It took more than 20 years, and some encouragement from his wife, before Alex Begin fulfilled his dream of restoring an original elevator from the famed Hudson’s department store in downtown Detroit.
In fact, he had a contemporary home designed around the American walnut-lined elevator, complete with pneumatic doors that whoosh every time the lift is put through its paces. It wasn’t easy, as Begin describes “under the radar” measures he undertook to secure what turned out to be a pair of elevators — one from the 1920s and the other built sometime in the 1960s — long before the project crystalized into a two-level residence with a walkout alongside Forest Lake in Bloomfield Township.
“I was born and raised on Detroit’s west side, and nearly every week since I was a young boy my parents would take me to Hudson’s,” says Begin, a partner at Gordon Begin Properties, an apartment management and ownership firm in Madison Heights. “It was a giant experience every time, and I just fell in love with the elevators, especially the hissing sound the pneumatic doors make.”
When the store closed in 1983, Begin figured it was a matter of time before the icon would be demolished. Starting with the Hudson’s family, he began writing letters to inquire whether one of the elevators would be available for sale. He also contacted Dayton-Hudson Corp., which owned and operated dozens of other Hudson’s department stores, along with several subsequent owners of the Detroit landmark.
“I always got a response, but people said I was crazy, it was a stupid dream, they won’t operate, they can’t meet code, and so on,” Begin recalls. “Finally, in 1995, I learned the city was going to take control of the property due to unpaid back taxes, so I called the previous two owners and (they) said they were going to lose the property within 90 days.”
Begin convinced one of the owners to part with a set of keys to the building. He had 30 days to remove whatever he wanted. “That’s when I hired an elevator guy from out of state because I wanted the removal of the elevator to be under the radar,” he says. “I didn’t want the word to get out locally, because overnight I may have become everyone’s best friend, at least among those who wanted one last look inside the store.”
After finding and securing a 1920s elevator cab and all of the mechanical equipment, he also removed a 1960s-era elevator, along with extra American walnut panels from the men’s department on the second floor. From there, everything was put in a large storage locker in Troy, where the pieces were preserved for more than 20 years.
Following some nudging from his wife, Diane, Begin acquired a lot in 2014, hired DesRosiers Architects in Bloomfield Hills, and broke ground on the home two years later. In the interim, he began assembling a team to assess the state of the 1920s elevator and whether it could be restored to its original working condition.
“Alex wanted to install what I would call a museum piece, and then have us design the house around it,” says DesRosiers, president of DesRosiers Architects. “The caliber of the restoration was like something out of Greenfield Village (the famed historic attraction in Dearborn). The trick was designing the home to accommodate all of the mechanical systems on top of the elevator without it being obvious, so the top of the home has this extended part that looks like a unique glass skylight that masks the machine room access stairs from the attic below.”
While designing the plans, DesRosiers says he had different ideas of how the elevator would be used by the Begin family.
“I had this vision that when it was all completed, there would be a birthday party in the lower level of the home and a birthday cake would be set on a table, wheeled into the elevator, and the cake would descend one floor to the party, and when the doors opened, out (it would come) with all the candles burning,” he says.
With the home scheduled for occupancy this February, the celebration is a foregone conclusion. Yet the idea of a party may never have come to light without an experienced team to restore a nearly century-old elevator that lacked mechanical drawings and operator instructions.
“When I was asked to visit the storage locker, what I saw were these nasty, dirty, and damaged panels stacked against a wall,” says Greg Bartelt, founder and owner of Vogue Furniture in Royal Oak. “Usually with wood that old the veneer starts to lift, but the panels were in OK condition; they were somewhat beat up, and the finish was in bad shape.”
From there, the panels were transported to Vogue Furniture, where most of the wood was stripped, reconditioned, and finished. To fill in the gaps, new American walnut was secured, and Bartelt and his team were able to find veneer that was a near-match to the original material.
“We stained the wood, secured a cellulose lacquer that we applied, and matched the grain so closely you can barely tell the difference,” Bartelt says. “We also worked with a metalist, Jim Starr, and his son, Drew. Unfortunately Jim passed away in 2018, but Drew worked on all the metal parts needed for the restoration, including bronze, brass, and steel. The level of detail is amazing.”
To bring the mechanical systems back to life, Begin and his contractor, Joe Tasch, project manager at Thomas Sebold and Associates, a luxury homebuilder in Bloomfield Hills, turned to Detroit Elevator Co. in Ferndale.
“One of the challenges was that none of the dozens of parts and materials Alex had in his storage locker were inventoried or catalogued,” Tasch says. “We had to figure out what parts we needed, and be mindful that everything we did had to be brought up to code, which we did. It was one of the more amazing projects I’ve worked on.”
Everything on the elevator works as it did when operators began transporting shoppers to different floors of the Hudson’s store, including the pneumatic doors, the backlit clock-like floor position indicator, and the floor call light tree in the cab. There’s even a spot where original merchandise sales posters will be reproduced and placed behind two glass cases set on either side of the entrance to the decorative cab.
“I give a lot of credit for restoring the elevator to Detroit Elevator Co.,” Begin says. “Opie Stark, their construction manager, was like Dr. Frankenstein, (and) raised this project from the dead. He figured out all of the mechanics and dials. Credit also goes to Andy Koupal, a glassblower at Greenfield Village, who recreated the glass bulb for the pointer. He also made molds and duplicates of all of the glass pieces in case something breaks.”
Asked how much he spent on restoring the elevator, Begin pauses before reciting that normally a modern residential elevator could cost around $150,000, including installation.
“I spent between $400,000 and $500,000 on the elevator, which includes the storage fees (over 20 years),” he says. “I justify it by realizing that other people spend that kind of money on fancy boats. So this is my toy, and it will work forever. By the way, if you know anyone who wants to buy a 1960s elevator from Hudson’s, let me know.”