May 15, 2023 - News

Detroit's historic Book Depository was like an "archeological find"

Interior of the restored Book Depository building

Interior of the restored Book Depository building. Photo: Brian Ferry, courtesy of Gensler

Architects behind the historic Book Depository's recent restoration used its past as a post office to inspire its transformation.

Why it matters: The redesign — part of Ford's Michigan Central campus in Corktown — is an example of Detroit's fairly unique challenge of respectfully resurrecting massive iconic structures that have significantly deteriorated over several decades for the modern era.

What they're saying: The architectural firm behind the Book Depository's restoration, Gensler, sought to honor world-renowned architect Albert Kahn's original design by stressing simplicity and functionality while treating the building "like an archeological find."

  • "It's a building at its bare essentials," Gensler design director Lily Diego tells Axios. "You have fewer strokes to make a big impact. You can't put a lot of makeup on it."

Catch up quick: It opened in 1936, handling mail arriving at the train depot.

  • Detroit Public Schools later acquired the building to warehouse textbooks before a 1987 fire left it a vacant shell.
  • Ford Motor Co. bought the structure, along with Michigan Central Station, in 2018.

State of play: As Newlab's new tech incubator housing various startups there to learn from each other, Gensler's design created an open-concept workspace encouraging collaboration — a modern version of the information exchange that occurred there decades ago as a post office branch.

Interior of the Book Depository before restoration
Here's what part of the Book Depository looked like before restoration. Photo courtesy of Gensler

Between the lines: The building's decay left parts of the interior open to the elements. Sections of steel had started to "twist like a ribbon," Diego says.

  • But the structure's bones, such as its concrete and brickwork, were in good shape.
  • Foundational columns were salvaged and maintained to give the redesigned depository a historic feel.
  • The most significant architectural intervention was creating an open atrium near the entrance that sits below an enlarged skylight and stretches the height of the building.

Of note: Gensler is not involved in the redesign of the neighboring train depot, which will begin opening early next year.

  • Quinn Evans is the train station's historic preservation architect.
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