GM Renaissance Center Celebrates 35 Years

Rising to the Occasion: On its 35th anniversary, the renovated RenCen is finally standing tall as the city’s centerpiece

In L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, visitors to the Emerald City don green-tinted eyeglasses, which frame the metropolis in a green glow. Without the glasses, though, the city was no more emerald than any other.

Henry Ford II was also seeing green when he pitched his plan for the Renaissance Center to the Detroit City Council in 1971. Ford and the other magnates who comprised the group Detroit Renaissance hoped the “city within a city” would revitalize Detroit’s economy and promote development.

On April 15, 1977, the formal dedication for the gleaming cluster of four 39-floor office towers and a 73-story hotel was held. (Two additional towers opened four years later.) While land values surrounding the Emerald-City like complex rose, spurring development of the riverfront and surrounding area, RenCen ownership struggled with financial troubles, losing $9 million in the first quarter of 1980 alone. Critics pointed to flaws, including the barricade-like two-story concrete berms at the Jefferson entrance that housed the RenCen’s heating-and-cooling elements. Visitors could drive to the RenCen from either the Lodge Freeway or I-375, park in the massive on-site garage, walk into the building via pedestrian bridges, and never set foot on city streets. Ford’s green-tinted vision for the city seemingly lost its glow, as many of the RenCen’s original high-end retailers subsequently moved to greener pastures. The glasses had come off.

Dealing with the rather isolated site that was hemmed in on all sides — 13 lanes of Jefferson, the river, a railroad yard, Ford Auditorium (recently demolished), and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel access — proved to be a major challenge, says John Portman, the RenCen’s Atlanta-based architect.

“The intention was for the project to be connected directly to the city with bridges across Jefferson Avenue (similar to those in Italian cities) with retail and other functions lining both sides [so that it] became an extension to the city streetscape,” the 87-year-old Portman recently said via email. “As a result of the worsening Detroit economy … the critical bridges, the residential, and the cultural components were never built, so the project was not connected to the city and it never reached the critical mass required to accomplish the goal for which it was originally conceived.”

In 1996, General Motors bought the Center and announced major renovation plans — the removal of the berms at the top of the list. Other changes to what became GM World Headquarters, such as the five-story Wintergarden and a glass entry, opened the skyscraper’s face to downtown.

Now, 35 years since its formal dedication, the RenCen is nearly full for the first time in its history. “I’m getting an average of three phone calls a day from people hoping to open retail here,” says Dave Long, senior associate at CBRE, which became the property’s manager last fall.

Has Ford’s vision for revitalization finally come to fruition at the hands of GM? Or has downtown’s recent resurgence, led largely by another business titan, Quicken CEO Dan Gilbert, benefited the complex? Whatever the answer, the newly illuminated GM RenCen has become synonymous with Detroit, a photo-op image for the country as seen from the Goodyear Blimp and an anchor for the RiverWalk and summer activities along the international border.

Despite the major alterations, Portman says he remains proud that, after 35 years, his design, “has become an icon for the City of Detroit.”