Detroit council approves sale of historic Brodhead Naval Armory to Parade Co.

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
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Detroit — The City Council on Tuesday approved the controversial sale of parkland, including an abandoned historic military site along the Detroit River, to the Parade Co.

The Parade Co., which puts on Detroit’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade, submitted a plan in August to buy a portion of Gabriel Richard Park on Jefferson Avenue near Belle Isle. The land contains the historic Brodhead Naval Armory, which serves as a legacy of the Navy and Marine Corps in the city.

After more than an hour of debate, council members approved the $300,000 sale of the city-owned land by a 6-2 vote, with council president Brenda Jones and Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López voting against it. The two raised concerns over finalizing the sale without an appraisal and disputes over the preservation of historic murals. 

The former Brodhead Naval Armory, in Detroit, June 1, 2021.  Detroit City council is expected to vote on the sale of  to the Detroit Parade Co. for $300,000. The parade company is planning to move its headquarters to the site.

The city and Detroit Economic Growth Corp. have been negotiating with the Parade Co. to purchase and redevelop the site for the relocation of its entire Detroit operations on Mt. Elliott. The property, the Parade Co. said, will allow for easier access to the Detroit River for the annual Ford Fireworks and downtown for the Thanksgiving Day parade. 

The company plans to rehabilitate the northern portion of the building to restore historical elements of the former Brodhead Armory, while at the same time modernizing the back half of the property to accommodate float construction and event operations, according to City Council proposals.

The Parade Co.'s president and CEO, Tony Michaels, told The Detroit News on Tuesday the company will attempt to save the iconic artwork, and the new space will provide for an office for veterans and community event spaces to support veteran activities.

"We are so committed to doing this right," said Michaels, adding that the project cost and  timeline are yet to be determined. "The biggest part is the building itself. The 35,000-square-foot front is going to be completely redone back to its glory on the outside."

A rendering of the new Detroit Parade Co. building

But retired U.S. Navy Commander Jim Semerad, who heads the Brodhead Association, a nonprofit that opposes the Parade Co.'s plan, argued during public comment that the Parade Co.'s proposal calls for the demolition of 70% of historically significant parts of the building. 

Semerad implored council members not to "sell five acres of waterfront property for $300,000 to an entity that admitted in public forums, that it does not have the financial resources to save anything, not even a few landmark murals."

Michaels countered the Parade Co. aims to make the site a destination. The company plans to offer summer camps and incorporation projects along the river with the Riverwalk and Gabriel Richard Park, he said Tuesday. 

"Anything that can be, we are going to salvage," he said. "Anything that we can't keep there, we will get in the hands of pro-preservationists."

After opening in 1930, the armory's indoor drill floor was rented to host dances, auto shows, political and sporting events. In 1932, future heavyweight champion Joe Louis fought his first amateur bout, a two-round loss, according to Historic Detroit archives. 

The Works Progress Administration funded Depression-era art to the building including murals and plaster carvings by artist Gustave Hildebrand. It's officially named R. Thornton Brodhead Armory after its first naval leader.

The site later served as a schoolhouse for 1,200 sailors, and after World War II, it was used as a training center for reservists. The armory then became headquarters to the 1st Battalion of the 24th Marines. 

The former Brodhead Naval Armory (as seen through a broken window), in Detroit, June 1, 2021.  Detroit City council is expected to vote on the sale of  to the Detroit Parade Co. for $300,000. The parade company is planning to move its headquarters to the site.

The site was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1980 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. By the time the building closed in 2004, it was home to the largest collection of federally funded Depression-era artwork of any Michigan building; however, the abandoned building has been hit hard by vandals since then, according to Historic Detroit. 

Semerad asserts the Brodhead Association offers a self-funded "win-win solution" to completely rebuild the structure, restore the armory in a veteran-led alternative including a workforce development hub and after-school programming. The association's plan has received the written support of a dozen organizations including the Montford Point Marines, Tuskegee Airmen, Airforce Association, Reserve Association of America, VFW, American Legion and others.

"The city has been neglecting Brodhead Armory for decades," he told The News.

Janese Chapman, the city's historic specialist, said the armory's murals have deteriorated as they have been exposed to the elements. Most, she said, are located in a third of the building planned for demolition.

"We are very concerned about the murals; it is or was the largest group of (Works Progress Administration) murals in the state of Michigan and is known throughout the country, so we did want to protect one of the city's jewels," said Chapman, adding it's unclear if its historic status prevents demolition. 

A rendering of the new Detroit Parade Co. building.

After the remodeling takes place, the city will reassess whether what is left is still considered historic, Chapman said.

"You're talking about taking maybe a third or maybe even a little more, demolishing it,and adding on new, so does it then continue to qualify as a historic site?" she said.

Detroit Area Art Deco Society issued a letter to the city and council members about moving the murals, which are curated on the walls. Chapman agreed with the society's assessment.

"The wall is the mural and it looks to be in the portion that's slated for demolition," Chapman said.

Scott Brinkmann, director of development and special projects for the city, told the council that the administration has been focused on preservation of the site since it closed in 2004 and that will be included in the Parade Co.'s development agreement.

When asked by Councilman Scott Benson about the "low market-rate deal," Brinkmann replied: "It's a preservation deal to a nonprofit and well-needed relocation of a Detroit icon showcasing the very best on a global scale."

To approve the sale, the council on Tuesday also had to amend land use for the site in the city's master plan. Jones noted the city has had a responsibility to protect the site from vandals and "there should have been something there to make sure people didn't steal the artwork."

Marcell Todd Jr., director of Detroit's City Planning Commission, said the majority of the artwork is in the portion of the building that will be torn down and it's unknown what will happen until an assessment. 

“The city has not been able to maintain the building in a fashion (that) was warranted," Todd said. "Now, the city has identified a buyer with the greatest intent ... What we have been most concerned about and most transparent about is what is possible."

The former Brodhead Naval Armory, in Detroit, June 1, 2021.  Detroit City council is expected to vote on the sale of  to the Detroit Parade Co. for $300,000. The parade company is planning to move its headquarters to the site.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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