“G.A.R. Memorial Hall Dedicated, Grand Old Men Now Snugly Housed” announced the Detroit Free Press on January 16, 1901. Since its opening, this little castle, now on the corner of Grand River and West Adams, has stood watch over the city of Detroit as it has grown and evolved.
Constructed between 1899 and 1901 the Grand Army of the Republic Building was built as a living memorial to all the servicemen who fought in the Civil War. Over the course of this 4-year war, Michigan alone would give up 90,000 men.
A year after the Civil War ended, Union veterans from across the country came together to form the G.A.R., an organization rooted in their shared anguish and comradery. Known as Fairbanks Post No. 17, it was one of seven in the city.
The deed for the land was originally given to The City of Detroit by the Cass family, who stipulated that the land had to be used as a public market. From the very beginning, the veterans made good on this by renting the first floor to a number of shops, while the three other floors were used by the veterans.
By 1939 only 7 of the veterans remained. Because of their dwindling numbers and age, in 1939 the remaining members decided to give over their castle to the city of Detroit. For more than four decades, the building functioned as the G.A.R Recreation Center, home to the City Department of Parks and Recreation. However, by 1982, it had become vacant and attracted unwanted temporary occupants. Aside from the many generations of pigeons who lived their entire lives in the castle, it also was visited by vandals, squatters, and ravers.
But by the 1990s, many decades removed from its original purpose, the G.A.R. building’s survival was in question as years of neglect and deterioration took its toll on the grand structure. At the time the City of Detroit was considering handing it over to a developer who wanted to turn the building into apartments. However, one woman had entirely different plans in mind.
Celestine Hollings, whose great-grandfather had served in the Civil War, made saving the building her personal crusade. Hollings – the first black president of the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War – enlisted pro bono legal help and even staged one-woman pickets to save the building in its original form.
Even after her success, there was still the question of who would step in and return the structure to its former glory. Enter Mindfield.
Mindfield Partners Sean Emery and Tom and David Carleton were not the most obvious candidates to bring the G.A.R. building back to life. They were not developers. They were marketing professionals. But they knew something special when they saw it.
The co-owners only knew the building from the outside but were fascinated by it nonetheless. “Wouldn’t it be so cool to do something with that building,” Sean says he often thought as he drove by. “Wouldn’t it be amazing?”
In 2006, when the City of Detroit sent out a request for proposal to redevelop the building, Mindfield submitted a bid. While they were not successful the first go around, the chosen developer later backed out of the project and Mindfield got a second chance.
“How could a building that beautiful sit there vacant for 30 years in any city, let alone in Detroit,” says Tom. “Let’s save this and bring it back and make it great.”
After signing the title, Tom, David, and Sean immediately came to the G.A.R building to start documenting. They ended up with 12,000 pictures of the development process and roughly 12-14 hours of video. “A lot of goldmine finds structurally and architecturally,” reminisces Sean. “It definitely wasn’t the worst of buildings we’ve seen in Detroit, but cosmetically it was a mess. Structurally, though, it was incredibly sound – impressively so.”
Most fine old buildings still standing from that era were once private mansions with many small rooms. The G.A.R. building is different. Rather, it is made up of big open spaces, with rooms as unique on the inside as the exterior is on the outside.
The first phase prioritized making it so that the “outside envelope” of the building was completed so that to people driving by it would no longer be the boarded-up eyesore.
The one-hundred-year-old deed restriction helped Mindfield decide what to do when it came to the inside of the building. During the second phase, they built and opened The Republic Tavern, a tribute to the G.A.R members, and the Parks and Rec Diner – a nod to the building’s second legacy. They also set up their offices in the fourth-floor assembly hall during this time.
For the third and final phase, they made the third floor into office space that would house other tenants, and created Castle Hall, a rentable space for events and meetings, on the second floor.
From the very beginning, Mindfield understood that doing the project right by following the national historical guidelines wasn’t going to be easy or cheap. Both the turrets had collapsed. A valley in the roof was leaking. And a part of the exterior wall was pulling away from the structure.
Even so, the partners considered themselves fortunate overall, especially with respect to the building’s floors. When they first went through the building, they saw that the maple floor was warped and buckled due to water damage and humidity.
They were prepared to replace the entire thing, but when it came time to pull it up, they realized the city had at some point come in and nailed the maple floor on top of the original floor boards. Those original boards, it turned out, were in phenomenal shape. In the end, all it needed was some sanding and coating.
Less tangible, but equally as valuable, is the treasure trove of stories housed in the building. Throughout the renovation process as well as beyond, Tom, David, and Sean learned of many incredible tales.
There is the one about the individual who learned to play a musical instrument there and went on to become a Funk Brother. It is also said that James Vernor, a member of the G.A.R., would bring Vernor’s Ginger Ale to meetings so that it could be drunk during certain ceremonial meeting openings.
Although the G.A.R. building’s modern-day use is far removed from its original purpose, the legacy of the Civil War veterans still lives on in the building’s enduring character. The imperative to honor these heroes lives on with every day the G.A.R. stands tall and proud – still catching the eyes of those who drive down Grand River Avenue and recognize that this little castle before them is something special.