When I think about the Motor City area, I think rolled-up shirt sleeves, firm handshakes, and American-made. So, when two native sons told me over beers on a recent Saturday afternoon that greater Detroit’s most iconic auto repair garage had been converted into a popular new restaurant, I assumed the city had lost something special.
Turns out, I was wrong.
Vinsetta Garage was built in 1919 and was believed to be the longest-operating repair shop east of the Mississippi until it closed in 2010 when longtime owner Jack Marwil decided to shift gears and attend law school.
Built on Woodward Avenue in Berkley, Michigan, just 10 minutes outside the city limits, where old-timers and youngsters alike still pull up fold-out chairs on Friday nights to watch people slowly cruise their classic Fords, Chevys, and Dodges, it was considered the best garage in greater Detroit (which is saying something), and was a monument to the identity of Detroiters and their love affair with cars -- so popular, in fact, that Marwil had to turn business away.
The electric fuel pumps out front are used frequently by customers and symbolize the progress of the Motor City.
"If you lived in Detroit long enough, [the garage] was a landmark, and being a customer was a point of pride," says Carol Banas, a patron of the garage for more than 25 years. “Pride. It’s what the city is all about and that building and the business summed it all up.”
Given the community’s attachment, when new owners Ann Stevenson, Curt Catallo, KC Crain, and Ashley Crain decided to turn the space into a restaurant serving revamped American comfort food, they were careful to maintain the sentimental value of the building.
“My whole stance from the first time I saw the building throughout the whole process was ‘preserve what’s here,’” says Stevenson. “So much of it was honoring the building and finding the balance between what existed there and what we needed to add in for its new usage.”
To meet health codes, a cleanable ceiling was installed above the kitchen, but as a nod to the past, Stevenson framed it with the semi-opaque security glass from the skylights. She also found a way to repurpose the double-faucet sink the repairmen had used; going so far as to completely rework the design of what is now the unisex washroom just to include it.
Stevenson told me what she strived hardest to preserve were the layers of paint on the walls that dated back decades and had built up an incredible history of the building.
Even small items, like the picture (l.), were kept. And the walls (r.) certainly still have the personality of a classic auto repair garage.
But despite these and other preservation efforts, the restaurant, which opened this past May, isn’t a static relic of Detroit’s past. Stevenson says that since 2008, the city has developed both a sense of optimism and a movement to celebrate what it’s becoming. The garage, now fixed with two frequently used electric car charging stations out front, is emblematic of that.
"You’re in this garage that’s iconic and old and has existed forever, yet it’s sort of about the future. It’s not just decorative, it’s utilized," says Stevenson.
"If it were in Canton or Scranton or Toledo or Tulsa, I’m sure it would still be an incredibly beautiful building, but the fact that we are the Motor City and it served its purpose for what the city does so well, I think it’s very symbolic."
This post originally appeared on the blog of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an Atlantic partner site.