Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Renaissance Center

Built by Ford Motor Co., bought by General Motors Corp., and soon to be re-envisioned by Bedrock, Detroit’s biggest developer, the Renaissance Center has been the most recognizable piece of the city’s skyline for nearly half a century.

The RenCen, as it is known, is made up of seven interconnected glass-sheathed buildings and is the most iconic piece of Detroit's skyline. For almost half a century, it has been the tallest building in not only Detroit, but the State of Michigan. The complex is so large – encompassing 5.5 million square feet and occupying more than 14 acres of riverfront property – that it even has its own ZIP code. Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, more than 10,000 people worked in its offices, shops and restaurants every day.

A hope for a Renaissance

The 1970s were a challenging time for Detroit on many fronts. Nationally, federal support for urban renewal had dwindled to a trickle, and the allure of suburban living had already become firmly entrenched in America. At the same time, Detroit had been bleeding both population and businesses. In 1950, Detroit hit its population peak of just shy of 2 million people, but by 1970, it had dropped to 1.5 million - a decrease of 20 percent, or 1 out of every 5 residents - in just 20 years. By 1980, it was down to 1.2 million, a 36 percent decline since 1950. Though this fall did not begin with the city's racial unrest of July 1967, white flight and the resulting population loss and disinvestment were certainly accelerated by it.

Office towers, like the sprawling 139-square-mile city’s neighborhoods, were emptying out. Disinvestment, racial tensions and crime were threatening this great American city’s chances of survival, and it was clear that someone had to step up to reverse the tide. So, Henry Ford II did, convening a 26-member coalition in 1971, which "Hank the Deuce" hoped would come up with a solution to set the city on the road to revitalization – a renaissance, if you will.

This coalition, known as Detroit Renaissance, came up with a plan for a massive high-rise project to be built over three phases in the heart of downtown along what was then still an industrialized Detroit River. The idea was to try to reverse Detroit’s years of decline by pouring an incredible amount of investment into downtown, as well as put money into the pockets of the 7,000-some construction workers needed to build it. And what an investment it was. At $350 million - the equivalent of $1.8 billion in 2024 valuation, when adjusted for inflation - the Renaissance Center was the largest privately funded real estate development in the country’s history at that time.

Atlanta architect John Portman, who was known for designing mixed-use high-rises hailed as saviors of downtown, got the nod in 1973. Portman’s vision called for a massive complex of skyscrapers - "a city within a city" - that was filled to the brim with glass atriums and elevators, hanging gardens, cantilevered balconies, and even a revolving rooftop restaurant at the top. It was unlike anything Detroit had ever seen. On top of that, the RenCen would replace crumbling 19th-century warehouses and factories, and overlook not only the Detroit River but Hart Plaza. And as the state’s tallest building, it was to serve as a beacon that Detroit was very much still a modern, thriving city.

Initially, the plan called for “just” five interconnected buildings: a 73-story Westin hotel – the tallest hotel in the world when it opened in 1977 – and four 39-story office towers. These first five towers required 2 million square feet of glass, more than 40,000 tons of steel and almost 400,000 cubic yards of concrete. A groundbreaking ceremony was held May 22, 1973.

"The mass looms over Detroit like 2001," Peter Gavrilovich wrote in the Aug. 22, 1976, edition of the Detroit Free Press. "Towers of glass shimmer in the summer sun where once a flour mill stood. And at night, flashing lights shoo away planes from the top of the nearly completed 70-story hotel. There has never been anything like it in Michigan. ...

"To Americans caught up in the excitement of tall buildings, the Renaissance Center is a magnificent structure. Step along the meandering corridors that connect the four 39-story office towers and 70-story hotel, and at every turn you can create a new adventure. It is not the basic American architecture of front door, corridor, elevators and smoke shop. You will get lost roaming Renaissance, but it will be nearly like walking through Alice's looking glass."

But even before it was completed, there was skepticism. Gavrilovich also wrote: "When Henry Ford II dazzled Detroiters with his ambitious plan four years ago, he was hailed a savior, and his yet-to-be named Renaissance Center was called a catalyst - the magnet that could suck back the dollars that had been taking the northbound Lodge for several years. But will it spur renaissance? Will it lure new investment back downtown? Or will it stand half-empty, $337 million worth of over-optimism? Will it help downtown? Or will it BECOME downtown?"

Even Joseph L. Hudson Jr., president and CEO of the department store giant that bore his family's name, told the paper: "Renaissance Center is not going to do anything for Detroit overnight. It's a long-term proposition that will take many years to fulfill." He also noted that the store studied "carefully" whether to move to the RenCen or open a smaller shop inside it, but decided to do neither. Hudson's "Big Store" closed seven years later.

Perhaps the most excitement came from the RenCen's Detroit Plaza Hotel, which nearly doubled the number of rooms in the under-hoteled downtown, adding 1,400 rooms to the only 1,600 there before it. Reinforcing this “city within a city” complex, the RenCen was even home to a four-screen movie theater that opened in Tower 200 in the late 1970s.

