Blog: Rebecca Binno Savage

It is the work of a historic preservationist to keep buildings out of the graveyard. Well-known preservationist Rebecca Binno Savage, a project manager with AKT Peerless Environmental and Energy Services, has written the book on Detroit area Art Deco architecture. This week, she digs into a few vintage buildings and builds a case for their resurrection.

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