On Wednesday, Aug. 7, celebrated Detroit artist Charles McGee put the finishing touches on his colorful, geometric mural on the side of the Detroit Foundation Hotel.
Well, sort of. The mural was originally painted by McGee back in 1974 on the side of what was then the Pontchartrain Wine Cellars. In the decades since, the untitled artwork largely faded and crumbled away, becoming a ghost of its former self. But that changed shortly after the Detroit Foundation Hotel moved in, which as of 2017 now occupies the building as well as the next-door former Detroit Fire Department headquarters.
Last year, the hotel management decided they wanted to restore the mural to its former glory, and that they wanted McGee to help.
"We would not have done it if it didn't have Charles' blessing," says Bob Lambert, the general manager of the Detroit Foundation Hotel. "We're always looking for ways to connect with community in a way that maybe others don't do at times. And so for us, it's just about us continuing to play a role, to contribute, and to do what's right. And in this situation, what was right was to bring this thing back to life."
There was only one problem: At 94, McGee is in no position to climb a ladder these days. Furthermore, a 2011 stroke further limited his movement; the towering black-and-white 118-foot-by-50-foot mural by McGee painted on the side of 28 W. Grand River Ave. in Capitol Park was executed by Golden Sign Co. So the Detroit Foundation Hotel decided to link up with muralist Hubert Massey, who had recently completed a fresco at the nearby Cobo Center, to work closely with McGee on the restoration.
The two artists began collaborating last year. McGee didn't have any original sketches or color studies from the time, so they created a new color sketch based on old photographs and McGee's memory. The mural is similar to "Spectral Rhythms," a McGee painting from the same era that is part of the Detroit Institute of Arts' permanent collection — an abstract painting that also serves as a color study, as if its various components were made of translucent fields of color laid over each other, producing new colors.
"We had to get the colors to his specifications," Massey says. "That's probably what took most of the time."
The restoration work started earlier this year, with Massey enlisting the help of his friend Henry Heading; the two worked together as commercial sign painters 30 years ago. Massey says the actual painting wasn't hard because most of the faded mural was still largely intact, and they could just add a new coat of paint on top of it. When new windows were added to the wall, the hotel continued the design as see-through vinyl graphics on the glass.
Painting wrapped up earlier this month. Since McGee was too frail to leave his Rosedale Park home to be able to watch the painting get completed, instead he dipped a brush in a can of black paint; his daughter and caretaker Lyndsay McGee and Massey then transported it to the Detroit Foundation Hotel, and Massey climbed a ladder to touch up McGee's signature, which was faded from the original mural, adding the final strokes to the restoration.
"I remember him working on it," Lyndsay McGee says. "But I never really saw the finished product as it was years ago. I've only seen it crumbly and old."
"It's such an honor to my dad," she says, watching Massey place the finishing touches on the mural. "I love how Detroit is inviting new art, but also restoring the old good stuff."
The Detroit Foundation Hotel is located at 250 W. Larned St., Detroit; 313-800-5500; detroitfoundationhotel.com.
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