The Revamped Book Building Toasts Detroit’s Past and Future

Bedrock, the real estate firm breathing new life into downtown Detroit, is wrapping up its most ambitious project yet: a top-to-bottom transformation of the historic Book Tower into a residential complex under the halo of one of the city’s most dazzling landmarks.

The Book Building in Detroit. Photography by Rebekah Witt/Bedrock

Few buildings on the Detroit skyline carry as much history as the Book Building, an Italian Renaissance–style structure designed by architect Louis Kamper that rose in the mid-1920s during the then-bubbling auto industry’s meteoric rise. The building, along with the storied Book-Cadillac Hotel, became one of the crown jewels of the Book brothers’ investment in downtown that aimed to transform the once-ragged Washington Boulevard into a tony destination akin to Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. An adjoining 500-foot-tall tower followed a decade later, cementing the Book Building as one of Detroit’s most prestigious addresses. 

The structure cycled through numerous tenants and owners across its lifetime, but has sat abandoned since the late ‘80s as automotive fortunes fizzled and Detroit’s population waned. What was once a harbinger of the city’s prosperity—and its eventual decline—is emerging as a symbol of its rebirth thanks to a $300 million investment by Bedrock, the real estate firm credited with stoking downtown Detroit’s newfound vitality. Under the leadership of native son Dan Gilbert, the firm is undertaking a meticulous revamp of the building’s interior, enlivening drab offices into a residential complex they hope will further galvanize the city’s resurgence.

Image courtesy of Bedrock

Transforming the 38 stories took more than deep pockets and design ingenuity—it also required preservation chops. Former tenants covered up the interior’s lavish Art Deco details with nondescript walls and cubicles to maximize office space, obscuring a breathtaking 6,000-piece stained glass domed skylight and a three-story atrium. Restoring the glistening centerpiece was no small feat—the prolific New York firm ODA, tapped to lead the renovation, was tasked with painstakingly disassembling and restoring its elements piece by piece. 

Bedrock views the undertaking as a worthy endeavor to preserve an overlooked monument to Detroit’s heyday. It also sweetens the deal of renting the 229 apartments and 117 Roost hotel rooms above, which will enjoy such amenities as a French restaurant, sake pub, and rooftop lounge. “We had to weave our desire to restore the original slate of what it was with our creative freedom to build something that makes sense,” ODA principal Eran Chen tells Fast Company. “It was clear from the get-go that if we could convince the client to restore this thing to a ’T’ and build it the way it used to be, it would be an attraction for ages to come.”

Image courtesy of Bedrock

Bedrock’s steadfast belief in architectural heritage has inspired Gilbert to spend the past decade buying up lots and gradually reshaping the city center. That formula worked at the Shinola Hotel, a joint venture with the local heritage brand that transformed the historic Woodward Building into one of Detroit’s most rarefied stays. Bedrock recently acquired the shuttered Omni Detroit Hotel’s former River Place site and is wooing Apple to fill three storefronts nearby. 

“Sure it’s expensive, but if you’re expecting a building to have long-term value, you want to create that value from day one so it will appreciate over time,” Kofi Bonner, CEO of Bedrock tells Fast Company. “What better way to make the point that Detroit is back?”

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