Check-in Time, Again

After an extensive renovation, the long-neglected Fort Shelby Hotel awaits guests once more
Fort Shelby
The 10-story Fort Shelby Hotel in 1918, shortly after it opened. In 1927, a 22-story tower designed by Albert Kahn was added. Photograph Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther library, Wayne State University

Of all the wrongheaded, misbegotten redevelopment ideas to pass through downtown Detroit in recent decades, the one that briefly flowered at the Fort Shelby Hotel in 1974 was surely one of the oddest.

The hotel had long since fallen on hard times with much of the rest of the city, falling victim to the well-documented suburban exodus. But a trio of 20-somethings, two brothers and a sister, had an idea.

And so the Fort Shelby was briefly rechristened as The Shelby, and operated as a combination hotel/apartment building catering to young adults, “a cross between Fawlty Towers and your friend’s basement, where everyone used to go to get high,” as one urban-exploration blogger described it. The Empire Room became Alice’s Restaurant; the basement Terrace Room was rebranded the Subway Disco.

It lasted only a matter of months. The hotel closed first. The apartments hung on a while longer, and the street-level Anchor Bar (a popular watering hole for journalists) prevailed until the 1990s. (The Anchor now does business around the corner on Fort Street.) But for all intents and purposes, the building — a 10-floor main structure built in 1917, with a 22- story tower designed by Albert Kahn added in 1927 — was abandoned in 1974.

So in some way, it’s a little bit of symmetry that after all those years, when the Fort Shelby reopens this month, it will do so with much the same business model — a combination hotel/apartment building catering to a specific clientele — but with a bit more common sense and business acumen behind it.

The Doubletree Guest Suites Fort Shelby Detroit, slated to open officially to the public on Dec. 15, offers something for both visitors and the locals. The all-suite hotel has superior meeting space in a setting that preserves much of its early-20th-century architecture. And for the walk-in trade, there’s a Finn & Porter restaurant, sushi bar, and a full-service bar. Upstairs in the tower, 56 luxury apartments, two of them penthouses, command views of the city and river. Developer Emmett Moten thinks it’s a can’t-lose package, even in a perilous economic climate.

“When you look at the west side of downtown, you have a 24-hour community,” he says. “The newspapers, Comerica, courts, casinos — this side of town is awake 24 hours a day. And they need a restaurant, a coffee shop. They’re dying for it.”

The apartments, he says, will help fill a need for rentals that opened up after so many downtown units went condo in recent years. With housing prices still searching for their bottom, many who want to live downtown would prefer to rent before they commit to a mortgage, Moten says. Apartment residents will have full use of hotel facilities, including the health club, and maid and room service, as well.

And the hotel, with 204 units, isn’t so big that it floods the market. Nearby are the Westin Book Cadillac and two casino hotels, so there’s plenty of competition. But the Shelby’s modern two-room suites will appeal to both business travelers and families with children, says sales and marketing director Bill Aprill. The historic character, the developers hope, will appeal to everyone.

Moten describes the renovation as a “gut rehab.” After years of standing empty, there wasn’t much of a grand interior to restore. Surviving marble floors in the lobby were restored and polished, but the emphasis has been on making a modern facility with historic influences. The rooms look like a typical upscale Doubletree property, and aside from a few details — deep windowsills, generous hallways — you’d not know you were in a historic building. Downstairs, however, is a different story. The barrel-vaulted ballroom ceiling once featured plaster relief, most of which collapsed during its vacancy. An artist came in to make sketches before demolition, and the new ceiling will feature the same design, now painted trompe l’oeil on canvas.

The street-level amenities are what most Detroiters will notice off the bat. Both the bar and the Finn & Porter restaurant will have sidewalk views, and Moten hopes they’ll attract locals. Certainly, it’s well positioned for media types, sitting as it does across Lafayette from WDIV-TV and next door to the The News and Free Press.

Finn & Porter is a Hilton brand with a surf-and-turf theme, but executive chef Bradley Durr says the chain encourages its managers to localize the menus wherever possible. Durr, a former autoworker with years of experience at such facilities as Opus One and Oakland Hills Country Club, promises a boutique-hotel approach to top-quality ingredients.

“We’re all upbeat on it,” says Moten, enthusiastic after 600 downtown workers dropped by for 5-cent coffee during a mid-fall promotion for the public. “Things are beginning to happen.”