Kings of a Castle

Two brothers renovate downtown’s historic turreted building dedicated to Civil War vets
An undated postcard of the castle-like Grand Army of the Republic Building, adorned with sandstone walls and crenellated towers. // Images courtesy of Richard Bak

Tom Carleton says as he gingerly sidesteps small mounds of broken lathe and plaster in the semi-darkness. He points to what’s left of the ceiling. “The joists are old-growth spruce,” he says. “That’s right where you want to be in terms of strength.”

This midweek morning, Tom and his brother Dave are right where they want to be: literally on the ground floor of bringing back to life one of the most unique historic properties in Detroit. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Building, a triangular structure that conforms to a wedge-shaped lot on West Grand River at the intersection of Cass and Adams, features ponderous sandstone walls and turrets with a prizefighter’s gum line. The crenellated towers, in particular, give the “The GAR” its castle look. “This is just such a cool building,” Dave says. “Sometimes it’s hard to believe we now own it.”

For 20 years, the brothers have been quietly and methodically going about their business downtown, witnessing — and contributing to — the growth of Woodward’s creative corridor. In 1992, they bought the six-story Good Housekeeping building at 1250 Library, renovating the dilapidated space into some of the area’s first residential lofts. At the same time, they built a business. Today, their media-production company, Mindfield USA, has 15 full-time employees and a solid client list that includes several automakers and professional sports teams. Last November, they and Mindfield’s other principal partner, Sean Avery, bought The GAR from the City of Detroit. They paid $220,500 and expect to spend another $2 to $3 million renovating it. Despite the inevitable intrusion of scrappers, taggers, urban spelunkers, and pigeons over time, The GAR has fared better than might be expected. “It’s weathered well,” says Robb McKay, an architect with the State Historic Preservation Office in Lansing. “Compared to many other properties in Detroit, it’s practically in move-in condition.”

Old is nothing new to the Carletons. The 1250 Library Building, which stands across from the Skillman Branch of the Detroit Public Library, originally was a three-story structure built in 1907 for music publisher Jerome H. Remick. Three floors were added as it in turn became home to Hudson’s toy and music stores, a rug company, and the Good Housekeeping appliance shop. It was vacant and crumbling when Dave, an Emerson College journalism grad back from a radio gig in California, asked his older brother to help him find a loft downtown. Few existed, and they sensed an opportunity.

The two media freelancers (their father, Ladd, was a longtime WXYZ-TV reporter and cameraman) envisioned combining working and living space. Tom, who studied broadcasting and cinematic arts at Central Michigan University, sold his house in Farmington and the brothers borrowed money from their grandmother to finance their venture. They admit they were too dumb to know how dumb they were. Just overhauling the elevators cost $140,000, which was $20,000 more than they paid for the building. The budding entrepreneurs lived in the structure for several years, doing much of the grunt work themselves. A six-figure loan from the Downtown Development Authority, tax credits and abatements, and financial prudence helped keep renovations on track and their start-up creative studio slowly growing. “We’ve always been careful,” Dave says. “We don’t drive goofy cars or have some crazy yacht.” That’s not to say they haven’t enjoyed themselves. “We threw some amazing parties,” he recalls. “We’d have a couple hundred people, caterers, a jazz band. We had about 20 parties that were just off the hook.”

Today, 1250 Library has five residential lofts leasing for up to $2,000 a month. (Tom and Dave, both married, now live in Windsor and Bloomfield Hills, respectively.) The main floor houses Vicente’s, a café that offers a blend of verity and eclecticism the Carletons have always appreciated: authentic Cuban cuisine, bright Art Deco furnishings, salsa dancing, a giant fish tank, and a continuous loop of I Love Lucy episodes playing on a big-screen TV. Mindfield’s own space, where employees tap away at keyboards, creating motion graphics and other new-media projects, is an expression of hip functionality. Wood surfaces were recycled from the building’s water tower, a salvaged factory cart serves as a coffee table, and a century-old roof turbine takes up several square feet of floor space — not because it’s needed, but because the giant rusting relic is just cool to look at.

Detroit’s GAR members assemble for a photograph, circa 1900, which was when the GAR Building downtown opened its doors. Left: This GAR medal was worn by all members.

