David Whitney Building
Completed in 1915, the David Whitney Building was named after wealthy lumber tycoon David Whitney, Jr. It was designed in a Neo-Renaissance style by the architectural firm of Daniel H. Burnham, known as “the father of the skyscraper.” The building cost $1 million to complete and is 18 stories high. It features an ornate exterior and a beautiful four-story atrium with skylight. Originally, it housed high-end shops and medical offices buildings. As tenants gradually moved out with Detroit’s decline, the building was left vacant for years. A $92 million award-winning restoration project was completed in 2014, and the building now serves as a hotel and apartment space.
Backstory and Context
In 1915, David C. Whitney hired the firm of legendary architect Daniel H. Burnham to design a skyscraper in place of his father’s Grand Circus Building. Burnham, considered “the father of the skyscraper,” was the architect behind the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington.3 The David Whitney Building is one of only three buildings left in Detroit by Burnham, the others being the Ford Building and the Dime Building. It was completed for $1 million, or about $22.7 million today.4
At 18 stories high, the Neo-Renaissance structure originally had a steel frame with a decorative terra cotta, brick, and stone exterior. The building’s most notable feature was its 3,000-square-foot inner atrium lobby, making up about 20% of the entire lot.5 The lobby rose up four floors, or 71 feet from ground level, with a skylight meant to provide maximum natural sunlight to shoppers below. The interior was faced with white tile, terra cotta, marble, and gold leafing. The first four floors of the building were home to high-class stores, while the upper floors were reserved as office space, largely rented out by medical offices.5, 6
The David Whitney Building became one of Detroit’s most iconic skyscrapers and a historical centerpiece around Grand Circus Park. However, in 1959, the exterior of the building was “modernized,” and the decorative cornices, parapets, and columnns were removed. The David Whitney Building was owned by the Whitney family until 1965; at the time, it was still 90% occupied by over 300 doctors and dentists.4 Over the next few decades, it suffered the same fate as many of Detroit’s other business buildings though; with a declining city population, commercial tenants decreased as well. By the 1990s, the vast skyscraper was left completely vacant. Plans for a hotel fell through in 2000, but were revived again in 2011. The building was sold for $3.3 million to the Whitney Partners, with the help of a $1 million loan from the city’s Downtown Development Authority.4 $92 million was put into restoration costs, bringing the exterior back to its original classical design, and converting the building into an Aloft hotel and apartments.6 The restoration earned the 2015 Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation.7