Preservation activist Francis Grunow hasn't been in Detroit long enough to have seen the United Artists Theatre in its original grandeur. But he recognizes "the architectural heritage hiding in plain sight," as he writes in a Crain's commentary.
Only folks over 60 might be old enough to know a time when the theater, located on Bagley just off Grand Circus Park, was well-maintained. Some seniors may even recall hints of a faded "Spanish Gothic" grandeur that famed architect C. Howard Crane imbued in his 1928 movie palace -- smaller, but every bit as fantastically ornate as the Fabulous Fox a few blocks away.
This was the era of intricate plaster detail, mosaics in soaring vaulted ceilings and breathtaking balcony views.
Grunow, a consultant who lives in Midtown, is former executive director of Preservation Detroit and a past chair of the Arena District Neighborhood Advisory Committee. His guest column in this week's business magazine is a public letter to Chris Ilitch, in effect -- a plea to the president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc. to resurrect the theater as an "homage to his parents and their vision." (Company chairwoman Marian Ilitch, his mother, started the firm in 1999 with husband Mike Ilitch, who died in 2017 at 87.)
The 2,070-seat theater, on the 18-story tower's street level, closed in 1973. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra made recordings there from 1978-83, and it has been unused since then.
Grunow is uneasy about the Ilitch family's plans for a inactive project called Residences @ 150 Bagley that apparently would eliminate the old movie palace.
Little has been done to meaningfully advance any redevelopment plan beyond artist renderings, splashy banners and strategic cleaning and shoring up.
That the family who garnered so much praise for its investment in the Fox Theatre and adjoining office renovation in the 1980s would be so noncommittal to a very similar reinvestment opportunity seems to suggest one long term strategy — the Ilitches never intended to do anything with the United Artists. ...
As Detroiters, can't we expect more?
A renovated United Artists theater to complement Detroit's entertainment district would be deservedly one of the most important and impressive preservation stories in Detroit. It would rival aspects of [Dan] Gilbert's incredible Book Tower project currently underway, and would surely be seen as Chris Ilitch's homage to his parents and their vision for restoring the Fox. ...
If District Detroit is ever going to amount to anything more meaningful than a half-baked idea, it will be because the Ilitches actually evolve their strategy beyond land speculation. They must risk to spend the money needed to activate historic properties like the United Artists Theatre, to inspire a new generation of investment that will fill in the gaps and create the active neighborhood the Ilitches claim they want, and that Detroiters deserve.