DETROIT -- In a city warehouse, two hipsters with fine arts degrees crouch at the base of a 20-foot copper statue of galloping horses, a chariot and a mythic figure that represents either Victory or Progress -- no one is sure which.
Bent nearly into fetal positions, Jim Schmalenberg, 33, and Brian Pitman, 28, wield tiny soldering irons inches from a part of John Massey Rhind's "Victory and Progress," restoring patches of corroded green copper to an amber glow.
The two assistant conservators will work in this big warehouse for months with monk-like intensity to restore the century-old Beaux Arts statue that usually adorns the Wayne County Building in downtown Detroit.
Detroit, sometimes called a city of fabulous ruins, is in the midst of a multibillion-dollar building boom that's created hundreds of jobs for artisans handling the detailed and meticulous work of restoring old buildings and relics.
"Right now, the kind of work you can get in Detroit, it's really good, pretty interesting work," said Schmalenberg, of Warren, as he toiled away on the Rhind statue created between 1898 and 1902.
The city's push to spruce up downtown began about six years ago in preparation for Super Bowl XL last year. After decades of watching Detroit's architectural jewels decay, small, specialized firms are now finding the city fertile ground.
It has given rise to such new businesses as Kristine Kidorf's historical preservation consulting firm, which works to ensure the renovations are true to history. She has advised developers on major buildings in downtown Detroit, as well as in Ann Arbor and Farmington.
It's allowed general contactors like Chezcore to get more business. The restoration firm trains workers for up to five years for the specialty work like the restoration of the Hurlbut Memorial Gate at the city's Water Works Park.
Detroit-based Chezcore also hires other niche contractors such as Venus Bronze Works Inc., which is restoring "Victory and Progress."
"We do a lot of work across the country," said Giorgio Gikas, founder of Venus Bronze Works in Detroit. "We're among the top five companies in the nation for this kind of work, and there's maybe only 10 companies overall that can do the work. It's good to do more and more work in Detroit."
'A great period'
After decades of doing very little work in the city, 119-year-old Detroit Cornice & Slate Co. is busy, too.
"Before, we were repairing existing buildings, mainly in the suburbs," company President Doneen Hesse said. "Now we are helping bring amazing buildings back to life in Detroit. It's just a great period for us."
The family-owned business was founded by German immigrant Frank Hesse.
Doneen Hesse, who married Frank's grandson Hugo Hesse Jr., has been with the company for 35 years, and four of her five sons work at the firm. "I gave birth to a crew," she said with a laugh.
Detroit Cornice & Slate spends years training workers to handle the detailed work of restoring historic copper statues or replacing roofing built decades ago by immigrant craftsmen.