National Theatre’s fate unclear as redevelopment looms

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Preservationists warn time is running out to save the severely deteriorated yet still ornate National Theatre building in Detroit’s downtown.

But city officials hope the 105-year-old Albert Kahn-designed landmark, which sits at 118 Monroe in the middle of a forlorn stretch, will be redeveloped in the next few years, after other major projects in Detroit’s central business district finish.

It sits amidst the Monroe Block, a two-square-block area between Campus Martius and Greektown that is mostly vacant land bounded by Monroe, Bates, Cadillac Square and Randolph, and cut down the middle by Farmer. The former theater district is one of the last large chunks untouched by the city’s downtown revitalization.

“The Monroe Block and land around the National Theatre, as well as the theater property itself, are important targets for redevelopment,” Bob Rossbach, spokesman for the Detroit Economic Development Corporation, told The Detroit News in an email.

Rossbach said there is no timeline for any redevelopment and declined to further comment on the theater or surrounding area.

The vacant, blighted National Theatre — now owned by the city — is the only known theater designed by Kahn, the architect who also created the Fisher Building and the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House.

Even in its current state of neglect, the white-glazed terra-cotta facade and gold-domed towers flanking the recessed entryway arch make the theater one of the most opulent buildings downtown.

A plywood barrier closes off the entrance and the stained-glass that once adorned the archway over the entrance is long gone, leaving the theater’s interior exposed to the elements for at least 25 years. It has been vacant since its last tenant — an adult film theater — went dark in 1975.

The city already has two big downtown development projects on its plate: the massive $52.4 million Paradise Valley Cultural and Entertainment District project, which calls for redevelopment that would highlight African-American arts and businesses; and billionaire Dan Gilbert’s pending plans for a high-rise retail and apartment complex at the former J.L. Hudson’s site on Woodward.

The Monroe Block is expected to be redeveloped after the completion of those major projects.

Last piece in puzzle

Save for two other buildings owned by private entities, the Monroe Block is a parking-lot prairie.

Cadillac Tower stands alone on the first block. Jim Ketai, managing partner of Gilbert’s Bedrock Detroit, is the registered agent for the limited-liability company that owns a nearby three-story building at the corner of Farmer and Bates.

Vacant land fronting Randolph, where a parking structure — the Bates Garage — once stood, is owned by the Detroit Downtown Development Authority.

Rossbach said the site was “included in the same development agreement with Rosko Development Company (a Gilbert-affiliated entity) as the Hudson block.” The agreement gives Gilbert development rights for both sites.

The former garage site holds construction equipment for the QLine light-rail project. Construction on the QLine, in which Dan Gilbert is a primary investor, is set to wrap this winter.

Bedrock declined to comment on any plans for the Ketai-owned buildings or the block.

Melissa Dittmer, Bedrock director of architecture and design, said her department has not developed plans for the site. But she said Bedrock has studied the area and the entertainment “nodes” it touches in Greektown, Campus Martius and the old Garment District.

“You can do something really powerful with that space,” Dittmer said.

She said any development would do well to incorporate the history of the block as one of Detroit’s first theater and entertainment districts.

Jeanette Pierce, executive director of tour group Detroit Experience Factory, has offices directly across Monroe from the National Theatre.

“All this energy’s going on ... and then you just have this beautiful abandoned building,” she said. “I definitely think it’s one of the last pieces in this (downtown) puzzle.”

Pierce’s company led 17,000 people around the city last year. She said people ask about the theater more than any other building in the city. Foot traffic between Campus Martius and Greektown would skyrocket if the stretch were given new life, Pierce believes.

She hopes to see as much of the National Theatre saved as possible.

“We’re getting to renovate these buildings that other cities would just die for,” Pierce said.

But the clock is ticking.

Second big Corktown project emerges

Sense of urgency

The National Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, according to The historic designation does not protect the building from demolition. It’s been passed between multiple owners who were unable to do anything with it.

Amy Elliott Bragg, board president of Preservation Detroit, said she’s not heard of an overt threat to demolish the building. She has heard rumblings of a “facade-ectomy” that would raze everything but the front facade.

“It’s really easy to say things are too far gone,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of properties come back from the brink. Options for saving the whole structure should be explored.”

The National Theatre is one of the first buildings Bragg fought to save when she started with Detroit’s oldest historic preservation advocacy group in 2013. At the time, the Bates Garage was being torn down, and it was unclear if the bulldozers would roll through the theater.

More recently, Bragg said she’s worked with the city’s planning and development teams to keep the site secure. Most recently, the city replaced the splintering plywood barricade out front.

There’s a definite sense of urgency.

“We might be reaching a point where we reach a demolition by neglect,” she said.

The structure needs to be stabilized before pieces begin to crumble off the facade, or the building rots from the inside out.

“This is one of the most aesthetically pleasing buildings in downtown Detroit,” she said. “I just think the creative potential is unlimited.”

Sandra Laux, an architect who works downtown, put together a plan for the building in 1999 when James Wheeler, a collector of African-American film memorabilia, wanted to restore the theater to display his collection.

Those plans never came to fruition, but 17 years ago the building was in a similar state as the Detroit Opera House, which has been restored, Laux said.

“I actually restored and reconstructed buildings that were in far worse shape,” she said.

(313) 222-2359

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau