The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, December 12, 2008

Trades help Fort-Shelby Hotel make an unlikely comeback

By The Building Tradesman

DETROIT - It's not as grand as the recently opened Westin Book-Cadillac a few blocks away, nor is it modern and flashy like the city's three new casino hotels.

The DoubleTree Fort-Shelby Hotel opens this month as a simpler, unpretentious but elegant addition to the city's burgeoning stock of hotels. Slated to open Dec. 15, the renovated hotel will have 204 rooms on floors 2-10, and 56 apartments on floors 11-22. The top two floors will be made into luxury penthouses.

"We're in pretty good shape, we're at the point where we're putting the finishing touches in," said Thomas Simko on Dec. 2. He's vice president of operations for The Brinker Group, which is managing the Fort-Shelby renovation. "To see this place in May 2007, and then now after the phenomenal restoration, it's like night and day. The building is just beautiful."

About 150 Hardhats were on the job in the days before the hotel was slated to open, taking care of those finishing touches. The lobby and the first floor restaurant were a buzz of activity, as was the magnificently restored main ballroom. "They've done a very good job, we've been pleased with the overall experience," Simko said.

Named after a long-buried fort near the building at Lafayette and First Streets, the original construction on the Fort-Shelby took place in two different phases. First a 10-story building was completed in 1917, and when that proved successful, a 22-story tower was added in 1927.

The first tower was completed two years after the opening of the now-demolished Detroit Statler Hotel, which set the standard for new hotels in the city at the time.

According to the Forgotten Detroit website: "Though not as large or grand as the Statler, the Fort Shelby offered patrons many new innovations. Like the Statler, each room had a bath with running water. The building was fireproofed. The guest rooms all offered modern heating.

"There was a hotel-owned automobile garage built across the street. The restaurant equipment was the most modern then available. The hotel's most notable feature were the servidors. A servidor was a compartment built into a guest room door. Each side of the compartment had a door and a signal. A guest could place an item of clothing needing pressing into the compartment and a hotel employee would open the servidor from the hall to collect it. It could also be used to deliver items to the guest without disturbing them.

"The servidor's most praised service was its removing the need to tip employees. The Fort Shelby offered the first servidor service in Detroit." (The servidors didn't make a return to the renovated hotel).

The Pick Hotel chain took over operations of the Fort-Shelby in 1951. By the early 1970s, the hotel was losing money, and it closed in December 1973.

As a hotel, the building has basically been empty since that time. A first floor bar closed a decade ago, leaving the hulking building completely abandoned. Windows were broken, and trees grew from the rooftops, and the roof leaked.

A comeback for the hotel was seen as highly unlikely, and it took years to assemble the right combination of investors and tax credits to fund the $82 million renovation of the building. A deal finally came together about two years ago.

The building was completely gutted and a new floor plan put into place that allowed for larger guest rooms. Simko said the main structural problem was on the west side of the building, where a six-story steel column was rotted by the incursion of rainwater from a leaky roof drain. The fix involved encasing the column in concrete.

"Initially we had to overcome the structural restoration, but overall it's been a pretty straightforward job," Simko said. "Now, in the latter stages, there really aren't so many challenges."

THE ORNATE CEILING in the Detroit DoubleTree Fort-Shelby's Crystal Ballroom is painted by Kal Saaidi of Painters Local 37, working for Madias Brothers.
FINISHING TILE WORK at the front desk of the DoubleTree Fort-Shelby Hotel in Detroit is Emerus Shaw of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1 and Hospitality Stone.
THE FORT-SHELBY Hotel was built along Lafayette Ave. in two stages - the 10-story section in 1917 and the 22-story addition in 1927. The spiffing up of the exterior masonry is one of the most striking aspects of the renovation.