by Susanne Pacher
My abode for my last two days in Detroit was the Inn on Ferry Street, a beautifully renovated complex of six historic buildings in the Midtown area of Detroit. It encompasses four mansions as well as two carriage houses that were each built for prominent Detroit families. After many years of languishing, these buildings have been re-functioned into 42 stunning guest rooms.
The East Ferry Avenue Historic District is a historic area in Midtown Detroit, which is also referred to as Detroit’s Cultural Centre. Well-preserved elegant mansions from the 1880s and 1890s line the streets and recall an era when these villas were owned by some of Detroit’s wealthiest citizens. This historic district represents one of the largest and least altered collections of Detroit’s leading architects of the late nineteenth century.
Midtown, the surrounding area, is also referred to as the "Cultural Center Historic District" because of its large concentration of museums, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Museum of African American History, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Main Branch of the Detroit Public Library, the Detroit Science Centre and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Wayne State University is located nearby, and a multitude of restaurants, galleries and nightlife venues make this area a popular destination.
I had a chance to sit down with Sue Mosey, the driving force behind the renovation of the six buildings that make up the Inn on Ferry Street. Sue is an urban planner and the President of the University Cultural Center Association, a non-profit organization that has aided in planning and developing nearly $400 million in new residential projects in Detroit’s Midtown area.
Sue Mosey is one of Detroit’s most visionary and influential citizens. With more than 20 years of experience as an urban planner, Sue has dedicated her entire career to non-profit organizations that improve her city. She is the president of the University Cultural Center Association, a nonprofit community development group which promotes the revitalization and development of Detroit’s Midtown area. Detroit’s lack of strong city planners and developers has created a space for non-profit organizations and independent professionals who have been working hard to improve the city.
Under Sue Mosey’s leadership the Midtown area has attracted more than $400 million in new residential investments; roughly 2800 housing units have been created or are being planned. Projects include planning support, real estate development, attraction of retailers and businesses, beautification and public safety improvement programs, the organization of local festivals and events and much more. Most recently Sue is working on getting a two-mile greenway off the ground to provide Midtown residents with safe recreational opportunities for walking, jogging and cycling. One of her main goals is to attract more people and businesses to the Midtown area.
To provide context for Sue Mosey’s endeavours it is important to understand a bit of Detroit’s history. During the late 1800s and early 1900s Detroit was often referred to as "the Paris of the West" because of its stunning architecture and Gilded Age mansions. From the first half of the 19th century onwards Detroit had become a centre of shipping, shipbuilding and manufacturing, resulting in rapid economic growth and considerable wealth among the city’s business leaders.
Around the turn of the last century Detroit became a powerhouse in automotive manufacturing: the Ford Motor Company was founded in 1904 and other automotive pioneers built extensive factories in Detroit. The success of Ford’s Model T made car ownership accessible to the masses and created a large demand for automobiles. Thousands of African-American former plantation workers migrated north to participate in the manufacturing boom and the new prosperity offered to assembly line workers.
The economic slowdown following the end of World War I and, from 1929 onwards, the Great Depression put a damper on these economic aspirations. As jobs dwindled, old racial prejudices resurfaced and race relations became severely strained during the 1920s. The 1930s were a period of bitter labour strife in Detroit.
During the 1940s the world’s first sunken expressway was constructed in Detroit, and World War II sparked demand for weapons and spurred industrial growth. Changing demographics and long-entrenched racism led to racial tensions between Detroit’s African-American and White populations which escalated into a full-scale riot in 1943 during which 34 people were killed and 600 injured.
During the 1950s and 1960s an extensive network of highways was constructed in Detroit which made it easier for people to commute and move into the suburbs. Poor housing conditions, economic factors and police prejudice against African-Americans led to another devastating race riot in 1967. This event together with school desegregation led to white flight, a demographic trend where working and middle-class white people moved into the suburbs. Large numbers of jobs also relocated into the outskirts, and as a result, Detroit’s tax base eroded and its population declined from about 1.8 million in 1950 to around 900,000 today. Large tracts of housing were simply abandoned as people moved away from the city.
The gasoline crisis of the 1970s also impacted the Detroit auto industry while the city was increasingly afflicted by the heroin and crack cocaine trade during the 1980s. Many of the abandoned houses had become crack houses and havens for drug dealers. The city responded by demolishing countless buildings, leaving behind large swaths of vacant land, often referred to as "urban prairies". Demolitions are still continuing today and some parts of the city are marred by large numbers of abandoned buildings and empty lots.
However, from the 1990s and into the 2000s, Detroit started to experience a significant revival: the Comerica Tower was built in 1993; new state-of-the-art sports stadiums were constructed for the Detroit Lions and the Detroit Tigers; three casinos opened inside the city. In recent years, several large-scale events have also added to the city’s renaissance: the 2005 MLB All-Star Game, the 2006 Super Bowl, the 2006 Word Series and WrestleMania in 2007 were all held in Detroit. In October of 2008, one of the most ambitious architectural restoration programs was unveiled when the historic Book Cadillac Hotel was reopened under the Westin flag after a $200 million investment and 24 years of abandonment.
