Empty Wurlitzer downtown's latest boutique hotel?

A New York firm with a contract to buy the Wurlitzer building wants to convert the historic structure into a boutique hotel, making it the fifth such hotel in or near downtown Detroit.

The vacant Wurlitzer, which city officials once called one of downtown’s “most dangerous structures” when its facade began falling off, is under contract to be sold for $1.1 million, according to the commercial real estate database CoStar Group.

The historical Wurlitzer has been vacant since 1982. The building once housed the Wurlitzer Co, maker of organs, pianos and jukeboxes. The narrow structure, built in 1926, is across the street from the Detroit Opera House.

The buyers of the 14-story building are Brookyln development firm ASH NYC. Last year, a former strip club in Providence, R.I. opened as a hotel called The Dean, which was designed by ASH NYC. The Providence Journal called it “elegantly hip.” The rooms have no telephones or dressers but employ spare design such as concrete end tables, made by local artists. Guests are offered fried-chicken chocolate bars.

ASH NYC would overhaul Detroit’s Wurlitzer, at the corner of Broadway and John R, into a hotel with ground-floor retail, said Robert Kraemer, principal of Kraemer Design Group, an architecture and interior design firm based downtown.

“It’s a sign post-bankrupt Detroit looks attractive to a lot of investors,” said Ron Wilson, CEO of Hotel Investment Services Co, a hotel consultant firm in Troy. “The ability to get financing is opening up and what you see downtown is the anticipation of M-1 Rail, the expanded Cobo Center and buildings that are still inexpensive to buy.”

Detroit’s downtown hotel occupancy rate averaged 62.5 percent in 2014, the highest average since the 1990s, according to convention officials. There are about 4,500 hotel rooms downtown, and within a few years convention officials expect that number to reach 5,000. “We used to be the worst among the top 25 markets but now we are among the healthiest,” said Michael O’Callaghan, executive vice president and COO of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. He also is familiar with plans for the Wurlitzer.

“The completion of the Cobo expansion means conventions bookings are up. The auto industry is doing very well. Things are pretty good right now,” O’Callaghan said.

Downtown’s first boutique hotel, Aloft, opened last month. It is housed in David Whitney Building, across from Grand Circus Park, which underwent a $92 million restoration. The next to come online is a $28-million plan to convert the former Detroit Firehouse No. 1, across from Cobo Center, into the Foundation Hotel.

The firehouse hotel will exhibit a “deep appreciation for Detroit’s past and a celebration of its promising future,” according to the developers, Chicago’s Aparium Hotel Group. The hotel is expected to open later this year.

Last year, Ontario-based Vintage Hotels unveiled a plan for a $40 million boutique hotel and conference center on the site of the Detroit Boat Club on Belle Isle. It is still in the concept stage.