Face-off time approaches for National Theatre

Candice Williams

Detroit — The historic National Theatre building in the city’s downtown is closer to a “façade-ectomy” as a groundbreaking nears for the Monroe Blocks project.

Some preservationists who want to save the severely deteriorated 106-year-old Albert Kahn-designed building, which sits at 118 Monroe in the middle of a nearly abandoned area of the downtown, are hoping minds change before construction begins this spring.

Conceptual drawings released by Bedrock propose to incorporate the façade of the National Theatre within the more than $800 million project. The project will include a 35-story office tower fronting Campus Martius and four residential buildings with some retail. It’s expected to transform a mostly vacant two-square-block area bounded by Monroe, Bates, Cadillac Square and Randolph — one of the last large chunks untouched by the city’s downtown revitalization.

Bedrock will break ground on the project in the first half of 2018 and it’s to take an estimated 30 months to complete.

The façade of the National Theatre is ornate with a white-glazed terra-cotta façade and gold-domed towers. Renderings show the façade used as a gateway to a pedestrian walkway within the project.

Bedrock says it is committed to preserving the façade.

“It’s something we took very seriously,” said Kumar Kintala, Bedrock’s director of development. “Bedrock is known for restoring buildings across downtown Detroit. At this point how it fits with the overall vision for the site, we made a decision to restore the façade.”

The restoration work will be intensive as pieces of the façade are removed from the site and safely stored elsewhere while undergoing restoration. In the meantime, a parking garage will be constructed on the property.

The restored façade will eventually be returned to a location within the site, although the exact spot has yet to be determined, Kintala said.

“We’ve seen over the past few years the work we’ve done in restoring buildings; they have a lot of value,” he said. “That’s what makes Detroit unique. Here’s a feature that Detroiters have walked by for 40 years. The façade is crumbling and the back of the building dilapidated. We think it would bring a lot of value to the public to restore it.”

Is restoring the façade enough? Some preservationist don’t think so.

While many praise the idea of redeveloping the area as a whole, the plan for the façade is a sticking point.

Earlier this fall, the group Preservation Detroit issued a letter stating its dissatisfaction with the proposed plan to demolish the theater. The group pointed out the theater’s significance as architect Albert Kahn’s only theater design and that it’s the last theater in the district.

“It’s really just a missed opportunity,” said Eric Kehoe, board president for Preservation Detroit. “(Bedrock) should be the lead. They’ve done great work with some of the other rehabs in preserving Detroit. It’s better to save old buildings than to tear them down. ... It’s a beautiful building, and it also has a sense of history there that can’t be replaced. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. When I walk downtown in 10 years, I want to see our story. We don’t look at historic buildings we demolished and feel glad that we did it.”

This fall, the city of Detroit transferred ownership of the land on which the National Theatre sits to the Downtown Development Authority and Bedrock has development its rights. The building has been vacant since its last tenant — an adult film theater — closed in 1975.

The Albert Kahn-designed theater opened in 1911 as a vaudeville house. The venue switched to burlesque entertainment as the desire for vaudeville diminished and motion picture theaters opened in the area. In the 1970s, the building became an X-rated movie venue.

The National Theatre, with the rest of the Monroe Avenue, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. The historic designation does not protect the building from demolition.

The Detroit Sound Conservancy highlighted what it calls the building’s “rich visual and sonic cultural heritage” as a reason to preserve it. This fall, the group produced a two and a half minute video about the theater featuring Lottie “The Body” Graves, a burlesque dancer who performed at the venue.

“Keep the theater,” Graves says in the video. “Renovate the theater. Let people have it.”

The city’s Neighborhood Advisory Council for the Monroe Blocks project suggested that Bedrock do a thorough design study to determine different ways to incorporate the building into the development. While one of the options would have been to restore the building, some members didn’t feel it needed to be restored, said Alexandra Novak, an urban planner and advisory council member who lives in the area.

Novak said that she would have liked to see the façade lead to a new building paying homage to the theater.

“I think a small theater space with a museum with some sort of entryway that has historical happenings and the significance,” she said. “A community theater there would be the most beneficial way to pay tribute to that space.”

The Monroe Blocks is part of a four-project portfolio seeking $250 million in new MIthrive state financing. The others are the $900 million mixed-use development at the Hudson’s site; $313 million renovation of the Book Building and Tower on Washington; and a $95 million addition to the One Campus Martius building.

In late November, Bedrock Management Services LLC and the City of Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment presented before the Michigan Strategic Fund Board a Transformational Brownfield Plan for the city of Detroit.

Bedrock and the city of Detroit are expected to make a request in March 2018 before the strategic fund for approval of a Transformational Brownfield Plan incentive package. If approved, that will be the last step in the approval process, said Kathy Achtenberg, spokeswoman for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Overall, the Monroe Blocks development is a wonderful project, said Stephen Vogel, professor of architecture and former dean of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture. However, from a historic preservation point of view, Vogel said moving the National Theatre façade isn’t a good choice.

“It changes the proportion of the façade the way they did it,” he said. “I think it’s an important building Albert Khan did. ... I would think there’s a better way to deal with the National Theatre. They could have incorporated the space of that theater into that project.”

This photo illustration shows how the National Theatre façade might look within the Monroe Blocks development.

Taking historical preservation out of the equation of the façade fits its design, Vogel said.

“It’s a very interesting façade,” he said. “As an entry... I think it would fit quite well if you ignore all the other things I’ve said. It would make a nice entry to the new pedestrian area they’re proposing.”

The reuse of building façades were more common about 20 years ago, said Carl Roehling, a principal at SmithGroupJJR and board member of the Michigan Architecture Foundation.

“People were popping up a façade and working behind them,” he said. “This happened in Washington, D.C., and it was copied in many locations. A building could not be salvaged or people didn’t want to go through the effort. I think many preservation architects would consider it as a compromise. The fact they went through that effort and tried to use it in some way is positive.”


Twitter: @CWilliams_DN