Empty Wurlitzer may be downtown's latest boutique hotel

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

The New York firm with a contract to buy the Wurlitzer building wants to convert the historic structure into a boutique hotel, making it the fifth such hotel in or near downtown Detroit.

The vacant Wurlitzer, which city officials once called one of downtown's "most dangerous structures" when its facade began falling off, is under contract to be sold for $1.1 million, according to the commercial real estate database CoStar Group.

The buyers of the 14-story building are Brookyln design/development firm ASH NYC. Last year, a former strip club in Providence, R.I. opened as a hotel called The Dean, which was designed by ASH NYC. The Providence Journal called it "elegantly hip." The rooms have no telephones or dressers but employ spare design such as concrete end tables, made by local artists. Guests are offered fried-chicken chocolate bars.

ASH NYC would overhaul Detroit's Wurlitzer, at the corner of Broadway and John R, into a hotel with ground-floor retail, said Robert Kraemer, principal of Kraemer Design Group, an architecture and interior design firm based downtown.

"It will be a boutique hotel," Kraemer said, who is consulting with the ASH. Representatives from ASH NYC did not return telephone calls to The Detroit News.

"It's a sign post-bankrupt Detroit looks attractive to a lot of investors," said Ron Wilson, CEO of Hotel Investment Services Co, a hotel consultant firm in Troy. "The ability to get financing is opening up and what you see downtown is the anticipation of M-1 Rail, the expanded Cobo Center and buildings that are still inexpensive to buy."

Boutique hotels tend to be smaller in the number of rooms, and emphasize a unique ambience. Its a trend that began in the 1980s and now the idea is hitting downtown Detroit.

"It certainly seems all the rage there," said Jeff Higley, vice president of digital media and communications of STR Global, which tracks the hotel industry worldwide.

"Boutique is a pretty broad term now but generally it is a hotel that is geared toward a specific demographic. That demographic could be focused on music or sports," Higley said, who is based in Nashville, Tennessee

Detroit's downtown hotel occupancy rate averaged 62.5 percent in 2014, the highest average since the 1990s, according to convention officials. There are about 4,500 hotel rooms downtown, and within a few years convention officials expect that number to reach 5,000.

"We used to be the worst among the top 25 markets but now we are among the healthiest," said Michael O'Callaghan, executive vice president and COO of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. He also is familiar with plans for the Wurlitzer.

"The completion of the Cobo expansion means conventions bookings are up. The auto industry is doing very well. Things are pretty good right now," O'Callaghan said.

Downtown's first boutique hotel, Aloft, opened last month. It is housed in David Whitney Building, across from Grand Circus Park, which underwent a $92 million restoration. The next to come online is a $28-million plan to convert the former Detroit Firehouse No. 1, across from Cobo Center, into the Foundation Hotel.

The firehouse hotel will exhibit a "deep appreciation for Detroit's past and a celebration of its promising future," according to the developers, Chicago's Aparium Hotel Group. The hotel is expected to open later this year.

In the Eastern Market area, there is an effort to build a hotel made from shipping containers. The project is called Collision Works hotel and would be near the Dequindre Cut pedestrian and bike path.

Last year, Ontario-based Vintage Hotels unveiled a plan for a $40 million boutique hotel and conference center on the site of the Detroit Boat Club on Belle Isle. It is still in the concept stage.

In Midtown, operators of boutique and extended-stay hotels have expressed some interest, but nothing is in the works, said Susan Mosey, president of Midtown Detroit Inc., an organization that has played a key role in the rebirth of that area.

The historical Wurlitzer has been vacant since 1982. The building once housed the Wurlitzer Co., maker of organs, pianos and jukeboxes. The narrow structure, built in 1926, is across the street from the Detroit Opera House.

The Wurlitzer building is owned by 1509 Broadway LLC, whose managing member is attorney Paul Curtis. Jerome Eagger, principal of Detroit-based Summit Commercial LLC, which represents the current building owners, said he could not comment.