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.