It’s a five-minute stroll from Mindfield’s offices to its future headquarters. Along the way, Tom, 50, and Dave, 45, discuss their inherited appreciation of history. Their recently deceased father was an ardent Civil War buff, with some of the artifacts he collected slated for display at The GAR. “Our dad made us eat hardtack once,” Tom says, referring to the jaw-breaking biscuit that was a dietary staple during the war. Two of the Carletons’ great-great-grandfathers served in the Union army. One stopped a cannon ball with his head at Fredericksburg and lies buried in a mass grave. The other survived the fighting and was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, the largest and best known of the various military fraternal associations organized after the war.

At its peak, the GAR claimed 490,000-plus members. Thousands of Detroiters, including leading citizens such as Mayor Hazen Pingree and pharmacist James Vernor (of ginger-ale fame), were proud badge-wearing members. Detroit was chosen to host the organization’s national encampment in its silver anniversary year of 1891, a scintillating, high-profile event that kindled enthusiasm for a single clubhouse to consolidate the activities of the city’s several GAR posts. It took awhile, but on July 4, 1899, the cornerstone was laid. The massive-looking building, designed in the Romanesque style by local architect Julius Hess, opened the following year. At 20,700 square feet, it was the largest GAR hall built in Michigan. The $44,000 cost of construction was funded by $6,000 in donations from GAR members and $38,000 from the city. The vets were given a free 30-year lease.

The GAR was built on land donated to the city by one of its most revered figures, soldier and politician Lewis Cass. The terms of Cass’ will stipulated that the site was to always be used as a “market place,” so in order to meet that condition, the veterans operated several businesses on the ground floor, including a tire store and a bank. The profits were used to help maintain the building. For decades, Detroit’s “boys in blue” gathered to play cards, enjoy a drink, and swap stories at fireside while the city grew up around them. By 1934, their ranks had thinned to a handful of vets in various stages of decrepitude. “They aren’t fit to conduct business,” an 87-year-old ex-cavalryman said of his comrades, “and except for a little sentiment the old soldiers don’t care whether the building is saved or not.” Detroit’s last Civil War veteran, 100-year-old John Haines, died in 1942. By then, the city had already opened a welfare office inside The GAR. After Haines’ passing, the city leased the building to its recreation department and renamed it the GAR Recreation Center.

For the next 40 years, until Mayor Coleman A. Young ordered it closed as a cost-cutting move in 1982, the place where old soldiers had once relived the patriotic gore of distant battles, became home to checkers tournaments, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and dances for over-40 singles. In 1986, the boarded-up building was put on the National Register of Historic Places, a distinction that qualifies a building for certain tax credits but doesn’t guarantee its survival. In the case of The GAR, an obscure state law and the veterans’ obstinate descendants were more effective in saving the derelict landmark. The Michigan Monumental Buildings Act of 1889 prevents local governments from unilaterally selling structures built jointly with the GAR. The act states that such buildings “shall be forever dedicated to the memory of the Union soldiers.” Two veterans organizations, the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, inherited the GAR’s interests in the building. The groups stuck to their legal guns as Detroit’s planning department explored various options. Because of the groups’ efforts, a 1996 sale to Mike Ilitch fell apart and an attempt several years later to annul the restrictive Monumental Buildings Act was blunted. Meanwhile, the Daughters’ own ambitious plans to restore The GAR went nowhere for lack of capital.

In 2006, the city issued a request for proposals. It studied eight redevelopment plans, including one by Mindfield. The city chose Olympia Development, the real-estate arm of Ilitch’s varied holdings, which planned to renovate the building into offices for its staff. However, Olympia balked at the stipulation that a small part of the building be set aside as a memorial. In 2008, the city rescinded the sale and issued a new RFP. This time, Mindfield’s was the only submission. As part of the process, the Carletons met with representatives of the Daughters and Sons. The parties have since agreed to form a nonprofit entity to caretake the Union soldiers’ memories in a still-to-be-determined fashion that will display Mindfield’s creative capabilities.

On Nov. 1, 2011, the sale was approved. A short while later, to the satisfaction of preservationists, veterans groups, and curious passersby who often wondered about “the castle” at 1942 W. Grand River, the plywood sheets covering The GAR’s upper windows were peeled off. Sunlight poured into the grubby corners for the first time in a generation.

