MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
One of Detroit's great landmarks is going on the auction block. The Fisher Building is often called Detroit's largest art object. The bank foreclosed on the 29-story art deco building recently, and on Monday, the bidding begins at auction.com. As NPR's Jason Margolis reports, it could be a rare chance to pick up a bargain on a national historic landmark.
JASON MARGOLIS, BYLINE: The story of the Fisher Building begins in the late 19th century. The seven Fisher brothers built carriages for horses then bodies for cars. General Motors bought out the Fishers in 1919 for an unheard of $200 million. That'd be about $2.7 billion today. The Fishers used some of that money for civic causes and some to build a palace to honor their legacy. Ryan Hooper, with the group Pure Detroit, gives tours of that palace designed by Detroit's most prolific architect, Albert Kahn.
RYAN HOOPER: So the Fisher brothers reach out to him. They say, we're going to give you a blank check. In return, we want the most beautiful building in the world.
MARGOLIS: The New York League of Architects said the goal was achieved. They declared it the most beautiful building of 1928, largely because of the three-story arcade.
HOOPER: So we're talking about these art deco chandeliers hanging above us, this beautiful frescoed ceiling above us. On the exterior of the building, it's marble clad, making it the largest marble clad commercial building in the world. Inside, you have over 52 different types of marble.
MARGOLIS: And 430 tons of bronze to really set things over the top.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR BELL RINGING)
MARGOLIS: Some of that bronze is on display in the lobby elevators.
HOOPER: I mean, it's a cast bronze door, marble frame. It's kind of mind blowing when you think about it.
MARGOLIS: These were once the fastest elevators in the world. There's also a 2,000-seat theater inside the building. And all of this can be yours for the low, low price of...
A.J. WEINER: Let's do this real quick. Six-hundred thousand feet.
MARGOLIS: That's A.J. Weiner making a back-of-the-envelope calculation. He's managing director for the real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle's Detroit office.
WEINER: OK. In my opinion, I think the property has the potential to trade in the $20 million to $30 million range.
MARGOLIS: And bear in mind the Fisher brothers originally put 140 million - in today's dollars - into the property. Weiner says in Chicago or New York, a building like this could sell for perhaps $500 million today. Next week's auction also includes the neighboring 10-story art deco Albert Kahn Building and two parking garages, by the way.
WEINER: I think it's throwing good money after great.
MARGOLIS: That's contingent on a few things though. This neighborhood was once among the wealthiest commercial areas on Earth. General Motors has its world headquarters here. Detroit boosters say it's the next commercial part of Detroit that's ready to take off. Jim Bieri, with Stokas Bieri Real Estate in Detroit, says if that happens, the Fisher Building's price tag could be really low.
JIM BIERI: Well, it's shocking because it is a magnificent architectural gem.
MARGOLIS: He says beautiful historic buildings like the Fisher can attract more tenants and fetch higher rents. But he adds, people don't work in the marbled lobby.
BIERI: I haven't ridden the elevators much lately, but I'm told they don't operate like they used to. I just know that when they get into a building like that, if you haven't been taking care of it, there's just issue after issue - from electric to HVAC...
MARGOLIS: ...To the bathrooms and the plumbing. Occupancy rates in the Fisher Building have dwindled in recent years.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR BELL RINGING)
HOOPER: Step off on the floor here.
MARGOLIS: Tour guide Ryan Hooper takes me to the vacant 19th floor. In a word, it's drab.
HOOPER: I remember I had a 12-year-old girl that came up on this tour. She was just like, who the hell would put drop ceiling in here?
MARGOLIS: It could cost a new owner $60 million to fix up the Fisher Building - perhaps double the purchase price - and it will require an active faith that this neighborhood can indeed come back and new businesses will want to move in. Jason Margolis, NPR News, Detroit.
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