December 16, 2008 at 1:57 pm

Detroit hotels' modern twist on history

Tax incentives helped renovate Fort Shelby, Book Cadillac, but 'restored' is a broad brush

Developers went through great lengths to restore the ceiling of the Fort Shelby's Crystal Ballroom. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)

DETROIT -- Judging by the renovations of the historic Doubletree Guest Suites Fort Shelby downtown -- which opened its doors Monday after a $90 million makeover -- and the recently refurbished Westin Book Cadillac Detroit nearby, the definition of historic preservation can be very broad in Detroit. Both multi-million dollar projects needed crucial historic tax credits, federal and state, that allowed developers to put together complex financing deals to revive formerly dead, blighted eyesores. In exchange, the historical look of the ornate early 20th century buildings was supposed to be restored.

The finished hotels are more of a combination of old and new. The exteriors of the big, beautiful buildings look remarkably like they did in their prime. But the interiors mix homages to the past with new designs and touches.

As Detroiter Gene Fitzgerald walked through the gleaming, sleek lobby of the Fort Shelby on Monday afternoon, he was "overjoyed" about the restoration project but wondered how much of it actually looked like the original.

"It's so beautiful and inviting," the retired Detroit Public School administrator said, as he held a brochure for the 56-high end rental apartments called the Fort Shelby Tower.

"Wasn't the entrance over here?" he said, pointing to what is now a sushi bar. "Was there a sushi bar?" No, there wasn't, but Fitzgerald didn't mind the addition.

Susan Powers had similar thoughts as she booked a Fort Shelby suite for her upcoming 60th birthday. "I'm so very happy to see this alive," said the Royal Oak resident. But just as when she recently entered the $200 million renovated Westin Book Cadillac, she couldn't help but wonder how much was historically accurate. "I was actually kind of struck how much it resembled a Westin inside, which is not a terrible thing at all," Powers said of The Book. "I do wonder why some changes were made and others were not."

The definition of historical preservation depends on how much can actually be preserved.

"The goal is to attempt to maintain the historic essence of the building," said Robbert McKay, the state's historical architect who approves the historic tax credits. The Book Cadillac is in line to receive $37.5 million in historic credits, while the Fort Shelby will get $8 million, according to McKay, who worked with the developers of both projects. "When you start with buildings reduced to shells of their former selves, there has to be flexibility," he said.

At the Fort Shelby, developers took painstaking steps to restore the elaborate Crystal Ballroom and maintain the marble floor of the lobby, among other things. But other portions of the original marble floors have been carpeted over and what is believed to have been a Pewabic tile water fountain has been walled in. The Book, with its once grand marble staircase and ornate ballrooms, now has the beige, modern sheen of a Westin. But that includes, among other things, handmade chandeliers from Italy and re-creations of ornate tiles and ceiling patterns.

"A lot of times we just had black-and-white photos to get any sense of what most of the building looked like," said Larry Brinker, co-founder of L.S. Brinker Co., the main contractor that oversaw the renovation of the building.

The Fort Shelby is two buildings operating as one. The original 10-story part of the building opened in 1917 and was called the Hotel Fort Shelby. In 1927, a taller, 21-story addition was added, designed by the famed architect Albert Kahn. The hotel's last tenant, a bar, left in 1998. The Doubletree has 203 rooms, a Finn & Porter steakhouse and sushi bar, a lounge called the Round Bar, the Bearclaw Coffee Shop, and 38,000 square feet of state-of-the-art meeting space. The restaurants and bar open Friday at 5 p.m. The coffee shop is open now. About half of the 56 high-end rental apartments of the Fort Shelby Tower -- in the taller part of the building -- are done.

You can reach Louis Aguilar at (313) 222-2760 or laguilar@detnews.com">laguilar@detnews.com.

The pre-restoration ceiling. In many cases, the final results blend ...
Bill Wade of Skylite Painting applies a satin finish to a column in the ... (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)