Two additional office towers - known as Towers 500 and 600 - were added in 1981, bringing the number of RenCen buildings to seven. There also had been plans for a series of residential units along the riverfront - though this third phase was never built. No promises were made to build the second and third phases, with both being reliant on the success of the project.

A fortress of downtown solitude

As visually striking as the RenCen may have been, its form did not follow function. The common areas were immediately compared to a labyrinth, a maze of concrete corridors connected by a series of escalators that made it difficult for shoppers to find stores and workers to find their way to meetings.

But beyond that, the greatest criticism of the RenCen was that its design contradicted everything it set out to do. Instead of reunifying a struggling city, the Renaissance Center cut itself off from it. Its towers were, indeed, like self-contained cities, and decidedly – and seemingly intentionally – isolated from the rest of downtown.

A series of massive concrete berms lining Jefferson Avenue not only proved unwelcoming to the general public but effectively served as castle walls. A great number of workers, if not an overwhelming majority of them, drove in and out without ever setting foot on a downtown street. They could drive into the city from the suburbs; park their car in one of the attached garages; cross a skybridge into the RenCen; and then cross that same skybridge to get back in their car, and be back on the freeway in no time at all.

Another problem was that that instead of attracting new businesses downtown, many of the existing ones just relocated into the RenCen. This served to leech office tenants from older skyscrapers and expedited those older towers' closure. A common analogy made was to “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

This was not the original intent, but even before it was completed, the excitement over the RenCen's construction was not translating into leases.

"The center is having trouble luring tenants into the 2.4 million square feet of its four office towers," the Detroit Free Press reported Aug. 22, 1976. "To date, 30 percent of the project has been leased. What remains is 1.7 million square feet - more office space than in all of Akron, Ohio. Efforts to woo tenants of suburban office buildings have failed. So have attempts to interest corporations outside Detroit in renting space for district or regional offices. Now, Renaissance Center personnel have begun to say openly that their 'primary market' for tenants who are already there, renting space in other buildings."

Jerry Luptak, owner of the Buhl Building, called the RenCen "a glass menagerie," and told the Free Press in the same story that "at best, I'm ambivalent about Renaissance Center. ... They're hustling our tenants constantly. In my opinion, they're a bunch of amateurs."

The Detroit Plaza Hotel, however, was seeing substantial success, with some 475,000 room nights booked between the hotel's opening in 1977 and 1981, about 30 percent of the hotel's capacity over that four-year time frame even before it opened.

These were also frequent criticisms of Portman’s designs, with The New York Times even calling out the RenCen as perhaps the architect’s most infamous example.

Upon Portman’s death on Dec. 29, 2017, at age 93, The Times' obituary the following day said: “His buildings often evoked oohs and aahs from the public, but were not always a hit with critics, who called them concrete islands, self-contained cities within cities — serving their patrons yet insular, even forbidding to outsiders. … A rising chorus of critics derided his structures as islands of exclusion, paradoxically cut off from the downtowns they were intended to rescue.

“His Renaissance Center in Detroit was a glaring example. A cluster of four 39-story office buildings and a 73-story hotel with shops, restaurants and theaters was built in the 1970s to save a depressed city. But its gleaming towers on the Detroit River were as remote as a cloud-ringed Disneyland castle.”

Chiming in on Portman’s legacy in Detroit, Detroit Free Press architecture critic John Gallagher wrote for a Jan. 2, 2018, column: “Probably no architect ever made a bigger impact with a single building on Detroit's skyline than John Portman (but) it's a troubled legacy. In terms of architecture and urban design (the RenCen) created as many problems as it solved. As Portman designed it, the RenCen stood aloof from the rest of the city rather than integrating itself into the streetscape. Enormous mechanical berms blocked it off from the rest of downtown. The RenCen squatted on the riverside but ignored it, blocking access to the waterfront. …

“Portman's fans loved the soaring futuristic atriums he created in the RenCen and similar projects in other cities. And those dark-glass cylindrical towers injected a shot of space-age modernism into a Detroit downtown still known mostly for its classic 1920s-era skyscrapers like the Guardian and Penobscot.”

In the end, Gallagher said, “Portman's Renaissance Center had proved to be a building of its time, when urban fortresses created pleasure palaces for those lucky enough to work inside them but that did terrible damage to the urban fabric.”

GM buys a Ford

For the tower’s first 19 years, Ford Motor Co. occupied one of the office towers. But in 1996, the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker sold the four main towers of the complex to one of its rivals, General Motors. At the time, GM was still located in its Albert Kahn-designed headquarters in New Center. As part of the announcement, the company said it would move its 5,400 workers downtown, and transfer ownership of its historic home to the State of Michigan. GM finished moving out of New Center and into the RenCen in 2000.

GM was reported to have scooped up the RenCen for $73 million, the equivalent of $144 million in 2024, when adjusted for inflation. That’s a sizable discount on the $1.8 billion in 2024 valuation that it cost to build it.

