Renaissance Center: Jefferson Street Entrance (Detroit, MI) : View of the new glass football-shaped entry pavilion

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1939-
Detroit, Michigan, United States
2004-2006 (alteration)
Date Depicted:
ca. 1990's
1950 AD - 2010 AD
It took 10 years for the ancient Greeks to tear down the walls surrounding Troy. In Detroit, it took 25 years to level the ramparts that separated the Renaissance from the city it was supposed to resuscitate. The structures, called berms, are gone. In their place a new RenCen facade is rising. Perhaps the berms could have been vaporized sooner if the legions of Detroiters who hated the pair of two-story concrete structures along Jefferson Avenue had been organized into an army of Homeric proportions. Instead, it took more than two decades of complaints and a change of ownership at the building for the walls of Castle RenCen to be breached. The two berms housed the complex's heating and cooling equipment. Critics slammed them from the moment they arose for creating a fortress-like feeling at the Renaissance. Attempts to make the walls less imposing by planting vines in them did little to lessen the sense of separation. "It never represented the community," said Gene Hopkins, an architect at Detroit's SmithGroup and president of the American Institute of Architects. "With the barriers of the berm, it was an exclusive environment. It was an impediment to what the word renaissance means." The berms were only the most visible part of the RenCen's problems. The brainchild of Henry Ford II, who saw the project as a way to revitalize Detroit, the complex cost $337 million but did little to halt the bleeding of business from downtown -- despite its hopeful name. Its dizzying design, by architect John Portman, turned people off, and the RenCen encountered constant financial problems since its 1977 opening. The owners sold it to General Motors Corp. in 1996 for the bargain-basement price of $73 million. The work on the Jefferson side of the RenCen began in 2001 with the demolition of one of the two berms. The other came down in 2002. In place of the old obstructions, GM is creating a welcome mat of sorts. A set of granite stairs surrounded by landscaping will lead from Jefferson to a glass football-shaped entrance into the lobby. Hopkins said the original physical walls created a mental barrier for Detroiters. "People I talked to hated them," he said. "They felt uncomfortable dealing with the berms. You're going from one place into another, and it felt like maybe you weren't supposed to go there." Behind the old walls, it was difficult to even find the way into the building, said Matthew Cullen, a general manager at GM who is overseeing the renovations. "Historically, no one knew where the front door of the Renaissance was," he said. Burke said when GM began making plans to renovate the RenCen the company wanted to create a "feeling for the Renaissance where we weren't just occupying space within the city, but an area that was really part of the city." The work on the river side is similar to that being done along Jefferson -- opening the building to the space around it. A granite plaza -- inset with a map of the world with lights representing major cities -- will stretch down to a promenade along the river. Portman, the Atlanta architect who designed the RenCen, has said the berms provided a sense of security to people who had fled Detroit, and also deadened noise from traffic on Jefferson. Hopkins, the architect institute president, said the sense of isolation "was by design, absolutely." During the 1970s, there was a movement in architecture to create buildings that were self-contained, he said. Buildings like the RenCen were "looked at as one-stop: living, shopping, working." "They were meant to be isolated from the community," Hopkins said. "Fortunately, this was a short period." "I think it's a key element of the puzzle to creating the downtown where people want to live and work," Hopkins said. It's been "a long time coming and we're finally getting there." Source:
Variant Titles:
GM Renaissance Center
Architecture -- United States -- 21st century -- (YVRC)
Accession Number:
architecture (AAT)
office buildings (AAT)
public accommodations: hotels (AAT)
Content Type:
Sculptures, Models, & Architecture
Copyright Scott Gilchrist, Archivision, Inc
The use of this image may be subject to the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, United States Code) or to site license or other rights management terms and conditions. The person using the image is liable for any infringement.
Access Restrictions:
Yale Community Only
architectural exteriors; business, commerce and trade; contemporary (1960 to present); City planning; urban renewal construction architectural elements; walls; exterior walls; façades; building divisions; rooms and spaces; entrance spaces; lobbies
Source Creator:
Gilchrist, Scott
Source Title:
Archivision Module Two
Source Created:
2878 Chamonix, Montreal QC
Archivision, Inc.
ca. 1990's
Source Note:
Purchase, Visual Resources Collection, May, 2011; photographer Scott Gilchrist
Yale Collection:
Visual Resources Collection
Digital Collection:
Visual Resources Collection
Local Record Number: