Abandoned Wurlitzer close to being sold to trendy Brooklyn developers

The Wurlitzer (right), the Metropolitan (left) and the Broderick Tower stand tall in downtown Detroit. All photos by Steve Neavling
The Wurlitzer Building (right), the Metropolitan (left) and the Broderick Tower (rear) stand tall in downtown Detroit. All photos by Steve Neavling

The 14-story Wurlitzer Building in downtown Detroit is within days of salvation, if all goes as planned.

Brooklyn-based developer and interior design firm, ASH NYC, is expected to close on a deal to purchase the long-abandoned, graffiti-strewn building as early as Thursday, the deadline imposed by the notoriously neglectful owners, Wayne County Circuit Judge Daphne Means Curtis and her husband Paul Curtis, according to people close to the deal.

The Wurlitzer is tall and narrow, towering over Broadway.
The Wurlitzer Building is tall and narrow, towering over Broadway.

ASH NYC wants to convert the Renaissance Revival building at 1509 Broadway into a boutique hotel with retail and restaurant space on the lower floors. The company specializes in converting distressed, historic buildings into stylish hotels, apartments and condos, often in urban areas experiencing a real estate resurgence.

Ari Heckman, one of the founding partners of ASH NYC, expressed enthusiasm but said he couldn’t discuss details yet because the deal wasn’t final.

“We are very excited about potentially being involved in Detroit and the welcome the city has given us to date,” Heckman told me in an e-mail.

The Wurlitzer’s fate has been in question since the owners bought the vacant building in 1995 for $210,000 and let it decay. Its exterior has been shedding for years and recently prompted Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration to take the owners to court to force them to stabilize the crumbling bricks and terracotta.

As part of a deal with the owners, ASH NYC paid for the stabilization work, which cost up to $100,000, according to sources familiar with the arrangement.

The Wurlitzer is in danger of being foreclosed because the Curtises are three years delinquent on property taxes, owing more than $28,000, according to the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office. The county has indicated it would seize the building later this year if the taxes aren’t paid by early this summer, at the latest.

The looming purchase comes at an exciting time for this long-struggling part of downtown Detroit. Its high-rise neighbor, the vacant and blighted Metropolitan Building, is undergoing exterior work and is expected to be converted into apartments sometime in the near future. Nearby are the Detroit Opera House, Boll Family YMCA, Z Garage, restaurants and new lofts.

But nothing is certain. The Wurlitzer was reportedly within weeks of a new owner – an Israeli development firm – in October 2013 but nothing came of it.

The Wurlitzer is covered with graffiti.
The Wurlitzer is covered with graffiti.

The Wurlitzer family, which produced world-famous pianos, organs and jukeboxes, built the Wurlitzer in 1926, using some of the space as a headquarters and retail space. But like most of downtown Detroit, the building began struggling to keep tenants in the 1970s and eventually went vacant in 1982.

“The building sat empty and deteriorating for more than a decade until Detroit lawyer Paul Curtis acquired the building in 1995 for only $211,021,” wrote HistoricDetroit.org. “He has done nothing with it and left it largely open to trespass. Vandals and thieves have destroyed much of the interior and stripped it of valuable metals.”

Despite the damage, engineers have found no structural problems.

The front of the building is ornamental.
The front of the building is ornamental.

Most of ASH NYC’s work has been on dilapidated buildings.  They recently transformed an abandoned and notorious strip club into a 52-room boutique hotel in Providence, RI. Other projects include luxury apartments in Manhattan and mixed-use developments in Brooklyn.

“We subscribe to a design theory that eschews premeditation or calculation in favor of an organic approach that is influenced equally by architecture, history, art, light and color,” the developers posted on their website. “We are fanatics of detail, material and source. We favor the combination of the modern and the ancient, and the harmony that can result from a deft balance of periods along the entire spectrum of design history.”

It’s unclear how much the owners are asking. The price was more than $1 million in 2012.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

  • dirtydog1776

    Public officials (including a judge) who don’t pay their taxes and thumb their noses at the law? Who would have thunk it?

  • Michael

    ASH seems pretty serious about this, check out their past works. I’m sure the local business owners will be happy to have a new neighbor.

  • Harry Palmer

    Glad to see these buildings go to responsible owners who are interested in restoration and re-use. Too many speculators like the Illitch’s (or Moroun for that matter) who buy up these properties, and leave them to decay and crumble for the sole purpose of flattening them (See: new Red Wing Arena) because they’re “too far gone”.
    The only thing that separates the urban areas from the bland architecture of the ‘burbs are these types of buildings that can no longer be built.
    Don’t want to see Detroit become a mini version of Troy.

    • Name one speculative commercial property that Illitch owns in the City of Detroit.

      • Fergus

        A good piece about the history of this scrum would involve some serious reporting about people who envisioned a downtown turnaround for decades, clinging to properties that no one would buy or lease space in, often investing all they had in the process, only never to be around for the cash-in. Forget the boilerplate about the current owners of the Wurlitzer Building, for example. Go back a few years.

      • Harry Palmer

        “Over the last 20 years the Ilitches have managed to gain control of the majority of the land behind the Fox Theater over to Grand River, as well as a large portion of land just north of I-75 west of Woodward….With this land they’ve become hoarders in the truest sense. The existing structures seem to have little to no value in their eyes, and as a result they’ve let historically significant buildings rot. They’ve torn down most of the streetscape that existed, occasionally using public funds ($2.5 million in 2008, for example). And they’ve reduced the land to its lowest and worst use: gravel surface parking.”

        http://detroit.curbed.com/archives/2013/04/kelly-ellsworth-has-an-ilitch-to-scratch.php

        • Acquiring parcels of land to join together to form one large parcel on which to build a large entertainment complex is not speculation. They weren’t acquiring the land in hopes that someone would come along and offer them a higher price at a later date. They acquired the land slowly over a number of years as to not bid up the price of the assets they were trying to acquire.

          While all forms of real estate development are speculative in nature, this would not be considered speculative.

          • JF

            Over a 20 year period? Sorry, many, many people think that is the literal definition of speculative.

          • A longer horizon isn’t necessarily indicative of speculation. If it was someone else, I would argue that it would be a contrarian indicator of speculation, but given Illitch’s demonstrated patience I won’t make that case.

            I also think the author is starting the clock at the time Illitch moved to the Fox.

            Regardless of that, I know that Ilitch buying land down there for a new hockey arena was their plan since the late 90’s. It was one of the worst kept secrets there was. Not even sure it was a secret, per se. I seem to remember that they wanted to do something like this when Comerica Park was announced, but it wasn’t in a firm stage.

            People would try to come in and front run Illitch on some clapboard drug den, then wait for him to offer them money for it. This would be a great example of speculation. He’d just wait them out. Slowly watch the unpaid tax bill pile up, then rip their throats out. He paid up on a couple of properties that I can think of. I think two of them were last year, or the year before? Like $500k for some dump that wasn’t habitable.

            Maybe after he bought the Fox he grabbed a couple of other properties around the area at a fire sale price, which I would say would be speculative, but overall this arena had been on the drawing board a long time and a lot of people knew about it.

          • Harry Palmer

            It was rumored that the Illitch’s were using “Straw Buyers” to buy up property along Cass (keeping their name out of it, to keep the owners from holding out for higher $$)

            “Mike Illitch, the billionaire who owns the Red Wings arena, and some of fellow investors gobbled up a lot of properties in the Cass Corridor and let them languish, creating the illusion that the area was a dead zone for development. But because of secret deals such as the one on Temple Street, it’s often impossible to know the investors involved.”

            http://motorcitymuckraker.com/2014/10/28/mysterious-investor-demolishes-century-old-homes-to-make-way-for-red-wings-development-area/

  • Sounds like it could be a cool project. Regardless, capital investment = good.

  • Johnny McKay

    That’s a lot of free coffee.

  • kc8nod

    But will they collect their free coffee from 1515 Broadway?