The Shinola Hotel In Detroit: Everything For The Watch Aficionado
People generally don’t think of Detroit as a super welcoming place. At least I don’t. And that’s fair for me to say because I grew up there.
But when Shinola first opened its factory right in downtown Detroit of all places, I felt welcomed there. And not just because I was invited down to Cass Corridor to inspect the premises and meet the employees, but also because I like the Shinola watches – regardless of the fact that they were only quartz powered at that time – because they capture a spirit that I feel close to and want to be part of.
Since those first days of the gorgeous Gomelsky watch – the first ladies’ watch in the fledgling collection of four models that also included the Runwell – and the one with the best backstory about its naming, Shinola, under the careful and clever leadership of Fossil founder Tom Kartsotis, has grown by leaps and bounds, quickly adding so many wonderful and largely American-made products to its collections that six years later I would perhaps now describe Shinola as a lifestyle brand rather than a pure watch brand.
Yes, Shinola makes watches, and I would say it still does so as its main focus. But the company’s 600-odd employees (more than 350 of which are in Detroit) also make a host of other things ranging from leather products and paper wares to clothing, turntables, and bicycles all exhibiting the magnificent corporate identity that draws them together and allows the consumer to recognize immediately that this is a product made by Shinola.
Shinola, incidentally pronounced with a long “i” (as in “shy”), was a defunct brand of shoe polish founded in 1877. Its popularity primarily in the first half of the twentieth century spawned a famous saying many Americans of generations ahead of mine were familiar with: “you don’t know shit from Shinola.”
Well, Kartsotis and his crew, which now includes CEO Tom Lewand (a former Detroit Lions president) and new brand president Shannon Washburn, certainly do seem to know their shit from their Shinola (and, yes, the company also offers shoe polish in its repertoire!).
The latest offering from Shinola is a gorgeous hotel planted smack in the center of downtown Detroit (in new-Detroit speak: “midtown”) right on Woodward Avenue: the long-awaited and brutally beautiful Shinola Hotel.
Downtown Detroit – or Midtown Detroit if you’re a millennial
Detroit has been going through a renaissance. And while I wouldn’t say this renaissance is due to Shinola, I will go so far to say that the brand founded in 2011 has certainly contributed to Detroit’s rejuvenation in a fairly significant way.
When I visited the Shinola factory in 2013, neatly ensconced in the historic Argonaut building – which from 1936 through 1956 housed the General Motors Research Laboratory, the automotive industry’s first in-house research and design studio – I had the opportunity to sit down with former Shinola president Jacques Panis, who left the brand in 2018 after seven years at the startup. Panis left a great impression on me with his heartfelt enthusiasm directed not only at his work but also the city of my birth.
“For me, Detroit is the city of opportunity. It is a place that needs some tender loving care and can benefit from young entrepreneurs coming in and doing great things, and there are many of those kinds of guys in Detroit today just doing incredible things and really bringing life back to that city,” Panis said at the time. “We’re just a very small part of that and if we can continue to be a very small part of that, it’s brilliant and we’re very fortunate. We’re very humbled by the community in Detroit and how they have responded to us.”
Shinola has certainly aided in making “midtown downtown” a new-old destination with its flagship boutique at 441 W. Canfield in Detroit’s “Cass Corridor,” now an up-and-coming “gentrified” neighborhood as they say. I might even go so far as to say in the same spirit that the brand has contributed to making wearing a watch cool again.
I can report from personal experience how my own aunts, uncles, and cousins look out these watches and proudly wear them. My 19-year-old nephew, who had never worn a watch before in his life, suddenly expressed the desire to own a Shinola. So there’s that too.
“People believe in American manufacturing; people believe in that city called Detroit,” Panis also said to me in 2013, a statement as relevant today as it was six years ago. “People believe, and we believe, if we can continue to deliver products of the highest quality that are built to last, then we will be able to continue creating jobs and continue adhering to the mission of this company, which is to do just that: create jobs and innovate.”
The new hotel is at 1400 Woodward facing what is currently a construction site that used to be home to the historic Hudson’s department store, whose lunch counter and Santa visits so many people of my age will remember with nostalgia-colored fondness. Formerly occupying the entire 1200 block of Woodward, the building begun in 1891 was once the tallest retail building in the world at 25 stories.
That site, vacant since 1998, is destined to become a mixed-use development setting its own record: it will become the tallest building in Michigan, standing proud at 912 feet (about 300 meters).
