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Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Restoration, Detroit style.

The majestic old Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit, closed in 1984, vandalized by thieves and subjected to the Michigan elements, is now being renovated and restored.

This afternoon, in front of the hotel, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Gov. Jennifer Granholm will announce a deal to renovate the Book-Cadillac and return it to prominence as the Renaissance Book-Cadillac, part of Marriott International Inc.'s Renaissance Hotels line.

It is a tall order:

A tour of the hotel shows just how much work lies ahead. The hotel closed in 1984. Today, much of the building is impassable because of collapsed ceilings and other debris. Even on upper floors, scavengers have punched holes in the walls to strip out scrap metals for sale.

"Pretty much everything of value has been taken, especially the copper pipe," Zeiler said.

Some of the damage dates to when the hotel operated. During one of the various renovations the hotel underwent before it closed, workers punched holes in the original decorated plaster ceiling to hang drop ceilings. Today, the drop ceilings have crumbled away to nothing, leaving a twisted frame in some places and the defaced plaster ceiling above.

But water probably caused as much or more damage as vandals and misguided renovators. Broken windows and other damage allowed in rain and snow, which over the years trickled down through the floors and turned plaster into powder. When a street-level door was opened this week, a blast of cool, clammy air and moldy odor rushed out.

Many of the stairwells are hard to climb because they're filled with debris. Smashed furniture lies about. A few unlikely touches remain -- a panel of Persian-inspired wallpaper in one guest room, a stack of men's skin magazines coated with dust near the main reception desk.

Some other Detroit gems have looked equally forlorn before coming back. When contractors first got into the former Capitol Theatre several years ago to remake it as the Detroit Opera House, the orchestra pit and basements were filled with water, and the roof was open to the sky.

Fortunately, the renovation firm has an excellent track record, having restored the Gateway-Statler Hotel in St. Louis. Here's the during and after pictures for that project. The Detroit project is cheaper, and has several good things going for it:

Tests have shown that as bad as the Book-Cadillac looks today, the hotel's basic structure -- its floors and support columns -- remains sound. That means that once the debris is cleaned up -- a process that will take five to six months -- contractors can get down to reshaping the interior for modern use.

Much of the original look will be replicated by using copies of plaster molding and other ornaments instead of restorations of the originals, which are too far gone to save.

I see the Book Cadillac every day. Here's hoping the project is every bit the success it is planned to be. In a city notoriously starved for hotel space and struggling to achieve critical mass for a renaissance, it is just what the doctor ordered.

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