New lion heads for Detroit's Whitney Building are a sign of times

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

The lions are coming back.

Starting next week, workmen from Ram Construction will begin hauling 26 lion heads up 19 stories to the top of the David Whitney Building on Grand Circus Park. The heads, each 3 feet across, are attached to new cornices, which will restore the ones ripped off in an ill-advised modernization in the 1950s.

It's a sign of where Detroit real estate is going these days. Developers, like Detroit's Roxbury Group redoing the David Whitney, are suddenly willing to re-create lost architectural detailing, from cornices to elaborate entranceways, that just a few years ago would have been dismissed as too expensive.

The Whitney building was built in 1915 by celebrated Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. The new cornice line and lion heads were molded in a Plymouth warehouse by Glassline Inc., where they're also re-creating the original 67-foot-wide rooftop sign with the building's name.

Glassline is a small firm dealing in fiberglass-reinforced plastic that suddenly finds itself swimming in contracts for Detroit projects. Owner Guy Kenny still can't get over the sudden surge.

"Up until two years ago, there was nothing," he says, "apart from a couple projects and what we did on the Book-Cadillac Hotel," where Glassline recreated a cornice-like "water table" that wraps around the 23rd floor.

These days? "It's spooky how much we've got going on."

In addition to the Whitney building, Glassline is restoring the cornice on the old Detroit Savings Bank in Capitol Park, as well as repairing 92 pieces on the Buhl Building downtown. They scrubbed the outside of the old gas building at 1 Woodward., now owned by Dan Gilbert, and are in talks to do restoration work on four more downtown and Midtown buildings.

Much of this new interest in architectural authenticity boils down to economics.

Construction on the Whitney is expected to wrap up late this year. The building will reopen with an Aloft Hotel on the lower floors and apartments on the upper ones. The architect on the renovation is Bob Kraemer at Detroit's Kraemer Design Group, who notes that a rise in rents in some premium Detroit buildings to $2 a square foot is what's made all the difference.

"When you hit $2," Kraemer says, "suddenly these projects are viable with what I'd call normal incentives. Actually," he adds, "$1.60 is where a lot of new projects get going. But $2 a square foot makes everyone smile, and makes the project more than doable. It makes it profitable."

Helping to make things doable as well is the National Park Service's historic tax credit for restoration on buildings on the National Register of Historic Places or in designated historic districts.

The credit is administered through Michigan's historic preservation office, where historical architect Robbert McKay says this year they've approved 15 projects in Detroit.

Ten years ago? There were only six.

But technology also plays a big role in making restoration more affordable. The David Whitney's original lion heads from the 1915 design were terra-cotta, a material that not only degrades over time, but weighs a ton. When a 20-foot piece of cornice dropped on 80-year-old Myrtle Taggart in 1958, killing her, owners started stripping decorative cornices off buildings all over Detroit.

Kenny guesstimates that the original terra-cotta lion heads on the David Whitney probably weighed in the neighborhood of 400-500 pounds, and likely came in six pieces. Each of the replacements weighs just 120 pounds, and the plastic is more durable than terra-cotta.

Even better, it looks like the real deal. Detroit sculptor Sergio De Giusti, whose work you can find at Wayne State University and at Hart Plaza, created the lion's head that Glassline used to make a silicon mold from which all 26 issued. He says he's been astonished at the high visual quality.

De Giusti says there are plastics that can duplicate marble, granite, limestone, terra-cotta — "anything, and it looks terrific," he says.

And quality matters. At the state historic preservation office, McKay notes that restoring one building the right way encourages other property owners to follow suit.

"The ripple effect is enormous," he says. "The renovation of one building can make a huge difference to the neighborhood and the entire community."