Restoring a landmark building in Motor City

Careful restoration, modern design upgrades, and technology give the old Cadillac showroom new life

In 1920, Cadillac unveiled its Detroit showroom to the world. At the time, the city was the booming heart of the American automotive industry and Cadillacs were the ultimate status symbol. To design a space worthy of such a luxury product, the company turned to Albert Kahn, the renowned architect behind many of Detroit’s most significant structures, including the General Motors building. Kahn rose to the occasion, creating an airy space with the grandeur of an industrial palace.

While 6001 Cass Ave. was nothing short of spectacular in the 1920s, nearly a century later it was in dilapidated condition. After Cadillac sold the building to a local university in the 1970s, the new owners dropped the ceiling level, and in the process, peppered the original vaulted ceiling with holes. 

The building was then vacant for several years before it was sold to the development company The Platform in 2018, which began an extensive $40 million overhaul to restore the landmark building. This included installing a new vertical blade sign that replicates the iconic Cadillac LaSalle sign that once hung there.

Today, the former showroom at 6001 Cass Ave. is once again a vibrant center of industry and ideas, albeit in a different way. The building lies at the core of what is now TechTown Detroit, a bold urban revitalization effort to support tech startups and the city’s shift from an automobile-based economy to an innovation-driven economy. In 2020, WeWork joined this effort when it opened three floors of flexible space at 6001 Cass Ave., welcoming its own community of innovators and entrepreneurs. 

“When we took possession of it, the building was largely in disrepair,” says Michael Waldo, design director for the Americas at WeWork. “There were a lot of elements within the building that our design team definitely wanted to restore or bring back to their original luster,” Waldo says.

Historical photographs courtesy of The Platform. All other photographs by WeWork.

Above all, the WeWork design team wanted to respect Kahn’s original vision and maintain the historical character of the space, preserving the sense of space and light that defined Kahn’s original design. “We tried to play off the symmetry of the vaults and the grid of columns to tie back and acknowledge this broader existing architecture,” Waldo says. “We wanted to maintain the cathedral-like sense of openness.”

The approach WeWork took to the redesign and repositioning of the building is a great example of how we should approach the revitalization of cities.

Michael Waldo, design director for the Americas at WeWork

The deeper into the restoration the WeWork design team went, the more surprises they uncovered, like a mosaic tile floor hiding beneath more recent flooring. “Through the course of the demo, we also uncovered a bank vault where they would take cash deposits from customers,” Waldo says. 

In order to accentuate this unusual find, they turned it into a dressing room in the women’s restroom with crimson tiles and metal accents. “It creates this isolated moment of discovery, with the brightly hued tiles creating an interesting contrast to historical aspects of the rest of the space,” Waldo says. 

For the majority of the project, however, the design team adhered to a “less is more” approach. That meant going the extra mile to painstakingly restore the original mosaics and ceiling. 

To emphasize the vaulted ceiling, the design team avoided having an array of pendant lights hanging in the space that would visually distract from the original architecture. Instead, the team worked with in-house lighting designers to conduct multiple photometric studies in order to minimize the number of lighting points. The result is having a combination of decorative pendants at the center of each bay where the ribs of each vault meet, along with supplemental lighting on each side of each column.

“Ultimately, the lighting design influenced other aspects of how the floor was designed—down to the height of the single duct loop in the space,” Waldo says. “The greatest effort is often spent on the things you don’t see.”

The design team also referenced the historical nature of the building through careful decisions when it came to materiality and textures. Stainless steel accents and wood stains that echo the original walnut millwork all pay homage to Cadillac’s heyday. 

“The glass block and blackened metal framing that you see throughout the WeWork buildout—all of those elements are references to Albert Kahn’s past work and the city’s storied industrial history more broadly,” Waldo says. The upholstery and fabric selections also lean heavily toward a palette that was established during the height of Detroit’s automotive industry. “There’s a balance of that industrial look and feel with the more lush, luxurious aspects of the wood and velvet fabrics. Even the Moroccan rugs that were selected serve as a nod to that era.

From the large freight elevator once used to lift cars between floors, to the Cadillac logo embossed on the original ceiling, there are quite a few elements that make this building unique. Although WeWork 6001 Cass Ave. draws heavily on the past, the designers imbued the workspace with of-the-moment tech. 

“Everything can be automated,” Waldo says. With a few swipes of a tablet, the community team can control all of the lights, speakers, and projector screens, making this an ideal space for presentations and large events. “There was a lot of work on the tech side to create this seamlessness in terms of how the space operates,” he says.

That seamlessness conceals just how much thought went into bringing Cadillac’s showroom into its new life.

“The approach WeWork took to the redesign and repositioning of the building is a great example of how we should approach the revitalization of cities—by honoring the space through an effort to enhance but not compete entirely with the existing architecture,” Waldo says. “By doing this, the hope is that we’ve been able to create something that is both of and for Detroit.” 

Diana Hubbell has spent more than a decade covering design, art, travel, and culture for publications including The Washington Post, The Guardian, Eater, Condé Nast Traveler, The Independent, VICE, Travel + Leisure, Architectural Digest, Atlas Obscura, and WIRED, among others.

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