an architectural landmark isn’t exactly a paint-by-numbers process. As anyone who works on these projects knows all too well, historic renovations can be tricky. Every project is different. Every historic building comes with its own unique charm and period detail—but also its own set of surprises as well as its own design and construction challenges.
The recently completed renovation of the Foundation Hotel in downtown Detroit is a classic example of why design and construction professionals working in this space need to expect the unexpected—and reviewing the process can provide insight into overcoming challenges to create a truly transformational destination.
Our task was to convert two adjacent historic buildings into a 95,000-square-foot, 100-key boutique hotel with an enclosed first-floor restaurant and bar. One of the buildings originally served as the headquarters of the Detroit Fire Department and was an essential part of the city’s history. In addition to combining the two structures—the Pontchartrain building at 234 W. Larned Street and the fire department building at 250 W. Larned Street, originally built in 1882 and 1929 respectively—the project included constructing a new fifth-floor expansion that would serve as the hotel’s banquet space.
Confronting Structural Challenges
Transforming historic firehouse–or any architecturally or culturally significant building–into a modern-day hotel property isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. Everyone involved in the process—owners, developers, and construction and design professionals—needs to be flexible and willing to adapt as circumstances demand. They also need a certain degree of specialized expertise and creative ingenuity. Ideally, you want someone who knows how these buildings are built and how they should be rebuilt, someone familiar with period materials and techniques, and someone who can walk into a historic building with a good idea of what they are going to find.
We learned early in the process that we were going to have to deal with some fairly significant structural integrity challenges. For example, we determined that one of the walls of the 234 building was practically falling apart and would have to be entirely rebuilt with steel structural supports added to accommodate the new rooftop and fifth-floor additions. Ironically, given the 250 building’s venerable history as a fire department headquarters, more than half of its original floor joists were fire damaged and partially rotted—and ultimately had to be replaced.
One of the challenges that comes with significant structural work is keeping the project moving forward despite logistical hurdles. With the Foundation Hotel, every step in the process, including the construction of new stair and elevator shafts, had to be strategically sequenced and thoughtfully timed to avoid delays. We also built the new rooftop addition before removing the old roof, which allowed our construction team to work from the bottom up and the top down simultaneously, keeping construction on schedule.
We also had to follow the guidelines and obtain the special approvals that come with altering a historic building. For example, we submitted a package that detailed the size, scale, type of materials, and other factors involved in the proposed work to the state historic preservation office and National Park Service, who reviewed this information and ultimately approved the project.
If you’ve ever stayed in a renovated historic hotel, you know that part of the charm is the fact that individual guest rooms often have unique features and dimensions. While those differences are an appealing hospitality asset, they are a challenge from a design and construction standpoint. For the Foundation Hotel, where 100 rooms had 54 unique layouts, the Detroit-based architects at McIntosh Poris Associates had to be flexible and creative to accommodate the intricacies of the individual rooms. Placing individual design plans in every room during the buildout process helped ensure that they were built correctly.
While historic renovation work does often require creative solutions, finding ways to save time and money begins very early in the process. With this project, detailed pre-construction planning enabled us to identify more than 100 modifications that ultimately generated approximately $2 million in construction savings.
The Foundation Hotel renovation provided us with the opportunity to create an appealing and contemporary hospitality space while still maintaining as much historic charm and authentic period appeal as possible. Striking that balance takes an experienced hand, and we were fortunate to rely on the expertise of Kraemer Design Group as historic consultant, navigating tax credit requirements and ensuring that essential historic elements were prioritized and preserved. Preservation and restoration isn’t just an aesthetic or experiential benefit, it’s often a financial mandate: projects like this one are often more financially feasible if they can qualify for historic tax credits.
To that end, we conducted a comprehensive exterior restoration, ensuring that the facade maintained its appearance. We preserved all original terra cotta and masonry elements and used custom molds to create new matching pieces for areas that had been damaged or degraded. Additionally, we replaced all existing windows with exact replicas of the originals. The preservation and restoration of the interior included painstakingly removing or protecting all original materials to avoid construction damage. We restored the original wall tiles in the lobby, where a vintage carpet and desk also contribute to the period aesthetic. We restored corridors throughout the building while keeping original plaster and terrazzo flooring, and the original commissioner’s office on the third floor is now the commissioner’s suite.
Detroit’s Foundation Hotel opened its doors in spring 2017, a breathtaking example of how a historic property can convey a sense of place and become a striking new feature in an urban landscape that is undergoing a revitalization. The hotel’s historic connection to Detroit is evident, both inside and out. Custom-designed light fixtures and salvaged interior accents made of charred wood recall the building’s roots. Guest rooms feature distinctive headboard walls built with repurposed wood and photographs of historic Detroit architecture on custom wallpaper from Detroit Wallpaper Co. Guests have access to bicycles to help them explore the city, and the work of local artists hangs on the hotel’s walls. The result, as Curbed observes, is “an experience that celebrates Detroit’s past while moving it into the future.”
Kevin Blind is the vice president of commercial operations at Sachse Construction, a Detroit-based construction management firm licensed in all 50 states. Todd Sachse is the company’s CEO and founder.