In 2012, the city of Detroit started exploring ideas on what to do with its old fire department headquarters. Built in 1929, the five-story neoclassical building boasted serious architectural gravitas (the original built in the 1840s, ironically, had burned down) and received a lot of attention. Ultimately, the winning bid went to Aparium Hotel Group with Chicago-based Simeone Deary Design Group and local firm McIntosh Poris Associates to create the Foundation Hotel.
It being Detroit, things weren’t always easy: After the initial bid, the city went into bankruptcy, delaying the closing, and as the existing footprint couldn’t accommodate the necessary 100 guestrooms, the owners purchased the 19th-century former Pontchartrain Wine Cellars building next door, bringing new challenges to the design.
Like many others involved in the city’s revival, this project marked a homecoming of sorts. Simeone Deary principal Gina Deary grew up in Detroit. Michael Poris, principal of his namesake architecture firm, came back to the city, his hometown, in the ’90s with the intention of making a difference and has been saving buildings from demolition ever since. Michael Kitchen, vice president of acquisitions and development for Aparium and Michigan State alum, says there’s a kind of all-hands-on-deck creative community striving to make the city better. “Everyone has their arms linked. You had executive level marketing guys coming back and launching denim shops [in the hotel]. The last thing they wanted was an out-of-towner coming in. [Locals] would see through that, chew it up, and spit it out.”
In fact, the overall design concept was inspired by “coming home to Detroit.” Explains Kitchen: “There’s a forgotten romance in Detroit. It was the Paris of the Midwest. It has some of the best [Beaux-Arts and midcentury] architecture in the country. We had to embrace that.” To that end, the decision was made to keep everything they could, and then make everything else extremely modern to butt against it.
The team worked to inventory, reclaim, and repurpose interior wood trim from the building and other abandoned buildings throughout Detroit—much of it is now prominently displayed as a feature wall in guestrooms. Brick and concrete were left exposed; original white subway tile covers the walls; historic hallways haphazardly run through some of the more than 50 different room types; the lobby features screens made of burned timbers and radiators salvaged from torn down houses and businesses; and on the side of the building, a faded mural by 92-year-old local artist Charles McGee has been preserved. “Detroit is scrappy,” says Poris. “The people are scrappy. They’re tinkerers. And inventors. That’s how Motown and Ford happened here. That spirit—a big part of what’s happening in the city—is what we wanted to keep.”
To contrast the industrial look, every piece of FF&E was custom designed with a contemporary, sculptural sensibility. “The whole building is a celebration of engineering and manufacturing,” says Deary. “But instead of being rough, each piece is artistic.” Inspired by General Motors’ Damsels of Design (the first prominent all female car design team in American history), soft feminine curves and luxe velvets in color palettes based on their contributions—beautiful blue and pink hues, and stripes and plaids—abound. It’s this juxtaposition against the engineered and masculine furniture styles and details that Deary says gives the property its energy.
It’s the craftsman, creators, and makers of Detroit, however, that truly offer the property a rare vibrancy. The hotel boasts 45 collaborations, including a podcast studio with four groups currently in residency, teasers completed with local filmmakers, and the aforementioned Detroit Denim Co. that created the uniforms, to name a few. The restaurant also marks another Michigan homecoming: Michelin-starred chef Thomas Lents returned to head up the aptly named Apparatus Room (its grand space used to house fire engines). A few nights a week, his chef’s table serves as an incubator for visiting chefs, culinary school grads, or just a scrappy newcomer who wants to tinker around in the spirit of Detroit.