From the corner of Second and Alexandrine, the red sandstone building might look like another turn-of-the-century mansion, handsomely restored to prominence in a leafy neighborhood transitioning from the past to the future.
But the El Moore Lodge represents far more than the restoration of a late 19th-century building in Midtown. The reconfigured four-story structure, with its roof-top solar panels and geothermal system, stands as a thoughtful example of what contemporary urban living can look like. Its redevelopment is rooted in sustainability, environmentally and economically speaking.
As its name suggests, the El Moore is an inn, with 11 guest rooms, including four roof-top cabins built with materials rehabbed from the original structure. The El Moore is also an apartment building, with 12 private residences. It’s a housing combination meant to inspire community, inside and outside.
Guests and residents, who range in age from a toddler to senior citizens, share common space, including a first-floor “parlor,” not a lobby, where coffee, pastries and juice are served every morning, and where residents like Karen Batchelor take turns as welcome hosts.
“There’s intentional and unintentional interaction here,” says Jason Peet, El Moore manager, eyeing the cozy room from the cushioned seat of a corner bay window overlooking Alexandrine Street. “You can’t sit here without looking across the room to say hello to someone. We encourage residents to come down and have coffee in the morning and talk to the guests.”
Similarly, it’s difficult to sit in the corner seat and look out the window, without waving to passersby; or vice versa. There are no curtains hanging over the windows. Again, the open effect – to encourage community − is intentional.
Built in 1898 as an apartment building with eight upscale flats, the El Moore was one of the first multi-family structures in a vibrant neighborhood on the growing city’s northern edge. Eventually, as Detroit industrialized and more housing was needed for the influx of automotive workers, the El Moore was reconfigured into 28 apartments. The building, designed by prominent architect A.C. Varney, underwent other makeovers before being abandoned toward the end of the last century.
The El Moore was on the auction block when Sue Mosey, executive director of Midtown Detroit Inc., happened to mention the building to Tom Brennan, who had opened a successful co-working and business incubator, the Green Garage, just a few blocks away on Second Avenue.
“She asked me if I had any interest in buying a castle,” Brennan recalls. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Brennan, whose Green Garage is housed in a former Model T showroom, bought the building, most likely saving the structure from being razed. Initially, he had no plans for the El Moore, which, with its turret in the southwest corner, resembles a castle.
“The building grew on me, and I thought, ‘Maybe we could do something here,” he says. “It’s hard for me to walk by an old building that is in trouble without wanting to be part of the solution. I was mainly trying to stabilize the building and be part of a network of people trying to hold things together. The economy was down, property values were dropping and the city was struggling.”
Sustainable housing had been on Brennan’s mind for some time, but he initially envisioned something much smaller than the El Moore, perhaps a house in Woodbridge. He entertained Ann Arbor as a location as well but eventually ruled out that community. Detroit, with its abundance of recyclable building materials, changing landscape, and palpable synergy of community activism and entrepreneurial spirit, made the city the ideal location for such a project.
“What if you had a place here where people could come to visit and meet the people who live here,” he asks. “Is this a sustainable way to live?”
To succeed, the El Moore Lodge had to meet Brennan’s triple bottom line for business: Economically sustainable, healthy for the environment and good for the community. “How is what we’re doing affecting and connecting with the community,” Peet ponders.
After months of rehabbing the building, carefully sorting and piling materials that could be reused, the first residents moved in June 2015, and several months before the first guests arrived. That was intentional, enabling residents to become acquainted and build a sense of community.
Among the first residents was Batchelor, a retired attorney and Detroit native who had lived in several city neighborhoods before relocating to the suburbs. About the time she was ready to return to Detroit and downsize, she learned about the El Moore.
“It’s a little like living in a fraternity or sorority house,” Batchelor says. “Everyone looks out for everyone. We gather in the parlor and meet for breakfast like the guests do. The management encourages us to mingle with the guests. It’s been a great experience.”
Renovating the El Moore became a huge undertaking.
Peet recalls there were some 400 pigeons nesting in the empty building and holes in the roof. The El Moore had been ransacked – the antique fireplaces hauled away. In the front entrance, the marble walls had to be removed and pieced back together like a jigsaw puzzle. Beyond reusing building materials, Brennan and his wife Peggy, who is part of the team, sought to make the property as green as possible.
The environmental attributes include a geothermal system; eight 200-foot-deep wells were drilled into the ground, using the constant 55-degree temperature below to regulate the building’s heating and cooling. The roof-top solar panels create energy. A cistern in the rear of the building captures up to 5,000 gallons of water, and underneath the parking lot is a rainwater retention system.
Throughout the building, original materials have been used to construct cupboards, bookcases, bed posts and even used as decorative accents – porcelain door knobs on bed posts and St. Benedict medals above doors and windows.
“It’s a bridge between old and new,” Peet says. “(It) honors the building’s history as best you can. It honors the past 100 years but also looks forward to its next 100 years. It’s a marriage between the two — the true answer lies in between.”
One of the goals of the El Moore project was to create public open space, and a vacant lot next door, formerly the site of a gas station, has been cleaned up and landscaped. Called El Moore Green, the tract will eventually host outdoor events and be open to the public.
“The neighborhood needed a high quality outdoor space,” Peet says. “There are good dog parks in the neighborhood, but there aren’t any good people parks.”
Some two years after its opening, the El Moore Lodge has surpassed Brennan’s expectations. He’s tickled that out-of-town visitors and residents mingle, and locals alike have found the inn a place to celebrate special occasions.
Guests like Sue Ellen Steffens, a regional manager for Bright Horizons Family Solutions, a daycare operator, have become regulars. It’s not uncommon for Steffans to bring a crockpot from her Hudson, Ohio home and cook soup or chicken pot pie for her Detroit friends.
“Because I’ve spent so much time at the El Moore, I consider Detroit my neighborhood. I know the stores. I know the restaurants. I walk everywhere in the neighborhood. It feels safe,” Steffens says. “I’ve been able to form relationships with the people there. There’s an incredible camaraderie there. I think that’s why I keep going back.”
Such sentiments please Brennan and give him hope for the city’s progression.
“The future of Detroit can be built from what we have here,” he says. “This goes way beyond what I had ever thought about. The big thing is the action that is happening in and around the El Moore. It’s the gift of Detroit’s past and the future and we’re enabling people to celebrate here in the middle of what’s happening. It’s really a gift to me from the El Moore.”