The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, June 15, 2018

Ford brings new vitality to old hotel - and West Dearborn, too

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

DEARBORN - With the former 122-year-old Wagner Hotel as the centerpiece, Ford Motor Co. is transforming a two-city-block area on the west side of the city into a development "that will drive innovation and collaboration in every part of its business," according to the automaker. 

Managed by Roncelli Inc., the 150,000 square-foot, $60 million development will create office space for about 550 Ford employees, offering a unique urban environment with new retail and restaurant options and green space. Work began in May 2017, and the trades are currently working on a variety of tasks, mostly finish work. 

According to Roncelli, the old Wagner Hotel building, with its signature turret at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street on the city's west side, will see its historic facade refurbished while undergoing a comprehensive renovation of the interior areas that will maintain many original fixtures and finishes. The project also has included significant new construction in place of demolished, largely vacant buildings.

"It's been a bit of a challenge working in a busy city right next to Michigan Avenue," said Roncelli Project Manager Ryan White. "But overall it's been a great project. I'm just really impressed with the people we have on the job; a lot of good trades, a lot of good contractors. The foremen have helped keep the people productive, and the leads are all talking to each other. It makes it much easier to build the building."

The new construction will seek a Gold Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for high-performance energy standards.

Ford Land is managing the Wagner Place development and the company has created mixed-use communities around the nearby Ford World Headquarters building for 45 years. The developer said the Ford employees occupying the site would be from the company's global data insights and analytics (GDIA) team.

The project is expected to be transformational for the West Dearborn business district, and the project's groundbreaking ceremony a year ago welcomed Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Dearborn Mayor John O'Reilly and Ford Land Chairman and CEO Dave Dubensky.

“Developing an urban office environment positions Ford to offer a work setting that will appeal to a new generation of employees," Dubensky said. "Wagner Place supports our goals to create a more collaborative and inviting campus atmosphere for all employees.”

The project is unique not only because it incorporates an old hotel, but because it actually includes two separate structures of about 75,000 square-feet each, one east and one west of Monroe Street along Michigan Avenue. During this project Monroe Street and nearby West Village Street have been closed, as is a single lane of Michigan Avenue, to help facilitate the activity of the trades during the project.

The facade of the hotel will be restored to its 1896 appearance as much as possible, complete with arches above its windows and the removal of some 1980s-installed thin brick. The turret has already been given a new slate roof. White said the second story exterior brick will likely need to be painted or stained, because there is a stubborn red sheen on the existing brick that has resisted removal. Inside the former hotel, the first floor has been completely gutted in anticipation of future tenants. On the second floor many of the old hotel walls will remain intact for use as Ford conference space. Original doors and trim will be retained as much as possible. A rooftop terrace will be added.   

The Roncelli crew said the old hotel was structurally found to be in good shape. Project Coordinator John Geer laughingly said when they first encountered the hotel's second floor it was "a bit of a disaster," with a raised floor added at some point after the hotel was built to allow for indoor plumbing. Coat hooks on the walls were essentially the "closets" for the guest rooms. And the wires hanging from the ceilings that powered the individual lights also provided the tiny 8x9-foot rooms' only electrical plugs. 

But Geer said he was particularly impressed with the hotel's natural summertime ventilation system. Guests could open their room's window, open the transom above the guest room door, and fresh air would flow through the building's hallways up a central shaft to the roof. "Really cool," Geer said. "It was basically a hot air chimney." In this renovation, the central shaft will be restored as a light well, and of course the building will have new HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems.

The exteriors on the newly constructed buildings will feature the use of nine different types of brick. The project will also create a streetscape with varying rooflines, windows and awnings. A 385-space parking deck has also been constructed nearby. 

White said working in the West Dearborn spot for the past year has given him an appreciation for the neighborhood - and of the master plan for the project aimed at bringing in Ford employees to the new development in a walkable downtown area. "It's been great working in an urban area, I understand what they're doing," he said. "And Ford Land and (project architect) Neumann Smith have really been great to work with." 

According to the Historical Marker Database, German immigrant Anthony Wagner owned his own brickmaking company in Detroit before he came to Dearborn to farm and build the 28-room Wagner Hotel at Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street. The hotel closed in the 1920s, and the structure was used by various businesses over the years, including the Dearborn Post Office.

Three years ago the Land Institute suggested in a report called Wagner Hotel Block, West Downtown Dearborn, a Historical Rebirth, that there was no "unified vision" for the West Dearborn business district. "The Wagner Hotel Block has the potential to create a transformational development project that ties together the entire Dearborn area," said the report. Three years later, here we are.

Work on the project is expected to wrap up later this summer.

“Ford’s continued investment in our state and in attracting talented people to its workforce is a great testament to the company’s belief in Michigan’s future,” said Gov. Snyder at the project's groundbreaking. “Recruiting and keeping talent that we need to continue Michigan’s global leadership in mobility will be further enhanced by projects like Wagner Place."

CONSTRUCTED IN 1896 at Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street in West Dearborn, the old Wagner Hotel is being converted and incorporated into new office space for Ford Motor Co. employees. The site will also include dining and retail establishments. The development includes a second east building that’s not shown here.

INSTALLING A LIGHT FIXTURE bracket in the second-floor ceiling of the Wagner Place (west building) development in Dearborn is Kim Fountaine of IBEW Local 58. She’s employed by Triangle Electric.

MOVING SOME DIRT on the Michigan Avenue side of the Wagner Place development in Dearborn is Riad Joudi of Laborers Local 1191. He’s employed by Roncelli. Behind him is a “ghost sign” still in place for the old Wagner Hotel, which went out of business in the 1920s.