Detroit, contrary to some uninformed opinions, has a wealth of buildings that have been loved. That have been preserved. That have a glorious past – and an even brighter future.
Granted, there are areas where the city’s structures have suffered from stripping, abandonment, demolition, empty lots. That’s one part of the story. But the greater narrative should focus on the buildings that remain – the ones that people cared for throughout the decades.
One example of that is the Dongan Building, located at 2987 Franklin Street. This century-old facility has always had a caretaker, but now it has transferred hands to a new owner who is pouring time, money and thought into its reuse.
This weekend, the Dongan Building will unveil its new galleri (Swedish for gallery) to highlight the art of Thomas Muller, a Swedish artist. This is Muller’s first gallery in North America. In fact, he’s never stepped foot in Detroit, Michigan or the United States until now. But he’s coming here to see his friend and champion Hans Hanson, who loved his work and wanted it in Detroit.
Detroit, after all, is a City of Design. It has a Creative Corridor. Even US News sees our love for creating things, naming Detroit one of the Top 10 Underrated Cities for Art Lovers. We have arguably one of the finest art museums in the world. We have an artists’ sanctuary in the form of the Scarab Club. And our educational facilities, including the College for Creative Studies, are second to none.
That said, it makes sense that Hanson would open the TH.Muller Galleri here. This world-traveling entrepreneur has seen, tasted and tried pretty much everything across the world. And after living in such hot spots such as Denver and elsewhere, Hanson is going full force into his investment in Detroit, even moving his business from Birmingham to the Riverfront district.
Hanson owns CAM, which private labels all the food for Rachel Ray and beans for Whole Foods. He also is the North American Distributor of Falksalt, a salt used by chefs all around the world. He brought them to the Dongan Building after he purchased it about four years ago.
In addition to Detroit Denim, CAM and the new galleri, Hanson is building six new lofts being on the building’s second and soon, third floors, with amazing views of Detroit’s iconic Renaissance Center. The project is going to be stunning, taking all of its cues from the city’s architectural legacy, adding genuine antiques from here and around the area to the interior and building a façade and neighborhood feeling that will reinvigorate an impressive area.
Hanson said he wants the Dongan Building to be a cultural center – it already has dozens of people working there thanks to his business and his first tenant, Detroit Denim. Detroit Denim grew out of Ponyride in Corktown and into this space about nine months ago.
But Hanson also wants a restaurant, a floral shop, a speakeasy and, most importantly, an art galleri to show off the artists Detroit can draw. He met Muller through friends, seeing his artwork in a small boutique hotel he stayed at during business trips. Hanson knew right away that his work would match the verve and spirit found in Detroit.
Thomas Muller began his career in the 1990’s specializing in decorative wall paintings. He studied art in Oslo and after spending time in Norway, he moved to Stockholm where he worked for over a decade. Muller now works out of his studio in Halmstadt, Sweden.
Muller paints with acrylic on handmade paper to produce variations of color, glass and metal. Fantasy, symbolism, and artfulness are key when creating his works. Alongside producing his art, he is frequently called upon to transform the interiors of restaurants, clubs, and offices looking for a personal and edgy style.
“This Galleri represents the foundation of change in Detroit’s Rivertown neighborhood,” Hanson said. “Arts plays a pivotal role in creating a sense of place and Detroit is the perfect place to introduce Thomas Muller and his paintings.”
It makes sense to turn this building into a cultural hot spot. As the home of the Dongan Electric Manufacturing Company in 1911, this space was once a factory manufacturing electrical transformers. How that for a lively backstory?
Built in 1905, The Dongan Building was used by the Dongan family to manufacturing military parts for World War II, on behalf of the Dongan Electric Company from 1905-2013. The second half of the building (McDougall side) was added around 1925.
The building was used primarily as a manufacturing facility for electrical products, specifically electric transformers. The building’s second floor was used a secure location, one of the most secure in Detroit at the time, to manufacture transformers for the U.S. Navy during World War II. Only those with top-level security clearance were allowed to access the buildings second floor.
In 2013, Hanson’s onyorkfork LLC purchased the building and CAM became one of the first tenants. Since taking occupancy in 2014 the building has gone through a significant restoration. Since then, Hanson and his crews have pulled out 60 truckloads of stuff, sandblasted the place twice and built new floors, doors and more.
Hanson has kept everything he could keep – and he will reuse anything he can. For example, the metal track system over the conference table in the main room of CAM’s Corporate Office is the track where the transformers were hung for drying after they were painted. The other track system, including the crane and hook in CAM’s office, were used to take the finished transformers out of the building and onto trucks.
The Franklin Lofts, located on the second and soon-to-be third floors, will feature views of downtown Detroit with a roof top deck option. These giant spaces will have historic elements, such as an old church confessional that will hang over the doorway of a second bedroom. But they also will have all-modern amenities with a killer view of the Renaissance Center.
Just like Muller’s art has layers, so does this building. Hanson wants people to return, again and again.
“Detroit is in a constant rebirth,” Hanson said. “You’re going to see something new in it each day, but you have to come back again tomorrow.”