Many revival initiatives have happened in Detroit over the years, and in the mid-town area many of them came together directly or indirectly because of the involvement of Sue Mosey and the University Cultural Center Association (UCCA). This non-profit organization is involved in the organization of special events, planning, transportation and public awareness campaigns. Sue added that since 2000 more than $2 billion have been invested in the Midtown area. Other areas of Detroit are also undergoing redevelopment as I witnessed myself during my walk through the historic Brush Park neighbourhood. Neighbourhoods like these are an interesting mix of shuttered buildings, vacant lots, recently restored historic buildings and brand-new real estate developments.
Sue Mosey does not want to want to dwell on the past, but looks forward to the things that remain to be done. Current initiatives at the University Cultural Center Association include a variety of beautification and maintenance projects, real estate developments including mixed lofts and the Midtown Loop Greenway trail, park redevelopments and streetscape enhancements. The UCCA also handles marketing for the Midtown area with a brand campaign, cultural events, a neighbourhood guide and a residential marketing program to promote living in Midtown Detroit.
The activities of the UCCA also extend to economic development and the attraction of new businesses and investment into the Midtown area. To this end the organization offers loan programs, development funds and grant programs for business and neighbourhood revitalization. Community events and the creation of a vibrant neighbourhood are also part of the UCCA’s mandate. Midtown flagship events such as the Detroit Festival of the Arts showcase art and entertainment provided by Cultural Center institutions and program. Another popular event organized by the UCCA is "Noel Night", a holiday-themed community festival with live performances, crafts, demonstrations and art sales.
One of the key issues according to Sue Mosey is to create a better image of Detroit. Due to its economic and social problems over the last few decades, Detroit has been tarnished by negative news which have had a particularly strong effect on people from the surrounding suburban counties. The recent mayoral scandals added further fuel to the fire and created a negative perception of the city. Sue Mosey and the organizations she is involved with are working hard on initiatives that improve the public perception of the city. One of Sue Mosey’s goals is to bring the suburbanites back into the city by making Detroit a great place to live, work and play.
Important ingredients for this urban revitalization include improved public transit (a light rail rapid transit line along Woodward Avenue is currently being discussed). Quality of life issues such as green spaces and recreational trails, wider sidewalks and attractive streetscaping; an introduction of more small businesses and retailers into Detroit’s various neighbourhoods; public art installations and large-scale projects like the Detroit International Riverfront are all part of making Detroit a more attractive place to visit and to live in.
One of the practical examples of the activities of the University Center Cultural Association is the renovation of the Inn on Ferry Street. This complex of six historic buildings that today makes up the Inn on Ferry Street came under ownership by the Detroit Institute of Arts in the 1970s when the buildings were mostly used for music lessons and storage.
Finally plans were made to restore these unique buildings and to find a more appropriate use for them. A decision was made to turn these buildings into a 42-room boutique hotel. But renovating more than 40 rooms would be a tough economic challenge and required substantial amounts of money. In excess of $4 million of the project were funded through loans, and another $4+ million were raised through various grants. In total, more than twenty-four sources of finances were tapped into to put together the financing for this large-scale project.
Assistance for this project came from one of Detroit’s most fervent supporters. Mr. Richard Manoogian, the owner of Masco Corporation, a Fortune 500 corporation that manufactures and distributes building and home improvement products, made available deep discounts on building supplies and interior décor products. The renovations on the six buildings that were to make up the Inn on Ferry Street started in 2000 and were finally completed in 2001. The property opened in November of 2001, just shortly after the 911 terrorist attacks had caused a severe downturn in the entire tourism industry. The next three years were very tough, but in 2004 finally occupancy rose to 74%.
Today the Inn on Ferry Street features 42 unique and gorgeously designed guest rooms, a large breakfast room (breakfast is included free of charge), a business centre with complimentary meeting space for guests and great common areas in all the buildings that allow the guests to socialize and relax.
The Inn on Ferry Street provides a great Midtown location with excellent amenities for leisure and business travellers. In addition to the business centre, it provides free wireless Internet access, a free shuttle service covering the Midtown and Downtown areas, valet service and room service. A big breakfast buffet is available every day from 6 am to 10 am at no extra charge, and coffees, teas and fresh fruit are available during the day.
I was staying in a two bedroom suite with a separate sitting room in the Raymond C. Smith Carriage House that was built in 1892 and holds seven guest bedrooms. The Scott House is the main building of the complex since it is the location of the reception area, the breakfast room and the business centre. It also features 3 guest bedrooms.
The Pungs House was built in 1892 for a railway magnate and holds nine uniquely decorated guest bedrooms while the Owen House dates back to 1887 and used to belong to the owner of a dry goods firm. It consists of seven luxurious bedrooms and two large executive suites. The main floor holds a glamorous parlour with a baby grand piano and two fireplaces.
The Rohm House finally was constructed in 1888 for the president of the Detroit Carriage Company. Nine guest bedrooms are located here and the popular second floor suite offers ultimate luxury with its Jacuzzi tub, private balcony and Asian influenced décor. The Inn on Ferry Street offers a great location in Detroit’s Cultural Center and is a prime example of some of the architectural rejuvenation that has been happening in various parts of the city.
Given its complicated history, Detroit today is a very fascinating city. Despite past and current problems, Detroit has many different vibrant communities, each driven by local urbanists who love their city and their neighbourhoods. Sue Mosey is one of Detroit’s foremost leaders of successful community redevelopment and has played a huge role in creating the new face of Midtown Detroit’s Cultural Center. And the Inn on Ferry Street is a prime example of outstanding historic preservation and state-of-the-art refunctioning of properties that are definitely worth saving.
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