Any personal views expressed on the Michigan Historic Preservation Network blog are the writers’ own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.
by James L. Hamilton
The Michigan Central Station, enshrined on the National Register of Historic Places, has suffered years of neglect. Now, 1050 windows are being installed in the office tower, but they are not historically appropriate for the building. The design of these new modern windows conflicts with the architectural design of the station. This outcome was entirely avoidable. Historically correct windows would have cost about the same.
The windows being installed will help protect the building from any further deterioration. No doubt about it. However, historically correct windows would provide the same protection, would not entail any significant difference in cost, and would complement and enhance the architectural design.
Commentary about these windows by historic architects and historic preservation experts recently has been reported in the Free Press and the Metro Times. I have talked to several others. Among this knowledgeable group, the opinion is unanimous that the windows are not appropriate for the building.
The critique goes like this. The architectural design of the office tower is strongly vertical. The structure has multiple vertical brick piers between the windows that rise until they meet the rows of stone columns at the top two stories of the building. The original windows contributed to this verticality. Each window opening held a pair of narrow (vertical) double hung windows divided by a prominent (vertical) element. Each window sash had two panes of glass, which were long (vertical) panes side by side. The details of the window design were part of the overall architecture of the station. The new windows do not have this verticality. They are boxy and flat with thin frames and cross members that do not have the dimension of the originals. The window frames are a light color, while a dark color would be appropriate. The glass itself has a blue tint completely unlike the original window glass.
Since the original window sashes are missing, replacements were needed. However, several window manufacturers are able to create modern windows that would look exactly like the originals. Their windows also have all the thermal characteristics of “modern” windows. The Detroit Historic District Commission has seen several proposals for historically correct replacement windows in buildings like the station. The windows in those proposals cost no more (and usually less) than the windows going into the station.
This is the object lesson: historic preservation often can be done right at no more expense than doing the wrong thing.
The owner of an historic building is only a temporary owner: the owner is only a steward. For a building on the National Register, responsible stewardship entails an obligation to know how or to learn how to do proper rehabilitation and preservation. An historic architect or expert on historic windows could have advised an appropriate window replacement.
In front of the office tower, the lobby building is much more architecturally significant than the office tower. The lobby has large, arched, elegant, steel windows. These windows need to be restored and preserved, not replaced. Imagine new modern boxy windows in the lobby.
Before there is an irreversible decision on the windows in the lobby building, its stewards should consult with historic architects or experts. Restoration of those windows probably would be cheaper than replacing them.
Some National Register buildings also are in official City of Detroit local historic districts. The station is not. For that reason, the Detroit Historic District Commission has no oversight of the building and had no opportunity to help the owners understand what would be appropriate and to push the window work in the proper direction.
This object lesson applies widely in historic preservation. Choosing the wrong paint color for a building is no cheaper than choosing a historically appropriate color. A correct roof color is no more expensive than a wrong color. Usually, restoring original windows and doors to preserve the proper historic look of a building is no more expensive than the cost of buying modern replacements that diminish its appearance, that are lower quality, and that puts quantities of material in landfills.
Sometimes historically correct work may cost a bit more, but in many cases the added cost is small (at least as a percentage), and the difference it makes for a building can be enormous.
* James Hamilton is Professor Emeritus of Wayne State University. A long-time resident and past president of the Boston Edison Historic District, currently he is a Detroit Historic District Commissioner.