Saving Face

Some gutted buildings are still able to put on a brave front
Fine Arts Building // Photograph by Randy Wilcox,

Façadism, which refers to the act of surgically preserving a building’s street-facing exterior wall during demolition, sounds as though it could be a mental illness right out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But sometimes, it can be the sanest option when attempting to strike a balance between developers and historic preservationists.

“In terms of architectural detail, whenever a façade is salvageable, I guess it’s a good thing,” says Karen Nagher, director of Preservation Wayne. “But I wouldn’t want it to get out of hand.”

Carnegie Library // Photograph by Jim Garrett

In recent years, examples of façadism (sometimes called façadectomies) have been popping up around metro Detroit. Visitors to downtown’s Grand Circus Park can behold an intricate web of steel scaffolding supporting what’s left of the Fine Arts Building on Adams. Built in 1905, the Louis Kamper-designed structure functioned as the lobby for the Adams Theatre, a once-respected movie house that was showing snuff films by the 1980s. The theater closed after a string of violent shootings late in the decade, and both buildings fell into disrepair while several redevelopment plans failed to get off the ground. “The building was not well taken care of,” Nagher says. “And honestly, it probably could not be saved.”

Last year, the Detroit Downtown Development Authority granted the property’s owner, Olympia Development, $2.5 million to raze a number of its downtown structures, including the Fine Arts and the Adams. The façade of the Fine Arts was preserved, without any future plans in place.

“We weren’t happy about that,” says Nancy Finegood, director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. “I think it’s frightening that there’s no plan.” Today, the fragile façade stands guarding an empty lot, propped up like a movie-set backdrop.
Farther north, in a residential neighborhood near downtown Birmingham, the former Barnum School was razed to make way for Barnum Park.

The building’s entrance was preserved as a sort of gate — with the Barnum School inscription still at its crest — along with its towering smokestack. A group of preservationists developed plans to save more of the 98-year-old structure, but the effort stalled when organizers couldn’t raise enough funds before the City Commission’s deadline. “From a preservation standpoint, nobody was thrilled about [Barnum Park],” Nagher says. “But at least they did something.”

In Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan integrated the façade of the former Carnegie Library into a new dormitory and learning complex, giving the state-of-the-art facility a historic patina.

“We have to compromise,” Finegood says. “Sometimes not every building can stand. But it’s the entire building that’s important, not just the skin.”


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