In Detroit’s Financial District, the 1920s US Mortgage Bond Building is home to an Australian-inspired coffee shop Coffee Down Under and Shelby – a secret speakeasy tucked away in the old bank vault.
Designed by Detroit and Boston based architecture firm Primary Projects, Shelby’s interiors use motifs of early 20th-century banking to nod to the space’s past. The teller enclosures are transformed into a tiered, arcade-like back bar to display bottles. The material palette hints at the colours of money; a gold back bar (a repetitive bank teller pattern, built by Fillmore in Woodbridge), green velour banquette seats, and metallic fixtures. New terrazzo-style tables and bar tops match the restored floors. And the bank vault, which was operational until 1998, offers one of Detroit’s most unique dining experiences.
‘The vault was intact when we came into the space, but it was very deteriorated,’ says owner Tarun Kajeepta. ‘Most of the stainless steel you see in the space has some impurities because it was covered in so much rust, including the iconic vault door. There’s a lot of buff marks and a lot of love that went into restoring and making this space usable.’
The vault seats 30 guests for full dinner service and can be rented for meetings and private events. In contrast to all the steel, the accent wall looks like a simple gold pattern on a black wall, but those with a careful eye will notice the rough diagram of Detroit’s city streetscape. Campus Martius is centre with each vein representing Michigan Ave, Woodward, Gratiot, etc.
‘The infrastructure of the space was more difficult to work with than we originally thought,’ says Kajeepta. ‘It took us 18 hours to drill the HVAC hole into the vault because we were going through raw steel and concrete. This forced us to get creative. Everything that is in the ceiling – the lighting, speakers, and projector screen – are all hanging onto the original steel with powerful magnets.’
The dining room continues with the creative reflection on old and new. Layers of history can be seen in the old plaster, original crown mouldings, and modern finishes that create an exciting interplay. Plush velvet banquettes and stools add warmth to the metal and stone, and even the food and beverage concept plays off of the space.
‘We’re a cocktail bar first and foremost,’ says Kajeepta. ‘But the food is on par with the drinks, and not an afterthought. Because we opened under restrictions and limitations we began with a three course pre-fixe menu and it resonated well with guests so we kept that model. Our menu also includes share plates, both savory and sweet. And a coursed meal, which is the full experience, and where we’re able to get inventive with the food and seasonal main courses.’
On the large dining room wall is an art installation by local Detroit artist John Bianchi, whose large panels pull colour elements, metal, and layers from the space, embodying them in a unique way. One panel appears to peel from the wall, dipping out towards the viewer to reveal its layers of construction – wood frame, canvas and metal sheets. It has to be analysed to reveal its true depth, much like the interiors of Shelby itself.