Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Renaissance Center

The Renaissance Center, located on Jefferson Avenue on Detroit’s riverfront, consists of a group of seven buildings: six 39-story office towers and a 73-story hotel rising from the center. In 1971, in the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit Uprising, a group of 26 civic leaders in Detroit led by Henry Ford II formed a coalition called “Detroit Renaissance.” They announced plans for an ambitious three-phase project that would transform Detroit’s skyline and, hopefully, set the city on the road to revitalization. 

Architect John Portman designed Phase I, a 73-story hotel, flanked by four 39-story office towers. Construction began in 1973, with the first tower opening on July 1, 1976. Nearly 400,000 cubic yards of concrete, 40,000 tons of structural steel and two million square feet of glass were used by 7,000 construction workers to erect the first five buildings at a cost of $350 million. At that time, this project was the country’s largest privately funded real estate development. When the hotel tower opened in 1977, it was the tallest hotel in the world and still ranks as the tallest building in Michigan. Phase II of the project added two additional office towers in 1981. Unfortunately, Phase III, a residential development along the riverfront, was not completed due to the continued decline in Detroit’s population throughout the 1980s. Several architectural studies of the buildings found several faults with the project, including its isolation from the rest of the city and the massive exterior concrete berms facing Jefferson Avenue that made the building appear to be a fortress.

In 1996, the Renaissance Center was purchased by General Motors for $73 million and became the company’s world headquarters. GM immediately planned a $500 million dollar renovation which was completed in 2004. This included creation of the Wintergarden, a 5-story retail and exhibit space facing the Detroit River and Windsor, Ontario, and a 12-foot suspended walkway to facilitate navigation around the interior of the towers. A project completed in 2018 created an extension of the People Mover station, reduced the berms, added a 70-by-80-foot exterior video screen, and renovated the “GM World” display space in the lobby to include interactive exhibits. 

The Renaissance Center is large enough to have its own zip code and occupies more than 14 acres of land. More than 10,000 people work in the buildings daily. The complex contains many business offices, restaurants, and shops beyond GM. The “RenCen” is undeniably the defining feature of Detroit’s skyline, and despite its occasionally confusing interior layout, it remains a center of activity in the city.



View of the Renaissance Center from the Riverwalk, 1985 - 2009.019.444c

View of the riverfront showing the Renaissance Center, 1979 - 2010.033.255

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