Detroit is a city in flux.
Signs of decay and neglect are everywhere; a city built for millions now languishes with seven hundred thousand. A city rich in history and flush with gorgeous architecture constantly reminisces about herself. She looks in the mirror, remembering when she was young and full of vitality. The mirror is harsh. Time has been cruel. Reality sets in.
As with any grand old dame, however, there are so many stories. There is also that rare chance, that opportunity, that moment where she can shine one more time.
There are so many people here that are working to make Detroit beautiful again. There is a new group of people emerging out of the turmoil; those who want to be here. Those who choose to stay. Those who desire to see the grand old dame take center stage again. Those who remember, even if they weren’t even born yet.
On top of the 1927-built Dalgleish Cadillac building, there was an iconic water tower. It defined a bit of skyline in this area. The building, like so many others around it, fell in to decay and neglect when the area worsened, but those days have passed. Wayne State University is turning it into a 200,000 square foot, $93 million biomedical research center.
The plan, however, didn’t (and couldn’t) include the historic water tower.
Various groups raised their voices, but it was just words without weight. Would anyone… could anyone actually handle the logistics of saving the water tower?
We’re talking about a steel structure of unknown structural integrity, weighing approximately 25,000 pounds, that sits forty feet and more in the air. When faced with the reality of the scope of the project, the voices settled down. Groups that were interested in supporting the project dropped out. It didn’t seem possible to save it.
It seemed destined for the scrap heap. Doubtless some enterprising scrapper would have a field day shredding the tower and selling it for pennies per pound, dragging it bit-by-bit in the back of a rusty old pickup truck to the wink-and-nod scrapyards that Detroit is home to so many of.
It seemed a sad and unfair end for such a beautiful structure. The cross-hatched steel supports and the craftsmanship of the dome are things that required a lot of manual labor hours back in the days when that was affordable in America. They don’t make ‘em like they used to.
Tom and Peggy Brennan from Detroit’s Green Garage were contacted, and they came through just when things looked bleakest for the tower. They agreed to take the water tower, disassemble and move it, and ensconce what they could of it at their sustainable apartment development on Second, the El Moore.
In keeping with the Green Garage’s sustainability and re-use ethics, they wanted to repurpose as much of the structure as they could, and keep it as intact as possible.
When deconstruction began, it was discovered that nearly a ton of pigeon droppings had been sitting in the bottom of the dome for who-knows-how-long… and pigeon droppings being acidic, the 1/4″ steel of the bottom had been eaten away to the point where you could see sunlight through it. It would never hold water again, that was clear.
Moving the massive structure had its own logistical and engineering challenges. It couldn’t be moved down Second because of something with the bridge over I-94. It had to come down Cass. It needed a police escort. It was very heavy.
The Wayne State Police graciously stepped up to the challenge, with very little advance notice, and provided the “Wide Load” truck with a path down Cass… during the middle of the school day at Wayne State. It made it. People marveled at the sight.
A new place to gather
Afterwards, in discussing the move, the Green Garage’s Jason Peet told a group assembled for their weekly Friday community lunch, “It would never be used as an actual water tower again, but we had some ideas. We wanted it to anchor a community. We had an empty corner lot and now we have something. People have already started gathering under it and saying things like ‘Meet me under the water tower’”. It is now a destination. It is now a landmark.
A community can come together to achieve all kinds of amazing things; sometimes, that amazing thing is moving a big ol’ chunky water tower just because a few people cared enough to save it.