Considering the fascinating mix of new and old in this neighborhood, this is actually a great location for a Detroit hotel. It is also walking distance from the major sporting venues that are home to Detroit’s professional teams, including hockey’s Red Wings, the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, the Detroit Opera House, and even the Fox Theater, a National Historic Landmark also on the National Register of Historic Places.
And the hotel is easy walking distance from the hopping gastronomic pleasure of Greektown, which is where I chose to dine on my evening at the hotel, as well as the new casinos.
Shinola Hotel: the building
When you approach the Shinola Hotel, which is a joint venture between Shinola and Bedrock Detroit, what greets you is a modernish high-rise that visually offers its roots up so that it seamlessly fits in with the historic edifices surrounding it.
The reason for the Shinola Hotel’s interesting architecture is easily explained: it is actually made up of five buildings, including one once belonging to the Singer Sewing Machine Company and another that was the T.B. Rayl & Co. hardware and sporting goods store; the latter’s terracotta tiles are still in evidence on the façade. It is this building erected in 1915 that comprises the main structure of the Shinola Hotel.
The hotel also necessitated the demolition and rebuild of three other buildings on the block.
I can’t say enough about the attention to detail that was evident in every nook and cranny of this establishment. For example, a mold was taken of the previously mentioned restored terracotta tiles and used to create the ceiling of the incredible events space, which would be perfect for weddings and other happy occasions.
And there’s the wallpaper, whose patterns were inspired from vintage designs found on the properties during renovations. There are five wallpaper designs throughout the hotel, all manufactured by Detroit Wallpaper Company, whose guiding belief is that wallpaper is art.
The hotel’s furniture and other accessories were designed and primarily manufactured in the United States, as much of which was made in Michigan as possible. Michigan-based companies include Pewabic (ceramics/pottery), Booms Stone Company, and Great Lakes Stainless (metals in the public spaces).
The spacious lobby bar the hotel calls the living room is jaw-droppingly beautiful with its fireplace, noticeable art, and comfy seats. If you’re a hotel guest, you can follow a short staircase from the original building lined by an original iron handrail to a mezzanine lounge space/common room containing comfy seats, tables, games, a pool table, and books.
The hotel is filled with art curated by Detroit gallery Library Street Collective. The reception area is decorated with a four-wall floor-to-ceiling piece by Margo Wolowiec of Detroit, while the “living room” (lobby bar) is decorated with many different pieces.
I came across a super interesting piece of art in one of the many hallways: a 1986 painting by former NASA astronaut Alan Bean – the fourth man to set foot on the moon – called “That’s How It Felt To Walk On The Moon.” It turns out Bean resigned from NASA in 1981 to devote his life to painting. Shinola had dedicated a chronograph to him in 2018 in its Great American Series called The Moon Bean Watch. Bean passed away on May 26, 2018 at the age of 86.
Watches in the hotel: the attached Shinola boutique
One of the first things I noticed upon checking in to the four-star Shinola Hotel was that the ultra-friendly – ah, I do miss that Midwestern friendliness! – employees almost all wore Shinola watches. I found out later that the employees were each given a watch from the Shinola Hotel Collection once they had worked there for six months.
I even spotted several guests wearing Shinola watches. But that’s not entirely uncommon in Michigan anymore, come to think of it.
Those sightings could also well be chalked up to the large boutique attached to the hotel, whose front entrance is on Woodward. A side entrance allows entry directly from the hotel.
Stepping into this boutique is just like stepping into any Shinola boutique; they do all look the same with their cozy furnishings, comfortable lighting, and muted wood tones. They are designed to instantly make you feel at home – welcome – and that they do.
And this 1,600-square-foot (about 150 square meters) boutique has a grand selection of Shinola’s products. Noteworthy is the engraving station where a notebook or wallet can be personalized on the spot.
Shinola Hotel: the rooms
The hotel with 129 stylish rooms and suites does not feel large (in a good way). Most of the rooms are different from each other, not cookie-cutter in style, which certainly adds to their attraction and cozy feel. Cozy and welcoming.
And perhaps this is also because the rooms are outfitted with Shinola products, many of which were made just for the hotel (and can be purchased there), including the Alpaca throw blanket, Runwell turntable, and of course desk clocks.
I was lucky to call one of the Gallery suites home for 24 hours, and I couldn’t have been happier with the spacious living space, beautiful balcony, and breathtaking view down Woodward.
