Detroit’s Dirty Dozen, Then and Now
In 2004 the Detroit Free Press published an article about downtown Detroit’s ‘Towers of Neglect.’ These ‘shabby buildings’ downtown became known to many Detroiters as the ‘Dirty Dozen’ and many saw the article as a challenge to see who could get into all 12 first. A number of the buildings we see listed have since been demolished, but we have also seen some of them renovated. Only a few of them still sit in disrepair awaiting an unknown future in the new Detroit, showing just how different the city has become since 2004.
Most of this information can be found on Historic Detroit, and a good amount of the information was just my prior knowledge. If this information interests you, please check out Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins by Dan Austin.
The Book-Cadillac Hotel
The Book brothers broke ground on the Book-Cadillac Hotel (named after their family and the hotel that once stood in the same spot) in 1923, and it opened in 1924. The 33-story building was designed by Louis Kamper, who designed a number of buildings in Detroit, including the Book Tower which is just down the way (and would also eventually be abandoned). The hotel closed its doors for good in 1984 after years of decline. Although the city originally tried to find redevelopment for the property and paid security guards to guard the historic building, eventually the city could no longer afford to protect the building. This lack of protection led to scrapping and rampant vandalism, which left the hotel just a shell of its former self. The building began to shed away its beautiful charm (and walls) and many preservationists believed the behemoth of a hotel to be lost until things began looking up in the late 90s. Although the first plans to redevelop fell through, a Cleveland based group finally purchased the landmark. The building reopened in October of 2008 as the Westin Book-Cadillac Hotel. Today it is an anchor of Washington Boulevard and has helped the area come back in some ways, but the district still has a long way to go before becoming the vibrant area it once was.
The Broderick Tower
Originally named the Eaton Tower, this staple of the Detroit skyline opened in 1927. The building was named after Theodore H. Eaton, a businessman who invested in Detroit when it was very young. Theodore’s son, Berrien took over the family company in 1920 and in 1926 announced that the Eaton estate would build a 34-story sky scraper that would eventually become the third largest abandoned building in the United States. The building cost an estimated $1.75 million, which is around $21.5 million today. The tower held many businesses and offices, and held the Eaton name until 1944 when the building was sold to Intertown Corp., headed by David F. Broderick. The building changed hands a number of times after Broderick’s death in 1957, finally landing in the state’s lap in 1981 due to unpaid taxes. The tower was again purchased, but in the late 80’s it was abandoned and heavily scrapped and vandalized. Although it was left to the elements, the building overall was in pretty good shape. In 1997 Robert Wyland painted a large mural of humpback whales on the eastern wall of the tower, becoming a staple of downtown. Some good news came in the late 1990s, when Comerica Park was panned to be built next to the building. Many hoped that this would lead to redevelopment, which finally came in 2010 when it was announced that financing had been secured. The Broderick was restored to its former glory and opened in 2012, boasting 100% capacity before the grand-opening even occurred.
The David Whitney Building
David Whitney Jr. is responsible for a good portion of Detroit’s early success. He was a lumber baron and moved to Michigan in 1857 to build on the state’s already booming lumber industry. He invested in a number of Detroit businesses and was an extremely important figure in the city before the turn of the century. David Whitney Jr. purchased the land in which the David Whitney building stands today, but it was his son David Charles Whitney who would end up building the structure. Whitney employed Daniel H. Burnham, one of the most well-known architects of the day, to complete the project. The building opened in 1915, filled with storefronts and a number of offices on the higher levels. In the 1950’s the building lost many of its tenants just like most office buildings downtown. The Whitney family sold the building in the 60’s and was finally closed in 2000. The building sat vacant until 2011 when the Whitney Partners were able to purchase the property. The re-development finished and the building opened in 2013, and the Aloft hotel opened in 2014. The building was restored to its former luster and now illuminates the grim remnants of Grand Circus Park.
