Glory restored to David Whitney Building

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Lumber baron David Whitney would surely be pleased. The long-abandoned Detroit skyscraper bearing his name is about to reopen, and it looks like a million dollars.

Well, $92 million, to be precise — the price tag developer David Di Rita of Whitney Partners puts on the elaborate restoration that will bring the 1915 Grand Circus Park landmark back to something very close to its original glory inside and out.

When it reopens in December, the 19-story building, designed by Chicago's D. H. Burnham & Co., will house an Aloft "boutique" hotel with 136 rooms, and 105 apartments starting at $1,000 a month on floors 10 through 18. A new restaurant, the Grand Cirque Brasserie, is slated to open next March.

The newsmedia toured the the David Whitney Building, including grand lobby and massive atrium, on Wednesday

Di Rita promises the Whitney, which closed in 1999, will be a luminous addition to the skyline.

"We're going to up-light the façade at night," he said, as well as a reproduction of the original rooftop sign with the building's name. (The red illuminated sign many will remember was not original.)

But it's the four-story interior lobby, the Grand Rotunda, with its vast skylight and large gold clock, that's the real knockout. Anyone who visited in the 1990s will scarcely recognize the space now that all its white-and-gilt luster has been brought back to life.

Throughout there's been an impressive effort made to retain historic elements. Doors to hotel rooms and apartments are original. And some 800 of the building's 1,100 windows have been meticulously restored rather than replaced.

The Grand Rotunda skylight, however, is something of an exception to this rule, though you'd never guess.

Views from the 18th floor three-bedroom apartment at The Whitney Building.

The ornate grid that held the original glass "panes" is still there, but rather than replacing every piece of glass, which wasn't practical, Di Rita says that architects instead removed them all and suspended a large, invisible glass sheet on top of the metalwork.

If the Whitney's restoration seems unusually good, that has a lot to do with rental rates. In the past year or so, residential rents downtown have begun to get close to $2 a square foot, a number that allows for more luxurious treatment.

This is a good thing, as the building suffered from an ill-advised exterior "modernization" in 1959 that architect Bob Kraemer at Kraemer Design Group has worked to remedy.

Among other touches, he's restored the long-lost lion's heads that used to ring the 19th floor.

The David Whitney Building was constructed in 1915 and closed in 1999.

Kraemer told The Detroit News a month ago that they've relied on both the original plans and old photos to get it right, though it wasn't possible in all cases to precisely mimic every element of the 1915 design.

"What we're putting back is an interpretation of what we believe was there," Kraemer said.