For decades, the old Globe Trade Building on the Detroit River loomed like a monumental pile of bricks. Taking up an entire city block on a swath of land not far east from downtown, it was erected in 1892 for shipbuilding; a young Henry Ford worked there as a machinist. Over time, and many changes in its industrial use, the building was abandoned as yet another deteriorating Detroit ruin. But in 2011 an unlikely developer came on board: the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
In a rare case of historic preservation for an industrial building, the DNR announced that it would pour millions into transforming the Globe Trade Building into an outdoor adventure center. Rock climbing, a zip line, an archery range, kayaking, waterfalls, an aquarium stocked with native fish, and more—all in a city that is not historically known for its outdoorsy sensibility.
The $16 million renovation was the result of a public-private partnership that included the developers Roxbury Group, the construction firm Walbridge, and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. It proceeded even as Detroit endured bankruptcy and emergency management, and the state of Michigan struggled with one of the most damaged economies in the nation. Indeed, Governor Rick Snyder chose this under-construction space to sign the “grand bargain” deal that effectively brought Detroit’s bankruptcy to an end last summer. The redevelopment results—a hybrid of old and new—are astonishing. The DNR Outdoor Adventure Center (OAC) is scheduled to open its approximately 43,000-square-foot space to the public in late summer.
“It’s a great old space with a lot of history,” said Bob Hoida of Hobbs+Black Architects, the project manager of the redesign. Adaptability was the key word.
“Most places had no roof,” said Hoida, explaining that it had rotted away and collapsed, while the floors suffered the same fate. The building’s steel structure, however, was in good shape, and much of the brick could be cleaned and preserved. While the redevelopment eliminated half the footprint of the expansive ruin—which was more of a collection of buildings than a single structure—it revitalized the rest by mixing old and new exterior walls, building off of long-lasting masonry. Even now, if you look hard enough, you can see markings that reveal a history of ships being vertically lifted out of the building. Rail lines that went through the structure were also uncovered, as well as a hidden mezzanine floor.
The original purpose of the building is felt in the large open floors, designed with platforms and a high ceiling. The old painted facade reading “Globe Trading Company” is still there. “It doesn’t look pristine, and that’s on purpose,” said Hoida.
“As we went through the building, section by section, along the way people were faced with challenges every day that they could not anticipate,” said Hoida. Having a good working relationship with general contractors was essential to being able to make decisions on the run. So was having a clear overall goal for the project: creating a “front porch for Michigan” that welcomes Detroit’s young people to discover the joys of the natural world.