INTRO: Another huge historic Detroit building could soon be demolished. It was designed by Detroit’s greatest architect: Albert Kahn. City and state officials are ready to let it go. Preservationists and some developers want it saved. So what should be done? Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports.
Does anyone want some free buildings? A half million square feet of tile, glass and ornamentation?
Driving south on the Lodge Freeway… 4 miles from downtown..look up to your right. It’s the red brick, 7 story Herman-Kiefer hospital complex.
This driver drove up expecting to get inside to see: “the artwork, detail of the walls and floors. A vintage building.”
Herman-Kiefer was designed by Albert Kahn in 1927. Built in 1928. For the last few years the city just used it for flu shots and birth certificates. In October, Detroit’s emergency manager closed it down to save money.
John Williams was disappointed he couldn’t do his regular business inside. He was surprised when I told him city officials could bring the wrecking ball. They want to beat the scrappers to the valuables found in the 8 buildings and 1,200 rooms.
“Looking at it it can be turned into something else. It doesn’t have to be leveled. The Packard Plant had been neglected for decades. That was a choice call. This one is intact so with a little renovation it could be turned into something else.”
“We’re out here 24/7. The city has enough sense to understand that we have to be out here 24/7 and keep an eye on the place.”
That’s Gene Navilys. A former metallurgist working for Laguarda Security Company. He drives along the streets and empty parking lots surrounding the buildings in a patrol car with a flashing yellow light on the roof.
“When the scrappers look at us they go the other way. As a matter of fact the scrappers have already cased the place. They don’t want nothing to do with it when we’re here.
Round the clock security is the best way to stop scrappers. Without it a building is destroyed hit days. Gene Navilys turns from the hospital to Hutchins Middle School. It’s a block away.
“See his school over here? I personally called into DPS…we hear a tink, tink, tink, people working. That school is looking worse by the week.”
Both Hutchins and Crosman school, 100 feet from Herman Kiefer, have been scrapped. Several million dollars in taxpayer money were spent to renovate Hutchins 8 years ago. Then Detroit Public Schools management closed it two years ago. They didn’t pay for security. It was fine last summer. Now it’s wrecked.
“There’s money coming from all angles. And it’s important that we on the ground advocate for that money to be used for something other than demolition. Demolition alone is not stabilizing.”
Emilie Evans works for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. She’s referring to at least $52 million sent by Washington. Evans herself came from the east coast last year with two college degrees to advocate for Detroit buildings. Here, she’s walking around Herman-Kiefer.
“I mean we really need moth balling and rehabilitation. Actually bringing a building, not just an anchor like a school, church or a hospital but houses and commercial buildings back in to functional use is more stabilizing for the neighborhood, keeps that historic character intact and really is more beneficial for the neighborhoods and the city as a whole.”
Detroit Developer Kathy Makino is rehabbing dozens of buildings already. So she won’t take on the project. But Makino thinks Cranbrook or one of the universities should take Herman-Kiefer and make a health or art studies campus. I called a Dow Chemical Corporation Vice-President and asked him to take a look. Henry Ford Hospital to the south won’t take it.
For now, the emergency manager is in charge. Bill Nowling is his spokesman.
“We haven’t put out any contract for demolition yet. We haven’t determined what the fate of that building will be. But it’s not going to be used for anything in the short term. So the issue is what do we do about it in the long term. Is it something that we sell? Do we scrap it? We don’t yet. That’s a process that’s underway. Right now we’ve secured the building. We have security for it on a month-to-month basis. A lot of it’s going to be determined by what the mayor wants to do with the new blight authority.”
The mayor’s options are dwindling. Under the emergency manager, the city’s general services department was supposed to complete a soft strip of the hospital in December. That means furniture to sell, cabinets, light fixtures, plumbing fixtures, copper pipes, window casings, door casings, shelves and more.
Yesterday a security guard at the site showed me a newly broken window to the basement. While I stood with him, another guard radioed in to say he found footprints in the snow near a wall.
Time is short. The scrappers and the wrecking ball loom.