Revitalising Detroit, A Dish At A Time

Antietam (exterior). Pete-Deevakul
Two vacant Art Deco buildings in Eastern Market have been restored and transformed into restaurant Antietam. Photography: Pete Deevakul 

The city’s restaurateurs put flesh on the bones of its abandoned buildings.

Think of Detroit and the first words that usually come to mind are ‘cars,’ ‘Motown,’ or more recently, ‘broke.’ But with the bankruptcy behind the city (it emerged from Chapter 9 last November), the latest buzz on the street is not about ‘restructuring,’ but rather, ‘revitalising.’
One of the most visible signs of the city’s comeback is the number of new restaurants popping up in old buildings: nurturing Detroiters with both farm-to-table food and the refurbishment of beloved, previously vacant, spaces.

It took brothers, David and Tom Carleton, and their business partner, Sean Emory, nearly four years to obtain the historic, triangular-shaped Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) building in downtown Detroit. The 1897 five-story structure, which resembles a castle with its 11th and 12th century European revivalist features – arches, towers, columns and recessed entrances – was originally used as a meeting place for veterans of the Civil War Union Army.

Later, in the 1930s it became a city government building, housing the Parks and Recreation department, complete with shuffleboard courts. But from 1986 until 2011, when the partners purchased it for $220,000, the building remained vacant, filled with pigeons.
‘When we first walked in you could feel the history of the place,’ recalls David Carleton of the 22,000 sq ft space, which now boasts two restaurants (the five-month old, Republic Tavern, and the soon-to-be opened Parks & Rec), a wedding venue, and offices upstairs for their media company, Mindfield. Carleton believes they have spent close to $4 million on the build-out.

Thanks to Los Angeles-based set designer, Peter Gurski (a former Detroiter), both restaurants reflect the building’s heritage, from the blue colour of the décor in Republic Tavern (the same hue as Union soldiers’ uniforms) to the checkerboard-topped tables in Parks & Rec (Gurski also found an old park bench for extra seating).

‘I really wanted to tell a design story about the building,’ says Gurski, who polished old joists from the building and made them into table tops at Republic and decorated the walls of Park & Rec with the painted shuffle board wood. ‘I realised the best way to showcase the architecture and history was by adding modern touches to old elements.’

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