Building InformationStreet Address: East Jefferson Avenue
Year Built: 1977
Architect: John Portman
Conceived by Henry Ford II and financed primarily by the Ford Motor Company, the Renaissance Center became the world’s largest private development with an anticipated 1971 cost of $500 million. In part, civic leaders intended this ambitious urban renewal project to quell the white flight which followed social unrest from the 12th Street riot in 1967. The project was intended to revitalize the economy of Detroit. In 1970, Ford Motor Company Chairman Henry Ford II teamed up to form Detroit Renaissance, a private non-profit development organization, which he headed in order to stimulate building activity in areas of Detroit that had been severely impacted. The group announced the first phase of construction in 1971. In addition, Detroit Renaissance contributed to a variety of other projects within the downtown area in the ensuing decades. Henry Ford II sold the concept of the Ren-Cen to the City and community leaders. Detroit mayor Roman Gribbs touted the project as “a complete rebuilding from bridge to bridge,” referring to the area between the Ambassador Bridge that connected Detroit to Windsor, Canada and the MacArthur Bridge, which connects the city with Belle Isle Park.
The “city within a city” began to rise. The first tower opened on July 1, 1976. In 1977, the central hotel tower of the Renaissance Center, which opened as a Westin Hotel, became the world’s tallest all-hotel skyscraper, surpassing its architectural twin, the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel in Atlanta. When it opened, the cylindrical central tower was originally the flagship of the Westin Hotels. The top three floors of the hotel hosted an upscale restaurant, The Summit, that rotated to allow a 360 degree view.
In 1987 the elevated-rail mass transit Detroit People Mover, after many years of construction, began operation with a stop at the Renaissance Center. The forbidding concrete berms located in front of the building carried most of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning equipment for the complex.
At first, the Ford Motor Company had occupied many offices in the building. In 1996, General Motors purchased the complex and moved its world headquarters to the Renaissance Center downtown from the New Center area. In 1996, GM initially paid $73 million to owner Highgate Hotels in Texas. By 2003, GM had completed an extensive $500 million renovation of the Renaissance Center in 2003, and included the work of many different architects including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago, SmithGroup of Detroit, Gensler Detroit office, and Ghafari Associates of Dearborn. This included a $100 million makeover for the hotel. Among GM’s first actions was to remove the berms facing Jefferson Avenue. The renovation includes a lighted glass walkway called the “green ring” for its green lights; it circles the mezzanine to make the complex easy to navigate.
GM’s bold vision for it’s renovation addressed some major short comings of the original John Portman design. The renovations addressed building’s original urban solitude, difficult circulation, and created a badly needed connection to the river. Each of the renovation features successively draw the visitor deeper into the building eventually leading them to the Detroit River.
A new entry, combined with the removed berms, both identifies this as GM’s World Headquarters and attempts to re-integrate the building with the rest of downtown. The new plaza is marked with extensive landscaping and green area including red oak and honey locust trees, flagpoles, exterior accent lighting, and a granite staircase that leads up to the 45 feet high, and nearly 100 feet long, glass ellipsoidal pavilion entrance composed of stainless steel, glass and marble. Nighttime lighting is employed to illuminate the plaza and the pavilion. From the pavilion, employees and visitors can progress from the new lobby all the way to GM Wintergarden making a visual and physical connection from Jefferson Avenue to the riverfront.
“Borealis” Glass Sculpture
Artist Danny Lane’s elegant but massive glass sculpture, Borealis, seems to be the perfect solution for animating the main lobby of Detroit’s GM Renaissance Center. Located in the north entrance lobby, the two giant glass walls form the world’s largest glass sculpture.
Borealis comprises two enormous walls of undulating glass that measure 47 and 50 feet long, and weigh nearly 50,000 pounds each. A single wall contains about 1,100 43-pound panels of annealed float glass 4 inches wide, 1-1/2 inches thick and 22-1/2 feet long. The panels stand on end side-by-side and lean at different angles up to 7-1/2 degrees from center to create a wave effect. If laid end-to-end, the panels would extend 9.4 miles.
Borealis offers a dramatic greeting to thousands of visitors who enter the Renaissance Center every day and funnels them toward the center of the building. The rippling curtains of luminous green glass refract light and images. As one walks through, objects on the opposite side disappear then reappear in single and multiple shapes.
The circulation ring, suspended above the original Piranesi-like system of walkways, bridges, and alcoves, creates a very simple main circulation spine connecting all the main portions of the building. In addition to providing a simplified circulation pattern, the ring contrasts the existing massiveness of the concrete with the sophisticated introduction of light, modern materials of steel and glass. The illuminated glass walkway supported by inobtrusive metal cables, seems to hover in mid-air above the rest of the bulding’s confusing walkways
The insertion of the Wintergarden helps orient visitors by creating open views of the Detroit River and Windsor beyond. The five-story Wintergarden, which sweeps out to the new riverfront promenade, invites visitors into its clean open space and beckons them to continue to the GM Plaza & Promenade.
Once covered with a parking garage and covered roadway, this section of the riverfront has been reclaimed and now features a granite world map, synchronized water fountain, and a playful grove of trees alongside the riverfront Promenade, which continues east and west along the Detroit River. The Wintergarden serves as a backdrop to this vital piece of the Detroit Riverfront.