Detroit’s Newly Purchased Grand Army of the Republic Hall – GAR Building to Be Renovated

One of Detroit’s most notable Civil War landmarks, the historic Grand Army of the Republic Hall at Cass and Grand River, is soon to receive a new lease on life thanks to a plan from a Detroit media firm. It took nearly six years, but downtown Detroit’s castle-like building originally used by Union Civil War soldiers is now owned by a group of longtime supporters of Detroit.

The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News reported yesterday that the Grand Army of the Republic Hall, historically known as the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Building but contemporarily referred to as the GAR Building, was recently purchased from the City of Detroit for $220,000 by an ownership entity under the name of NewGAR LLC, consisting of brothers Tom and David Carleton and their partner Sean Emery, principals of Detroit-based Mindfield Pictures. Founded in 2000, Mindfield develops, produces, and directs film, video, animation, and interactive media for Ford, Toyota and other commercial clients for application nationwide.

Mindfield officials confirmed Thursday that cleanup of the GAR Building will start immediately, including sealing the roof against snow and water damage this winter. The partners plan a $2-3 million renovation to restore the five-story building and intend to move their studio to the top two floors. The rest of the structure will be converted to rental space for offices, retail businesses, and possibly a ground-floor restaurant.

The building has a personal connection for the Carleton brothers, who have two ancestors that served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and their plans include maintaining the integrity of the building through a memorial to Civil War veterans. They also intend to restore the structure’s lobby as well as a top floor meeting hall and balcony originally used for social events hosted by the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for Union Civil War veterans.

The interior has suffered considerable water damage over the years and needs a complete renovation. “The building itself is structurally sound,” Emery said. ” Obviously there’s a lot of interior damage that needs to be rectified. All in all, it’s got strong bones, and we look forward to making it great again.”

In a press release, Mindfield’s executive producer David Carleton said the process of trying to buy the building from the city began in 2006. At that time, Ilitch Holdings had controlled the GAR building for several years but, when they failed renovate the building, the City of Detroit reclaimed it and began negotiating with the Mindfield partners. The sale to Mindfield is the culmination of a five-year effort to create what they vow will be one of Detroit’s “most innovative creative spaces”.

“We’re going to self-finance a good deal of the project,” David Carleton said. “We aren’t big borrowers in terms of sleeping at night.” Mindfield will occupy the building first, he said, adding, “As the neighborhood develops, tenants arise, we’ll push forward” with securing occupants for the remaining structure.

The GAR Building was designed by architect Julius Hess in the Richardsonian Romanesque style that was popular in the late 19th century and which also suggested military strength. Construction began in 1897, the cornerstone was set in 1899, and the structure was completed in 1900. But by 1934, most Civil War veterans had passed away of old age and the building was given to the City of Detroit, who began renting it out. It was occupied first as offices for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), then as a police lockup and, in 1943, the Department of Parks and Recreation took over the space as an activity center complete with basketball and shuffleboard on the fourth floor.

The building was then used by founding members of Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, 1861 – 1865 (DUVCW) Sarah M. W. Sterling Tent No. 3 (of which I am proudly a member) until 1973, when it was effectively abandoned except for limited use as office space for the City of Detroit. The building was boarded up in 1982 and it has been closed ever since.

After its closure, the GAR Building in Detroit was saved from the wrecking ball due primarily to the efforts of Celestine Caldwell Hollings of DUVCW Sarah M. W. Sterling Tent No. 3. Although assisted by members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), Mrs. Hollings spearheaded a 15-year effort to save this historic building.

Federal Court Judge Sean Cox entered a Consent Judgment on September 1, 2006 ensuring the GAR Building would be renovated and that the new owner will cooperate with the Allied Orders of the GAR including the SUVCW and the DUVCW. The Allied Orders will have reasonable access to the building and will create and maintain a historical display in the lobby of the building. The new owner must also restore and preserve the mosaic tile floor in the lobby and any other historically significant elements on the interior and exterior of the building.

This won’t be the first major renovation project for the Carletons. Mindfield is currently headquartered across downtown in the Jerome Remick & Co. building on Library Street, a structure the partners bought and began renovating in 1992. Now known as the Library Lofts, 1250 Library Street is home to both Mindfield and Vicente’s Cuban Cuisine.

“We do believe in the city and saving buildings like that,” said David Carleton.

Thank you, Tom and David Carleton and Sean Emery, on behalf of all descendants of Michigan’s Civil War veterans, for your commitment to honoring their memory and to the City of Detroit.

If you’d like to take very rare photographic tours of the incredible interior of Detroit’s GAR Building, please visit DetroitFunk.com and ForgottenDetroit.com.

Detroit GAR Building (1)

Me in front of Detroit’s GAR Building in November 2008.

Detroit GAR Building (2)

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Various stunning architectural details of Detroit’s GAR Building.

Detroit GAR Building (9)

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Detroit GAR Building (12)

Sources: The Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, Crains Detroit, The Chicago Tribune, MyFoxDetroit.com, Wikipedia.org, Forgottendetroit.com, AtDetroit.net, DetroitFunk.com, and garmuslib.org.

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