How the Renaissance Center changed the landscape of Detroit

The Renaissance Center has become the premier Detroit waterfront landmark.

The 1967 riots left Detroit burned and battered. While many gave up hope, and some tolled the city’s death knell, a group of businessmen were coming together to find a way to save it. Detroit Renaissance was bom in 1970 out of a gathering of 26 business, industrial, and civic leaders dedicated to stimulating an economic boom in Detroit.

The following year, on Nov. 24, 1971, Henry Ford II, the head of Detroit Renaissance, announced plans to Mayor Roman Gribbs and the Detroit City Council for a $500 million development that would include hotel, office and residential space on the riverfront. It would be the largest privately financed project in the world, to be built east of Ford Auditorium and Cobo Hall. John Portman was named as the architect. Portman had created the Peachtree Centre in Atlanta as well as the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco. Hope was high for, as Roman Gribbs put it, “a complete rebuilding from bridge to bridge,” a reference to the area between the Ambassador and MacArthur bridges.

It was not the first project the Fords contributed to the Detroit riverfront. Ford Auditorium, funded by contributions from the family, was built in 1956 to house the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Now four 39-story office buildings and one 70-story hotel — Michigan’s tallest building — would join the auditorium.

City Council approved the plan on May 3, 1972, with some dissent from other developers who complained that the development would poach tenants from other downtown buildings and cause more blight.

Ford Motor Co. announced a contest Jan. 2, 1972, to name the project. The winner was Roger Lennert, a 29-year-old writer in the public relations and advertising department of Ex-Cell-0 Corp. Lennert’s “Renaissance Center” beat out such other suggestions as the Bellevue Center, Great Lakes Center, Heritage Center, Jefferson Center, Mariner’s Landing, Place Riviere, Rivergate, Skyline Center, and Waterway Plaza. There were 141,537 entries from Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties. Motor City Plaza and The Hub were the most popular entries at 542 submissions each. Close behind was the Motor City Center with 536 entries. The “Ford Development” now officially became The Renaissance Center.

Detroit's waterfront in 1972 before construction of the RenCen began

Detroit’s waterfront in 1972 before construction of the RenCen began.

Investors in the project included General Motors, American Motors, Chrysler, S.S. Kresge, Federal Mogul, Burroughs Corp. and Budd Company. Together they had contributed more than $33 million, which was to provide the down payment for the $200 million first phase. Eight Detroit schoolchildren, Nancy Wack, Peter Fisher, Adam Lobenthal, Sheryl Miller, Susan Starks, Daniel Neusen, Mary Beth Cobbs and Larry Detloff, turned spades of earth at the site of the first phase, at East Jefferson and Brush.

By December of 1973, the Western International Detroit Plaza Hotel, still just a hole in the ground, had booked over 100 commitments for big blocks of space starting in 1977 and running into 1981. Western International also had invested $4 million of its own money in the Renaissance Center. The first large convention was scheduled in 1973 for March 1977.

Meanwhile at the construction site, workers from the Detroit Historical Commission, Plan Commission, and Department of Public Works were removing brick, cobblestone, and granite paving from the area to redistribute to historic areas of the city, including the West Canfield Street District, Christ Church on Jefferson, and the Moross House on West Jefferson.

Property values in the area had increased by the end of 1973. Demand was high for nearby buildings, both the older office buildings and manufacturing sites. The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel approach was relocated, and its original location deeded to Ford Land. The University of Detroit announced a multi-million dollar expansion of its Downtown Law School campus, and the adjacent Sts. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church.

The site of the Rencen between Jefferson Ave. and the river is cleared in the early stages of construction in 1974

The site of the Rencen between Jefferson Ave. and the river is cleared in the early stages of construction in 1974.

And slowly but surely it grew:

  • 7,000 construction workers were working on the project.
  • Between 325,000 and 400,000 cubic yards of concrete would be poured, enough to form a solid concrete block the width and length of a football field to a height of 22 stories.
  • 1,100 caissons would be dug about 100 feet down.
  • Forty thousand tons of structural steel would lift the first phase of the structure.
  • Two million square feet of glass would encase the five buildings.

One aspect of the construction drew the most criticism. From the time of their rise off Jefferson, the huge concrete abutments that housed the heating and cooling operations of the RenCen were controversial. Many saw them as fortifications — a barrier to protect the rich business interests inside from the poverty outside.

Another controversy arose when a Renaissance realtor was accused of trying to poach tenants of the Buhl Building. A lawsuit charged a salesman for the Renaissance Center with going door to door in the Buhl building soliciting tenants to lease space in one of the four towers. Apparently several of the Buhl tenants complained.

By January of 1975 the foundation was beginning to take shape

By January of 1975 the foundation was beginning to take shape.

