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From fire HQ to red-hot hotel

Travel
At what was the Detroit Fire Department headquarters, uniformed “first responders” will soon be making wake-up calls and delivering room-service breakfast.

The 1929 neoclassical downtown landmark is to open on May 15 as the 100-room boutique Detroit Foundation Hotel.

It’s part of a trend towards historic adaptive reuse that has travellers staying overnight in former department stores, textile mills, a car assembly plant and even a 19th-century jail.

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A rendering of the planned exterior of the Detroit Foundation Hotel, in place of the city’s fire department headquarters.

San Antonio’s Hotel Emma occupies the space of a brewery. In La Crosse, Wisconsin, a candy factory built in 1898 has been converted from sweets to suites.

In Detroit, 1920s-era buildings - including a Renaissance-revival high-rise that once housed the Wurlitzer music company - are being redeveloped to accommodate guests. The Wurlitzer will open within months, the developer, ASH NYC, says.

Another grand Detroit building, a 1915 Renaissance Revival landmark, opened in 2014 as Aloft Detroit at the David Whitney.

Similar projects are in varying stages of completion across the US.

As industry experts have noted, there’s a move away from the standardised hotel experience, not unlike the rise of American microbreweries.

STR, a data and analytics firm, reports that guest demand for boutique hotels has been rising.

Michael Poris, whose firm, McIntosh Poris Associates, is project architect for the Foundation, says the desire for such spaces is a response to an increasingly homogenised world.

“So many places are the same that people crave difference,” Poris says. “New York is like a mall now with the same stores you find in Milan or Hong Kong.”

Vintage structures allow hoteliers to offer a more local aesthetic through history and eccentricity, as well as ornamentation that is not easily duplicated today.

The exterior of the Detroit Foundation Hotel is embellished with terra cotta detail, including firefighters’ heads, angels and griffins in hats.

Huge red doors that swung open at the sound of truck sirens remain operable as the front entrance and as dining room shutters.

The oldest American cities offer a stockpile of ageing beauties with good bones, enviable construction materials and prime locations.

And historic tax credits requiring the preservation of specific structural elements force designers to take a creative approach to non-standard spaces.

“When you’re repurposing a building, you have all these crazy spaces,” says Gina Deary, co-owner of Simeone Deary Design Group, the Detroit Foundation Hotel’s interior-design team. “It’s imperfect; that’s what’s great.”

Detroit’s firehouse, a five-storey, solid block, was endowed with terrazzo, marble, travertine, oak, lead glass and ornamental plaster.

The voluminous apparatus room with its original glazed brick walls now serves as a restaurant with a circular centrepiece bar.

Some tables are topped with marble reclaimed from the building’s interior. Just off the lobby, an overhead blown-glass installation has replaced suspended fire hoses in the drying tower.

The restaurant kitchen occupies space where firefighters once prepared meals during shift work.

The historically designated former Pontchartrain Wine Cellars restaurant building (circa 1880s) next door was included in the firehouse retrofit.

When the two structures were joined, a vertical variation in floor heights required two-level hallways. Rooms in the older section have brick walls painted white.

Cold Duck, reportedly invented at the Pontchartrain Wine Cellars in 1937, will appear at the Foundation in a new, craft version, insiders say.

“These buildings are artefacts,” Poris says. “You find details to celebrate.”

Visible behind him through a guest-room window, lay the Detroit River and Canada beyond - an international border associated with early fur trading and, later, the Underground Railroad and Prohibition-era alcohol smuggling.

Inside, original oak panelling lined the walls of what was a deputy chief’s office.

The evidence of previous use adds a sensory layer for guests and lends an element of time travel to the trip.

The resulting character is an antidote to the just-passing-through sense of travel ennui. - Washington Post

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