Monday, April 30, 2007

Saving Detroit's treasures
City's tattered gems rise from ruins

Louis Aguilar / The Detroit News

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.

Jim Schmalenberg repairs a section of the "Victory and Progress" statue

Jim Schmalenberg repairs a section of the "Victory and Progress" statue that usually decorates the Wayne County Building in Detroit. The city's restoration boom has created hundreds of jobs for artisans.

Mike Kroll of restoration firm Chezcore works on the Hurlbut Memorial Gate

Mike Kroll of restoration firm Chezcore works on the Hurlbut Memorial Gate at the entrance to Water Works Park along Jefferson Avenue.

Restoration of relic Wayne County Building's "Victory and Progress"

Restoration of relics like the Wayne County Building's "Victory and Progress" began as a push to prepare for last year's Super Bowl XL.

"Anyone touching this work has at least 30 years' experience," said Marc Hesse, 47. "You can't go to school to learn this. We need to teach you how to make the mold, how to work with copper, how to be precise so that all these pieces fit together, because if you're off just a little, the whole thing doesn't work."

It can take hundreds of hours to restore some of the pieces.

"Basically, we have to teach people to not drive yourself crazy doing the work," Marc Hesse said. "Once you get past that point, man, it's cool.
The Book-Cadillac returns

Currently in Detroit Cornice's warehouse is one of the huge copper ziggurats that normally top the Book-Cadillac, the iconic downtown hotel that stood empty for decades and is now undergoing a $180 million restoration to become a Westin hotel and condos.

The ziggurats are lofty pyramidal structures topped by a trophy and flame that stand at least 15 feet tall. They're affectionately called "bowling trophies" by Marc Hesse and his small crew restoring them. Some of the original pieces are riddled with bullet holes.

"They've been target practice for a long time," Hesse said.

Now the relics are treated with much care. Eventually, one of the ziggurats will be part of someone's upscale penthouse at the Book-Cadillac.

Besides giving work to experienced artisans, the Book-Cadillac restoration has also prompted Detroit Cornice & Slate to hire four more workers to do lesser detailed work.

In fact, the surge of renovations of historic structures in Detroit and across the state has created more than 26,000 jobs from 2000 through 2006, according to the State Historic Preservation Office. The 211 projects involving historic preservations generated $2.2 billion in economic impact, according to the state agency.

Tax credit in jeopardy

But this boom could well fade as the state grapples with its economic crisis.

The true spark for the renovation work is the state's historic preservation tax credit created in 2000.

By promoting the reuse of existing structures, the tax credits encouraged developers, institutions and local governments to invest in revitalizing everything from old buildings to statues. Those eligible can get up to a 25 percent tax credit on their projects.

"I can't think of many deals downtown that would have been possible without those tax credits," said Elizabeth Knibbe, an Ann Arbor-based preservationist involved in a number of downtown Detroit restorations. "You take that away, and I'm not sure how we keep the momentum going."

The tax break for commercial development is in limbo because it's part of the Single Business Tax, which lawmakers voted to eliminate at the end of this year. Lansing politicians have yet to figure how to replace the tax and whether the historic tax credit will continue.

The latest proposal crafted by the House that gained some ground last week does include the tax credit, but it remains unclear if it will survive the legislative process.

"We're lobbying hard to make sure it continues," said Nancy Finegood, executive director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. "But there are no guarantees."

Marc Hesse of Detroit Cornice & Slate says his family business knows how to survive, with or without the credit.

"We've been through tough times before. The Depression. The '70s. Nothing lasts forever," Hesse said.

"You just have to adapt and do other work."

You can reach Louis Aguilar at (313) 222-2760 or

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