The fingerprints of architect Rainy Hamilton Jr, are sprinkled throughout the city of Detroit.
By Jackie Headapohl
Feature image by Hayden Stinebaugh
You may never have heard his name, but you’ve definitely seen his work.
The fingerprints of architect Rainy Hamilton Jr., FAIA, NOMA, are sprinkled throughout the city of Detroit from the iconic Chene Park Amphitheater to MGM Grand Detroit, the Wayne State University Welcome Center, TechTown, Quicken Loans’ offices, Chrysler House, Ford Field. The list goes on and on — 800 projects in Motown over the last 23 years.
Hamilton, principal of Hamilton Anderson Associates (HAA), continues to work to revitalize the city. His latest projects include work on the new Little Caesars Arena, the redevelopment of the famed Hudson’s Department Store site in partnership with New York’s SHoP Architects, Orleans Landing (a $61 million neighborhood along the Detroit Riverfront) and the $50 million investment in the redevelopment of the historic Paradise Valley neighborhood (also known as Harmonie Park), longtime home of HAA offices.
Hamilton once owned a hobby store, “Rainy Day Hobbies,” in Ferndale until he became too busy to operate it.
Hamilton loves Detroit. “I was born and raised here and chose to stay here,” says Hamilton, who attended Charles Drew Middle School, where he first studied drafting. He went on to Cass Technical High School and then to the School of Architecture at the University of Detroit Mercy.
He had opportunities to go to other universities for architecture, but his parents had recently divorced and he didn’t want to leave his mom by herself. “I also chose to stay here because the community is largely African American,” he says. “I thought people would come back to Detroit because of all it has to offer: an international waterway, supply of fresh water and abundance of single family homes. I always thought Detroit was a good bet, but it’s just taken so long to get to where we are now.
“When we first moved to Harmonie Park, there was nobody else here. There was no gridlock. No traffic,” he says. “Try to leave Downtown at 5 o’clock now! There’s a crane on every corner; it’s great. The plans we made years ago are finally coming to fruition.”
Hamilton lives in Detroit, too, in an English Tudor home in the University District in the same neighborhood he drove past during college. “I used to ride past and think, man, I wish I could live here. Now I do.” He’s been there 24 years.
“I know this city. You can’t lose me in Detroit,” Hamilton says. He tells a story of when he pledged to Phi Beta Sigma after college. “One Friday night, the guys blindfolded me and took me out, turning this way and that way, thinking they were going to lose me. When they finally stopped, they asked if I knew where I was. Before they took the blindfold off, I told them I was by the river on Belle Isle. They couldn’t fool me.”
It’s that familiarity with Detroit that’s led St. Louis-based developer McCormack Baron Salazar to hire HAA to design Orleans Landing, its first project in the city in several decades.
“Orleans Landing is something we’ve talked about for years,” Hamilton says of the brand-new neighborhood along the Detroit Riverfront between the Renaissance Center and Belle Isle. Once called the “Warehouse District,” the land was filled with derelict warehouses and was being used to stockpile dirt.
“We identified the buildings that needed to be saved and those that could go. I could show you design drawings I did when I was fresh out of college,” says Hamilton, who’s now 60.
Much of the land on the Orleans Landing site stood vacant throughout the 1990s, the bars and restaurants once there scraped away for temporary casinos that never materialized, according to HAA Director of Design Mark Farlow.
“We started on this development seven years ago — before the Dequindre Cut, which abuts some of the units,” Farlow says. “It’s exciting to see what’s happened. This is the new vision of Detroit.”
The development is a blend of two-, three-, four- and five-story buildings that will hold 300 residential units: apartments, townhouses and carriage houses. The development also includes ground-floor retail and commercial space as well as community space. The facades of each building are different as are the buildings’ heights, reminiscent of a street in Brooklyn, perhaps.
“Our ambition was to create a sense of place and sense of community, a neighborhood where there was none,” Farlow says.
Last summer, the Detroit Downtown Development Authority approved a plan to redevelop Paradise Valley. The project includes the redevelopment of five existing buildings and two surface lots and will feature commercial and retail space, residential units, restaurants, entertainment venues and a boutique hotel, all scheduled to be built over the next three years.
The intention is to develop an entertainment district that celebrates African American culture and the vibrant music scene of Paradise Valley, the historic African American business district and entertainment center in Detroit known as Black Bottom from the 1920-1950s that was decimated by freeway construction in the 1960s.
“For me, the commemorative part is that it’s being done by mostly African American developers,” Hamilton says. “That’s where we honor the legacy of Paradise Valley.”
HAA will be renovating its longtime home, the Randolph Centre Building, and building a new addition on its adjacent parking lot. Hamilton said he’s going to leave a 20-foot alley between his addition and the property next door to make a “jazz alley — much like they’ve done behind the Z parking deck,” he says.
Elsewhere in the neighborhood, Hiram E. Jackson plans to put a building on three current parking lots that includes 60 apartments on the top floors, a five-story parking deck and first-floor retail spaces. Patricia Cole and Roger Basmajian are working on the Harmonie Club Hotel, which will include artwork from local African American artists and have a third-floor theater and banquet hall. Businessmen Dennis Archer Jr. and Ismail Houmani plan to renovate their properties as well.
“We want all people to come here to sample the music, the food and the other offerings and to be able to live in the district,” Hamilton says.
Vision For Detroit’s Future
Hamilton is a train fanatic. His father got him hooked on model railroading when he was a boy, and his models now fill the basement of his home. So perhaps it’s not surprising that his favorite building in the city is the old train station.
“It hurts my heart that it’s just sitting there,” he says. “It has a wonderful shell and a magnificent history. Why can’t we reactivate it? That would be the coolest thing.”
Hamilton envisions that building as a residential tower, a combination of office space and residential or a hotel. “You could reactive the rail there and connect it to the airport and to Chicago,” he says.
That train station plays a role in his vision of an ideal future Detroit 20 years down the road. “I would take a train from the airport to the renovated train station. Then I could walk over to Michigan Avenue and take a reactivated trolley Downtown. If I wanted, I could take the Q-Line to Pontiac.
“Let’s see,” he continues. “The laws will have been changed to make it easier for the city to take abandoned and blighted properties, so the 40 square miles of Detroit that are now empty, abandoned or dilapidated have been redeveloped. The school system will have been fixed and our population will be hovering around 1.5 million.”
That’s sounds like a tall order, but Hamilton thinks it’s very possible.
“I think Detroit’s a good bet,” he