The Farwell Building
The Farwell Building, a staple of Capitol Park, opened in 1915 and was named after Jesse Farwell. The building was mainly mixed office space and featured beautiful ironwork, brass and marble elevators, and a unique dome embedded with tiny Tiffany glass shards. The building had issues throughout the 70’s and was donated to the Detroit Historical Society instead of being demolished in 1975. The building tripped along until 1984 when it closed for good. It was left abandoned until 2009 when the State of Michigan’s Land Bank Fast Track Authority purchased the building to try and redevelop the struggling Capitol Park area. The building is currently undergoing renovations and is set to open in the Fall of 2017 as apartments, office space, and retail space. The building suffered a good amount of damage whilst abandoned, but workers stated that overall the structure was in very good shape. The Farwell can be seen in the film Batman Vs. Superman and the music video for Detroit Vs. Everybody. The building is seen by many as a staple of Capitol Park, a district that is growing fast due to large investments from Dan Gilbert.
Fort Shelby Hotel
The Fort Shelby Hotel opened in 1917, having been built due to demand for hotels in the area. As the city grew, so did the hotel, and the building was enlarged in 1927 with an Albert Kahn designed addition. In 1951 the hotel was purchased by a chain and renamed the Pick Fort Shelby. The hotel changed hands a number of times before closing in 1974 and sitting empty for three decades. The building was heavily scrapped and vandalized just as many other abandoned buildings in Detroit were, and the future of the hotel seemed grim. After more than 30 years it was announced that the building would be renovated into a Doubletree Guest Suites hotel. The original building houses a hotel, and the 1951 addition holds apartments and condos. The building is also home to a large conference room and two ballrooms. The hotel reopened in 2008 and is a staple of Lafayette Boulevard, and also is often used to house visitors for various Cobo events.
The Lafayette Building
The 14-story Lafayette Building was designed by C. Howard Crane, who also designed the Fox and United Artists Theaters. The building was constructed on a triangular piece of land bounded by Lafayette Boulevard, Michigan Ave, and Shelby Street. The building opened in 1925. By 1932 the building had already changed hands, but stayed with it's new owners, the Bohn Corp., until 1961 when it was sold to the Tenney Realty Corp. of New York. The building housed the Michigan Supreme Court, the state Tax Tribunal, and a number of railroad companies. The building changed hands a number of times until it finally lost all of its tenants and closed for good in 1997. The city owned the property and neglected it. The building suffered a good amount of vandalism and most of the building was covered with graffiti, which many felt actually added to the decaying facade of the building. The city scrambled to find developers for the building, offering it to a number of companies, but claimed that none wanted the property. Throughout February and March of 2010 the Lafayette Building was demolished. The building was replaced by a garden.
The Madison-Lenox Hotel, built as two separate hotels constructed two years apart, is considered to be one of the most controversial preservation battles in Detroit history. Both towers were built just after the turn of the century. The two towers were built by two different architects, as two different hotels, but later combined into one. The location for the hotel was perfect, sitting right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city. The hotel offered daily, weekly, and monthly rates and was high class. The buildings saw renovations in the 50’s, dramatically changing the interior. Even with the renovations, the hotel’s guest started becoming those of lesser class. In 1987 it was announced that the buildings would undergo a renovation, but it never happened. The buildings were purchased in 1989 and again tried for renovation, but plans never went through and the hotel closed its doors in 1992. The building sat vacant, other than a few residents who refused to leave after the building closed, until the Ilichs purchased the building in 1997. The building had fallen into disrepair following its closure in 1992, and this only continued under Ilich ownership. Many preservationists bashed Ilich for neglecting the building, but he stated that it was in disrepair when he purchased it and plead that it should be demolished to make way for more parking. He submitted to demolish the property a number of times to historical commission, but these were denied. After a number of denied submissions to turn the building into a parking lot, wrecking crews showed up unannounced and started tearing down the building, only to be stopped not too long thereafter. A number of laws were broken in doing this, but due to the amount of damage that the building had taken in Ilich’s attempts to knock it down, the rest of the building had to go too. Ilich and his company Olympia denied all responsibility in the situation, and nobody was every charged for the illegal demolition. There as an obvious shit storm that followed, but in the end, not much happened to any party involved.
