Blog: Rebecca Binno Savage

Rebecca was born in Detroit, Michigan. She attended Columbia University's School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and received a Master of Science degree in historic preservation in 1997. She was employed in advertising for nine years.

She also worked as a historic preservation specialist for five years with the Greater Downtown Partnership (now the Downtown Detroit Partnership) and is currently employed at AKT Peerless Environmental & Energy Services as a Senior Project Manager.

Rebecca previously served as a board member of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, Preservation Wayne, and the Greening of Detroit. She was chair of the Hamtramck Downtown Development Authority and served on that board for ten years.  She is currently on the boards of the Hamtramck Economic Development Corporation and Hamtramck Brownfield Redevelopment Authority.  

She serves as Vice President of the Detroit Area Art Deco Society. The Art Deco architecture in the metropolitan Detroit area has been an interest and passion for many years.  She is co-author of Art Deco in Detroit, published by Arcadia Publishing in 2004.

She is currently on the board of directors of the Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit.

All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here

Rebecca Binno Savage - Most Recent Posts:

Post 5: The Penobscot Buildings Detroit's Penobscot Building – built in 1928 at the corner of Fort Street and Griswold is forty-seven stories tall – and was our character-defining skyscraper for five decades.  Designed by the firm of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, the chief designer, Wirt C. Rowland, was in charge of the Penobscot Building.

What most people don't know is that the Penobscot Building is actually one of three Penobscot Buildings – the other two are connected to the skyscraper, although built a decade earlier.   The first Penobscot Building, designed by Donaldson & Meier, was completed in 1905, and located on Fort Street, while the second was constructed by the same firm – and interconnected to the first – on Congress Street.

I'm pleased to report that I was instrumental in getting a National Register Historic District designation in place for the Penobscot buildings and for the entire downtown Detroit financial district – a total of 33 buildings.  So they now have the option of using a Federal Historic Tax Credit of 20 percent of the eligible expenses on investments in property rehabilitation.  This tax credit comes with conditions – to qualify, the project must follow the "Secretary of the Interior's Standards" and the renovations that qualify for the tax credit are reviewed by an architect at the State Historic Preservation Office.  But believe me – there are not many other places to get a discount on brick and mortar renovations to historic properties.

The Penobscot Buildings are a preservation opportunity because they are at a crossroads.  Perhaps you read about the recent default and receivership of the Penobscot Building.  This tragic turn of events reflects the office market in downtown Detroit and the difficulty in leasing older office space.  But once again – we should think about the opportunity this can present.   Perhaps we can re-think a new use for the two older Penobscot Buildings.  Maybe they can be adaptively reused to become government courts, housing, or educational facilities.  The recent adaptive reuse of the Argonaut Building as the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education in the New Center area is an outstanding example.

If you agree that historic preservation is a worthwhile endeavor in Detroit – find out more at the website of Preservation Wayne, the oldest, largest nonprofit preservation organization in Detroit.

*Penobscot photo by Jeff Garland

Post 4: The Vanity Ballroom East Jefferson Avenue, the Jefferson East Business Association (JEBA) concentrates its work in an area formerly known as the Jefferson/Chalmers Business District. It runs roughly from Eastwood Street to the Alter Street border with Grosse Pointe Park. This area has a relatively intact commercial strip in Detroit. 

This historic district is an affirmation that Detroit's character is rooted in the small grain of everyday life. There are just plain average buildings in this district: hardware stores, bars, car dealerships, dentist offices, and grocery stores. And those humble structures are just as deserving of historic preservation as movie palaces, big hotels, and auto baron mansions.

The East Jefferson district is both a National Register historic district and a City of Detroit historic district. This means the buildings in the district qualify for a 25 percent State Historic Tax Credit, and can apply for the "enhanced" state tax credit as well.

Also in the East Jefferson district is the Vanity Ballroom, designed in 1929 by architect Charles N. Agree. In the jazz era, ballroom dancing filled the 5,000-square-foot dance floor with young people, and crowds came to hear the popular big bands of the day. The Vanity Ballroom is an Art Deco design treasure, a combination of Mayan/Mexican themed design and Art Deco style.  Sadly, the building has been allowed to deteriorate and has been neglected for many years. The Vanity Ballroom is a preservation opportunity – what a terrific entertainment venue this could be once again.

The East Jefferson district sits on a commuter line of opportunity. While Detroiters and Grosse Pointers alike drive down East Jefferson to get downtown and back, the district has a great deal of potential. JEBA is leading the effort to change the direction of the Vanity Ballroom's condition. It is also leading the effort in the revitalization of East Jefferson Avenue. You can contact JEBA to find out more about it here.

* Vanity Ballroom photo by Rebecca Binno Savage

Post 3: The Brodhead Armory

On East Jefferson Avenue, just east of the Belle Isle (McArthur) Bridge is the historic R. Thornton Brodhead Naval Armory. This building has a very rich history as part of Detroit's military past and holds many memories for Detroiters who trained at the Brodhead in their careers in the Marines and Navy. The Brodhead Armory was built in 1929-30 by the Detroit architectural firm of Stratton & Hyde. building is also significant as having Michigan's largest collection of Works Progress Administration W.P.A. artwork. This includes wood carvings and plaster frescoes done as part of the public art program sponsored by the federal government. No, they can't be removed from the building.

Unfortunately, the Brodhead Armory has been vacant since the military left in 2004. The building has suffered from stolen plumbing, theft, and water damage. It is owned by the City of Detroit.

The R. Thornton Brodhead Armory is on the National Register of Historic Places and is listed as a City of Detroit historic district. It is protected with both an interior and exterior historic designation, which qualifies the building for a 25 percent State Historic Tax Credit.  

