John VarvatosDetroit, MI
Constructed in 1891, the Wright-Kay building located at the corner of Woodward and John R has the distinction of being one of the first high-rises and oldest remaining buildings in downtown Detroit. Designed by Gordon W. Lloyd for the F. J. Schwankovsky Company, a retailer of musical instruments, the building boasts a cast iron frame, which has contributed to its longevity. Over the years, the retail space of the building has been home to the Wright-Kay jewelry company and most recently a nightclub. The building was purchased by Rock Ventures Group in 2011 and was scheduled for renovation once John Varvatos announced plans to return to his hometown of Detroit.
Sachse Construction, with direction from architect Kraemer Design Group, completely refurbished the building’s mechanicals and restored the exterior façade, first floor, mezzanine and basement for the new John Varvatos retail store. The renovation took place from November 2014 through early March 2015. Major challenges included a tight time schedule, maintaining historical elements, re-creating original architectural details, making new elements blend with the old, working around other tenants of the building and working through winter weather.
Project Challenges and Solutions:
Sachse Construction was given little more than four months to complete a total restoration and renovation of the exterior and interior mezzanine, first floor and basement in time for the opening of the John Varvatos retail store. The space had been vacant for half a decade and was badly damaged from improperly made renovations and general neglect by previous tenants.
To overcome time constraints, Sachse worked closely with the City of Detroit to anticipate proper work permits and close the sidewalk for added construction room. Sachse also had numerous trades working on different projects within the building simultaneously. This required excellent coordination and planning throughout the project. As an example, new wood flooring was laid at the same time rotten flooring was removed.
Maintaining and Replicating Historical Elements:
Decades of wear and tear had taken its toll on many of the design elements original to the 1891 building. Despite being worn, much of the original storefront and interior decoration was still intact. The original front façade had been sealed behind boxy, bland granite from the 1950’s. At that time, the granite installers had chipped away at some of the original decorative brownstone and had chopped off the bases of the original cast iron columns to create a flat surface to affix the granite. The silver lining of this ‘50s facelift is that the granite actually protected the remaining original façade during the years the building was left in disrepair.
Inside the building was a continuation of bad renovations over the years. Column wraps had been removed in some areas to “modernize” the building in the 1950s or ‘60s. Luckily the original staircases and much of the original mezzanine railing were in place. While an area of original wood flooring had rotted due to a water leak, sections not affected were preserved.
When the current renovation began, materials from past renovations were carefully removed and original details kept in place. To address the damage to the original historic details, a variety of materials were explored to simulate the appearance.
Plaster was the material of choice in returning the building to its original appearance. Sachse recreated the original exterior brownstone ornamentation, damaged column bases, column capitals, interior column casings, crown moldings and ceiling decoration with plaster. Molds were taken from preserved elements and used to recreate replacements for missing pieces. The exterior column bases were wrapped with steel plating to protect them from the elements.
Inside the original railings were used to recreate replacements for missing sections and flooring was carefully blended into the salvaged wood floor with boards of the same style.
Blending New with the Old:
Because the Wright-Kay building was over 120 years old, many of its mechanical systems had exceeded their useful lifespans. Sachse replaced outdated HVAC, electrical and plumbing with modern materials, which posed a special challenge of working around building elements being preserved.
For the electrical system, Sachse temporarily removed column casings to run electrical wires through the building’s ceiling and walls. This allowed original ceiling plasterwork to be preserved. Light fixtures were selected to compliment the original details and LED lighting was used for energy efficiency.
HVAC and plumbing also presented preservation challenges. Sachse routed HVAC systems and plumbing between floor joists to maintain headroom in the mezzanine and basement. Existing systems that service the upper floors of the building had to be worked around as well.
In the former elevator shaft, Sachse created a tailor room for patrons of the Varvatos store. A vintage door for the tailor room was purchased from a local Detroit resale shop. The basement was also partitioned off to create storage space for the new retail store and a secondary set of stairs to the basement were built to create separation from other tenants’ storage room.
To comply with building codes that did not exist when the building was originally constructed, Sachse designed and built covers for fire department connection piping and built knee walls to disguise the modern additions.
With the unique mezzanine layout offering a theatre-like view of the main floor area, John Varvatos commissioned building a stage for after-hours music performances. The stage was constructed to be unobtrusive to the overall building design but is fitted with advanced electrical and wiring equipment for performers. By day the stage doubles as a display area and appears original to the space.