Friday, March 18, 2011

Mies You Much

Being without a permanent address currently, I've taken to waxing nostalgic about my last apartment in the Mies van der Rohe-designed Lafayette Towers. I had a lot of love for that place, it is probably the most amazing place I've ever lived.

So why move out? The once-in-an-adulthood chance to take the summer off and travel was a big part of it, to be sure, but I considered leaving even before that opportunity arose. My desire to keep things upbeat has kept me from discussing my reasons in depth, but (at the risk of establishing myself as the elitist curmudgeon of Detroit bloggers) I should probably revisit what is really, in blunt terms, an aesthetic travesty perpetrated on one of Detroit's greatest modern treasures.

The owners of Lafayette Towers when I moved in – Chicago's Habitat Company – made the place feel like a real luxury property, despite the occasional out-of-service elevator. The building was meticulously maintained, had well-tended landscaping and a staff that was responsive, friendly and really seemed to know what a treasure the building is. The lobby was always spectacular, and despite a few aesthetic missteps (Marriott d├ęcor in the hallways being primary, having the base of Mies' Barcelona table oriented the wrong way in the lobbies), it was really like living in a high-end high-rise for only $700 a month.

The apartment itself was just perfect and the views unparalleled. I think the only things I didn't love were the carpeting and the shower, but the apartment's strengths made up for those tenfold. I won't waste words describing the place, I think these pictures speak for themselves.

My apartment shortly after moving in.  And the view.

In early 2008 the two towers were sold to The Northern Group. You may have heard of them, they are the investment group out of New York who went on a real estate shopping spree in Detroit, picking up the Penobscot Building, the First National BuildingCadillac TowerAlden Park Towers and finally, Lafayette Towers.  (We won't even discuss Cadillac Centre.)  And then one by one, they lost these iconic buildings to foreclosure (although they are trying to regain control of the First National Building again, a move the tenants are fighting tooth and nail).

Well, they didn't lose all of them. Call it bad luck, but they somehow managed to hang on to Lafayette Towers, and after cleaning house of all the long-term employees they introduced a series of outsourced property management companies who treated the buildings like a generic suburban apartment complex instead of a downtown modern masterpiece.

Northern Group did make some initial investments in the buildings. The new laundry facilities were nice. And if they'd actually been able to complete and maintain it, elevator replacement was smart. But while making some capital investments they neglected the very things that made living there special: gone were the meticulous landscaping, the well-maintained public areas, the uniformed doorpeople, the friendly staff. Instead we got weed-ridden sidewalks, haphazard maintenance, a perpetually leaking parking structure, dirty elevators and rent-a-cop security. My apartment, which in my first year was so warm in the winter I occasionally had to open windows, would be freezing until enough people complained that the heat wasn't on high enough. The office staff was halved, resulting in exactly zero responsiveness. And I won't elaborate on the multitude of aesthetic issues other than saying if you are running a Mies building, act accordingly. I think these photos speak for themselves.  Click to make them larger.

(WARNING: THE FOLLOWING PHOTOS MAY BE DISTURBING OR EVEN OFFENSIVE. VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED)

(L) The "faux bois" OfficeMax special shown here replaced a far more attractive marble and stainless (ok maybe faux marble) podium that the doorperson sat behind. 
(R)  The new owners didn't know what to do with a Mies Barcelona table either.

(L) A message written in the dust on the lobby marble: "Move today." Noted.
(R) For the last year and a half I was in the Towers this ladder was everywhere but put away: either in the lobby as shown or outside leaning against the glass.  Note to management: there's no "behind the garage" in an all-glass freestanding tower.  This isn't Warren.  Put it in the basement storage room where it belongs.

How hard is it to keep plants alive?  Apparently very. I spoke to the manager about this once and she said, "Nobody knew who was supposed to be watering them."  Two of these were eventually removed and not replaced.  The sansevieria (photo 1) remain similarly afflicted.

Nothing spruces up a Mies lobby like dying gladioli or a fake rosebush.  After two weeks of looking at the scene on the left I pulled out the decaying stems, which smelled wretched by the way, and moved that hideous vase out of sight.  Another friend in the Towers took the initiative to remove the fake plant, which still retained its $19.95 pricetag.

Can I assume these photos speak for themselves?

Once again, there's no "behind the garage" at Lafayette Towers.  Interestingly, both towers had a hose caddy that could have stored these, but they sat unused nearby.  The photo on the right is directly outside the rental/management office.  When I called to mention they should consider how the office looks from the outside and then followed up when nothing was done to adjust the crooked blinds, boxes pushed up against windows and papers behind desks, I was told there is "a process," and they can't just do everything immediately.

