The Curious Case of a Lonely Detroit Skyscraper

It was a rainy night when me and my friend left the Tigers game after it was finally canceled. After having flaming cheese, lamb shank and Tiramisu at the very famous Pegasus in the nearby Greektown, we walked into the German Garden and suddenly we saw this mysterious skyscraper standing by itself glowing in the dark. We were struck by its beauty – the very fine proportion of its facade, its ornate classical elements including its columns and ornaments, and most obviously the “showpiece” on the top.

The crowning piece on its top is the most awe-inspiring touch of this skyscraper. It looked to me that “Hunchback of Detroit” may have lived there. With the grand “front doors” opened, he could have summoned any creatures from the sky. I cannot stop but think if the “temple-like” top piece was a church or a mansion for one of the self-made automotive man in the twenties? Or was it a club house with a long pool for the residents in the apartment below? It would have been so cool to have breakfast there by the big window and looking down at the city in the morning back in the jazz days.

Assuming that this building must have “neighbors” before. Now that it is all lonely by itself, there must be reasons why it is saved from the wrecking ball. Could this former Beaux Arts skyscraper be related to a very prominent family like the Whitney or the Manoogian, or a mayor or a governor in Michigan? What were the historic events that have happened there? Was it hit hard by the Great Depression or one of the many riots? And most importantly, how did it end up being vacant and maybe haunted?

Our imagination had gone wild for this “Gotham City-like” skyscraper and my fascination with it does not seem to have diminished a bit. That is all because of the magic and charm possessed by these delicately crafted works of arts. And tell me again, how many of them did the city take down this year?

1515 broadway, detroit – 10:33pm, may 17, 2011

photos below are its other neighbors across the street –

Detroit Athletic Club

Broderick Tower

A very think building (a Detroit “flatiron” building)

Look like a fancy apartment building

The restaurant Pegasus in Greektown


From Railroad Station to Visitors Welcoming Center at Muskegon

The old Muskegon Union Depot was built in 1895 and remained as a passenger station until its closure in 1970. Fortunately, the building was saved but left vacant for a couple decades until it was finally converted into a visitor and convention center, a museum and a bus stop.

Apart from retaining the many traditional Michigan rustic-style stone details, the most successful aspect of this adaptive reuse is keeping the original function of the building as a place for everyone who comes to visit Muskegon, the city in which its lumber was used to build the old Chicago before the great fire.

Secondly, keeping the the old circular drop-off drive-way and the front lawn, helped visitors in understanding how travelers used to arrive at this station. The beauty of this adaptive reuse is that nothing major was altered. If the train has a comeback in the future which it may, this place can be converted back to a railroad station one day easily!

muskegon county convention and visitors bureau, 610 west western ave, muskegon, michigan – 12:59pm, may 21, 2010

the old lobby / waiting room

an old train model showing telling the history of the railroad station

(left) a newly added conference room upstairs (right) refurbished spiral staircase in the front, as shown in the first photo, leading to the upstairs

Old photo showing the drop-off area right in front of the building. They are pretty well dressed, traveling on train must be a big deal!

Ann Arbor’s New High Tech Office: “Industrial but Modern” = What?

In response to an article posted on on April 19, 2012 titled “Tech company transforms former Leopold Bros. brewery into ‘industrial but modern’ office space”

Please note these are not my photos, they are copyright of

I was asked to comment on this article about this ex-brewery being converted into an office for a high tech firm in Ann Arbor. Well I guess I will say something.

The local digital newspaper praised the “adaptive reuse” as “Industrial but Modern”. I started to wonder what that means. “Industrial” reminds me of the abandoned car factories with “mushroom-ed” columns and lattice square-like huge windows in Detroit. “Modern” is more like the technology-of-the-time aesthetic, like the Hancock Tower or Sears Tower. The term “modem” is very confusing. Things are only “modem” when they first come out as something new. After a while, they become things of the past and not modern. A good example would be the Eames Plywood Chair from the 40s. It was modern but not anymore. Now it is a classic piece of well–designed chair.

I have gone through all the photos from the article but fail to find traces of “Industrial but Modern” touches in this “high tech company” office. All these brick and wood truss only remind me of a type of local vernacular building style at the turn of the 20th century in the America. Sorry it doesn’t look “industrial”. As for the “modem” touches, there is no sign of a modern aesthetic in the design, at all. If you want a good example of a “modem” office, just turn on the TV and watch the cool offices in one of the CSI shows. Here there is only typical dry wall office with aluminum-framed glass wall plus tons of carpet tiles. And the floor is just too glossy to be “modern” or “industrial”. The only “modern” things here are the expensive chairs from maybe Herman Miller or Steelcase.

