River Reverie

This Detroit Towers apartment with a Roaring Twenties past is infused with a modern, big-city presence


Interior designer Kathleen McGovern’s first order of business during the renovation of this Detroit Towers home? A new pair of Eames chairs facing the Detroit River, providing homeowners Donna and Bud Brian with the perfect perch for river views. The apartment, built between 1925 and 1926, needed some serious restoration and updating, and McGovern and her team were up for the task. In all, the goal was achieved without taking away from the architecture or the views.


The painting is by Detroit native Richard Bogart and was the inspiration for the warm space that features aged bronze tones and metal finishes, including modern torchieres with etched-glass globes. A 30-inch patinaed bowl by British Columbia artist Martha Sturdy dominates the cocktail table, which has a metal inlay and was crafted by Michigan furniture designer Paul Rochon. “There is a harmony in the  mix of materials that makes the neutral palette sing,” says McGovern says.


It’s one of Detroit’s fabulous architectural gems from the 1920s, yet the slender building with its distinctive gilded, witch-hat crown, is barely noticed by the Jefferson Avenue commuters who whiz past.

Designed by Walter W. Ahlschlager Jr., a Chicago architect known more for his ornate movie palaces and hotels than apartment buildings, Detroit Towers is set back from East Jefferson by a long driveway — all the better to quell the sounds of the city. At the canopied entryway, a doorman greets residents and parks their cars in the covered garage. Inside, the 24-hour concierge and elevator operators help with groceries and packages.

For Bud and Donna Brian, the quietude, privacy, and luxury of such old-school services are just a few of the amazing features of the 2,800-square-foot apartment they moved into this past May. Another is the view: From every window, the glory of the undulating Detroit River and Belle Isle unfold 180 degrees. “It’s so calming,” Donna says. “You really don’t feel like you’re in the city at all. It’s incredibly soundproof.” 

Bud seconds her opinion: “It’s very cool.”

The couple closed on the apartment in December of 2013. Then they called their trusted friend and Grosse Pointe Park designer, Kathleen McGovern, asking if she could take on the job of remodeling and updating their space while they wintered in Florida. They had one minor request: Could she finish it in six months? “They wanted to return to find the dust settled and sheets on the bed,” McGovern says. The designer accepted the couple’s challenge, and her team jumped into action.

The modern home is now inviting and comforatble, and can accommodate business and social entertaining. The oil painting shown here is by Michigan artist James Kristich. The 110-inch-long “mother-of-all-cocktail tables,” as interior designer McGovern calls it, was created by Paul Rochon, a Michigan furniture designer. It doubles as a cocktail table and a casual meeting venue. The wall color (Husky Orange, Sherwin-Williams) was chosen to kick up the palette, McGovern says. With the quiet neutrals in the other spaces, this was a perfect opportunity to “go big,” she says.


McGovern had worked on several other homes for the Brians, and understood their aesthetic: “Modern, inviting, comfortable, and could do double-duty for business and social entertaining,” McGovern says. “I love the contrast of modern with the traditional architectural elements, so I was over the moon about developing a plan for them in this building.”

Her first order of business: A new pair of Eames chairs facing the river. That was the easy part. The master bath was too small, so McGovern stripped it down to its bones and enlarged it, sacrificing the original dressing room, which doubled the space. She also updated the older marble by adding modern,  custom-made fixtures.

“It was fun to (find) the original tile, which had been used in 1926, under a couple of layers,” she says. On the other hand, “all of the interior walls in the building are concrete, so reworking the plumbing for the new bathroom was interesting.”

The dining room also was stripped, and the designer’s craftspeople created a massive 9-foot-long cocktail table to accommodate entertaining. 

Left: The den/library is a welcoming spot for reading and lounging. This is the third home for the cocktail table, which is one of the Brians’ favorite pieces. High-gloss charcoal paint gave it new life and complements the modern chairs and wall color (Street Chic, Benjamin Moore). The chairs do double-duty when there’s a crowd in the dining room. Right: Originally the butler’s pantry, this space is used as a bar area. It connects the kitchen to the dining room. With beautiful shades of gray, plenty of texture, intriguing art, and more wood, it has an inviting ambiance. 


The paint was in fairly good shape, McGovern says, and “we had to be very judicious about how much paint we were adding to the architectural detail, such as the stepped ceiling moulding, because it was in jeopardy of losing its definition after having been painted several times since 1926.”

The marble tops on the steam-heat radiators needed serious restoration, and the 22 interior doors’ original brass hardware — including the hinges, handles, and some lock-sets — had to be taken off, cleaned of paint and residue, polished, and put back on. 

Detroit Towers, built between 1925 and 1926, was designed with two units of either 2,400 or 2,800 square feet on each of the 18 floors. Over the years, some units were enlarged to encompass the entire floor for the well-heeled and well-known residents who lived there (see sidebar below). After looking at several other possibilities around the city, Donna Brian knew this place was special. “It feels more like a house than an apartment. It’s steeped in history, and the residents are wonderful — very warm and inviting.” 

