Detroit RenCen Turns 40 and still dominates skyline

RenCen update. It’s hard to believe Detroit’s most recognizable landmark, an imposing complex of seven interconnected soaring glass and steel towers, has dominated the city’s skyline for forty years. On April 15, 1977, amid much fanfare, a formal dedication was held to commemorate the opening of the seventy-three-story, 727-foot-tall luxury hotel and four surrounding thirty-nine-story towers. Two additional twenty-one-story office towers opened in 1981.


At the time of dedication, the Detroit Plaza Hotel, now a Marriott property, was the tallest all-hotel skyscraper in the world, a distinction it held on to for nine years until a taller hotel opened in Singapore. It remained the tallest all-hotel skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere until 2014 when another taller Marriott hotel opened in New York.


The vision for the Renaissance Center came about in 1970 when then Ford Motor Company chairman Henry Ford II and other business leaders joined forces to encourage redevelopment in the city. They believed an impressive, large-scale project such as this could breathe new life into the city’s dying downtown and jumpstart the local economy. Shortly after the project was announced, a naming contest was held. Renaissance Center, or RenCen as we like to call it,  was selected from among over 140,000 entries.


City officials embraced the plan, which had private investors such as Ford Motor Company, General Motors and twenty-nine other businesses with ties to the automotive industry and southeast Michigan economy underwriting the estimated $500 million price tag. Several sources claim this was the largest private investment group assembled for an American urban real estate venture. Construction began on May 22, 1973, on thirty-three acres of riverfront property.


John Portman, who is credited for revitalizing Atlanta, Georgia, with his Peachtree Center design, was selected as the architect. He designed the Renaissance Center as a modern rosette rising from a square podium. According to a promotional video circulated by the Renaissance Center Partnership in the 1970s, the 350,000-square-foot podium was designed to house a shopping center.


Other attributes included open soaring spaces with several visible levels incorporating color, light, texture and sound “to touch and delight our senses.” The six-story hotel lobby encompassed an acre featuring five levels of suspended pedestrian walkways crossing through it and a reflecting pool with a revolving cocktail island at its center. A 360-degree revolving restaurant crowned the hotel, offering a fresh perspective of the city each minute from seven hundred feet above.


Portman’s design reflected his vision at the time of creating secure internal spaces and the concept of a city within a city, both of which would later be criticized as design flaws. While the complex initially generated excitement, drawing business tenants, high-end retailers and visitors, it wasn’t long before this shimmering beauty lost its luster. The concrete interior was viewed as harsh and stark, and the interconnected towers were difficult to navigate. The complex appeared isolated from the rest of downtown, and the fortress-like berms positioned on Jefferson Avenue that housed the mechanicals made the building even more unwelcoming. The addition of a People Mover station did little to attract people, as there were few businesses left to pique their interest. Competition from new suburban office complexes resulted in an exodus of business tenants.


The Renaissance Center’s future brightened in May 1996 when General Motors purchased it for use as its global headquarters. Multiple sources indicate the undisclosed purchase price was less than $100 million, a fraction of what it cost to build. Over the next eight years, GM would spend $500 million on renovations, turning the Renaissance Center into the jewel it is today.


Nearly three hundred etched-glass panels from Japan weighing four hundred pounds each were installed to create a glass circulation ring that makes navigating the center tower easier and quicker. A former parking lot, swimming pool and fitness center were transformed into a fifty-thousand-square-foot, five-story atrium called the Wintergarden, which provides public access to the Detroit River. GM put out the welcome mat at the front entrance by tearing down the foreboding berms and installing a front plaza and glass atrium on Jefferson that also serves as a vehicle display.


Rather than detract from the original architecture, the changes GM made enhance the complex and make it much more inviting—something the original design sorely lacked. In January 2016, General Motors announced that the GMRenCen, its official name, will undergo another extensive 120,000-square-foot renovation.


Perhaps the 5.5-million-square-foot RenCen, which is so large it even has its own zip code, was built ahead of its time—long before the other pieces of Detroit’s renaissance would fall into place. Luckily, the visionaries who conceived of this grand project dreamed large and persevered. They weren’t concerned with Detroit’s past but, rather, with its potential and invested multimillions of dollars in what they believed would be the architectural achievement of the decade and the catalyst for the city’s revival.


The glimmering landmark that has served as a beacon from air, water and land for forty years is now the bustling hot spot they envisioned, and it’s at the heart of Detroit’s revival. Rather than looking dated and tired, it looks vibrant and fresh as it dominates the skyline, serving as a hub in a new chapter in Detroit’s history.


Karin Risko is the author of the forthcoming book “A History Lovers Guide to Detroit.” Release date is August 14, 2017. She’s also the owner of City Tour Detroit.


Photo by Rodney Arroyo of City Photos and Books, Inc. His photos will appear in forthcoming History Lover’s Guide to Detroit.

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