Back From Ruin: The Most Interesting Building Rehabs Across the Midwest

Note: A version of this story originally appeared at

The rehabilitation of a old building in the Midwest isn’t just a construction project: it’s an event.

It’s a moment in time for a community — a celebration the way a new train station or post office used to be for trailblazing frontier towns. It is the herald of a new age. While the old milestones were significant because they announced to the world a novel entity, a building rehabilitation carries more weight because it proclaims a triumphant return. It’s a comeback. And everyone loves a comeback.

In addition to their poetic symbolism, rehabs are also among the most practical of building endeavors. They are sturdy frames close to a city’s center; massive structures that progress left behind or community hubs in forgotten neighborhoods that are eager to hum with life once again.

The Midwest is undergoing a sweeping transformation as many are eager to walk along familiar downtown streets and inhabit the brick and steel manufactories that propelled this region to the behemoth of industry and agriculture it was at the turn of the century. A number of buildings stand out at the forefront of this Midwestern renewal. These are their stories.

The Packard Plant Project — Detroit, MI

On Detroit’s lower east side — a neighborhood that has thus far not enjoyed many fruits from the slow reinvigoration of the Motor City — sits 45 acres of what was once a sprawling producer of Packard Gray Wolfs, Super Eights, and, in wartime, engines for P-51 Mustang fighter planes. In 1956, the last Packard rolled off the assembly line and the space has been far from its former glory ever since.

But after years of decay and speculation, the Packard Plant is poised to steadfastly and methodically come roaring back in a colossal renovation project that seeks to bring jobs, economic stability, and a reformed sense of community to the area. That is just part of the goal as seen by Kari Smith, Director of Development for the Packard Plant Project, who says the project is poised to “provide a new breath of life to the lower east side.” The massive rehabilitation of the former auto plant — covering 2.7 million square feet of space, making it the largest rehab project in the United States — is the work of developer Fernando Palazuelo of Arte Express. Palazuelo is a developer from Spain with over 35 years of experience managing historic renovations in Spain, Peru, and other nations around the globe.

According to Smith, to tackle a project of such monumental scope the renovation will be split up into three major phases, the first of which is the rehabilitation of the old Packard administration building. The four-story structure contains over 121,000 square feet of office space adorned with classic design luxuries like marble flooring, marble stairs, and limestone ornamentation. The building is “where the Packard executives used to have their offices,” says Smith, so the design is “very elaborate.” Smith says the renovation will seek to retain much of the historical feel of the building.

Meanwhile the structural integrity of the plant, which was one of the first automobile factories to use reinforced concrete in construction, is so strong it might even survive a flagrant foul from former Detroit Piston Bill Laimbeer. “They’re tanks,” Smith says of the Packard buildings, “overbuilt with stone and metal…they’re very, very strong.”

From the beginning there has been a commitment to make sure this rehabilitation will work in concert with the surrounding community. Smith recalls meeting with Packard Plant neighbors three years ago and learning that there was an immediate concern about security of the area. As a result, locally-hired security forces patrolling 24/7 were put in place to make sure that the 45 acres of untenanted land did not become a haven for drug dealers and other illegal activities. Not too far behind security will be a return of some basic business amenities for the neighborhood, slowly chipping away at the “abandoned” atmosphere of this part of Detroit.

The administration building currently being renovated is slated for commercial use and has seven tenants lined up with expected move-in by late 2019. Phase Two and Three will come later, bringing with them plans for a restaurant and a community training center. The goal is to begin renovating buildings along Grand Boulevard and work to the interior towards structures further off the road.

Taking on the enormous rehabilitation will be a prolonged challenge, but Smith has no doubts about what this will mean for her home city: “I’ve noticed the support from the community and awareness from the people of Detroit. We’re really happy to see that.” For many, the Packard Plant has stood for years as a grim monument to the decline of American manufacturing. Now, Detroiters can beam with pride over the prospect of its immense frame supporting the weight of a new generation of local workers, entrepreneurs, and forward-thinking innovators.

The Packard Plant, says Smith “is iconic to this neighborhood and the people of Detroit.” With this renovation, it is likely to remain so for decades to come.

The Lowry & Morrison Building — Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis’s North Loop neighborhood does not face the same struggles as Detroit’s east side. A surge of industrial lofts and trendy restaurants has already swept through the red brick corridors of North Loop — and that is exactly what makes the rehabilitation of the Lowry-Morrison Building so special. Instead of standing as an intrepid symbol of what’s to come, this renovation project will emerge as the crowning achievement of a neighborhood transformed.

