The Farwell Building is proof that, when it comes to Detroit architecture, sometimes it’s what’s inside that counts.
The Farwell Building opened on Capitol Park on March 8, 1915. Named for Jesse Farwell, a man who made his fortune in real estate and shipping among other fields, the building was built for mixed office space use and was home to attorneys, dentists and other professionals.
It was designed by Harrie W. Bonnah of Bonnah & Chaffee and also featured elaborate ironwork by Russel Wheel and Foundry of Detroit. The interior design was done entirely by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and the brass and marble elevators were unequaled in the city.
The vaulted dome of the lobby was inlaid with thousands of tiny Tiffany glass pieces. Each piece of Tiffany glass, or as Tiffany named it, favrile, was individually cut and polished. The sheen of the ceiling resulted from a backing of gold leaf.
It is a fairly unknown landmark among Detroit’s buildings but one of its most beautiful and architecturally significant. It was added to the State Register of Historic Sites on July 26, 1974, and to the National Register of Historic Places two years later on April 30, 1976.
The eight-story, 107,000 square-foot office building, like many in Detroit, underwent a “modernization” in the 1950s. In 1956, the cornice was removed and the ground floor underwent considerable changes. What would pass today as a food court was added to the building’s south end. The modernizations hid some of the beauty and opulence of its interior.
After a fire in the mid-1970s, the main Tiffany chandelier was stolen.
In April 1975, owner Harry Rott donated the building to the Detroit Historical Society instead of tearing it down. The DHS was to restore it and try to get it on the National Register of Historic Places.
As the Free Press reported at the time, the Farwell was “saved from the proverbial gobbler of architectural genius, the parking lot.”
The Farwell, like so many office spaces in Detroit, struggled to hold onto tenants, and it closed in 1984.
Wayne County filed a nuisance abatement lawsuit against Higgins over the property in 2006. The Farwell has been cited for issues like broken glass and falling mortar.
Higgins had said he wanted to turn the building into lofts after finishing with the Broderick Tower — but that project has not gotten off the ground either because of troubles lining up financing and a weak housing market.
On Oct. 16, 2009, it was announced that the State of Michigan’s Land Bank Fast Track Authority would buy the Farwell for $3.3 million as part of the redevelopment of Capitol Park. The fact that the money is coming from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development means that the city could be stopped from tearing it down: Federal money cannot be used to tear down any building on the National Register without getting an exemption from the National Park Service.
The high price tag was met with skepticism, disbelief and outrage by many in metro Detroit, especially as the state and city were both in the red at the time of the announcement. Furthermore, Higgins was delinquent on his taxes on the property by more than $23,000, so why the building couldn’t have been seized for back taxes was not explained.
Carrie Lewand-Monroe, the executive director of the state Land Bank Authority, told the Free Press at the time that the building is central to plans to redevelop Capitol Park.
“Unfortunately, it is a high price but that’s as low as we could get it,” she told the paper. “The seller wouldn’t go any lower. But really without that building involved, the entire area couldn’t get improved. We would have liked to have gotten it for less, but it’s important for the entire project. … The building was integral because it has such a wonderful history. You don’t want to see it continue to sit vacant.