These rooms are a total immersion into the Shinola world, as if the reception and lobby area hadn’t already provided that: a unique feeling of digital meeting analogue and old Detroit meeting new Detroit.
I love the Runwell turntables, bluetooth speakers, and small selection of vinyl records (including Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones, and David Bowie). I think, though, to make the Detroit stay just perfect it might be nice for the hotel to include more hometown musicians from Motown and/or the likes of Bob Seger, the Romantics, Iggy Pop, and Mitch Ryder. But that’s just me, the music fan, talking here.
The mini bar also surprised and delighted me with its vintage-style mix of treats and drinks, including the delicious Shinola Cola, bottled by Intrastate Distributors, who also makes Towne Club pop – a Michigan childhood treat if there ever was one! And Michigan’s own Vernor’s ginger ale was of course stocked in the refrigerator.
In the spacious bathroom, custom fixtures by Waterworks were inspired by Shinola watches’ case back details. The bathrooms are also outfitted with a line of hotel toiletries called Rayl’s; the hotel owners created it in honor of T.B. Rayl & Co.
If I were to criticize any part of my stay – and, believe me, I’ve had to reach to find any flaw – it would center around these toiletries, which are quite chemical laden. As someone who takes care with what I put on my skin, I am not a fan of the ingredients.
The entirety of this well-designed and thought out hotel with 17 working fireplaces is that it mixes a good dose of vintage Detroit architecture with the classic Shinola style that has evolved over these last years. And that’s an amazing environment to spend time (get it?) in.
Shinola Hotel: the restaurants
The hotel is situated near a groovy coffee shop called Madcap Coffee in nearby Parker’s Alley – named for Thomas Parker, one of Detroit’s first African-American landowners – with amazing (and I do mean amazing!) java and surprisingly friendly barristas (oh, yeah, still in Michigan!). Parker’s Alley is a dining and retail destination completed in partnership with Bedrock and the Shinola Hotel.
But if you want to eat and/or drink in the Shinola hotel, you’re in luck because there is plenty of opportunity. Directed by chef Andrew Carmellini of New York’s NoHo Hospitality Group, there is the classic guest-only Evening Bar, the upscale and delicious San Morello Italian restaurant with bar, Penny Red’s fried chicken, and the Brakeman beer hall with various Midwestern craft beers on tap.
If the latter’s name sounds familiar it should: it is also the name of a popular Shinola watch style.
I had the pleasure of Sunday brunch at the San Morello and was delighted with the upscale and beautifully plated cuisine I was served. It was true bliss to eat my Belgian waffle and drink my coffee – Madcap if memory serves – while looking out the windows at Woodward, contemplating how in the world I – and the city of Detroit – got to this moment.
The Birdy Room – Birdy being yet another nod to a Shinola watch line – is a gorgeous event space with vaulted glass ceilings in sunroom style, while Bixby Hall, whose ceiling recreates the style of the previously mentioned terracotta tiles from the façade, is an elegant and spacious event room that would be perfect for hosting wedding receptions. There is also a conference space called the Foundry Room done in dark woods and leathers for a sumptious feel.
The Shinola Hotel opened in January 2019, the third in a trio of upscale hotels with what are said to be standout dining opportunities in this area of Detroit.
Would I stay at the Shinola Hotel again? You better believe it! I have rarely felt so welcome in the city of my birth.
For more information, please visit www.shinolahotel.com.
Quick Facts Shinola brand
Founding: 2011 by Tom Kartsotis, founder of Fossil
Factory founding: 2012 in the Argonaut building, Detroit
First watch appeared: 2013
First boutique: the Shinola Detroit flagship, June 2013
Number of boutiques as of July 2019: 30 in the U.S., one in London, one in Toronto
Watch manufacturing: 500-700 watches per day
Leather straps: cutting and sewing done in-house
Other products by Shinola: bicycles, journals, audio collection (speakers, headphones, etc.), turntables, jewelry, pens, knives, tools, cold-weather accessories, backgammon set, etc.
Quick Facts Shinola Hotel
Address: 1400 Woodward Avenue, Detroit
Number of rooms: 129
Restaurants: Evening Bar (guests only), San Morello, Penny Red’s, the Brakeman
Event space: Birdy Room, Bixby Hall, Foundry Room
Room pricing: starting around $200 per night
* Disclaimer: Shinola paid for the author’s hotel night and breakfast.