JoAnna Hicks, a principal at Element Commercial Real Estate, the firm in charge of leasing and design consulting working along with Mina Adist of Adsit Architecture, describes the building as a “gem” on a prominent corner in Minneapolis’s Warehouse Historic District. In recent years, historic renovations and new developments have swirled around this 1879 building like a tempest, all while this former wholesale shop remained, in Hicks’ eyes, in a “glorious state of disrepair.”

It was the Lowry-Morrison Building’s smaller size that delayed this critical rejuvenation until now: years ago rents in the North Loop were still too low to justify the costly historic renovation of a building that possesses roughly 5,000 square feet of space on each floor. As Hicks says “It is a very complicated reconstruction, so the cost per square foot could never be justified.” But now as the neighborhood has gotten better “the rents have gone up.”

It’s a study in patience for this cream-colored brick memento of old Minneapolis, which in its first few decades of existence sold tobacco, leather boots, liquor, and mill supplies to rugged Minnesotans. The future promises a much lighter load to bear: a “high-end dessert shop” has already signed on to occupy street-level commercial space. The upper floors will provide office tenants with a locally authentic atmosphere, so explains Hicks: “it has exposed brick, archways, tall windows that open up, wood floors…you can touch and feel it.”

While the Lowry-Morrison Building is not the largest rehabilitation project in the Twin Cities, its size and age make it a challenging feat nonetheless. Without other renovations on the block, this 138-year-old building might never have found new life. Now, locals enthusiastically await its renaissance: “I think people are really excited about it,” says Hicks. “It has been the one little black hole of energy on that side of the street. Once those windows are clean and lit up it is going to be a huge asset to the block.”

Hercules Engine Plant — Canton, OH

From its history as a powerhouse manufacturer of machinery to its current distinction as home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Canton is a Midwestern city of unquestioned grit and brawn. Nowhere is that Rust Belt toughness on better display than at the site of the former Hercules Engine factory complex just south of downtown Canton. The spacious maroon brick buildings once supplied the nation and the world with Hercules combustible engines, but for almost two decades its grounds have been deserted, its large industrial windows covered in graffiti.

Since the mid-2000s the city has sought to redevelop the space. A plan was even conceived to relocate the Pro Football Hall of Fame to its grounds to create a “Gridiron District”, but different factors and the economic collapse of 2008 forced a punt of all existing plans. Finally, developer Robert Timken — who had played a role in previous Hercules plans — was able to secure the necessary financing and historical tax credits to turn the sprawling labyrinth of buildings into an apartment and condominium complex.

Timken told that the new apartments will blend the site’s industrial past with modern conveniences such as energy-efficient windows. That the majority of the Hercules buildings, some of which date back to the turn of the century, will remain standing was great news for Ohio preservationists, who note that if a structure like this is razed there is no turning back.

The Hercules-Canton Apartments opened this May to great fanfare. The final product promises industrial chic interiors that will provide living and work space for the next generation of Canton power brokers.

Chandlery Row — Milwaukee, WI

Walker’s Point has been a point of entry for newcomers to Milwaukee since its earliest days as a fur-trading outpost — a perfectly-suited plot of land where the Menomonee, Kinnickinnic, and Milwaukee Rivers converge before flowing into Lake Michigan. It was the neighborhood where, in 1866, Prussian immigrant John H. Schlosser set up a marine grocery and supply store in order to build a future for himself and his family. A century and a half later, local developer Ryan Pattee hopes to honor “the entrepreneurial roots of the site” with a rehabilitation of the one-time goods store at 211–219 West Florida Street into a commercial and residential space.

As Pattee points out, Walker’s Point is “still a place where immigrant families sacrifice everything to achieve the American Dream, we want to underline and respect that heritage.” Indeed, the neighborhood offers a vibrant balance between buzzy attractions, like breweries and boutique hotels, and community institutions such as public schools and locally-owned restaurants. Now Pattee, with his company Pattee Group, wants his rehabilitation to bring culture as well as commerce to the site.

Once completed, the first floor will be utilized as an art gallery space — “Bringing art and culture to Milwaukee, and helping that ecosystem flourish is a key goal when we develop any site,” says Pattee. The Chandlery Row project has been a dream of Pattee, who can’t get enough of the building’s background and craftsmanship: “I get excited every time I visit the building. This is real Wisconsin timber, real Wisconsin brick, and you simply cannot buy materials with the history, or frankly, the quality of these early sites here in Milwaukee.” Walker’s Point, formerly known as Milwaukee’s Warehouse District, is full of similarly old merchant warehouses and shops that once served the city’s ports. Now they serve microbrews and organic coffee to the city’s enterprising and energetic young professionals.

