FERNDALE, Mich. - From about 1925 and into the 1960s, if work or pleasure had you passing through Detroit - and you could afford it - you likely wanted a room at the Book-Cadillac Hotel.

U.S. presidents, movie stars and professional athletes all stayed at “The Book,” as locals called it. Built for the then-huge sum of $14 million at the height of Detroit’s booming car-centered economy, the 1,100-room hotel featured a large, marble-walled lobby, three ornate ballrooms, several restaurants and a shopping arcade.

But as the American auto industry struggled in the 1970s and more people and businesses moved to the suburbs that ring Detroit, the Book-Cadillac sputtered. It was sold several times between 1975 and 1984, when it closed for good.

And that would have likely been the end of the Book-Cadillac’s story, if it hadn’t been for Cleveland’s Ferchill Group. The developer has had some success with similar projects in cities where others had failed, including Detroit. They saw potential in the storied - if soiled - Book-Cadillac.

\Although a planned renovation by paper goods manufacturer Kimberly-Clark Corp. fell apart shortly after it was announced in 2003, three years later, Ferchill managed to put together the financing necessary to complete the $180 million renovation project.

Marc Hesse, one of the owners of Detroit Cornice & Slate Co. Inc. in Ferndale, Mich., points out the details in some of the original blueprints for the Book-Cadillac Hotel, which was built in 1925. Hesse’s company has a $1.7 million contract to restore the ornamental copper on the historic 33-story hotel.

A clean ‘Slate'

That’s where Detroit Cornice & Slate Co. Inc. comes in. The 119-year-old family-run architectural sheet metal firm has a $1.7 million contract to restore the copper ziggurats, cornices and roofing panels atop the 33-story Italian Renaissance hotel in time for its fall opening as a 455-room Westin Book-Cadillac.

At its shop in a light-industrial business park in Ferndale, Mich., just outside Detroit, workers are replacing the crumbling, tarnished and in some cases, bullet-ridden copper decorations with shiny new versions.

“A lot of it was stripped, a lot of it was gone,” said Marc Hesse, 47, who owns the company along with his brother Kurt and their mother, Doneen.

In the decades since the hotel welcomed its last guests, scavengers had removed almost everything of value in and on the building, including brass railings, marble fixtures and the ornamental flourishes designed by architect Louis Kamper.

What was left of the original ziggurats now sit in a rusty, mangled pile in a corner of Detroit Cornice’s sheet metal shop. That meant Hesse and his staff had to recreate the rooftop decorations using the scraps, old photos and blueprints to guide them.

“People don’t understand how complicated this job actually is,” he said.

After being vacant for more than 20 years, Marc Hesse shows how rusted and mangled many of the copper ornaments that adorned the Book-Cadillac’s roof were.

‘We have artists'

Detroit Cornice workers have extensive experience with such projects. The company was founded by German immigrant Frank Hesse in 1888, and its former headquarters, a three-story downtown building that originally included horse stables, is still in use. The building’s front looks like stone; however, a closer inspection shows it’s actually galvanized steel.

It’s an example of the kind of intricate work Marc Hesse said his company is known for and why not just anybody can work there.

“We have artists. People who can hammer out sheet metal and make it look like a bird,” he said. “Marginal people will leave here and be superintendents other places. We’re very fortunate to have some very talented people work for us.”

When Snips visited Detroit Cornice late last summer, it had 27 employees, including eight working on the Book-Cadillac; the number of workers can drop as low as three, Doneen Hesse said.

“(It) depends on the weather,” Marc Hesse added.

And despite Michigan’s struggling car-based economy, which has the nation’s highest unemployment rate and a skyrocketing number of home foreclosures, the company expected to earn up to $4 million in 2007.

Hesse credits the large number of high-end residential and institutional projects Detroit Cornice secures each year, which he said are somewhat immune to the problems of the local economy.

Marc Hesse and one of the restored copper ornaments made by Detroit Cornice that will go on the hotel’s roof.

