Brodhead Association Opposes Parade Co. Plan for Historic Detroit Armory

An organization of military veterans and other supporters today announced they oppose a proposed plan to renovate the historic R. Thornton Brodhead Armory on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit by Belle Isle.
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R. Thornton Brodhead Armory
The Brodhead Association opposes a plan by The Parade Co. to purchase and renovate the shuttered R. Thornton Brodhead Naval Armory on Jefferson Avenue. // Photo courtesy of the R. Thornton Brodhead Armory

An organization of military veterans and other supporters today announced they oppose a proposed plan to renovate the historic R. Thornton Brodhead Armory on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit by Belle Isle.

The Brodhead Association, led by retired U.S. Navy Commander Jim Semerad, says a proposed plan by The Parade Co. calls for the demolition of 70 percent of historically significant parts of the Brodhead Armory. The group says it opposes any plan that would not restore all of the armory.

“The proposed destruction of American military history, and African-American history, would be unforgiveable,” says Semerad. “We owe it to our future generations to restore and preserve this important piece of Detroit, so that it can properly honor our city, and serve as a visible and living reminder of the tremendous sacrifice made by all who have served our nation.”

The plan, submitted in August to the city of Detroit’s Historic District Commission, has been touted as a win for the property located near the entrance to Belle Isle. It fails, however, to meet the city’s own code of historic preservation, which is to “safeguard the heritage of the city by preserving areas in the city which reflect elements of its cultural, social, spiritual, economic, political, engineering, or architectural history,” according to the organization.

Semerad says the plan would see only a small portion of the building preserved – roughly 70,000 square feet of the 106,000-square-foot structure and almost 90 percent of the WPA artwork and historical designation would have to be eliminated to make the new development possible.

“Our goal is to bring life back to a landmark jewel which will serve as (our) new home and studio,” said Tony Michaels, president and CEO of The Parade Co. in a statement when the proposal was announced. “We are at the beginning of the important and necessary process in taking the appropriate steps, given the fact that the building has been unoccupied for 16 years. Plus, we plan to save all of the artifacts that can be saved and repurpose them in the building or put them in the right hands.”

When renovated, the facility will provide 130,000 square feet of new high-bay area for the production and storage of floats, big heads, and costumes, and an additional 30,000 square feet for offices and events. The front portion of the structure will be renovated, and the rear section is proposed to be demolished and replaced with new construction (high-bay area).

The Brodhead Association is seeking community and political support to reject the commercial plan’s demolition, and to provide its own veteran-led, community-based alternative, which will completely rehabilitate and restore the armory. The association has the written support of organizations including The Montford Point Marines, Tuskegee Airmen, Airforce Association, Reserve Association of America, VFW, American Legion, and others.

The armory was built in 1930 when the Michigan Naval Militia of 1893 (who fought in The Spanish-American War and WWI) outgrew its previous headquarters. Brodhead is also well-known as the site where boxer Joe Louis fought his first amateur bout.

Should it be successful in its opposition, the Brodhead Association has assembled a team of developers, architects, restoration experts, and business development professionals to renovate the interior and the exterior of the facility, and to restore the artwork, murals, and woodworks that led to Brodhead Armory’s designation as an historical site.

“William Buck Stratton designed the Armory in the 1920s,” says Charles F. Merz of Merz & Associates Architects & Urban Designers, which has been retained to lead the association’s renovation plan. “There are naval wall murals, ornate plaster artwork, wood carvings, and Pewabic tile – much of which was created onsite and cannot be moved. Thorough rehabilitation of the intricate components which make the Armory such a treasure is as crucial as the restoration of the Art Modern and Art Deco style of the structure itself.”

When restored, according to the association, the Brodhead Armory will serve as a Veteran’s Resource Center for active duty, reserve, National Guard, and retired military personnel and their family members. It will host after-school programming for youth and young adults with an emphasis on education/tutoring, mentoring, and sports-related activities; and it will serve as a business and training incubator, providing numerous workforce development opportunities for transitioning veterans, returning citizens and other residents of Detroit.

“The Brodhead Association is especially driven to establish STEM programs for K-12 students, host Detroit area JROTC training/events, and a skilled trades initiative, specializing in high-tech training for careers in space technology, renewable energy, cyber, government contracting, and commercial drone operations,” says Semerad. “We see this as an incubator reminiscent of TechTown, where people can find support for training in future careers in myriad highly sought fields.”

Additional highlights of The Brodhead Association’s plan for the iconic military facility are a Veterans Memorial Plaza for ceremonies and events, a restaurant, a gift shop, a beer and wine garden, a museum, library, banquet center, office space for veteran/military/corporate organizations, and a multistory residential tower with a mix of market rate units for rent and for sale, with a portion of the units offered to veterans utilizing the HUD-VASH program, and/or other related veteran housing initiatives.

The Brodhead Association’s capital stack is derived from a combination of private capital; contributions; historic tax credits; PACE financing; state funding, such as MEDC, EGLE and other available grant and loan programs; and private institutional financing, supported by available federal guarantees provided by the SBA.

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