The historic preservation opportunity: The Brodhead Armory is situated on the Detroit River adjacent to Gabriel Richard Park and the River Walk. It has a square footage of 107,000 and sits on a parcel of 3.41 acres. There is a large gymnasium-type space that was originally designed as the "Drill Deck" that is approximately 15,000 square feet in size.  

While the City of Detroit has issued two RFPs in the past, they were not well advertised, and the proposals submitted went to the City Council but did not get final approval for sale. With a new administration and new City Council members, perhaps the day for another issue of another RFP could get the Brodhead Armory into the hands of a developer and off the City's vacant building list.

* Brodhead Armory photo by Rebecca Binno Savage

Post 2: How About That Train Station?

When someone asks me what my job is, and I answer that I work in historic preservation, the next likely thing that person will ask me is – "How about that train station?"

Yes, how about it.  The Michigan Central Station is without question the biggest historic preservation issue in the city of Detroit.  The alert reader of Metromode will already know that the Michigan Central Station is not owned by the City of Detroit, but by a private individual – in fact, a billionaire – who has ownership of the Ambassador Bridge.  He purchased the Michigan Central Station in order to land bank property and obtain controlling interest of sites that could someday assist in the development of his transportation empire. 

Does the fact that a huge vacant hulk is sitting on the property bother him?   I doubt he looks at it every day.  But people who drive the nearby stretch of I-75 and I-96 sure do.  People driving down Michigan Avenue see it.  People who live in Southwest Detroit see it every day.  So the fact that it sits vacant and trashed is an affront and insult to everyone who has to look at it.  

What to do?   While it is simplistic to look at the building today and give up and say "forget it" I think there are better solutions.  I agree that the Michigan Central Station will never again look like it did when it opened in 1913.  It won't look like it did when it closed in 1988.  But we need to acknowledge that the train station is a significant landmark in the city of Detroit, and worthy of preservation.  It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and it is an iconic work of architecture in the Midwest.  To demolish the Michigan Central Station would be yet another national news story that would throw Detroit into yet another negative spotlight.  

But imagine the spotlight and publicity if Detroit saved the train station. Or reused it as a sustainable resource that benefits the environment.  It is time for our governmental entities to work with the property owner to form a public/private partnership that searches for a solution.  Do we hold a creative design charrette and then chose from the best solutions?  Do we ask for responses from a nationally advertised Request for Proposals (RFP)?  Or maybe we look at the work that grass-roots nonprofit organizations have been doing.  

The Michigan Central Station Preservation Society is a newly formed nonprofit organization that has been working hard to clean up the property, with the owner's permission.  It has a terrific Facebook following and has held some very successful events and made excellent contacts.   You can personally help out and get involved here.  

Post 1: In the Heat of Historic Preservation

I'm lucky – I'm given the opportunity to write about historic preservation as an economic development tool in Detroit. Detroit's comeback is integrally tied to its architecture. The buildings that make up our downtown outshine and surpass the downtowns of Seattle, Portland, San Jose, or Denver. Those upstart cities have nothing to compare to the Guardian Building, the Fisher Building, or the Fox Theater. Our historic architecture will play a key role in the revitalization of the city and future investment.

In Detroit there have been many historic preservation success stories – you all know them: the Detroit Opera House, the Book Cadillac Hotel and the Dime Building, etc.  But give me a minute because I want to talk about the philosophy and theory of historic preservation.  Historic preservation has three main components:

1.    Historic Preservation is sustainable development – that means historic preservation saves buildings from going into landfills. That keeps our environment cleaner and thus more sustainable. Here is an example:  perhaps you've gone to Slow's Barbeque for dinner. That building – approximately 40 feet wide and 70 feet deep is typical of commercial buildings in Detroit. Let's say that it was demolished. You just eliminated the entire environmental benefit from the last 1,344,000 pop cans that were recycled. So not only was a great building wasted, we've wasted months of recycling.  

Also lost was something called "embodied energy." Embodied energy is the concept of the total expenditure of energy involved in the creation of the building and its constituent material. Each brick has embodied energy. So the demolition of a building also throws out all of the embodied energy incorporated into that building. There was also energy expended in the tearing down and hauling to landfill.1

Historic preservation was sustainable before it was cool. It was "green" before it was cool.

2.    Historic preservation creates jobs. Jobs in the construction trades – one of the industries most affected by this recession. At the same time, there is a shortage of craftsmen in a variety of restoration skills so job training, job creation, and a lifetime profession can be gained from historic preservation work. The jobs in historic preservation aren't just "make-work" jobs – they are good, well-paying jobs for carpenters, plumbers and electricians. Additionally, that carpenter, plumber and electrician each spend their paycheck locally on a haircut, groceries and paying local taxes.2 

3.    Historic preservation prevents sprawl. The metropolitan Detroit area has sprawled out to gobble up far distant cornfields and farms. But each time a building in Detroit is rehabbed, it could be preventing a commuter from making the long drive to their job. It could prevent additional infrastructure investment in a cornfield that was never developed before. It could help small businesses get established in a neighborhood and provide an entrepreneurial opportunity where one did not exist before.  

All that is just great but here's what really matters in a historic development project: The money.  

So this is what drives historic preservation in this country: historic preservation tax credits. There are currently federal historic tax credits for 20 percent of the eligible investments for buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. For buildings in a local district, there is a State of Michigan Historic Tax Credit of 25 percent. The State Historic Tax Credit has a potential to go even higher with an "enhanced" credit that requires an additional application.  See the link to the state of Michigan's website on the subject. 

Now that you've gone to preservation school, I'll spend the next blog entries giving you Detroit's greatest preservation opportunities. These are buildings that I feel have the most potential for greatness. 

1 Rypkema, Donald, Principal of PlaceEconomics

2 Rypkema, Donald, Principal of PLaceEconomics