Left: The former kitchen, which was relatively new, underwent a simple upgrade. The design team painted the maple cabinets (base cabinets are Iron Mountain, Benjamin Moore), added the backsplash and wood countertop, updated the lighting, and punched up the palette with the molded wood-seat bar stools. The rich wall color is Whale Gray, Benjamin Moore. Right: The Brians, with  Sting and Millie, enjoy an evening in (walls: Popular Gray, Sherwin-Williams). The mirror features an antique bronze finish. The chair next to the fireplace is from McGuire Furniture. The limestone fireplace, which had been converted to gas some years back, is in good condition for its age.


Overall, McGovern says the apartment was in good condition for its age, including the limestone fireplace, which had been converted to gas some years back. In all, the design goal was achieved without taking away from the architecture or the views. The apartment is open, flowing, modern, and elegant, with beautiful warm shades of gray ranging from stone to charcoal, plenty of texture, and lots of wood. And the six-month deadline? It was met.

Bud, the founder of Budco Financial Co. in Detroit, has lived in various homes and condos in the city since 1981, and he has seen Detroit’s fortunes ebb and flow. Now he’s seeing the true renaissance that’s been hoped for all those years. 

“I feel passionate about Detroit and about its people,” he says, thrilled that he can drive up Woodward Avenue to his office on Fort Street and wait in traffic. “It’s exciting — there are people, young people, on the streets.”

Donna, a south New Jersey native and former marketing manager for Ford Motor Co., shares Bud’s enthusiasm. She loves the services and amenities Detroit Towers offers, saying, “they really kind of spoil you,” and she enjoys shopping at downtown’s new Whole Foods market. “It doesn’t matter what night you go into town, it’s just packed all the time.”

Every morning, they take their border collie, Sting, and Australian shepherd, Millie, for long walks or bicycle rides on Belle Isle. In the evening, they dine at the London Chop House or Craft Work in West Village. Then there are all the Lions and Tigers games, and other fun that a good city offers — and the Brians are loving every minute. 

For anyone doubting Detroit’s comeback, talk to the Brians. They’ll set you straight. — PLS

Left: In the guest room (walls:Winter Lake, Benjamin Moore), closets fill an entire wall. Donna, an avid cyclist, keeps her bike and bike gear here when she isn’t out cycling. Right: The marble tops on the radiators, above, underwent a meticulous restoration. 


The expanded master bath has micro-basketweave Carrera marble flooring and an L-shaped vanity by Eric Dietrich of Maplewood Kitchen & Bath. “All of the interior walls in the building are concrete, so reworking the plumbing for the new bathroom was interesting,” McGovern recalls. The master bedroom (walls: Rock Gray, Benjamin Moore) is a powerful mix of neutrals that allows the room to be interesting, yet restful and tailored. It looks out to a view of Belle Isle and city life.  The fringed blanket is from a trip to Egypt.


Tower Power: A Rich and Storied Past

The 18-floor Detroit Towers was considered a modern Gothic structure with Romanesque exterior details in 1926, but much of the cast stone ornamentation was removed decades ago because of decay. A gargoyle that topped the roof (shown at right, with the Brians’ border collie), and served as a rainspout was moved to a lower pillar because it was unstable, but it still greets visitors with its fierce grin. The building has attracted a host of prominent tenants over the years, beginning with theater designer C. Howard Crane; philanthropists Tracy W. McGregor (McGregor Conference Center) and his wife, Katherine Whitney (daughter of David Whitney Jr. of the Whitney Building); and James Scripps Booth, whose parents helped establish the DIA and the Cranbrook art community. —PLS


Knock-Out Door Knockers Impress 

Doorbells are fine for function, but door knockers emit powerful first impressions and ooze with millennium-spanning symbolism. Take this vintage Roaring Twenties-era female hand, which graces the front door of the Brians’ Detroit Towers apartment. Ancient Mesopotamians believed the hand protected occupants on the other side of the door from evil — a belief shared later by Judeo Christians and Islamists. The feng shui dragon, Chi Lin, is another knocker commonly guarding household entries.

Knockers have adorned front doors over the centuries, often to convey a person’s identity, occupation or wealth, or as a sign of hospitality. They also reveal the household’s personality. A pineapple is a sign of welcome, while an apple stands for generosity. Lions signify power, status, and royalty. Eagles are all-seeing, and dragonflies are free-spirited. Find vintage knockers made of brass, bronze, and iron at prices ranging from $2,600 for a circa-1800 bronze hand at rubylane.com to $8 for a brass garden shovel at signaturehardware.com, or seek them out in antiques shops around the state. New door knockers that have outstanding vintage appeal are available at various home shops, including Russell Hardware in Bloomfield Hills.  — PLS  

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