There were celebratory moments during construction as well. On June 25, 1975, four women were served a gourmet meal in what would become the Celebration Room of the Detroit Plaza Hotel. Silver table settings, chilled champagne, and Rock Cornish game hen graced their table as bulldozers roared nearby and huge cranes raised tons of steel girders into place. The ladies and waiters wore hard hats. The four had won the luncheon with the winning bid of $96 in the Channel 56 auction. The luncheon was prepared by Jacoby’s, the oldest restaurant in downtown Detroit, and served in the newest.

By 1976, the offices were partly occupied. Though the official opening would not be until March of 1977, fans and critics were already weighing in. General Motors executive Henry L. Duncombe said the Renaissance Center would be a valuable trigger for Detroit. He saw a reversal of the population and business exodus over the next five to seven years. John Portman, architect for the project, said, “We can build great and wonderful things. But physical things alone will not cause the city to return to a state of vitality.”

Everyone agreed that there must be “spinoff’ in order for the salvation of downtown to be realized. At this point, the most obvious effect was an unrealistic jump in property prices.

On the afternoon of Friday April 15, 1977, 1,000 spectators cheered as Henry Ford II and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young unveiled a plaque commemorating the private investors whose funds made the project possible. Ford said, “Detroit has reached the bottom and is on its way back up.” The mayor read a telegram from President Jimmy Carter who said he hoped the project would “live up to its expectations.” Also attending was Elio Gabbuggiani, mayor of Florence, Italy, Detroit’s sister city. As the birthplace of the European Renaissance, Florence seemed an appropriate co-celebrant, even though Gabbuggiani, a communist, had difficulty getting a visa.

By November the buildings were on their way up.

By November the buildings were on their way up.

That evening 650 business and society leaders gathered at a lavish benefit celebrating the formal dedication of the Renaissance Center. The money raised from the $300-per-couple tickets went to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The gala was co-chaired by Mrs. R. Alexander Wrigley and Mrs. R. Jamison Williams, who, an hour before the ball, received a phone call from Henry Ford II who said he was unable to attend the reception. Moments later, Christina Ford, Henry’s estranged wife, cancelled her table. The event went on without them, perhaps a little spicier for the gossip.

Detroit News Society Editor Eleanor Breitmeyer described the evening: “The Renaissance Center served as a backdrop for the most lavishly gowned, furred and jeweled crowd assembled in Detroit history. Women wore rustling silks, and romantic, drifting chiffon. Diamonds, emeralds and rubies were brought out of the bank vaults. One guest had a diamond necklace she said was insured for $500,000. Another sparkled with a pair of 18-carat drop earrings. Industrial giants that one never sees at fund-raising parties turned out. The Italian mayor flirted with the women, but noted that, ‘Florence is much smaller and nicer than your city,”‘ not perhaps the most felicitous conversational gambit in the circumstances.

The entertainment for the evening was Bob Hope, who kept the diners laughing.

And so the Renaissance Center rose up on a hopeful note, with much good will and a tantalizing future. Two more office towers were built and opened in 1981, called Phase II, occupied and eventually purchased by ANR. Stores came and went in the original buildings — from designer boutiques in the early days to more prosaic tourist shops and everyday supplies for the office workers.

Mayor Coleman A. Young (in light suit) and Henry Ford II, to the mayor's right, join business and community leaders in applauding an edible version of the RenCen at a celebration of the project's completion.

Mayor Coleman A. Young (in light suit) and Henry Ford II, to the mayor’s right, join business and community leaders in applauding an edible version of the RenCen at a celebration of the project’s completion.

In 1978, Mayor Coleman A. Young and the Downtown Development Authority invited a team of architects to give their professional opinion of the Renaissance Center. Their study was critical of many of the design features, especially the resulting isolation. The study also was critical of the city’s poor riverfront planning and lack of planning in general. A later study was critical of the high retail vacancy rate in the RenCen. On the architect’s web site. today, The Renaissance Center is notably not among his list of “Achievements/”

Phase III, the residential development, was left by the wayside, as Detroit’s population continued to leave the city throughout the 1980s. In 1982, the city measured the population of the central business district as 37% lower than in 1970. By 1983, the RenCen was in default in its mortgage payments for the second time, and the four insurance agencies that bankrolled the construction, along with Ford Motor Credit, assumed 53% ownership. Ford Land retained about 30% and the original limited partners 17%. In 1984, the Chicago-based Rubloff Company took over management of the building from Ford Land.

In 1987 the elevated-rail mass transit People Mover, many years in the building, began operation, with a stop at the Renaissance Center that soared over the forbidding concrete berms.

Finally, in May of 1996, General Motors announced that it was buying the Renaissance Center from then-owner Highgate Hotels in Texas for $73 million, and would spend up to $500 million in renovation costs.

Today GM’s logo is up on the hotel tower, now owned by Marriott, and the berms are being dismantled. A new era is beginning for what was once a beacon of hope for downtown Detroit.

A view of the area surrounding the RenCen in the early 1990s.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )