Exploring vacant, locked-up, old buildings that may be contaminated with hazardous chemicals isn't everyone's idea of a job perk. But for some staff, environmental remediation coupled with historic preservation is one of the great benefits of working at the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). This week in MI Environment, we’re looking at contaminated sites where EGLE helped restore both the environment and a piece of Michigan history.
The old WWJ radio transmission building on Eight Mile Road in Oak Park is the most recent contaminated architectural gem to come our way for environmental help. The building is super cool and it has a great history.
In 1919, William J. Scripps, the son of Detroit News publisher William E. Scripps, became interested in radio. Individuals were prohibited from owning radio receivers during World War I, which had just ended. Most transmissions were by Morse code, which gave radio a limited audience. When Scripps Sr. heard a short audio transmission on Scripps Jr.'s receiver, he immediately recognized radio's potential as a broader communications tool that could complement print. The station was born in August 1920, using Scripps Jr.'s radio call letters, 8MK. In 1922, the call letters were changed to WWJ. WWJ claims to be the first commercial radio station in the world.
Broadcasts began with music from phonograph records, news bulletins, and sports (including baseball play-by-play). WWJ is responsible for many broadcasting firsts: the first live symphony orchestra broadcast, the first live broadcast of a Detroit Tigers game, the first broadcast of a political speech. Baseball legend Babe Ruth's first radio appearance was on WWJ.
As radio's audience grew, the Detroit News invested in equipment and buildings for its new radio station. Scripps hired renowned architect Albert Kahn in the 1930s to design a downtown Detroit office building and a suburban radio transmission building in Oak Park. A student of Diego Rivera’s (Rivera painted the famous auto industry mural inside the Detroit Institute of Arts) painted a mural that spans the top of the transmission building's oval entry. The mural shows the Greek god Zeus in front of a radio microphone. Other art deco details made the entry look like something from a 1930s movie set. A 400-foot radio tower broadcast WWJ across southeast Michigan.
As times and radio technology changed, the Detroit News sold WWJ and the transmission building was abandoned in 1995 after almost 60 years of use. It has been vacant ever since.
A 2014 power outage caused the building to flood and an electrical transformer in the basement to explode. Transformers were made with polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, until the chemical was banned in 1977. The oily PCBs contaminated the flood water and basement concrete. When the contaminated water was pumped out of the basement into the soil around the building, that became contaminated too.
A few years later, restaurant developer Union Joints LLC approached the city of Oak Park with a plan to redevelop the WWJ building as a new restaurant. Union Joints' other restaurants are in interesting old buildings too: an old Baptist church in Clarkston was repurposed as the Clarkston Union Bar & Kitchen; a Berkley auto garage built in 1919 is now the restaurant Vinsetta Garage; and when Fenton's fire station was moved to a bigger space, the old fire hall became the Fenton Fire Hall restaurant.
Before the WWJ building can be reused, the PCB contamination and some asbestos need to be removed, a cost of $600,000. The City approached the EGLE brownfield redevelopment team for help. EGLE's brownfield coordinator, Dan Gough, who owns a historic Detroit home, was an enthusiastic supporter of the project.
With Dan's help, EGLE awarded Oak Park its first-ever brownfield grant to pay for environmental costs. The grant will pay for removal and disposal of contaminated concrete (taking care to preserve the historic building's structure). PCBs penetrate concrete, so cleaning isn't an option. The grant will also be used to remove and dispose of contaminated soil and asbestos.
Once the environmental work is complete, Union Joints will renovate and restore the building. The new restaurant, expected to open in 2020, will be named 8MK after those first call letters -- a nod to WWJ's place in broadcasting and Michigan history.
WWJ will celebrate its centennial in 2020. This Detroit News photo essay about WWJ's history has great old photos of the transmission building and its original art deco details.