Garden Theater Revival in Midtown Helps Bring Back Neighborhood

Jan 21

10:00 AM

By Erin Piscopink

Tagged: All Neighborhoods

Read the Detroit News article in its original format HERE

Garden Theater Revival in Midtown Helps Bring Back Neighborhood

Louis Aguilar for
The Detroit News

On a freezing, sunny afternoon, George Stewart walked the piece of Woodward he's spent 15 years bringing back to life. This year, the 76-year-old finds out if his long-deferred dream pays off.

Many say Stewart's journey shows how tough it is to save just one Detroit block, even when that block is in an area already on the rebound.

"The banks wouldn't even think about giving us a traditional loan," Stewart said as he walked out of the recently reopened Garden Theater, a shuttered theater he bought in 1999. "They were thinking 'Well, if you buy this empty theater, you still have all this other empty stuff.' "

So Stewart and his partners decided to buy all the "other stuff" on the western side of the 3900 block, a Midtown stretch of Woodward between Alexandrine and Selden. It was mainly a collection of battered storefronts. The Garden's last incarnation was as an X-rated movie house. The other buildings had gone through so many phases the storefronts were a clash of signs for closed businesses and boarded-up windows.

"I just refused to believe that was how the block was going to stay; all beat up and ignored," Stewart said as he exited the Garden. He looked toward downtown and waved to construction workers finishing 61 rental apartments next door. He headed north and through big ground-floor windows he could see the bustling offices of Wayne State University's family medicine department and the headquarters of the nonprofit Midtown Detroit Inc.

All of this is what he envisioned for his block.

"I just had no idea it was going to take this long," Stewart said.

Everything was supposed to be finished, remodeled and open for business eight years ago. Instead, he had to survive the Great Recession, which meant pouring thousands into buildings with no tenants. Then he waited for the neighborhood to be recast as Midtown, one of the most heavily invested areas in the city.

One corner of his block is already very popular. One of his buildings is home to Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company. As he stepped into the crowded cafe recently, most patrons looked decades younger than Stewart. "Sometimes I look around this place and I think, 'Wow, many different generations understand what we've been trying to do,' " he said. "Then I think 'Wow, we are finally going to generate some steady revenue.' "

For Stewart, Detroit has always been the land of education, big city fun and the path to the middle class. In the '60s, he was a Wayne State University doctoral student in mathematics. He remembers frequenting the lively theaters in the area — the 20 Grand, the Chesterfield Lounge, Flame Show Bar, to name a few.

His education landed him a great-paying job at the General Motors research laboratory, where he met Michael Byrd. Both men never forgot the promise of Detroit — even when many said it died sometime after the '67 riots.

"We never felt that the time of a vibrant Detroit was over. There was always one or two bars, other things, still doing well," he said.

Stewart and Byrd became business partners and started to look at the 3900 block of Woodward in 1999. Another longtime friend, William Mosely, joined them. Reviving the Garden was the goal. It conjured memories of the dynamic Detroit that Stewart knew still existed: a place where all kinds of influences mashed together and created something new, diverse.

The Garden Theater was built in 1912 by architect C. Howard Crane, designer of the Fox Theatre and Detroit Opera House.

The Garden became the 509 Club in the late '50s, then The Village in the early '60s. Rock and soul acts played there, such as Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and early Motown groups. In its final days, it was known as the Sassy Cat, a dingy place where people watched hardcore pornography.

"If you start something like this, you have to look at it for what it can become," Stewart said.
Luckily, Susan Mosey, president of Midtown Detroit Inc., shared that vision. Midtown Detroit is a major development force in the neighborhood.

"That project is the result of a lot of teamwork and patience," Mosey said.

"We went after as much non-traditional funding as possible; funding for historic development, urban renewal, facade improvement, you name it." The effort involved state and city agencies such as the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., support from foundations and tax credits. Eventually, more than $42 million was raised.

The result is a 300-space parking garage on Alexandrine and about 50,000 square feet of office and commercial space. Besides Midtown Detroit and WSU, Kresge Foundation is also an office tenant. Finding commercial tenants has not been a problem, Stewart said.

In the Garden Theater, Stewart refused to cut corners that would have ruined some of the historical nature of building, said Michael Poris, the architect who worked on the theater.

"He could have made some choices that would have saved him money. He never seemed to seriously consider it," Poris said.

The Garden opened in October. The 32,000-square-foot theater needs to prove itself as a strong contender in a competitive live venue market. It will bring national acts and seek corporate and private events.

A restaurant, The Grille Midtown, in the Garden recently opened for lunch and dinner.
Stewart, as always, seems unfazed by the challenge: "If you only look at the problems, you give up. One block at a time, that's the way Detroit is going to be rebuilt."