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Detroit's Whitney Mansion is going green

Aug 31, 2017

The 123-year old Whitney Mansion wastes a lot of electricity. But now the Detroit icon is going green. Let's just hope the ghost living there is okay with it.

Haunting aside, the Whitney is jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Massive chandeliers dripping with crystals hang in the main hall. Hand-carved wood paneling clads the walls, and Tiffany windows cast their colors in sunny beams along the floors. Once a lumber baron's home, it's now a restaurant where guests dine in style in the former library, music room, and sitting rooms.

It's grand, it's opulent, it's over the top.

The interior of the Whitney features chandeliers, marble fireplaces, and stained-glass windows.
Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

Whitney owner Bud Liebler adds, “There are 21 fireplaces in the place - and each one has a different marble surround.”

Liebler bought the Detroit icon ten years ago and turned it into a destination restaurant.

Plus the business also has tours that speculate on who might be doing the aforementioned haunting. (Liebler's theory is that the ghost is lumber baron David Whitney himself.)

But as Liebler found, the Whitney's utility bills were really high. Between the 1600 chandelier light bulbs, the kitchen ranges, the heat pumps and single pane windows, there’s a ton of energy waste.

Liebler says, “Sometimes in the winter we'd have to move people away from tables by the windows. Air was seeping through portable air conditioners to cool it down so the heat was never even.”

But then Liebler found out about PACE. It stands for property assessed clean energy. It's a little complicated, but a new way to pay for projects that will save money on energy. Think storm windows, new ranges and heat pumps, and LED lighting for those fancy chandeliers. The Whitney puts no money down and will pay back the loan through a special property tax assessment.

Antique stained-glass doors may be beautiful, but they don't help save energy.
Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

The Whitney will save more on its utility bills than it will pay in extra taxes. Liebler says he's gone from thinking he couldn't afford to make the home greener, to thinking he couldn't afford not to do it.

“Our loan is $863,000. We cannot afford to spend $863,000. How many dinners do you have to serve for just that - so this enables us to do that in a painless way.”

The restaurant will save more than $2 million over the 20 years of its loan.

The historical site prepares for a green future

The Whitney is the first historic mansion in the state to use PACE.

Andy Levin is CEO of Lean and Green Michigan, which runs the PACE marketplace that connects businesses with lenders and builders.

He says pretty much any kind of business that spends more than $5,000/month on energy can use PACE. So far it runs the gamut, from a beer distributor in Orion Township to a factory in Troy.

“We've done two apartment buildings: one urban right in center of Saginaw downtown and one rural in Greenville a small town in Michigan.”

Plus a warehouse, a medical office building, and a commercial office building.

Using property taxes to pay for energy efficiency is a very new idea.

There are other projects in the pipeline, but PACE hasn't yet caught on everywhere in the state. I ask Levin why - since there are so many benefits and virtually no downside. Levin says it's understandable. Using property taxes to pay for energy efficiency is a very new idea.

“People are hesitant, they don't understand it, or it seems too good to be true or they don't want to be the first one to do something, so each time we do something in a new city or county each time a new category of building comes on, all those other people with that kind of building say, ‘oh wait Sue did it so I can do that.’”

Bud Liebler hopes the work at the Whitney will convince other owners of historic buildings to follow suit.

And if you're wondering what the Whitney ghost thinks about all this, so far the ghost has been leaving the contractors alone, as his former 19th century home is readied for a 21st century energy makeover.