A Historic Firehouse Property Is the Basis for an Ambitious Renovation and Remarkable Hospitality Destination

Foundation Hotel firehouse

The circumstances in Detroit are uniquely suited to a boom in historic renovation opportunities. The city is not only in the midst of a continuing urban revival, but Detroit has a relatively large number of historically or architecturally significant buildings. Even in this “target-rich environment,” however, some historic renovation projects stand out.

The Foundation Hotel’s preservation efforts included a comprehensive exterior restoration that preserved and restored all original terra cotta and masonry elements.

The Foundation Hotel’s preservation efforts included a comprehensive exterior restoration that preserved and restored
all original terra cotta and masonry elements.

One such project is the recently completed Foundation Hotel renovation. The downtown Detroit project is an outstanding example of how a historic property can be transformed into a compelling space, combining historic artistry and architecture with contemporary conveniences to create a distinctive hotel property with a memorable and defining sense of place.

Creating the new Foundation Hotel required converting and combining two adjacent historic buildings (one of which was originally the headquarters for the city of Detroit Fire Department) into a unified 95,000-square-foot, 100-key boutique hospitality property–complete with an enclosed first-floor restaurant and bar. The finished project encompasses the Pontchartrain building at 234 W. Larned Street and fire department building at 250 W. Larned Street–originally built in 1882 and 1929, respectively.

Examining the process the design and construction team took to complete the project, including the unexpected challenges and the exciting opportunities for inspired preservation, reuse and repurposing, provides a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to renovate a unique historic property and deliver an extraordinary hospitality experience for Detroiters and guests to the city.

Flexibility And Opportunity

Whether it is a historic firehouse or another older property with architectural or cultural significance, successfully renovating a historic structure requires flexibility from all stakeholders. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for transforming a one-of-a-kind architectural landmark. Every project is different with its own character, its own challenges and its own opportunities. Profes- sionals who work in this specialized space not only know to expect the unexpected but they welcome it. Oftentimes, the most inspired and evocative historic renovations are those that can skillfully navigate the obstacles presented by aging structures and dated materials while preserving the aesthetic and experiential potential delivered by period detail that is preserved and integrated into the updated design.

Structural integrity issues are common–almost inevitable. With the Foundation Hotel project, the north wall of the 234 building was discovered to be structurally unsound and had to be completely rebuilt. New steel supports were added to accommodate the new rooftop and fifth-floor banquet space addition. Structural concerns were not limited to the ceiling: The integrity of the existing floor was also a challenge. More than 50 percent of the floor joists had to be replaced because of either damage or rot. The first-floor of the fire department building concrete slab was post-tension concrete, which also presented issues with needed coring and the installation of through-floor structural steel.

When working with historic buildings, stringent guidelines and special approvals are always part of the process, and the Foundation Hotel project was no exception. The team coordinated closely with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to determine approved sightlines, material finishes, glazing percentages and more. A detailed proposal package had to be submitted to SHPO and the National Park Service, Washington, D.C., outlining all proposed alterations or additions.

Essential historic elements were prioritized and preserved. For example, the trademark 500-pound red firehouse doors were removed, restored and reinstalled.

Essential historic elements were prioritized and preserved. For example, the trademark 500-pound red firehouse doors were removed, restored and reinstalled.

The irregular/nonstandard floorplans and infrastructure accommodations often mean that historic buildings also pose some difficulties when it comes to the design of individual rooms. The Foundation Hotel’s 100 rooms had 54 unique layouts, creating a challenge for the architects at McIntosh Poris Associates, Birmingham, Mich. From a design perspective, flexibility and creativity helped to create the many different room layouts that were needed. From a practical standpoint, individual room plans placed in every room during construction helped minimize confusion and avoid mistakes.

To Preserve and Protect

Historic renovation work often requires creative solutions. It also presents some important and sometimes difficult decisions about what original elements to preserve and what is impractical, impossible, unsafe or simply not cost-effective to keep.

The goal is to retain as much historic detail and authenticity as possible from the building’s original character without compromising the ability to create a comfortable, appealing and amenity-rich environment for guests. Detroit-based Kraemer Design Group served as the historic consultant for the project, helping to determine which essential historic elements would be prioritized and preserved. That historical triage isn’t just about creating a unique space; it’s often an economic necessity. Many projects (including this one) are financially feasible when they qualify for and secure historic tax credits.

The Foundation Hotel’s preservation efforts continued to the outside of the building(s) with a comprehensive exterior restoration that preserved and restored all original terra cotta and masonry elements. Custom molds were created and used to make matching pieces for areas of the hotel facade that had been damaged. Inside, original wall tiles in the lobby were restored, and corridors throughout the building retained their original plaster and terrazzo flooring.

PHOTOS: Jason Keen

About the Author

Kevin Blind and Todd Sachse
Kevin Blind is vice president of commercial operations and Todd Sachse is CEO and founder of Sachse Construction, a Detroit-based construction management firm licensed in all 50 states.

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