David Whitney Building – Detroit’s Next Big Preservation Win? – Detroit, Michigan

Isaac Kremer/ July 10, 2012/ preservation/ 0 comments

Now our attention shifts to the somewhat maligned David Whitney Building in downtown Detroit. The way this postcard with a postmark from Saginaw, Michigan in August 1920 put it:

Woodward Avenue enjoys the unusual distinction of being both Detroit’s leading business and residence street. It is named in honor of Judge Woodward, one of Detroit’s foremost citizens in the pioneer days, and stretches approximately north and south. At the foot are the ferry docks where boats leave regularly for Windsor, Int., Belle Isle and Bois Blanc Islands.

Oddly, the inscription on the reverse said little to nothing about the David Whitney building itself, except by inference to say that this building was located on Woodward Avenue that was Detroit’s leading business and residence street. Where this statement takes on an added level of interest, is that the home of David Whitney, Jr. was located at 4421 Woodward Avenue just 1.3 miles north of the David Whitney Building . Built by Gordon W. Lloyd in 1894, this is among the most lavish of the surviving Detroit residences from the nineteenth-century. The cost was $400,000 at the time (or roughly $10.5 million in today’s dollars). David Whitney, Jr. was a prosperous lumber baron and steamship owner. No expense was spared in design and furnishing of this lavish house. The more than forty rooms are filled with Tiffany stained-glass windows, marble, onyx, and, of course, ample hand-carved woodwork. David Whitney, Jr. died in 1900, though his family remained in the house until 1920. In 1986 the building was renovated to become an upscale restaurant that was very popular for many years.

The David Whitney Building, constructed nearly two decades after the house, was built by D. H. Burnham and Co. of Chicago in 1915. This was one ofseveral Detroit commissions of theirs including the Majestic Building (now demolished) and the Dime Building. This building was actually completed after Daniel Burnham’s death, though along with the two others comprises one of the nation’s best stocks of Burnham skyscrapers (Gallagher and Hill, 2003, p.68). For more about these two other Burnham buildings, read this blog post. The David Whitney Building was constructed as architects were still struggling how to properly articulate massive skyscrapers. Italian Renaissance details were chosen to mark the exterior

Together the David Whitney Building and the David Broderick Building across Woodward Avenue marked an official “entrance” to the business district downtown. The “two David’s” as they have sometimes been called, clearly marked a line of demarcation between the business area to the south and the commercial area to the north with a more residential character, exemplified by the David Whitney, Jr. House.

In designing the David Whitney Building, the architects conformed to the odd size of the block facing Grand Circus Park and wedged in between Woodward Avenue and Washington Boulevard, with a six-sided building. The interior has what is perhaps one of Burnham’s best interiors, formed by four floors of shops encircling a large rotunda space under a polygonal light court (Chappell, 1992, p.115). The cost of the David Whitney Building at the time of its construction was $1,528,543.

Regrettably, the original facade of the David Whitney Building was renovated in 1959, when decorative cornices and other architectural details were removed, and the building given a more modern look.

David Whitney Building and Statler Hotel, some time prior to 1923 (postmark)

Skyline from Grand Circus Park, some time before 1929 (postmark)

Grand Circus Park, Eaton Tower, Whitney Building, Book Tower, and Hotel Statler, ca. 1928 (postmark) 


David Whitney Building (on far left), Statler Hotel, Hotel Tuller.


Grand Circus Park with David Whitney Building to left, ca. 1942 (postmark)

David Whitney Building in September 2001.
David Whitney Building in September 2001.
David Whitney Building, just prior to the All-Star Game in July 2005.


David Whitney Building (to left) as demolition of Statler Hotel nears completion in September 2005.


Preservation work is already underway on the 34 story David Broderick Tower, just across the street. As Model D reported in February 2011, the Detroit Downtown Development Authority provided a loan to cover about a third of the buildings $3.3 million purchase cost of the David Whitney Building. At that time they projected financing by the end of 2011 and completion by 2012.

As most development plans go, there was a slight delay. In December 2011 it was announced that Starwood Hotels & Resorts joined the project, with plans to build their first Aloft hotel in Michigan. Plans are being made to retain the lobby, and to also reinstate the architectural features that were removed after the insensitive renovation in 1959. This is only the second adaptive reuse project in the U.S., and their are plans to seek LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Another Starwood adaptive reuse project was later announced in Orlando, indicating that this is a growing emphasis for their franchise

The Grand Circus Park area has experienced a great resurgence with opening of the Detroit Opera House in 1996, followed by restoration of the Kales Building (originally the Kresge Company Headquarters) several years later. With work underway on the Broderick Tower and work about to begin on the David Whitney Building, there will very soon be no vacant buildings facing Grand Circus Park.

Were the Statler Hotel and Tuller Hotel still standing, it might have been possible that they too could have been swept up in the wave of redevelopment happening on Grand Circus Park. Instead they are vacant lots awaiting some uncertain future use. In their absence they provide powerful evidence that preservation of existing building is oftentimes a more viable strategy for downtown revitalization, rather than demolishing historic buildings and awaiting new development which almost never happens without far deeper subsidies than preservation requires.

The rehabilitation of the “two David’s” standing side-by-side on Woodward Avenue, holds great potential for the ongoing revitalization of downtown Detroit. As someone who has been away for many years though still considers Detroit home, I look to the revitalization of these buildings and the downtown with great excitement. Downtown Detroit appears to be realizing the potential that so many of us have seen for so long. Hopefully these exciting developments will embolden efforts to restore some of the few remaining vacant historic buildings downtown.

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About Isaac Kremer

Isaac Kremer is a transformational leader with a track record of success revitalizing downtowns in the United States. He has written and spoken extensively. He's always on the lookout for new and innovative ideas to unlock the potential of downtown areas.

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