The use of the term “Adaptive reuse” in historic preservation can quite be abused sometimes. Just because you “reuse” a building or part of it does not mean you adapt it. Here we see a new office that has “recycled” the shell of this former brewery. But if the article never told you that they made beers here before, would you have found that out by being there now?

Probably not. The reason is that the new design has not adapted any former spatial relationship or tried to preserve any kind of connection to the previous life of this building. What I have described may have sounded a little abstract. Well, to make it simpler, if they have not polished that floor so shinny and glossy but retained the original feel which is probably kind of rough and dull, that would have already a better story to tell of the origin of the “flaws” on the former “industrial-ly used” floor. This former brewery here was brutally gutted and its space was then filled with whatever the tech company needs.

Either way, the effort to recycle old and good buildings deserves to be recognized by the public.

Painted Ladies of Ann Arbor

A lot of us travel to San Francisco to see the world famous Painted Ladies – rows of highly ornate and colorful wood houses of similar Victorian style sitting next to each other on a little hill. But have you noticed that there could be different version of “painted ladies” in your or your nearby neighborhoods too?

I found the Painted Ladies of AA (Ann Arbor) when I started walking around my historic Old West Side neighborhood. They are not as ornate as the ones in San Fran, but to me they are equally beautiful and their more plain decoration makes me feel very cozy walking around them. Instead of going far to find art and beauty, I hope that there are Painted Ladies everywhere for caring neighbors to discover in their neighborhood.

around west liberty st & seventh st, ann arbor, michigan – 2:53pm, jan 1, 2012

The Disappearing Villages In Sheung Shui

Ng Uk Village, one of the many “indigenous” villages in Sheung Shui (a city in Hong Kong), has existed for more than a hundred years. “Ng” is the family name of the clan while “Uk” literally means “house”. Basically the “village of the Ng’s people” had settled there before the British arrived and colonized Hong Kong. In order to make peace with the “native”, the British made a deal to let the clans keep their land. And for each male born in the clan, he could inherit a piece of land sized about 400 square feet next to their village to build their own house. Consequently, the villages of the “founding families” (a very precise term recycled from “The Vampire Diaries”) of Sheung Shui were able to remain and moderately expanded in the past century.

However, while the villages had not dramatically changed with time, their surroundings had undergone rapid development. These included roads, highways and most dangerously housing development. As a result, most villages had become islands surrounded by high-rises and roads. That is exactly what happened to Ng Uk Village. The villagers are to “blame” too since they sell their land for these development. This again presents another very interesting phenomenon.

If you look around Sheung shui, almost everything old or historical is owned or related back to the villages. The villagers basically own all the historic properties and the right to develop or destroy them. While government has started doing some historic preservation, it only applied to high-profile monuments in the central city. There is no law against demolishing something old as long as they are not designated monuments. And the prevalent way to designate a building a historic monument is for the government to pay a ton of money to buy it. As a result, what you are seeing historic now in these photos could be gone the next time you walk by it.

As shown in these photos, the village has something interesting to offer. The central piece is the ancestral hall with the open plaza in the front is the place to worship the founding male ancestors during different seasonal ceremonies. It is the oldest building built in traditional style. The surrounds houses are no architectural masterpiece but together they produce a rectangularly gridded city with narrow lanes and closely packed square houses. Like other villages, this one is sited in front of a little hill for Feng Shui purpose. Supposingly the hill can protect the villages from wind or attack from the back.

sheung shui, hong kong – 2:16pm, apr 17, 2012

(left) Each house takes the shape of the lot and expand upwards. (Right) Narrow lane formed by the rigidly aligned houses in the front and back.

(Left) Traditional tile roof with end caps covering end of tiles. (Right) Open drain all around the buildings and the village.

(Above) Long green brick were a popular locally made material for prominent buildings.

(Left) New modern three storey high houses located on the outskirt of the village.

(Below) The green logo on the left is an abstract form of the Chinese character “north” because Sheung Shui is located in the North District.

From Church to Brewery in Pittsburgh

Church is one of the building types that can be easily converted for a new use. As shown in the photo, the old St. John the Baptist Church built in 1902 was restored and converted into a brewery and restaurant.

The previous open nave and seating areas have become the main dining hall while the former altar has been transformed into the brewing area. It is really nice the lobby is still the reception area and the original after-service-coffee-and-tea courtyard is now an outdoor dining patio. It is always a good idea to preserve as many former space for a similar use as possible in aspect of historic preservation. Sorry that I didn’t take a photo of the outside of the main facade. I simply couldn’t tell the church had become a pub!

the church brew works @3525 liberty ave, pittsburgh, pennsylvania – 7:05pm, jun 11, 2010