“This place was basically just a giant pigeon coop for 30 years,” Dave says as he and his brother conduct a tour of the building. In some places, the guano was several inches thick. The attic was particularly disgusting, with the abatement crew having to pull up the floorboards to clean out the nests. By early April, workers had finished hauling away 150 barrels of asbestos, crud, trash, and pigeon poop. About this time, the Carletons learned they had been approved for significant funding under the Obsolete Property Rehabilitation Act (OPRA), a Michigan statute that provides assistance for the restoration of deteriorated properties in designated areas. With the environmental cleanup and the OPRA petition behind them, renovation on The GAR could begin in earnest.

On the ground floor, plywood protects the mosaic tile floor in the main (Grand River) entry. Retail will operate on the main level, helping to satisfy the “market place” provision. The Carletons envision a 50-seat restaurant with an original fireplace, now hidden behind cupboards, as an obvious focal point. “It’ll be consistent with the character of the building,” Dave promises. “It’s not going to be a sushi bar.”

A wide stairway winds from floor to floor; the steps and risers are mostly intact and in good condition, as are the oak handrails and balusters. Rooms on each level are in the same stage of manageable decay: blistering walls, buckling floors, gaping ceilings, and dangling wires. Amid all this mess, the building has offered historical surprises. Beneath a platform on the second floor, which at some point had been converted into a dance studio, was a 4-foot marble tablet with several names chiseled on it. It was dated 1900 and honored the Detroit veterans who had been instrumental in seeing the dream of The GAR become a reality. Another discovery was the veterans’ homemade storage lockers, partially constructed of whiskey crates and cigar boxes.

The lead carpenter is Randy Klepinger, who has been doing restorative work in Boston-Edison and other historic districts for 35 years. Although Klepinger has had to replace many joists damaged by leaks in the turrets, the interior doors and woodwork are in good shape. So are most of the 130 or so windows. “We’re keeping the single-pane glass in their original [pine] frames,” Dave says. “Studies show that about 85 percent of heat loss occurs in leakage around the window, not through the glass, so that’ll be taken care of as the windows are restored.” Klepinger says the original galvanized-steel weatherstripping will be replaced with a composite material. That, combined with interior and exterior caulking, should keep energy bills manageable.

The general contractor is Detroit-based Integrity Building Group. John Biggar, whose experience in adaptive reuse includes rehabbing the circa-1905 Crescent Brass & Pin factory on Trumbull into what is now the Research Lofts, is the architect. Biggar, who also was the architect on the Carletons’ lofts project, says one of the most challenging aspects of The GAR’s restoration will be maintaining its historic integrity while introducing modern mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems. This includes installing an elevator. “They’ll have no problem,” the state’s McKay says. “The building has good spaces.” However, there are problems that still need to be resolved. Namely: What is the “back” to a building that faces three streets and has no alley? “This is going to be tricky,” McKay says. “Normally, you put the dumpster in the back. And there are utility issues. Where do you put the gas and electric meters?”

Once renovation is complete, the second and third floors, a total of roughly 10,000 square feet, will be leased. Ideal tenants would be established media boutiques that could provide some creative synergy with Mindfield. “The luxury of a small building is that we can be selective,” Dave says. “You can build a personality with a building. We don’t know any other way of doing it.” While the multi-windowed turret rooms with their sweeping views and unorthodox dimensions might seem natural candidates for fun, if cramped, office space, they’re generally considered “dead space,” to be filled with mechanicals to heat and cool the building. The top-level turret rooms have fold-down ladders that provide access to the roof. The current asphalt shingles will be replaced, possibly with slate tile.

Structurally, the building has four floors, but the 432-square-foot theater-style balcony overhanging part of the top-floor auditorium has been classified a fifth floor by city inspectors. Mindfield will have its offices in this split-level space, Tom says. He surveys the expansive area, with its corner fireplace and oversized push-out windows, with an anticipatory smile. On a far wall, a trespasser has spray-painted “smoke big bags of weed & kill cops” in giant red letters. That’s a bit off-message for the Carletons, whose official corporate mantra is: “Have fun. Make no enemies. Have fun.” Several months into the project, they’re still having fun, and aside from the dispossessed pigeons, creating no enemies.

The target date to open the doors at The GAR is Veterans Day, 2013. Relics, re-enactors, and a whiz-bang multimedia experience are promised. “This probably isn’t the most financially rewarding thing we could’ve done,” Dave admits on the walk back to 1250 Library. “But we’ll have the satisfaction of having restored a historical gem.”

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