Confidence

Whether the troubles of Michigan and the Motor City abate anytime soon, city officials and those behind the Book-Cadillac project are confident of its success. Plans call for the hotel to include 67 luxury condominiums on the building’s top eight floors, selling for up to $1.4 million each.

“The hotel and residences will be unlike anything the city of Detroit has ever seen,” said John Ferchill, chairman and chief executive of the Ferchill Group.

Additional amenities are to include several restaurants and lounges, an indoor pool and fitness facilities.

A November 2007 story in the Detroit News said 61 of the condominiums were already sold.

Cobbling together the financing for the project proved to be the biggest challenge in renovating the Book-Cadillac, and it was a major reason why Kimberly-Clark backed out in 2004. The final deal involved tax credits and grants from Detroit and the state of Michigan, and an $18 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in addition to money from investors and banks.

At a 2006 Detroit appearance announcing the loan’s approval, Joseph P. Galvan, HUD’s Midwest regional director, said President George W. Bush and department Secretary Alphonso Jackson were happy about the project.

“We are committed to rebuilding our nation’s cities and neighborhoods and promoting economic development and job growth,” Galvan said. “As we celebrate this victory over one of the most blighted areas of downtown Detroit, I bring their congratulations and best wishes to all of you who have worked to make this project a reality.”

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has called the Book-Cadillac’s rebirth “a major milestone” in the city’s ongoing economic recovery.

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.

The Westin Book-Cadillac in Detroit is expected to open this fall after a $180 million restoration project. A Ferndale, Mich., architectural sheet metal contractor is doing much of the exterior restoration work. Image courtesy of Westin Hotel Management LP.

Sidebar - Book-Cadillac's history mirrors city's

The Book-Cadillac Hotel was built by James, Frank and Herbert Book, three brothers whose family owned a large amount of land along Detroit’s Washington Boulevard, a relatively minor commercial and residential area in the early 20th century.

Following their father’s death in 1916, the Book brothers decided they wanted to use their inherited wealth to transform Washington Boulevard into the “Fifth Avenue of the Midwest,” full of upscale shopping, offices and restaurants. They hired architect Louis Kamper to design an array of ornate buildings, including several huge skyscrapers, for the street.

By 1926, the boulevard was the upscale business address the brothers intended, anchored by the Hotel Statler, the Books’ own 36-story Book Tower office complex, and the $14 million Book-Cadillac Hotel at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Michigan Avenue.

The 1,100-room hotel Kamper designed, which claimed to be the largest in the world, made extensive use of marble, gold leaf and exotic hardwoods. Carved into the brick exterior were statues of historical figures from the city’s founding, such as French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and Ottawa Indian tribe Chief Pontiac.

Inside, murals covered the ceiling of the Venetian dining room, part of the Italian Renaissance theme Kamper used throughout the structure. The hotel included three lavish ballrooms, including the Italian Garden, which had special lighting and sound that could create the effect of a storm passing over its glass ceiling.

The Books lost control of their hotel during the Great Depression, although it would remain popular with travelers. Guests included former presidents John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman, New York Yankee Lou Gehrig and reportedly, Al Capone.

In 1951, it was purchased by Sheraton Corp. for $6 million. Sheraton modernized it and owned the hotel for more than 20 years, until Detroit’s mid-1970s economic woes made the company decide it was time to leave the city.

The Book-Cadillac was sold several times between 1975 and 1980, operating as the Detroit-Cadillac and Radisson-Cadillac. In 1980, a group of local investors bought the hotel, wanting to ensure the city had enough rooms to host the Republican National Convention that year.

Although the move temporarily saved the hotel, occupancy rates continued to decline, dropping as low as 25 percent. In 1984, after a plan to convert half of the Book-Cadillac’s floors into offices collapsed, the hotel closed.

It eventually fell into disrepair, as the owners lacked money to maintain such a massive, empty building. Detroit officials tried several times to demolish the structure, but the cost proved too great for the cash-strapped city.

That actually helped save the Book-Cadillac, as it gave citizen groups and preservationists time to rally to the old hotel’s aid.