DETROIT – A once-shabby building that began as a Model T dealership is finding new life as a shared-space facility for entrepreneurs in this city that itself seeks a rebirth.

Independent businesspeople, architects, photographers, software developers and others work side-by-side, exchange ideas and feed off each other’s energy in rented space at the Green Garage, so named because of its environmental features.

“We’re actually three things,” says co-owner Peggy Brennan, a speech therapist and librarian. “A building located in the Midtown area, a business enterprise and a community of people dedicated to Detroit’s sustainable future.”

She and her husband Tom Brennen, who is a civil engineer and Accenture consultant, invested their retirement savings in the 11,000-sq.-ft. (1,021-sq.-m) building that is part of the Motor City’s past.

They spent $400,000 to buy the structure and $1.5 million to renovate it. They recruited 200 volunteers from nearby Wayne State University and elsewhere to help.

A student from the College for Creative Studies, a major car-design school, made wall sculptures using scraps of wood from the flooring and attic restoration.

Other students rescued boiler pipes to make an unusual stairway leading to a loft. The Brennans bought recycled flooring from Craigslist. They furnished workstations with materials acquired at a Detroit Public School auction.

The facility has solar lights, thermal panels and radiant heat. “Soon we will have an entire wall filled with books on urban sustainability,” Peggy Brennan says.

Where Model Ts once rolled into an alleyway is now called Green Alley. Volunteers installed permeable pavers and added a garden along each side. The plants are replenished from water stored in rain barrels.

Dealers such as Pat Lobb Toyota in McKinney, TX, and LaFontaine GM in Highland, MI, have won awards for constructing new structures built with sustainable materials and operating systems.

But the Brennans retrofitted a dealership built before wall insulation and recycling were part of the vocabulary. Now it is a so-called net-zero building, one that generates enough renewable energy to meet all of its power needs, including the laptops used in every cubicle.

The building at 4444 Second Ave. is a stone’s throw from the former General Motors Building and a few miles from what remains of Ford’s Highland Park Plant, which produced Model Ts by the millions. 

Green Garage dates to 1919. Two homes in what was called Cass Farms were torn down to make way for a dealership where Model T chassis platforms were converted to trucks in the back of the building.

By 1922, the dealership was offering six Model T models. But founder Frederick Ames suffered a nervous breakdown and died in 1925.

The Ames-Model T dealership became Wayne Automotive Supply in 1927. From 1934 to 1937 it served as Harrison Oldsmobile, retailing Oldsmobiles, then Hartman Motor Sales, a used-car store.

It was a decrepit warehouse when the Brennans bought and restored it.

“People say it costs more to restore a building,” Peggy Brennan says. “In fact, we have numbers to demonstrate that restoration is cost-effective. By recycling almost everything, we used only one and-a-half Dumpsters for the whole project.”

She sees a bright future in a city that has been through tough times. “Businesses have begun to locate in the building, and a wonderful sustainable community is growing,” she says.