Back to Life: Detroit’s NSO Bell Building

Written by Janet Kreger, Founding Member and Past President of Michigan Historic Preservation Network.

“Whatever could that huge old building be good for?” This thought may cross your mind as you view the latest 30 minute TV episode of “The Bright Side.” Featuring historic preservation projects from around Michigan, the show includes a segment on the restoration and reuse of the NSO Bell Building in Detroit. What you learn as its story unfolds is that this stunning historic building was perfect for reuse as permanent, supportive housing for Detroit’s homeless.
NSO Bell Building - New Entrance Facade - twilight
Photographer – Christopher Lark, Inc.

The Bell Building began life in 1929 as the 12-story brick phone exchange housing Bell Telephone operators making manual connections. Its Art Deco design was by the Detroit architectural firm of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls that created other city landmarks such as the Guardian and Penobscot Buildings.

The fact that it had fallen into disrepair blinded many to the fact that the building was sound and its open floor plan could accommodate virtually any new function. But the Neighborhood Service Organization (NSO) saw its potential as a centrally located landmark for a neighborhood it would both serve and revitalize. NSO is a 57 year old private, nonprofit, social service agency that serves Detroit, Wayne County, and Oakland County. It provides accessible programs designed to strengthen and empower individuals in their communities, support families, and help those in need.

The Bell Building provided what NSO needed to house both its programs and permanent housing for those with special needs. NSO leadership, however, had to structure a financial package that would make redevelopment possible through a mixture of state and federal programs, its own equity, and assistance from foundations and human services organizations. Additionally, the NSO’s use of the State Historic Preservation Tax Credit provided an opportunity for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network (MHPN) to be involved. The results are a beautifully restored historic building that now provides 155 one-bedroom units and is the service and administrative headquarters for 200 NSO staff.

Bell Building Apartment Inside
Every apartment has all new furnishings. Photo by NSO.

The NSO Bell Building would seem an unlikely choice for a gala, but not to the MHPN. The MHPN was founded in 1981 as Michigan’s membership organization for those involved in preserving the state’s historic resources. While its working board and 6-member staff focus on community outreach, educational programming, and advocacy, work is set aside for its Fall Benefit! Gala locations over the past 18 years have included a train station, botanical gardens, a Grand Army of the Republic building, a yacht club, and more. What the venues have in common are their historic significance and the fact that they are either little known gems or rarely open to the public.

Because of the MHPN’s involvement as a partner in NSO’s project, it is the perfect venue for its 19th Annual Fall Benefit to be held Friday, October 25. The evening includes pop-up dinner fare, a hosted beer and wine bar, building tours, silent and live auctions, and, this year, the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award to a noteworthy Detroit preservationist, Susan Mosey, President of Midtown Detroit, Inc.

Everyone is invited to attend the MHPN’s Annual Fall Benefit. It will be the perfect evening, don’t you think? See a building that has caught your eye from the expressway for years, learn about its restoration, help not one but two organizations committed to community revitalization, and, best of all, have a great time in Detroit!

Learn more about the MHPN’s 19th Annual Fall Benefit in the “Happenings” section at

NSO Bell Building - Front Facade - twilight
Photographer – Christopher Lark, Inc.
Architect – Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas, Inc.
General Contractor – O’Brien Edwards Construction;