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El Moore – The Fabulous Apartment Ruins of Detroit

The El Moore is an iconic historic building in Detroit, Michigan, known for its transformation from a derelict structure into a symbol of urban revitalization. Originally constructed in 1898, the El Moore began its life as a luxurious apartment building. However, like much of Detroit, it experienced a period of decline, eventually becoming a dilapidated and largely abandoned structure.

History and Decline

Construction and Early Years: The El Moore was built during Detroit’s late 19th-century boom. Its architectural design reflects the grandeur of that era, with elaborate stone and brickwork.

Mid-20th Century Decline: As Detroit faced economic challenges and population decline in the mid-20th century, the El Moore, like many buildings in the city, fell into disrepair. The once-fabulous apartments became “ruins,” and the building was left largely abandoned.

Renovation and Revitalization

Acquisition and Vision: In 2010, Tom and Peggy Brennan, local entrepreneurs dedicated to sustainable urban living, acquired El Moore. They envisioned transforming it into a model of sustainable urban living, combining historical preservation with modern, eco-friendly technologies.

Restoration Process: The renovation, completed in 2015, involved painstaking efforts to preserve the building’s historical character while integrating green technologies. This included geothermal heating, solar panels, and water recycling systems.

Community Impact: The El Moore now houses a mix of apartments, short-term rentals, and communal living spaces. It has become a symbol of Detroit’s broader revitalization efforts, attracting both residents and visitors interested in sustainable living and historical architecture.


  1. Architectural and Historical Value: The El Moore stands as a testament to Detroit’s rich architectural history and the potential for urban renewal. Its restoration preserves the aesthetic and cultural heritage of the city.
  2. Sustainability: The building serves as a model for sustainable urban living, demonstrating how historic structures can be adapted to meet modern environmental standards.
  3. Community and Economic Development: The successful revival of the El Moore contributes to the local economy and serves as an inspiration for similar projects in Detroit and beyond.

El Moore’s journey from fabulous apartments to ruins and back again encapsulates the broader narrative of Detroit’s resilience and reinvention. It stands as a beacon of what is possible when vision, dedication, and community spirit come together to breathe new life into old structures.

Architectural Features

  1. Original Design: The El Moore, designed by renowned architect A.C. Varney, showcases the Richardsonian Romanesque style, characterized by its heavy stone masonry, rounded arches, and intricate stonework. The building originally featured spacious apartments with high ceilings, ornate woodwork, and large windows.
  2. Unique Elements: The El Moore is notable for its distinct architectural details, such as the turreted corner, decorative stone carvings, and intricate ironwork. These elements have been carefully preserved and restored during the renovation process.

Renovation Process

  1. Historical Preservation: The renovation of the El Moore was guided by a commitment to preserve as much of the original structure and materials as possible. This included restoring the exterior stone and brickwork, refurbishing original wooden floors and trim, and preserving historic windows and doors.
  2. Modern Upgrades: To bring the building up to modern living standards, significant upgrades were made. These included the installation of new plumbing, electrical systems, and HVAC systems, all while ensuring that these upgrades were done in a manner that respected the building’s historical integrity.

Sustainability Initiatives

  1. Geothermal Heating and Cooling: The El Moore utilizes a geothermal system for heating and cooling, which significantly reduces the building’s reliance on fossil fuels and minimizes its carbon footprint.
  2. Solar Panels: Solar panels installed on the roof provide a renewable source of energy for the building, further reducing its environmental impact.
  3. Water Recycling: A greywater recycling system captures and reuses water from sinks and showers for irrigation and other non-potable uses, contributing to water conservation efforts.
  4. Green Roof: The building features a green roof, which not only provides insulation and reduces energy costs but also helps manage stormwater runoff and creates a habitat for local wildlife.

Community and Economic Impact

  1. Mixed-Use Development: The El Moore offers a combination of long-term apartments, short-term rentals, and communal living spaces. This mix attracts a diverse group of residents, from long-term tenants to visitors and transient professionals.
  2. Community Engagement: The ground floor and surrounding grounds of the El Moore are designed to foster community engagement. There are communal gardens, event spaces, and workshops that are open to both residents and the broader community.
  3. Economic Revitalization: The successful restoration of El Moore has had a ripple effect on the surrounding neighborhood. It has spurred further investment and redevelopment in the area, contributing to the economic revitalization of Midtown Detroit.
  4. Inspiration for Other Projects: The El Moore has become a case study and source of inspiration for similar urban renewal projects. It demonstrates how historic buildings can be repurposed sustainably and profitably, balancing preservation with innovation.

Cultural and Social Impact

  1. Showcase for Sustainability: The El Moore regularly hosts tours and educational events to showcase its sustainable features. It serves as a living laboratory for students, architects, and urban planners interested in green building practices.
  2. Community Events: The El Moore hosts various community events, from farmers markets to art exhibits, fostering a sense of community and providing a venue for local artists and vendors.
  3. Living Learning Environment: For residents, living at the El Moore means being part of a community that values sustainability and historical preservation. The building’s design encourages interaction and community building among residents.

