The United Artists Theatre Ought to Be a Community Space—the Ilitch Family Owes Us That Much

By Eric Hergenreder - 


Mike Ilitch hoists the Stanley Cup in 1998. Photo by Julian H. Gonzalez, Detroit Free Press

Mike Ilitch hoists the Stanley Cup in 1998. Photo by Julian H. Gonzalez, Detroit Free Press

The Ilitch family has a number of different reputations around the metro-Detroit area. The late Mike Ilitch was the owner of both the Red Wings and the Tigers until his death earlier this year. His son Chris now holds that title. Although the family is most known for their founding and ownership of the pizza chain Little Caesars since the late 1950s, they also began to acquire property in Detroit during the mid-1980s. Their most famous work is the Fox Theatre, a 1920s movie palace they renovated after it had closed due to structural issues. Although their jump into the real-estate business in Detroit seemed promising, the Fox Theatre was one of very few buildings that the Ilitch family would actually renovate. 

The Ilitch’s own somewhere north of 100 acres of land in the downtown Detroit area. Controversy began in 2004 when requests to demolish the historic Madison-Lenox Hotel were submitted to the historical commission. Ilitch firms claimed that the buildings were already in disrepair when they were purchased in 1997, 5 years after they closed for good. This may have been true, but the damage to the buildings under Ilitch ownership was far worse than under the previous ownership, and the Ilitchs did little to nothing to secure or stabilize the buildings. After a number of refusals from the historical commission, the owners still believed that “the greatest need and greatest use for the property is to satisfy the parking demands.” Although permits had again been denied, wrecking crews showed up in May of 2005 and began to tear down the structures. After a week of litigation and arguments between the two sides, the Madison-Lenox bit the dust…and so began the empire of parking lots. 

The list of Ilitch demolition projects didn’t stop there. The Fine Arts Building, Adams Theatre, Chin Tiki Restaurant, YMCA, YWCA, Detroit College of Law, Hotel Wolverine, and others have been demolished and now are either a part of Comerica Park or a parking lot to service it. 

The United Artists Theatre in 2016. Photo by Eric Hergenreder.

The United Artists Theatre in 2016. Photo by Eric Hergenreder.

Although there are not many abandoned structures left in the Ilitch’s pockets, the United Artists Theatre is by far the largest and most ornate. Built in the 1920s, the UAT was by and large one of the most extravagant movie palaces in Detroit and the Midwest. The 18 story office tower and connected theatre were both empty by the mid-1970s, and in 1975 the owners sold off the theatre’s ornate furnishings at auction. Not much happened inside the UAT until the mid-90s when Don Barden tried to turn it into one of the casinos that would soon pop up in Detroit, but after that failed he sold the property to Mike Ilitch. The original plan was to tear the building down for the new Comerica Park complex, but a move across Woodward Avenue saved the historic theatre and office-tower. The Ilitchs still planned to tear down the building for another parking lot, but this never happened. It was left open to the elements and often subject to trespass and scrapping. The city ordered the building to be demolished a number of times, but the Ilitchs dodged their attacks by claiming it would be refurbished. That was believed to be a lie until recently, when Olympia Entertainment announced that the UAT’s tower would be converted into almost 150 residential units with first floor retail. No plans have been announced for the theatre, but many fear rehabilitation into yet another parking lot.

Although the refurbishing of the office tower is great news, it would be a damn shame if the theatre couldn’t be returned to its former glory. Over the years, Detroit has lost over a dozen ornate buildings that used to show movies, offer live music, and bring theater productions to town. The list below names some of the buildings lost over the past century (year demolished).

Photo from Preservation Wayne

Photo from Preservation Wayne

Detroit was once a premier city for theatres and ballrooms, but we have lost a great deal to the wrecking ball. Given that fact, the Ilitch’s shifty preservation past, their claimed commitment to Detroit, and the family's past use of Detroiter's tax dollars, it would be fitting that the United Artists Theatre become a space that the community can use for decades. The Fox is beautiful. The Fillmore brings great talent into the city. Little Caesars is large enough to bring headliners to town. St. Andrews caters to the underground music fans. The United Artists should be a place for Detroiters to perform, see local talent, and host events. Although this won’t exactly help the Ilitch family add to their fortune (Forbes estimated $6.1 billion net-worth), it will help their reputation among critics and give Detroiters, new and old, a place to meet and celebrate the amazing talent with which our city overflows. The theatre could hold over 2,000 at its peak, a little under half of the Fox's capacity. It could be a place to show documentaries and films created in the Detroit area. It could cater to theatre productions, both amateur and professional. It could host artistic events, weddings, and other local music and speaking events. It would also be a perfect place for high school students of Detroit to showcase their theatre programs, music concerts, and talent shows. 

The theatre, if done correctly, could do all of this and more. But, as of now, it sits, just as it has for a little under a century. Closing in on 50 years of abandonment, citizens who care about historical preservation need to ensure they do not let the Ilitch’s turn this grand palace into another parking lot. Not again!