By Steve Thorpe
Sometimes a puzzle just requires all the pieces before the picture becomes clear.
When Lloyd Semple took over the post of dean at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law in the spring of 2009 and looked at all the school's future options, one of the options that had been considered was moving the school out of downtown Detroit.
Instead, the school moved ahead with a massive renovation of the existing facility on East Jefferson, in the shadow of the Renaissance Center. And recently, on Feb. 1, the school closed a deal to purchase a nearby former firehouse as the eventual home of their extensive law clinic program.
"The firehouse decision fortified our commitment to downtown Detroit and our tie to its history," Semple said in an interview this week.
The story of how the firehouse project caught fire includes a dedicated law school "team," the coming together of several organizations committed to downtown Detroit and the love of a brother.
Chronologically, the story begins when George Asher, eldest son of Syrian Catholic immigrants, was suddenly thrust into the role of surrogate parent to a large household at the age of 16 upon the death of both parents. The sacrifices George made, including dropping out of high school, made a lifelong impression on his brother Anthony, 10 at the time.
Decades later, Anthony, now leader of one of the area's top law firms, stepped forward to memorialize his brother with the primary gift for the firehouse project.
"He's a wonderful man," Semple said of Anthony Asher. "He's a little unsettled by all the publicity. It's a wonderful story about his brother and one he can tell best. It brings tears to your eyes. A very American story. Commitment, things to rejoice about, tragedy -- it's all there."
George Asher was eventually able to claw his way back academically toward his dream of law school, but tragically died in 1963 from hemophilia complications just months before he would've graduated from law school.
Soon after, in 1965, UDM Law made a commitment to the concept of lawyers learning their craft, in part, by helping the less fortunate. That was the beginning of what would become the explosive growth of the school's clinic program, leading to today's 10 clinics serving well over 1,000 needy clients a year.
But those clinics needed space. By 2011 they didn't have nearly enough and what they had was less than ideal.
"The beautiful renovation involved everything we do at the law school -- except for our clinics," said Semple. "The clinics had been moved into the back of the church next door into an area cobbled together with partitions and fiberboard. The church has been wonderful and a great landlord, but it was a space that was inadequate for the quality of the clinic program."
And the problem involved more than just inconvenience and discomfort for students and faculty. The American Bar Association had expressed its dissatisfaction with the clinic space.
"The ABA wasn't particularly happy with the state of our building during its accreditation process," Semple said. "Eight years ago, we had some non-conforming classrooms, we had issues with the HVAC (heating and cooling) system ... a lot of fundamental stuff."
What to do?
Some sort of new facility might have been a possibility, but Semple had other ideas. He thought the best thing to do was to draw a page from the school's "playbook" -- the same page that led to the extensive renovation of their existing, historical main building.
"I'm very interested in historical preservation and have been for years. I'm a longtime member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and admire the work that they do," Semple said. "We looked at this old (main) building and everybody decided it's a pretty good building. It's got 'good bones' and a lot of history and our graduates are very attached to it. So we said, let's spend our money and do a renovation. Over less than a year's time, we did everything and without missing one minute of class. It was a logistical nightmare, but we have some wonderful people here who pulled it off. Some people now think this might be the most beautiful law school anywhere."
So when it finally came time to provide a new home for the clinics, it's probably not too surprising that Semple's wandering architectural eye strayed to the grand old lady across the corner.
"I had my eye on the firehouse and saw the 'For Sale' sign go up and thought, 'Boy, this is made in heaven.'"
The next step was to try and find a way to acquire the property with the less than huge purse of a law college.
"I was at Opus One one afternoon with a couple of our faculty members talking about how I'd like to have that firehouse," Semple said, "when restaurant owner Jim Kokas, a graduate of the university, said, 'I know who owns that. It's owned by heirs of Henry Ford.' "
At this point, Semple's decades in Detroit and his connections in the legal community came into play.
He had grown up in Grosse Pointe and had actually gone to school with members of the Ford family. They had always been friendly and he had gotten to know the family quite well. He also knew they were represented by the Bodman firm here in the city.
"I knew Dave Hempstead, a partner, who is one of their really wonderful attorneys, so I called him up and said, 'David, I understand clients of yours own that building and I want it,' " Semple said. "He said, sure you can get it. The asking price at that point was half a million, which was a real deal. I said, let's see if your clients would be willing to do something really great for the law school. I have the perfect program to put in it. Hempstead was extremely helpful and we made a deal. I'm not at liberty to disclose the amount they donated, but it was a substantial gift."
The building will be called Walter Buhl Ford III Hall.
So one piece had fallen into place.
The school also had a significant commitment from the McGregor Fund, which was part of the original expansion plan and intended for clinic operations. But the commitment had a timeline, which was in danger of being exceeded.
"They gave me an extension for 2011 while we were negotiating to buy the firehouse," Semple said. "I knew we wouldn't get it done in 2011, so I went back to them -- on my knees, basically! -- and said 'Give me another year.' They were wonderful and agreed but said, 'This is it. You committed to something and you've got to produce.' With the agreement in hand, I told the university that I could raise the money we needed for the renovation."
Second piece in place.
The school now needed the final piece of financing that would see the project through to completion.
"It was clear to me that the program we would put in there would have enough 'sizzle' so that we could raise the money," Semple said. "Fortunately, I know a lot of the people around town who are in a position to give. Late last October we put out some brochures that had pictures of the firehouse and descriptions of all the wonderful things we do in the 10 clinics."
It wasn't long before the final "angel" arrived.
"I got a call from Anthony Asher and he said he'd be very interested in a 'naming opportunity' for the project," Semple said. "After some discussions, he said' we have a deal.' "
And a brother was honored.
"So we're off to the races!" Semple said. "We've closed on the building, the faculty is thrilled and the clinicians are thrilled."
Other details are falling into place. Donors want to participate in named office space. The architectural fees are being donated by an anonymous benefactor. The floor plans are done and finishing touches are being applied to engineering plans.
And, in the end, the school itself has met the challenge.
"We've mobilized the same strong university team that did such a great job on the main renovation," Semple said.
There are always special challenges in an older building this old and this one was no exception.
"It's a flat roof and that may need work," Semple said. "It has a full basement, but it's been empty for a long period of time. Fortunately, a lot of the tough work had been done for the recording studio project. As we said in our announcement, it's a clean slate."
And the advantages of a "vintage" building are apparent at a glance.
"It's got a lot of things we want to keep. It's got character," Semple said. "Metal spiral staircases, an old fireplace, a paneled area with wainscoting. We're going to try and maintain all that character."
The firehouse even has a tower once used for drying fire hoses. It will be a challenge for a law school to find a use for that, but it would probably be unwise to bet against it.
Published: Thu, Feb 9, 2012