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Restoring the roar

Lowell Boileau with some of the recovered sculptures.
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Published 3/5/2003

The majestic 1925-era Lee Plaza building on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit is a once-grand residential hotel which still figures prominently in the west side skyline. Upon closer inspection, however, the 17-story art deco structure reveals a fate all too common in Detroit, with gaping holes where decorative sculptures and artifacts once graced its elegant facade.

Following its most recent use as senior housing, Lee Plaza has been reduced to a bricked-up and orphaned ward of the City of Detroit Housing Commission, which has neither the funds nor the initiative to restore the building, leaving it instead to scavengers who literally gouged gaping holes in it while ripping elaborate ornaments from its exterior. Specifically, at least 56 terra cotta lion head sculptures were removed from the building, probably in 2001.

In and of itself, such news yields unfortunately little more than mild outrage from most quarters, as a blasé indifference to such stripping has been relegated in the public eye to business as usual in Detroit.

What got this story picked up in a few media outlets, however, was a newsletter out of Chicago in which a residential row house project in that city’s trendy Edgewater neighborhood was revealed to have incorporated six of the Lee Plaza lions as prominent features of its facade. The newsletter for the architectural firm that designed the row houses touted its new project under the cheeky headline “Detroit Lions Invade Chicago,” purportedly without knowledge as to the spurious origins of the handsome sculptures.

Curiously enough, a look at the Web site of the firm, Greene & Proppe Design of Chicago (www.gpdchicago.com), reveals that several in its ranks, including principals Thom Greene and Rick Proppe, who are from Pontiac and Southfield, respectively, hail from these parts.

Beginning in May 2001, this story quickly made the rounds on the Internet, beginning with the always hyperbolic yet informative chat forum on Lowell Boileau’s Fabulous Ruins of Detroit Web site, www.detroityes.com.

The cannibalizing of Detroit’s once-grand ruins to provide cosmetic accents to the endless gentrification of Chicago was an ignominy few were willing to endure; an enraged cyberposse raised such a ruckus that the Wayne County Sheriff and Prosecutor’s Office got involved.

Ultimately, more than 30 pieces were returned, with six still embedded in the Chicago townhouses. By Boileau’s count, however, 56 pieces were originally missing, based on the number of holes in the building and documented in before-and-after photos on his Web site. That leaves 20 or so unaccounted for.

The folks at Greene & Proppe say they had no reason to believe the lions were illegally taken from Lee Plaza, and, in fact, say they purchased them from the giant antique/salvage warehouse in Chicago, Architectural Artifacts.

Stuart Grannen of Architectural Artifacts says he bought them from an unnamed dealer at the Saline Antique Fair.

To add even more salt to our gaping wounds, in September 2002, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (LPCI) lauded the row house development as attractive infill housing in a historic neighborhood, “carefully balancing historic and contemporary architectural features,” and named the project recipient of the 2002 Richard Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award for Outstanding New Construction. In calibrating this “balancing,” however, LPCI overlooked that its historic counterweight drew heavily from artifacts purloined from the Lee Plaza in Detroit. When this detail was pointed out, LPCI decided against rescinding the award, acknowledging the architect’s assertions of innocence, but rather issued a statement in its January 2003 newsletter that voiced opposition “to the scavenging of building parts/interior or exterior from extant structures. The only time such salvage is warranted is when the building is in the process of final demolition, after all attempts to save and reuse the structure have been exhausted.”

Few people involved in this escapade were able to evade egg on their faces, including the architects, LPCI or the antique dealer.

Grannen is angry at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, which he feels both “screwed” and “lied” to him. Grannen informs me that he helped prosecutors track down 24 missing lions from a dealer in an attempt to right what he believes was never an actual wrong on his part (i.e. unwittingly purchasing the hot heads at the Saline Antique Fair), yet they ended up threatening to prosecute him. He huffed that he did the prosecutor a “big favor.”

In a written reply to one local preservationist, Grannen fumed: “I spent a good deal of my valuable time and money to help Detroit recover its materials. I did what the City of Detroit preservation groups, and all around busybodies could not do. I am a huge hands-on preservationist so I can sympathize with the City of Detroit and all its backers. I have put my heart, my time and my money into your city and I suggest you do the same if you want real results.”

Dennis Doherty, Wayne County prosecutor on the case, referred me to his PR department, which did not return my calls.

The crux of the dilemma facing Detroit, however, is that the culprits are rarely caught. Scavengers are unfortunately given a green light to plunder, pawn their ill-gotten loot through antique dealers, and, lo and behold, after passing through various cleansing hands, the goods end up in an award-winning Chicago townhouse project.

The lion saga reminds us all to watch our buildings. Perhaps more people will be inclined to ask a dealer where they purchased those striking vintage 1930s-era caryatids. As LPCI’s newsletter concluded, “If you notice architectural elements are being scavenged from buildings in your town, please notify the local authorities. Theft is a crime.”

Decorating with stolen objects, however, wins awards.

Unfortunately, vigilance is our first and best line of defense, for once these objects pass into the murky netherworld of the secondary markets, their recovery is like, well, tracking lions through the jungle.

Casey Coston follows development for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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