Pattee’s rehabilitation will carefully work to revitalize the building’s Cream City facade. Pattee is reminded of those who came before him, like shopkeeper John Schlosser, whose pride in the buildings they assembled is apparent with every square foot — “They built these warehouses and shops by hand for their families and loved ones,” Pattee says, “high-quality restoration is what this building demands, and we’re honored to take the lead.”

Barber Building — Joliet, IL

In recent decades the steel and stone city of Joliet has grappled with a city planning anomaly. Chicago Street, the busy roadway that cuts right through downtown past the Will County Courthouse and Metra train station, has been closed off to automobile traffic, turning what should be a bustling civic thoroughfare into a uninviting parking lot. Like so many other Midwestern municipalities, Joliet — an exurb of Chicago along the Des Plaines River — has ridden the boom-and-bust rollercoaster of manufacturing jobs that have come and gone. And while efforts to boost the economy with riverboat casinos and a NASCAR track in the 1990s helped turn things around, the drive to keep downtown Joliet vibrant is as strong as ever.

Enter residential developer and local restaurant owner Mike Petry who sees the next wave of Joliet’s resurgence coming from more people living downtown. “Residential projects are the foundation for reinvigorating downtown Joliet,” explains Petry. After successfully tackling residential rehabilitations in the past, Petry is turning his attention to the historic limestone Barber Building right in the lively core of downtown Joliet.

The building was constructed in 1887 on the site of an old dry goods store by lawyer and businessman R. E. Barber and had the distinction of being “the first office structure erected in Joliet.” A local paper reported that Barber was called “quite mad” by others for his decision to invest in a then-“modern” office structure in dusty downtown Joliet.

Now, some may also question the very hands-on Petry for putting his time, money, and energy into apartments in that same spot. But the truth is that interest in making suburban downtowns into dense populations centers is rapidly growing. Plus, the city of Joliet is rolling out big plans to revitalize the downtown area, including reopening that closed portion of Chicago Street and putting in a picturesque new civic plaza.

Considering that Petry’s Barber Building apartments will be right down the street from the new plaza — not to mention steps away from the train station and multiple restaurant and shopping options — the gambit seems undeniably more sane than Barber’s entrepreneurial risk 130 years ago.

The Siren Hotel — Detroit, MI

While Detroit has many rehabilitations going on, there are few that signify as dramatic a turnaround as the Wurlitzer Building. Few structures could so typify the Motown City’s musical roots: when it opened in 1926, the building provided its famous Wurlitzer organs and pianos to Jazz Age consumers. By the 1940s, the Wurlitzer headquarters had customer showrooms, appliance repair centers, and a 400-seat auditorium. But as the decades marched on and the city of Detroit fell on hard times, occupancy in the tower dropped. Wurlitzer left the building sometime before the 1970s. By 1982, after a brutal winter without heat or running water, the Wurlitzer’s last tenants moved out, leaving the beautiful tera cotta Renaissance Revival-style building completely unoccupied.

By the 2000s, the Wurlitzer was falling apart like a snowman in the sun — leaping chunks of its roof and facade were becoming dangerous to those who passed by below — and the structure seemed destined for euthanasia by wrecking ball. In 2015, hope finally arrived by way of New York, when hotel company and developer ASH NYC announced plans to purchase the building and convert it into a new boutique hotel.

Having just opened this spring, The Siren Hotel reimagines the Wurlitzer to include “106 rooms, seven food & beverage spaces, two retail boutiques, and a rooftop with panoramic views of the city spread across 55,000 square feet.” Renowned local and international artisans will contribute to the new neighborhood hub, with a facade mural from celebrated British artist Quentin Jones, a tasting counter from James Beard nominated chef Garrett Lipar, a bar from Detroit mixologist Dorothy Elizabeth, and a barbershop from The Social Grooming Club’s Sebastian Jackson.

The Siren Hotel will offer a design influenced by Detroit’s old world hotels with a contemporary twist. According to ASH, “The Siren is inspired by the Greek mythological creature and acts as a metaphor calling people back to the city of Detroit, mirroring the revitalization of the former Rust Belt city.”

In this way, the Siren Hotel mirrors all of the rehab projects across the Midwest. The buildings stand as powerful reminders that what’s old can be made new, what’s broken can be fixed, and that the industrial wastelands of the heartland can once again hum with life.



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