Perhaps one of the reasons GM got such a deal on the property was because the RenCen needed a number of upgrades and retooling to overcome many of its challenges and criticisms that had plagued it from the get-go. GM committed $500 million to the renovation - which equates to about $900 million in 2024 dollars. This “next gen” RenCen was the work of Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architects.

The biggest piece of that makeover came in 2001, when GM opened the RenCen's five-story Wintergarden food court and public space. This overhaul saw GM tear down the fortress-like berms that walled the RenCen off from the rest of downtown, and replaced it with a new entrance that invited Detroiters in, instead of trying to keep them out. The Wintergarden also opened up the back of the RenCen to the riverfront with a new plaza that would go on to become a key piece of the award-winning Detroit RiverWalk. The renovation also added a 12-foot suspended “circulation ring,” a raised walkway that made it easier for people to find their way around the maze-like interior.

The renovation work was completed in 2004. Writing in the Detroit Free Press on Jan. 2, 2018, Gallagher wrote that “it was only after General Motors bought the RenCen in the 1990s that it became the building Portman should have crafted in the first place.”

Meanwhile, new restaurants - such as the resurrected fan favorite Joe Muer’s Seafood and Andiamo’s - set up shop. At the same time, there were new tenants, some of the building’s oldest closed up shop. After a nearly four decade run, the Ren Cen 4 first-run movie theater closed June 30, 2015, with management saying the 680-seat theater was too old and too small to keep operating in a world of megaplexes with reclining leather seats and Dolby Surround Sound. At the time, the theater was run by Uptown Entertainment, part of Ilitch Holdings. The last movies shown were “Inside Out,” “Jurassic World,” “San Andreas” and “Entourage.”

As proof that not even though GM’s efforts to make the RenCen more user-friendly were an improvement, they were not a total success, with some blaming the theater’s closure on the challenges faced with even finding it.

"A lot of people don't even know it's here," said James Merrill, 33, of Detroit, told the Detroit Free Press for a June 30, 2015, story on the theater’s closing. "This place is a maze to get through. Nobody really comes here because they don't know about it."

COVID changes everything

Technology now allowed for more office workers - even those not in tech-centered jobs - to work remotely. As “work from home” became a not only popular but widely accepted practice, office occupancy at the RenCen and office towers around the world plummeted. But based on its sheer size, the RenCen was affected far more than most. After all, heating and cooling the glass giant cost the same whether there were 10,000 or 100 workers there. Shops and restaurants, without anyone to patronize them, closed.

By the end of 2022, less than two years after the pandemic struck, the RenCen alone accounted for 53 percent of downtown Detroit’s overall office vacancy in its leading 22 office towers. Adding to the building’s woes, between 2018 and 2023, GM had reduced its employee headcount in the RenCen by more than 50 percent, and moved much of its white-collar workforce to its Warren Tech Center in Warren, Mich.

As of December 2022, the RenCen’s office space looked like the following (keeping in mind that “leased” does not mean the same thing as being actively used, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic):

  • Renaissance Center, Tower 100: 588,000 square feet, 85 percent leased
  • Renaissance Center, Tower 200: 593,000 square feet, 36.4 percent leased
  • Renaissance Center, Tower 300: 585,000 square feet, 100 percent leased
  • Renaissance Center, Tower 400: 576,000 square feet, 98.9 percent leased
  • Renaissance Center, Tower 500: 307,000 square feet, 100 percent leased
  • Renaissance Center, Tower 600: 307,000 square feet, 59 percent leased

The two easternmost office towers — officially known as the 500 and 600 River East Towers — that were not owned by GM were sold by a New Jersey-based publicly traded utility company to Friedman Real Estate of suburban Farmington Hills, Mich. All 307,000 square feet of the 21-story 600 River East Tower are occupied by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. The sales price for Towers 500 and 600 was not made public, but closed Dec. 21, 2023.

Despite the post-COVID writing being on the wall, there was still considerable shock around Michigan when GM President and CEO Mary Barra announced on April 17, 2024, that GM would move out of the RenCen and partner with developer Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock to redevelop either the complex, or the site. In turn, GM would become the largest corporate tenant of Gilbert’s new 1.5-million-square-foot Hudson’s Detroit skyscraper that was being erected on the one-time site of Detroit’s famed Hudson’s Department Store. GM signed a 15-year lease for the top office floors of the high-rise and planned to also have street-level space to show off its vehicles and host community events. Incidentally, the announcement meant GM would move from Michigan’s tallest building to its second-tallest.

“It will be our corporate headquarters, our nerve center and a collaborative space for our employees,” Barra said at a press conference held at the Hudson’s Detroit site. “And it's located in the heart of downtown on an important historic site that Detroiters hold dear.”

Barra cited the RenCen’s size and the number of employees working remote as the reason behind the move.

In subsequent weeks, as speculation about the RenCen’s fate continued to swell, she was asked at a Detroit Economic Club event on May 23, 2024, whether the building’s demolition was an option.

Without ruling it out, she said that “We’re first looking at what can be done, and what would be the appropriate use for the business. We’ve got a year to do that, so (finding a new use for the building is) where we’re focused,” Barra said.