It wasn’t long ago that the historic Wurlitzer building in downtown Detroit, once home to the famed music store of the same name, stood derelict and crumbling, and on the verge of becoming yet another one of Detroit’s architectural casualties destined for the wrecking ball.
But a multi-year renovation transformed it from a building shedding bricks from decades of neglect into a swanky boutique hotel.
Bringing the 14-story Renaissance Revival high rise back to life required an investment of $23 million and meticulous attention to detail.
Nieves Longordo knows this all too well.
When her firm Diseños Ornamental Iron was tapped to recreate the railing for a staircase that’s tucked in a corner of the lobby, she and her team had little more than an old photograph from which to draw inspiration.
But restore it, Diseños did. That stairway and Diseños’ railing leads to the second floor where the award-winning chef Kate Williams opened her nostalgia-inducing Karl’s diner. The Siren also houses the lauded jewel box-sized Candy Bar, as well the intimate tasting menu restaurant Albena helmed by another celebrated chef Garrett Lipar.
Today, the Wurlitzer building is proof that with hard work and creativity, Detroit’s storied skyscrapers can be brought back from ruin to honor the city’s design legacy and help to reshape its next chapter.
“Those are my favorite types of jobs, where we go into an old building and try to restore it or at least keep some of the original components,” says Longordo. “There was one post still standing from the railing there that we were trying to incorporate into the design.”
“We made everything forged and custom-built here. We try to do our best to try to guess what used to be there and try to make it as original as possible.”
The project and others like it — Diseños also had a hand at restoring details of the historic Metropolitan Building around the corner — are symbolic of the next chapter for Diseños, a company founded more than 40 years ago by Longordo’s stepfather.
“I ended up purchasing the business, and honestly I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at that time,” says Longordo.
Diseños is practically a household name in Southwest Detroit, with its custom-built black iron fences protecting many of the homes in the neighborhood. Walk around the tree-lined Clark Park and there’s bound to be a Diseños-made bike rack. Head over to Bagley to the Repair the World Workshop in the Hubbard Richard neighborhood — one of the ironworks’ former shops — and you’ll notice a giant metal bouquet of lilies fabricated, of course, by Diseños.
Diseños founder and Longordo’s stepfather Tony Martinez started the company with his brothers in the 1970s when one of the brothers who worked in construction noticed there were no firms locally that specialized in this type of work. They started out in a 600-square-foot garage and began by hitting up local home improvement companies and letting them know that they were available should they needed custom ironwork.
Almost immediately after launching the other brothers dropped out of the venture, and Martinez, with no background in welding, was stuck trying to figure out how to make this small company work.
Slowly, though, he built a reputation and an almost instantly recognizable body of work.
Just about every detail of a Diseños project is completely custom, every casting, all the forging, it’s all done in-house. Martinez has an eye for design and when he was setting out to make a name for himself he drew inspiration from the elaborate ironwork that dons the homes and buildings of Latin America. No one else was doing this in Detroit, so he began adding unique flairs to his projects. Maybe a little bird, or leaves, or rosettes — all woven into the design of a fence or staircase or entry gate. Even jobs with a lower budget are afforded great attention to detail as Diseños carries a museum-sized collection of pre-cast ornaments of just about every style imaginable.
Eventually, the customers just came to Diseños. Martinez moved the shop to the location on Bagley, and then eventually to its current 20,000-square-foot space a few miles west on Goldsmith. People contacted his team because they noticed all those details. He had no marketing plan, never paid for advertising, it was all word-of-mouth. And they weren’t just coming from Detroit. Expansive suburban estates with winding staircases or fortress-like entryways demanded a higher level of quality that only Diseños could deliver.
Along the way, Martinez met a single mother, Longordo’s mother, who ran a travel agency in Southwest Detroit. Longordo’s mother had immigrated to the United States from the northern Mexican state of Durango when Longordo was just a year old, leaving her young daughter behind until she was settled in. They first lived in Chicago, but that ended because her mother was in an abusive marriage and the family eventually settled in Detroit where she opened her travel business. Martinez had also previously been married and had children from his previous relationship. When the two remarried, they not only created a new blended family, but Longordo learned she was now part of a legacy in Diseños.
So when Longordo began working with the company in 2008, initially to fill in for an office manager who had taken leave, Martinez’s Diseños had long been a household name in metro Detroit.
Longordo says she had no real intention of sticking around at first. But that impression that Martinez is known for soon began to sink into her everyday work and she wanted to see the business continue long after he retired.
“I was just so surprised with everything that happened behind the scenes and I saw so much potential, especially with the lifetime that Tony has dedicated to it. I just couldn’t see it fade or get lost or, or passed on to or sold. I feel like I had to continue the legacy.”
But she came on at a tricky time for the business. The foreclosure crisis swept the country, and Detroit, especially hard. People were losing their homes, corporations were tightening their budgets. Suddenly demand for an iron fence in front of a Detroit home that could easily run several thousand dollars wasn’t a priority.
All of a sudden, the projects on those expensive suburban houses just disappeared.
“Any marketing plan that you have, would go to waste because it’s the economy that will dictate what’s going to happen,” says Martinez.
For those years during the recession, Longordo was not only learning the ropes of this very male-dominated industry, but she and Martinez had to get creative to maintain any sort of revenue stream.
They took jobs updating the stainless steel railings at the airport, cleaning stairways, whatever less expensive job their customers needed done in place of paying for entire projects. At one point, the company had to layoff workers.
Despite the bad economy, Longordo saw potential and in 2010 the baton was passed on to her to lead Diseños.
“I felt like it was doable to kind of turn the ship around and get through the bad finances,” says Longordo. “It’s hard to explain, but I think when you’re a part of the company and you hear from the employees, ‘oh, we were at this job and the contractor said you guys are the best in the market,’ just seeing that sense of pride in themselves as employees. I feel like that kind of reflects on everybody in the company.”
By 2013, Martinez was retired and he moved back to Colombia. For the first time, Longordo was completely on her own but she took that potential and as Martinez had done 40 years prior, she started educating herself on ways to get ahead.
Longordo had to start by learning how to navigate in a mostly male industry, forgoing the high heels and pantsuits for polo shirts and work boots. She joined the Great Lakes Women’s Business Council; participated in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, which teaches owners skills in negotiating, marketing, management, and developing strategic growth plans; and has been looking for ways to train employees in this very specific field.
Today, Diseños employs 14 people and Longordo says she is working to bring on more government entities as clients. The company has also been working closely with organizations close to the Southwest Detroit headquarters, like Young Nation, a nonprofit whose work in the community empowers youth to pursue their creative passions. The organization is located just a short distance from Diseños’ workshop and dons an intricate enclosure around its patio designed by the company.
And the company has started to work with a new kind of client.
By the mid 2010s, following Detroit’s historic bankruptcy, the narrative around the city was of its comeback. Swaths of downtown properties were being purchased at pennies to the dollar and being redeveloped to make way for a new wave of office workers. Then came the new cafes, restaurants, and retail.
Then came a boom in hotel development with the intention of bolstering the city’s convention and tourism sectors. Boutique and national chains alike have sprouted up in a handful of historic buildings downtown, and with that, the need for experts in all manner of customer restoration is growing.
It’s just the kind of work that Diseños has been working toward for decades.
“A lot of people want to invest in the city and they want to see it continue to grow and expand and not just in focusing on downtown, but they want to see that craftsmanship in the rest of the Detroit area,” she says.