Shinola Hotel: A Nice Addition to a Rebounding Detroit
By Brian E. Clark
More than 100 years ago, the terra cotta building at the corner of Woodward and Grand River avenues in downtown Detroit was the site of the Rayls’ Hardware and Department Store.
In the years since, it has housed the Eastern Wig Shop and later Myers’ Jewelry Store, which featured a showroom on the first floor and mezzanine.
These days, the red-hued structure is the entrance to the upscale, 129-room Shinola Hotel (shinolahotel.com), a jewel of a boutique hostelry and part of the continuing efforts by Michigan’s largest city to rebound from hard times of recent years.
In 2013, Detroit filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, estimated at between $18 and $20 billion. While many of its suburbs have thrived, the city’s population has shrunk from a peak of 1.8 million in 1950 to around 670,000 now. Fifteen years ago, large swaths of downtown Detroit were vacant.
The Shinola is within strolling distance of the acclaimed Detroit Institute of Art, Wayne State University, the River Walk and the towering glass Renaissance Center, GM’s corporate headquarters. It’s also close to shopping and sports stadia, including Comerca Park, home to the Tigers baseball team; Ford Field, where the Lions football team plays; and Little Caesers Arena, home to the Pistons basketballers.
“The vision of the hotel was to design and deliver a world-class offering for the city of Detroit, which really didn’t exist downtown at the time,” said Andrew Leber, vice president of hospitality for Bedrock, the hotel developer. The other partner in the project is entrepreneur and philanthropist Dan Gilbert, a Detroit native and co-founder of Quicken Loans, the largest residential home lender in the country.
“There were plenty of hotel options in downtown Detroit, certainly some highly regarded brands,” added Leber, who said Gilbert, a billionaire, is behind a number of other “transformative” developments in Detroit.
“But there were no true luxury hotels and very few boutique lifestyle hotels downtown then. Detroit is an incredible city that has been gaining in notoriety over the past decade. The need for a proper hospitality experience was high.”
When a guest and I stayed at the hotel this summer during a visit to the Motor City, I thought it a lovely small hotel, with architectural touches in the hallways and rooms that made me feel like I was either on a Pullman railway car or a ocean-going ship.
Nor did it hurt that our room had a small patio overlooking other restored buildings. Add to that the San Morello Restaurant in the hotel, which serves tasty southern Italian dishes, and I’d recommend the Shinola to anyone visiting Motown, another of Detroit’s nicknames.
But first, a bit of background about the name Shinola:
It had a long history as a company based in Rochester, NY that was founded in 1877 and produced shoeshine paste and carpet cleaning products. It thrived for more than 75 years, but went out business in 1960.
A little more than 50 years after its demise, venture capitalist Tom Kartsotis bought rights to the name and began the process of setting up a company in Detroit that now produces luxury watches, high-end bicycles and other goods, including shoe polish.
Shinola launched in 2012 and has been touted as an American success story. Former president Bill Clinton is said to have owned 12 of the company’s watches when he was in office.
About the same time, Gilbert was bringing his mortgage company from the suburbs to downtown Detroit and the pair of business titans got to talking about different opportunities, Leber said.
“As Kartsotis was exploring ways to set up a watch company in Detroit, the two of them came up with the idea of building a phenomenal hotel experiencing downtown, too. They wanted Shinola as a hotel to translate into the experience of well-made, well-crafted goods. Thus the Shinola hotel was born.”
Leber said while the old Rayls’ Hardware and Department Store included the lobby, public area and entrance to the Shinola, it is just one of several buildings on Woodward Avenue that were repurposed for the hotel.
“The hotel is also an amazing development because it recaptures facades of four iconic structures on Woodward,” he said.
“We didn’t demolish these buildings and simply stand up something new in their place. We looked at historic documents and photos of their elevations and said ‘lets retain these facades because they are too special not to recapture and reclaim.’”
Leber called structures used for the Shinola a “complex collection of buildings that have different floor plates that were extremely challenging to make work. But we thought the fronts of those buildings were so special that it was worth it.
“How could we do this without paying homage to the history of these structures?” he asked rhetorically.
“We did it by connecting the floor plates with different elevations. We were able to capture the special architecture that was behind and in front of all these buildings to create unique guest experiences.”
Leber said the inspiration for the understated arches that connect several of the buildings came from sailing vessels.
“That wasn’t the least expensive way to do it, but it was the right way for the architecture,” he said. “We are for more than profit. The goal was to recapture the greatness of these buildings and translate it into a different use of hospitality.”
Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, the lobby was used as a community space for cultural programming that included artists, poets, DJs and musicians.
“But covid threw us for a loop and put the breaks on,” he said. “We hope to eventually get back to that.”
In the meantime though, guests can enjoy the artwork on the walls, much of it by Detroit-based artists. One of the largest installations during our visit was by Nick Cave (of Chicago) from the private collection of Dan and Jennifer Gilbert. It was a work dubbed Tondo, made of found beaded garments, wool and wood.
No visit to the Shinola would be complete without a meal at the San Morello, which is the creation of Noho Hospitality restaurateurs Josh Pickard, Luke Ostrom and Andrew Carmelini.
Noho is based in New York, but Pickard grew up just outside of Detroit in Huntington Woods and “was very interested in doing something with us because of his passion for the city,” Leber said.
My guest and I had yummy roasted beets with hazelnuts, cherry mostarda and smoked ricotta, a small and tasty pizza with san marzano tomato, mozzarella di bufala and basil, as well as a delicious roasted “Rosalina” chicken with blistered peppers and salsa verde. For dessert, I gobbled up and did not share a dark chocolate pudding-like budino with caramel bananas and espresso gelato.
Leber said his favorite dishes at the San Morello are a black-shelled pasta with seafood or a truffled pizza. And for dessert, pistachio pie.
“I didn’t even know that was an Italian thing,” he said.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.