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Modernist Michigan gem threatened with significant alternations

Southfield Squabble

Modernist Michigan gem threatened with significant alternations

The Federal-Mogul building has been renovated and expanded over the years. But its most distinguishing exterior design feature has been left intact. That could soon change. (Google Maps)

Southfield, a first-ring Detroit suburb and commercial hub in Oakland County, Michigan, is known as a hotbed of modernist architecture complete with sprawling, National Register of Historic Places-listed subdivisions stuffed with midcentury split-level and ranch homes, and prominent buildings designed by the likes of Minoru Yamasaki, Gunnar Birkerts, and Victor Gruen.

Now, one of the city’s most iconic buildings, the International Style former Federal-Mogul building designed by Giffels & Rossetti, is under threat—not by demolition but by a dramatic alternation to its exterior that could potentially render the 55-year-old building (technically two interconnected buildings) unrecognizable.

Docomomo US raised the alarm earlier this week when the Southfield City Council convened to potentially approve a tax abatement for the building’s newest tenant, Italian-headquartered auto parts supplier Marelli. The company had previously made clear its intention to replace the three-story building’s facade with a glass wall and completely remove the building’s most distinguishing feature, a columned concrete “frame” that encases the structure.

Per Docomomo, this week’s meeting would have given the city council an opportunity to request “that Marelli preserve the defining features of this significant modern building in order to receive the abatement.”

Long story short, Marelli received the abatement, and, despite urging from city council members and Southfield Mayor Ken Siver to preserve specific elements of the building, the company remained unmoved in its decision. In addition to not wavering over the planned overhaul, representatives from Marelli were also insistent that the structure, which will serve as the company’s new North American headquarters, be referred to as the Marelli Building, not the Federal-Mogul Building, moving forward.

 

“The former Federal-Mogul Building is one of the most handsome buildings in Southfield second perhaps only to Reynolds Aluminum and absolutely landmark worthy,” explained Liz Waytkus, executive director of Docomomo US, in a statement provided to AN.

The Reynolds Aluminum building is a 1959 Yamasaki design which, as of this past June, was sitting vacant and under consideration to be named a local historical site. After serving as a regional office for Reynolds, the building served as home to a handful of different health clubs making it perhaps one of the most architectural significant former LA Fitness locations out there.

“Marelli should look no further than the distinctive concrete frame work for the branding they are looking for,” said Waytkus. “The automotive industry in Michigan has a long storied history of embracing great architecture. We certainly hope Marelli will take another look at the ‘Jewel’ now in their possession.”

Marelli’s move into the old Federal-Mogul building, which has sat unoccupied since 2015 according to Detroit business journal DBusiness, has been much welcomed by heritage-minded Southfield officials (the city, along with the Michigan Economic Developing Corp., assisted with site selection) with the understanding that some work on the building, which was also extensively renovated in the early 1980s, would be carried out. The removal of its jewel box structure, however, has been deemed a step too far.

It’s worth noting that Marelli, which previously split its operations between two different locations in the Detroit metro area, does not own its future North American home but is leasing it from Dembs Development, which acquired the building in 2017. DBusiness noted that the revamped space, 200,000-square-feet in total with room to grow, will have workspaces for 500 employees, 75 conference rooms, a fitness facility, cafeteria, auditorium, and large testing lab. Southfield-based architectural firm HED was hired by Dembs to oversee the building’s latest renovation.

The building’s original Paris-born architect, Louis Rossetti, designed several other notable projects in and around Detroit including the Cobo Center, a large exhibition center now known as the TCF Center. Rossetti’s son, Gino, and grandson, Matt, have continued the elder Rossetti’s legacy with ROSSETTI.

Docomomo US said it and its Michigan-based chapter will continue to work with Southfield officials and “consider next steps” in preserving elements of Louis Rossetti’s landmark building.