The Roxbury Group, a Detroit-based real estate developer, aims to restore the synagogue’s original glory and recreate its ornate design as a home for the arts that continues to celebrate Jewish culture.
When Midtown Detroit’s Bonstelle Theatre — a performing arts center that was originally the Temple Beth El synagogue — opened in 1902, it was one of Michigan’s most glorious Jewish institutions.
Designed by celebrated Jewish architect Albert Kahn, who at the time was a younger member of the congregation, Temple Beth El had a brilliant, sweeping skylight and a grand stairway that descended all the way to Woodward Avenue. Inside, it held both services and Hebrew school.
Now the Roxbury Group, a Detroit-based real estate developer, aims to restore the synagogue’s original glory and recreate its ornate design as a home for the arts that continues to celebrate Jewish culture.
“One of the things we loved about that building and always love about any historic project we take on is the rich history behind it,” explains Stacy Fox, Roxbury’s senior vice president and general counsel.
The company will be renovating the Bonstelle Theatre as part of a $50 million development project in Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood that will include a 10-story, 153-room AC Hotel by Marriott connected to the theater by a glass conservatory. It will be built instead of the scrapped West Elm hotel project, with the soon-to-be restored Bonstelle Theatre as its crowning jewel.
Temple to Theater
In 1924, when Temple Beth El was sold to American theater actress Jessie Bonstelle, the sweeping temple on Woodward Avenue was transformed into the Bonstelle Playhouse. It became a home for the arts, housing performances instead of Jewish services.
Over the decades, the theater changed hands (and names) several times, being redesigned to accommodate theater seating and plays. The iconic staircase connecting to Woodward Avenue was also shortened to accommodate a widening of the road in the mid-1930s.
Yet, underneath layers of paint and through the help of historic photographs, the Roxbury Group has uncovered bits and pieces of the synagogue’s former design — a beautiful pattern painting style — that they’ll use as a template for the restoration, set to begin in the coming months and taking approximately 18 months from start to finish.
However, the Roxbury Group is no stranger to historic, and sometimes challenging, Detroit renovations. They’ve restored the David Whitney Building after it sat abandoned for nearly two decades, along with the Metropolitan Building, a former dilapidated neo-gothic skyscraper-turned-hotel that had stood crumbling for almost 40 years.
Similar to the David Whitney Building, the Bonstelle Theatre is listed on Detroit’s National Register of Historic Places. “Just like when it was a synagogue, it’s going to be this beautiful palette of colors and patterns,” Fox says of the restoration plans. “This history will all be brought back.”
In 1902, when Temple Beth El was first constructed, the Beth El congregation was Michigan’s largest at the time. Known as the Beth El Society, it was founded in 1850 by Detroit’s Jewish residents, also making it the oldest Jewish congregation in the state.
Yet after moving to several locations, the society — which included Kahn — needed a permanent home. They turned to the architect, who designed some of Detroit’s most iconic structures, to create the temple. Temple Beth El pulled inspiration from Roman and Greek architecture, and its cornerstone was laid on April 23, 1902. Seven months later, it was completed.
By early 1903, the first services were held just a few weeks after the new year. A well-situated location on the busy and budding Woodward Avenue helped the temple grow to more than 400 members by 1910.
As the congregation continued to increase in number, Temple Beth El couldn’t accommodate the rise in members. Instead, it moved to another building, also designed by Kahn, further north on Woodward Avenue in the Boston-Edison neighborhood. This meant the original Temple Beth El was now up for grabs and in need of a new owner.
Becoming the Bonstelle
Sold to Bonstelle in 1924 for a reported $500,000, Temple Beth El was transformed into a center for performing arts. Renamed the Bonstelle Playhouse, the theater needed a heavy redesign to accommodate its new role.
Pews were turned into theater seats, while the skylight and surrounding plaster design were covered with a false ceiling. Classrooms were transformed into the main stage. Yet, the theater quickly ran into trouble and unable to get off the ground due to financial issues, it was reorganized into the Detroit Civic Theatre in 1928.
The subsequent stock market crash and Great Depression in 1929 made it difficult for the theater to stay afloat. Like many other venues, it didn’t survive the economic crisis. In 1933, it was shuttered and remained free of theater performances for nearly 20 years, briefly serving as a movie house during the mid-to-late 1930s and throughout the 1940s.
After World War II ended, Wayne State University’s theater department was in search of a permanent home to accommodate a significant increase in student enrollment. In 1951, the university’s theater department proposed renting and eventually purchasing the former Bonstelle Playhouse.
The deal was completed. In 1963, the former temple was officially named the Bonstelle Theatre. It became a home for Wayne State students and local and small touring performances. Many decades later, it even hosted a musical about Temple Beth El in 2000 to celebrate the congregation’s 150th anniversary.
Restoring its Glory
In 2018, when Wayne State decommissioned the Bonstelle Theatre, the Roxbury Group saw a chance for redevelopment and restoration.
They secured control of the site that same year, collaborating with professional theater and music operators to develop plans for producing world-class events at the latest iteration of the Bonstelle, which promises to revisit its Jewish roots.
With 1,300 seats, Fox says the Bonstelle will also double as an event space. By being paired with the new AC Hotel by Marriott, she believes it will offer another option to Metro Detroiters who want to hold celebrations like weddings or even bar or bat mitzvahs in a beautiful, historic space, while providing their guests with lodging options just a few steps away.
“It fills a gap,” Fox says of the Bonstelle. “Detroit has the largest theater district outside of New York, and we have all of these fantastic venues, but there’s a gap in this size venue. To host an event where you can put people up in a hotel, a limited number of venues can do that.”
To maximize flexibility within the theater, the Roxbury Group received approval from the National Park Service, which is involved in maintaining the National Historic Register, to flatten the floor. This was an important step in creating an accessible event space, Fox says.
The theater’s historic balconies will also be maintained, with the existing seats redone. “It’s going to be so exciting to bring this back to the little jewel box that it was as a synagogue,” Fox explains.
“Being able to incorporate this rich historic property into a brand-new hotel, we think that it’s going to pair beautifully and be a really wonderful place for the community.”
The Roxbury Group was even able to uncover the original interior design. “We’ve been able to remove some of the paint and pull up those patterns and pull out some of those colors,” Fox says of the original temple that Kahn spearheaded. “We’ll add all of that back to the theater.”
After the temple-turned-theater is completely restored to its original glory, Fox hopes that it can once again serve as a gathering point for Metro Detroit’s Jewish community.
“We’re very excited about the history of the synagogue and hope that the Jewish community embraces this venue,” she says.
“We would love to see cultural performances that celebrate Jewish history.”