One of the most striking aspects of Detroit’s economic decline has been the neglect and decay of some of its most historic buildings. Michigan Central Station, once an emblem of the city’s automotive industry, has been left to rot—its shell a magnet for graffiti artists and urban explorers. The opulent grandeur of the Michigan Theatre, in its heyday a 4,000-seat movie palace which played host to Doris Day, the Marx Brothers, and Louis Armstrong, is now a parking garage. Other landmarks, like the Detroit Museum of Art, are simply gone.
But some, like the historic Wurlitzer building on Broadway in the city’s downtown, are being slowly brought back to life. The Siren Hotel, a newly opened restoration of the Wurlitzer by the design development firm ASH NYC, aims to continue the regeneration of Detroit’s once-bustling downtown. The hotel boasts 106 rooms, seven restaurants and bars, a barbershop, and in the lobby, a sleek cafe by Bay City, Michigan native Populace Coffee Roasters.
Although finishing touches are still being made (the lobby staircase was being painted during a recent visit) the hotel feels very much alive and bustling. Walking through the front door today is to step into the past. The lobby is grand and opulent, with antique furniture, huge ornate mirrors, chandeliers, and marble touches throughout.
On the right hand side as you enter is a marble topped check-in desk flanked by enormous tropical plants, and opposite is Populace Coffee’s beautifully appointed bar. The lobby doubles as the cafe’s seating area, with an eclectic collection of plush vintage armchairs and sofas allowing guests and visitors alike to sit and soak up the ambiance.
Andrew Heppner founded Populace in his hometown in 2010, after getting his start in specialty coffee in California at Intelligentsia's Venice cafe. Originally a wholesale roaster, with just Heppner and now-co-owner Dave Daniele running the entire show, Populace opened a retail location in Bay City last October, and currently employs a staff of 12 between the roastery and its two cafes. Even still, Heppner spends a lot of time traveling between his home base and Detroit, making sure that everything is running smoothly at the Wurlitzer.
The coffee bar has been designed to blend into the old-world elegance of the hotel. For espresso, Populace employs a two-group La Marzocco Linea EE with support from Mahlkönig Peak and GH2 grinders. Drip coffee is supplied by FETCO batch brew, while a Chemex option also exists for those wanting to linger and share. The menu is succinct but comprehensive.
This is not, however, just another hotel cafe. For Heppner, the intent has always been to attract customers from the surrounding neighborhood in addition to hotel guests.
“Our goal is really to attach the neighborhood as much as possible,” he says. “Because there are a surprising amount of people that live in this immediate area.”
As of a week into operation, Heppner says that about three quarters of Populace’s customers have been non-guests. Being located in such a unique setting definitely helps; as he puts it: “It’s nice that it’s pretty in here.”
Populace’s involvement with The Siren Hotel goes back 18 months, and since then Heppner has watched the renovations unfold with anticipation.
“For me, it was such a big deal to open, and to be a part of this project,” he says. In preparation, he visited The Dean Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island, also designed by ASH NYC. “I just fell in love with their design, their attention to detail.”
For the wider coffee industry, it’s these creative partnerships—like a collaboration between a pioneering hotel restoration and one of Michigan’s outstanding coffee roasters—that will allow the state's maturing coffee scene to progress still further. If you’re a coffee lover visiting Detroit in the near future, this is the place to stay.
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.