Razing the Roof
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The proposed district includes three buildings already on the National Register of Historic Places: the Verona Apartments on Ferry and Cass, built between 1894-96; the Joy House, built in 1897 at Cass and Kirby as a private residence for railroad magnate James Joy; and the Belcrest Apartments, erected in 1926 as a luxury residential hotel and designed by Detroit architect Charles Agree, who’s also responsible for the Whittier Towers and Vanity Ballroom on the city’s east side. Of these, only the Verona is imperiled, along with two apartment buildings on Cass and a small restaurant on Palmer, all of which CVC owns.
But the federal designation “has no teeth in terms of demolition, unless [the building’s occupants] are receiving federal funds,” Mosey says. “That’s why we’re going for the local designation, because the demolition plans have to be reviewed first.”
The Romanesque-style Verona originally had 16 large units, but was later subdivided into 26 apartments. From 1965-67, one of the two top-floor apartments was home to then-fledgling folksinger Joni Mitchell, and her husband, Chuck.
Schaefer says he already spent $600,000 rehabbing the Verona, but he says that building, along with several others he owns, are too dated and dilapidated to be renovated. Even the attraction of tax credits isn’t enough of a lure, he says.
“We did the economic analysis, and the numbers just don’t work out,” he says. “There’s tremendous energy loss, safety issues, and so on. If you’re going to redo those buildings, you’ve got to completely strip them. Then, there’s the problem of parking.”
But one neighborhood newcomer is undeterred by tackling such problems. At press time, Greg Cheesewright, president of Bingham Farms-based Computech Corp., was preparing to move his software company into the renovated James Joy House by late April. He bought the yellow-brick Italian Renaissance building last year “for just over $100,000” from the Detroit Historical Museums. It was built in 1897 for about $18,000. Cheesewright also has sunk a good deal of money into rehabbing the house.
“We had to gut the whole thing — electrical, HVAC, almost everything,” he says. “We put on a new roof, we put in 59 new windows, but we’re trying to keep the architectural integrity intact on the exterior.”
Cheesewright thinks his investment in the neighborhood is worth it.
“We have to retain the historical value of Detroit by renovating, not watching buildings deteriorate.” he says. “It’s no good sitting back and bitching about how the city is falling apart. We’re doing something about it. And we like the fact that we’re so close to Wayne State, TechTown, and the cultural life of the city. This is a very vibrant place to be.”