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A hotel made by, of, and for Detroit

It’s dusk and the lights twinkling over the bar look like fireflies flitting about in a firehouse. What was once the Detroit Fire Department headquarters is now the recently opened Detroit Foundation Hotel, the lively bar sitting where fire engines once rested between calls.

Earlier in the day I meet up with Amber Rose Powers, Director of Lifestyle and Programming for the Detroit Foundation Hotel, to talk about how the hotel aspires to be more than just a hotel in Detroit, but a hotel of Detroit. We grab freshly brewed iced teas from the bartender and head across the lobby to the Foundation Studio, where we kick off our shoes because this is the kind of place you can and curl up on the tufted velvet sofa to talk about this unique boutique hotel sitting at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Larned Street, in the shadow of Cobo Center.

“Of course we want to be a place of comfort and familiarity for intrepid travelers,” says Amber, who sums up the idea with the term “trans-local hospitality.”

That drives a vision that goes beyond the traditional restaurant or gathering place, she explains:

“A place for a great meal, sure, but also to gather colleagues around our work table for a meeting, cozy up in one of our lounging areas to get lost in a book, or just spread out with a laptop and get some work done.”

After the interview, roaming the bar, we bump into chef Brad Greenhill and Courtney Henriette, just a month from re-opening their restaurant Takoi, which suffered an arson fire in December 2016.

“We’ve been having meetings and getting work done here all day, and now we’re back for dinner.”

The name, Detroit Foundation Hotel, is a nod to the brick and terracotta structure that has been standing on a solid foundation since 1929. It is a sturdy and commanding building, “much like the city itself, it is strong and proud, and not going anywhere,” says Michael Kitchen, Vice President of Acquisitions and Development for Aparium Hotel Group. The hotel’s owners felt it was important to honor the Detroit skyline and the heart and soul of the building.

As we tour the hotel, Amber enumerates some of the materials that have been restored.

“We salvaged much of the original structure, paying respect to its previous tenant, the Detroit Fire Department,” she says.

The glazed bricks throughout the Apparatus Room restaurant, named for the area that formerly housed the firemen’s gear, are original, as are the red fire doors, much of the metalwork, marble trim, terrazzo flooring and the stunning mahogany paneling in the former commissioner’s office, which is now the luxurious Commissioner’s Suite.

Using the city’s rich history as their muse, the guest rooms are beautifully appointed and remind guests why Detroit is called the Motor City. The headboards in each guest room are covered in a car paint finish and on the wall behind them is a colorful, floor-to-ceiling stripe, a reference to Fordite or Detroit agate—cut and polished automobile paint that has pooled and hardened on the paint room floor when cars were spray-painted and heat-cured in the factories here decades ago. Because Detroit has always been a city of makers, local talent created much of the guest room furniture and accessories.

The rooms are stocked with warm, Michigan-made woolen blankets, and the private bars are stuffed with Germack nuts,
Our/Detroit vodka, special truffles from Bon Bon Bon and more luscious Detroit-made treats along with a growler from Kickstand Brewery that can be filled at the bar with the hotel’s signature Commissioner XPA.

The retail area in the lobby offers jewelry from Rebel Nell, clothing from 1701 Bespoke and Detroit Denim, accessories from Detroit Is The New Black and candles from Detroit Rose.

 The collection of locally made goods is ever-evolving.

“We want all of our visitors to get a taste of Detroit, and leave wanting more,” Amber says.

Which is why the Detroit Foundation Hotel has four Detroit Bikes the Slow Roll model on the property.

“We want people to get a glimpse of what treasures the city has to offer and then go out and explore Midtown, Downtown, Corktown, and Eastern Market to find more of what they experienced in the hotel,” says Amber.

Matt Eaton, from Red Bull House of Art near Eastern Market, curated the extensive collection of local artists on exhibit throughout the hotel, much of it created exclusively for the building. No space goes untouched, including the former fire hose shaft that now houses an incredible glass installation by local artist and College for Creative Studies instructor Kim Harty.

 

In the hotel’s boardroom is a mural by Dino Valdez that is a homage to Charles McGee’s colorful, geometric mural that has been on the Shelby Street side of the building since 1974.

The artists are often found in the hotel showing their works of art.

“We want them to feel like this is their space,” Amber says.

Case in point, Jordan Zielke, owner of Golden Sign Co. recently worked with Charles McGee on one of his new murals on a building just around the corner from McGee’s earlier work on the hotel. Jordan also did the beautiful 23-karat gold lettering on the windows of the Detroit Foundation Hotel, but his connection to the hotel doesn’t end there. Jordan’s grandfather was the Chief Fire Inspector working from this very building in the 1960s . . . when 23-karat gold lettering was commonly used on the fire engines.

The Foundation Studio is a cozy spot that is both nostalgic – with furniture that reminds me of my parent’s 1970s townhouse – and incredibly modern. There is a podcast studio in the middle of the room.

There are also the things that dance right on the line of what’s-old-is-new: on a retro sideboard are a turntable and speakers, a gift from Shinola, as well as a growing collection of vinyls. Also in the room is a beautiful Wallace Detroit electric guitar, made from wood reclaimed from the building.

Amber hopes to get an amp for it soon so that, “musicians can just come in for a jam session.”

If musicians are surprised at such an open-invitation to use the space in that way, Amber wants them to understand it’s completely consistent with the vision of the Detroit Foundation Hotel.

“It’s meant to be used, just like everything in this space. We want people to embrace us. Be creative. Find ways to engage each other. Start a conversation. Gather.”

She’s talking about the hotel, but she could easily be talking about the city.

In the next year several more boutique hotels are scheduled to open and Amber says they are truly excited about that.

“Our commitment is to Detroit and all the incredible, hard-working people that have spent decades here, toiling to make this a better place. There is no room for competition – we are all about community and collaboration. When this great city wins, we all win.”