The El Moore stands as a remarkable example of how a historic building can be transformed into a modern, sustainable living space while retaining its historical character and contributing positively to the community. Its story is a powerful narrative of renewal and innovation, reflective of Detroit’s broader efforts to reinvent itself for the future.

Detailed Architectural and Historical Context

  1. Architectural Significance:
    • Richardsonian Romanesque Style: This architectural style, named after Henry Hobson Richardson, is marked by massive stone walls, rounded arches, and grandiose, fortress-like appearances. The El Moore exemplifies this style with its robust stone façade and intricate masonry.
    • Interior Details: Inside, the El Moore originally featured elaborate woodwork, decorative moldings, and high ceilings, which were meticulously preserved or restored during the renovation.
  2. Historical Use and Changes:
    • Early 20th Century: In its prime, the El Moore housed affluent residents and showcased the height of luxury living in Detroit.
    • Mid-Century Decline: The Great Depression, followed by the economic downturn and suburbanization of the mid-20th century, led to a decline in the building’s fortunes, eventually falling into disrepair.

Renovation Challenges and Solutions

  1. Structural Integrity:
    • Foundation and Masonry: Restoring the building’s foundation and exterior masonry was crucial. The renovation team employed traditional masonry techniques to repair and replace damaged stones, ensuring structural integrity while preserving historical accuracy.
  2. Modernization Efforts:
    • Utilities: Integrating modern electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems within the confines of an old building required creative solutions. The team used non-invasive methods to retrofit these systems, maintaining the building’s aesthetic.
    • Energy Efficiency: Windows were upgraded to high-efficiency models that replicated the original design, balancing energy performance with historical appearance.

Sustainability Features in Detail

  1. Geothermal System:
    • Mechanics: The geothermal system harnesses stable ground temperatures to heat and cool the building, reducing reliance on conventional energy sources.
    • Environmental Impact: This system significantly cuts greenhouse gas emissions, aligning with the building’s sustainability goals.
  2. Solar Energy:
    • Integration: Solar panels are discreetly installed to maintain the building’s historic look while providing a significant portion of its energy needs.
    • Output: These panels reduce the building’s electricity costs and dependency on the grid, promoting renewable energy use.
  3. Water Recycling:
    • Greywater System: By recycling water from showers and sinks for non-potable uses, the building reduces its overall water consumption.
    • Rainwater Harvesting: Combined with the green roof, rainwater harvesting systems manage runoff and provide water for irrigation, reducing the burden on municipal water systems.

Community and Economic Impact

  1. Neighborhood Revitalization:
    • Catalyst for Development: The successful transformation of the El Moore has encouraged nearby property owners to invest in their buildings, leading to a broader revitalization of Midtown Detroit.
    • Attracting Residents and Businesses: The El Moore has drawn both residents and businesses back to the area, contributing to economic growth and increasing the vibrancy of the neighborhood.
  2. Economic Model:
    • Sustainable Revenue: The mix of long-term and short-term rentals provides a stable and sustainable revenue stream, demonstrating the economic viability of eco-friendly restoration projects.
    • Job Creation: The renovation and ongoing operation of the El Moore have created jobs in construction, maintenance, and hospitality, contributing to the local economy.

Cultural and Educational Impact

  1. Living Museum:
    • Historical Tours: The El Moore offers tours that highlight its history, architecture, and sustainable features, serving as an educational resource.
    • Community Workshops: The building hosts workshops on sustainable living, green building practices, and historical preservation, fostering a culture of learning and environmental stewardship.
  2. Community Hub:
    • Events and Gatherings: With spaces designed for community events, the El Moore hosts farmers markets, art shows, and community meetings, becoming a central hub for social and cultural activities.
    • Resident Engagement: The design encourages resident participation in communal gardens and sustainability initiatives, fostering a strong sense of community.

Broader Impact on Detroit

  1. Symbol of Renewal:
    • Detroit’s Resilience: The El Moore symbolizes Detroit’s capacity for renewal and innovation, inspiring similar projects across the city.
    • National Recognition: The project has garnered national attention, positioning Detroit as a leader in sustainable urban redevelopment.
  2. Policy Influence:
    • Urban Planning: The success of El Moore influences local urban planning policies, encouraging the adoption of sustainable practices in other development projects.
    • Historical Preservation: The project underscores the importance of preserving historical buildings and promotes policies that support adaptive reuse and sustainability.

In summary, El Moore stands as a powerful example of how historical preservation and modern sustainability can coexist. Its transformation from a decaying structure to a vibrant, eco-friendly community hub embodies the potential for urban renewal and serves as an inspiration for cities facing similar challenges. The El Moore is not just a building; it’s a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of Detroit and a beacon for sustainable living practices.




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