Detroit's United Artists Building Gets Another Makeover, Thanks To 'Transformers'

July 17, 2013, 3:28 PM by  Bill McGraw

The United Artists Building on Bagley is getting another new facade -- bamboo poles, yes, bamboo poles -- a welcome change for a once-lively structure that has been abandoned for 15 years.

Alas, the new look is make-believe. The bamboo is real, but it's all part of the elaborate set for the new "Transformers" movie that is under construction on a triangular piece of land between Bagley and Washington Boulevard, south of Grand Circus Park. And nothing says skyscraper-laden Hong Kong like bamboo. 

The United Artists Building sits across the street from the main set.

Crews have been working on the set for more than a month, using large cranes and other tools to construct a faux block with buildings in various stages of their life cycle. The film, "Transformers 4," directed by Michael Bay. The cast includes Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Li Bingbing, Sophia Myles, and Jack Reynor.

Filming is scheduled to begin in early August.

In the early 2000s, the United Artists became the site of one of Detroit's most elaborate and masterful graffiti jobs, left, when a local artist named Kevin Joy and friends spent nearly three years painting Mayan-style hieroglyphics and other designs on several hundred windows on every side of the empty building.

Joy and company gained entry and painted the icons from the inside, in reverse, so they would make sense to observers on the streets below while being protected from the weather.

The resulting 18-story wall of color gained national attention: Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, ran a large photo of the building with Joy's artwork on the cover of its September/October 2005 issue. 

But the artwork disappeared in December 2005, wiped clean on orders of the Ilitch organization, which owns the building. The cleanup came while Detroit was cleaning itself up for the 2006 Super Bowl, held a few blocks away at Ford Field.

In an interview at the time, Joy reacted philosophically to the obliteration of his art.

"What's more preposterous," he asked, "A giant Mayan temple in Detroit or spending money to have it all removed, and let it continue to sit empty?"

The office building, which includes a theater that once sat 2,000, was designed by famed architect C. Howard Crane and opened in 1928, perhaps the year in the 20th Century that Detroit peaked. The opulent Fox Theater and Fisher Building opened the same year, along with tens of thousands of other commercial structures and homes.

Workers have spent considerable time inside the United Artists in recent years, but their purpose was never announced. The buildings remains empty, and decaying at the edges, as the 15th-floor sculpture shows at right. It's possible to see through the building, just like the nearby Michigan Central Station.




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