The industrial revolution was never history’s best friend. Apart from museums and historical attractions like The Henry Ford in Dearborn, there are few buildings in Detroit that predate the mechanical age.
Now comes the digital revolution, which is proving to be history’s savior. With a few computers, a server room, and a high-speed data line, law firms, ad agencies, and film studios can operate almost anywhere. And these days, with cloud computing, a server room may not be necessary.
“If we still needed celluloid film to produce movies, we’d be located in some industrial park instead of renovating an architectural treasure,” says Tom Carleton, a partner — together with his brother, David Carleton, and Sean Emery — in Mindfield, a digital creative studio that produces film, video, animation, and interactive media.
While nothing was stopping Mindfield from operating in an industrial park, the founders preferred an address with more historical character. Their first project was Library Lofts in downtown Detroit, a six-story structure built in 1907 on Library Street behind the former Hudson’s store. The building housed a publisher of ragtime music, followed by a toy store, a music business, a rug company, and a Good Housekeeping outlet.
In 1992, the brothers purchased the vacant building and set up Mindfield on the top floor. They eventually renovated the remaining space into lofts and leased out the ground floor to Vicente’s Cuban Cuisine. Mission accomplished? Yes and no.
The creative trio had another restoration project waiting. The object of their desire was the Grand Army of the Republic Building, a castle-like fortress at Cass and Grand River built to honor Civil War veterans. Completed in 1900, the structure was converted to various commercial operations in 1935, when the last of the veterans passed on. Since the late 1970s, the building has been vacant.
For $220,500, the group purchased the Grand Army of the Republic Building from the city. Next year, following a $2 million restoration spearheaded by Detroit-based StudiozONE and Integrity Building Group, Mindfield will set up shop on the uppermost floor, originally an assembly hall with a mezzanine (the stage backdrop was a battlefield mural).
“We will display Civil War memorabilia wherever we can,” David says during a recent tour. “We envision a bar and restaurant on the first floor, leased space most likely for other digital-based businesses on floors two and three, and then our space.”
During the renovation, David jokes, they may discover another treasure. “I keep thinking we’ll find Confederate gold.” While finding gold may be a long shot, it’s clear the digital revolution is bringing a lot more of Detroit’s historical structures into focus. Startups and expanding businesses want the cool space, and Detroit has a ready supply. db