This is one of my favorite debacles.  Left photo shows the planters as they were when I moved in.  Right photo shows planters as painted when someone arbitrarily decided they needed sprucing up.  Many thanks to the neighbors across the park in the townhouses who called to yell at management about this tragic ignorance. The planters were re-painted white.

To the left, my other favorite debacle. I guess someone misunderstood "Less is more" and decided a jazzy row of banners along the East Tower on Orleans Street was just what was needed to attract design-lovers to these modern masterpieces.  I may not have been the only one to complain, but they came down after I got mad at the manager.  On the right, what you might call a weed patch at the entrance there was, I'm sure, intended to be a garden of indigenous plants.  This was the year they gave up on maintaining the landscaping.  Oh and that sign?  I know.


Ah, Christmas.  Under previous ownership decorations were restrained and tasteful.  Under Northern Group they gave the maintenance guy $100 and sent him to CVS.  Note the lovely cord management, and is it really too much trouble to remove the tags from the cord of the wreath?  Photo 3 has a great shot of the ficus tree that was never replaced in the lobby, too.  And believe it or not, Photo 4 is from the following year.  You can almost see the mis-matched un-lit wreaths hanging in the back windows.


It seems the Northern Group was hiring a management company, giving them no budget, and expecting big increases in occupancy. Instead, long-term tenants left the buildings in droves, many over to the other Mies building, the Pavilion (still owned by Habitat, which now has something like a three-year waiting list [edit: I've been informed there are a few availabilities - act now!]). Studio specials and attracting drive-by attention with banners (on a street that, frankly, doesn't get a lot of traffic from your professional crowd) were apparently the extent of marketing the Towers, all the while professionals and stable tenants who previously happily rented the more expensive one- and two-bedrooms fled.

The week I was preparing to move I talked with three other tenants who had been there at least as long as I had who were moving out within the month. Since then I've met several people who used to live in the Towers and have now moved to Harbortown or the Riverfront Towers or finally bought their own places. And I've heard rumors that the Towers are once again accepting Section 8 residents, although nobody seems to be able to verify that.

Since I wrote about my move out of Lafayette Towers last June, I've had several people contact me asking what the deal is there. In particular, my comment about the "ghetto-ization" of the Towers seems to have struck a chord. Throwing the word ghetto around might have been a bit careless because it often has racial connotations.  But to me "ghetto" in Detroit is primarily about lowered standards and the disastrous effect of just not caring.

In Detroit the rate of entropy is highly accelerated. It takes vigilance and dedication (along with a decent helping of good luck) to keep something nice. Just try ignoring a vulnerable situation and see what you get: a disintegrating train station; an entire housing project, fully scrapped; another demolished historic building; a RoboCop statue. The lowest common denominator usually calls the shots here. When you look at the areas of town that are defying the pull toward chaos you see areas that fight to keep standards high - the co-operatives of Lafayette Park, or Indian Village, or Corktown, or Midtown.

But look at a place that by most accounts was a craphole, Trolley Plaza on Washington Boulevard. It was taken over by (wait for it) the Habitat Company, renamed Washington Square, upgraded like crazy (including replacing the killer elevators) and now? 100% occupied (although currently managed by a different company). And you have to think that it doesn't take a genius to attract good tenants to a rental building within walking distance to the Central Business District in a time when the rental market is strong. But it does take an idiot to run two amazing buildings in one of Detroit's most popular neighborhoods into mediocrity and MAYBE 75% occupancy.

Lafayette Towers has new management since I moved out. I don't know how they are doing because I haven't been back, but I've heard that some issues persist. Friends who still live there report several weekends this winter with no heat or hot water, and I know the elevators continue to break down (sometimes all three).  I know that they still think placing banners along Orleans Street is somehow going to get people to move in, which isn't a promising sign. If you have anything to share, feel free to post it in the comments.

This photo from last fall.  Doesn't it make you want to move in?
I was telling a friend that I would move back there if I never had to leave my apartment, because usually it was the journey from front gate to apartment door that threw me over the edge. And as tempting as it is – because let me say one more time overall it was a phenomenal apartment – I absolutely refuse to even entertain the notion until I know for sure that the Northern Group has officially lost those buildings. It can't happen soon enough.

They can't take away the view.  Thank God.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Supergay Home Movies, Part 2

It's been a while since I posted a home video of Supergay as a little faglet, preparing for the world stage.  I came across another one from the vaults so I thought I'd share it with you.

If you are wondering how a 41-year old man was only 11 when Mariah Carey was debuting her vocal histrionics to the world, don't stress your beautiful mind.  Supergay is like Billie Jean.  She's everywhere.

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