Detroit: As Hotel Charlevoix Comes Down, Preservationists Walk Fine Line

One week after issuing a demolition permit, the city of Detroit has begun demolition of the century-old Hotel Charlevoix, a historic 11-story structure on the edge of downtown. The building had already been approved for demolition by the City Historic District Commission. It was initially labeled dangerous and slated for removal ten years ago, according to court documents.

The arrival of the wrecking ball ends a protracted legal fight between the city and Ralph Sachs, the Charlevoix’s owner since 1975. Detroit has pushed strongly for demolition at Sachs’ expense ever since a publicized incident, in March of last year, when falling bricks from the Charlevoix almost hit a boy on the street below. Sachs agrees that the building should come down, but maintains that vandals are responsible for its deteriorated state – and the city should foot the bill.

Sachs will be charged for the demolition, city officials said.

Built in 1905 as part of a trio of upscale hotels near Grand Circus Park, the Charlevoix was residential for a period before it was converted permanently to offices in the 1920s. Over the years it was home to a variety of businesses and labor unions. When Sachs purchased the building it held only three tenants, all of whom moved out by 1983. The property has sat vacant and unattended since.

Few signs of the Hotel Charlevoix’s better days remained on the eve of demolition. Just above street level, wooden paneling propped up a crumbling mid-century sign. Metal siding, once covered by bricks, sat exposed and rusted. Almost everything of removable value – from ornaments on the outside to the main staircase within – had been stripped clean by vandals.

As a consequence of its dilapidated condition, renovating the Charlevoix would have cost upwards of $40 million, a figure that investors were unlikely to risk in a district where one quarter of office space sits vacant.

This insurmountable renovation cost has put Detroit preservationists in a difficult position. Leading supporters of the city’s architectural heritage, including Dan Austin of HistoricDetroit.org, agree that the Charlevoix is likely beyond repair, has lost most of its historical merit, and poses a danger to visitors of the revitalized retail stretch across the street. No prominent voices have called for the building to be saved.

But at the same time, preservationists do not want to come across as permitting destruction of Detroit’s Gilded Age structures or condoning negligence by owners like Sachs. They also do not want to see a parking lot – the Charlevoix’s likely successor at the corner of Park and Elizabeth – added to a section of downtown already full of them.

The real question for Detroit urbanists, then, is what demolition of the Charlevoix will mean for the immediate area. To the owners of refurbished commercial spaces across the street, elimination of an eyesore can only boost neighborhood values moving forward. To residents of nearby Midtown, where the opening of a Whole Foods next month offers validation of the district’s recent resurgence, a growing sea of parking lots along the Fisher Freeway only hampers development efforts.

For now, the demolition’s most immediate reverberation was felt just across Grand Circus Park. A wrecking ball had barely arrived at the Charlevoix before Detroit officials announced their next two tear-down targets: the Wurlitzer Building on Broadway and the Metropolitan Building, on John R Street. In a city with no shortage of unoccupied historical structures, a new fight is always on the horizon – and preservationists must always pick theirs carefully.

As far as the Charlevoix is concerned, it appears, advocates of historic Detroit have chosen to save their political clout for another day. They will not have long to wait.

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