Crews will soon begin work converting an historic former WWJ transmitter building on Eight Mile Road in Oak Park to 8MK, the newest venture from Clarkston-based restaurant group Union Joints.
The parent company of restaurants including Vinsetta Garage and Clarkston Union saw its final site plans for the project approved by the city in September. “They plan to start work very soon,” Oak Park City Manager Erik Tungate said.
Plans call for the renovation of the 5,228 square-foot art deco building and a 5,103 square-foot expansion to include a new kitchen and banquet area, plus two outdoor dining areas on the rear western side of the building. The roughly 5-acre site would also see two new parking lots with 160 spaces.
The building was designed by Detroit architect Albert Kahn and built in 1936 for the Scripps family, which owned WWJ and The Detroit News, from whose offices the station originally aired its broadcasts. The station went on the air on Aug. 20, 1920 and was known by the call signal 8MK until 1921. The transmitter building shuttered in 1995.
Ron Campbell, a preservation architect and principal planner for Oakland County, argued in a report prepared for the city that the structure should be granted historic designation and preserved.
“The WWJ Building is one of the most iconic and intact Art Deco buildings in the region,” he wrote. “Through its art and architecture it represents an important era in American History. The very reason of its construction is evidence to the coming of age of public broadcasting and the impact that it would have throughout the world.”
The building features art deco flourishes throughout, with a round atrium entryway with leaded glass above the doors. There’s also a three-panel mural near the atrium ceiling that was painted by one of Diego Rivera students, depicting the god Zeus at a microphone directing a parade of entertainers on the station’s roster, with illustrations of radio tubes and equipment flanking the entry.
“According to Bob Ostazewski, CBS Radio Detroit’s chief engineer, the building was designed to be self-sufficient, the blog Radio World writes. “Besides full local studio and emergency antenna provisions, it had its own generator, oil furnace and even a well for water. The entire building was RF shielded with copper mesh wire in the walls. Transformers in the basement isolated the building from the power grid. The building even included living quarters for the engineers who manned the site 24/7.“
Union Joints did not respond to requests for comment. Co-owners Curt Catallo and Ann Stevenson recently told WDET-FM they plan to incorporate much of the building’s history into the redesign, much like it did in converting the former Vinsetta Garage auto-repair shop into a wildly popular restaurant.
“A lot of it’s really valuing what’s there and not messing with it too much, following its lead,” Stevenson said. “A lot times we are discovering things about the building in the process that might have put our original plans, might have tangled with them a little bit, but in each case something better comes out of what the building is giving us clues to do. Just like with Vinsetta, we’re trying to keep as much as we can of the original building. That means really preserving the patina that’s happened over time and following as much of the original layout of the building.”
The site today is, as Catallo noted, largely pastoral, surrounded by a giant radio tower and overgrown meadows. Judging from Union Joints’ other locations, it’s going to be a fascinating transformation of a faded stretch of Eight Mile.