The Metropolitan Building
The Metropolitan Building came to be because George P. Yost, then vice president of the Central Detroit Realty Company, had the idea to centralize all aspects of trade in one building. This building would become the Metropolitan Building and it opened in 1925. In comparison to most buildings downtown, the Metropolitan was not an office building, but a retail location with space for dress shops, jewelers, and manufactures. The complex was successful for a number of years, but it changed hands a number of times. The rise of the shopping mall and white flight from the city gave no favors to Detroit’s shopping and entertainment districts. The city finally came into possession of the building after the former owner lost it in tax foreclosure in 1978 and it has sat empty ever since. Just like most abandoned buildings in Detroit, the Metro was vandalized, scrapped, and explored. There were a number of plans in the 1980s to try and rehab the project, but this is Detroit, so of course there was some controversy. There were two offers to rehab the building, one coming a year before the other. The first plan was recommended over the second, stating that the offer was far superior to the second, but the first plan was struck down in favor of the second. The second offer was offered up by the Mongos, a long-time friend of then mayor Coleman A. Young. The battle to know why the first plan was turned down was very long and drawn out, and never yielded any positive results other than just showing how corrupt some city officials were at the time. In 1997 the City of Detroit and State of Michigan cleaned up the hazardous material left by the jewelers in an attempt to make the Metro more viable as a rehab project. For the most part the building was in stellar shape structurally, keeping it on the radar of a number of firms and entrepreneurs. Work buffing the graffiti off of the building and cleaning it up began in 2015 and it was announced in 2016 that the Metropolitan Building would be the new home of Element Detroit, a hotel with 110 rooms, retail space, and an outdoor patio on the rooftop. The hotel is slated to open in 2018, and is a big win for preservationists who have been trying to see it repurposed since the 80s.
Michigan Central Station
Probably Detroit’s most famous abandoned structure, Michigan Central Station opened in December of 1913 in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, Corktown. The station was truly one of the most beautiful buildings in Detroit, and one of the most beautiful train stations in the world. The main floor of the building held a waiting room, restaurant, and bathing quarters for passengers to freshen up in. The office tower served as a headquarters for the rails business functions. Michigan Central Station was a bustling station through the 30’s and 40’s, but there were signs of decay looming. With the rise of the automobile trains became more and more obsolete for travel purposes, leading the New York Central System to attempt selling the building in 1956. There were no takers due to the high price tag, and the station hobbled along. The beautiful waiting room was closed in 1967, and many of the small shops on the main floor began to disappear due to a lack of customers. By 1971 the old owners had gone bankrupt, and with the creation of Amtrak the building had a new owner. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, which will become important later. In 1985 the station was sold to a New York based corporation. In 1988, the last train rolled out of the station, heading to Chicago. The building was purchased by a real estate developer in 1989 who wanted to turn the building into a casino, but casinos were not allowed in Detroit until 1996, so the plan never went through. Throughout the duration of the 1990s Michigan Central Station was open—not literally, but figuratively speaking you could just walk right inside. Everything of value was stolen from the building. Windows were broken, graffiti was sprayed on the walls, and pieces of the building were smashed to pieces. In 1995 the building was sold to Controlled Terminals Inc. and they have owned it since. The owner, Manuel Maroun, also owns the Ambassador Bridge and a trucking company. There have been a number of plans for the station, but none have come to fruition. Plans have included international trade and customs centers, a new police headquarters, a Homeland Security and Customs headquarters, and most recently, a jail. Due to these frequent but long shot plans, and because the station is on the National Register of Historic Places, the station has been saved from demolition. The city has been calling for the demolition of the station since the 1990s. It was announced in 2015 that the station would get completely new windows, a move that many believed was only completed by Maroun to make the city happy, as he is currently trying to build another bridge to Canada directly next to the Ambassador. Whether you enjoy the look of these windows or not, they are a step in the right direction. A new roof would be nice, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I personally find Mr. Maroun to be a huge asshole, and believe he is holding onto the building as a sort of hostage to manipulate the city to give him the things he wants. After all, he is a billionaire, and the additions to the building he has made so far cannot have even put a dent in his pocket. The building is currently secured and the windows were finished in early 2016. It was truly strange seeing it complete with windows for the first time, but as stated above, it is definitely a move in the right direction.
The Statler Hotel
When it opened in 1915, the Statler was the largest hotel in the Midwest and the most expensive and luxurious in Detroit. The hotel provided great views of Grand Circus Park and held down the far end of Washington Boulevard. The hotel was so successful that after it’s first year an extension was built, giving the hotel a total of 1,000 rooms and over 500,000 square feet of luxury. It’s location in proximity to Detroit’s theaters, shopping, and restaurant scene made it very successful among celebrities and the elite of the city. In 1954, the Statler hotel chain was sold to Conrad N. Hilton. The Detroit Statler was renamed the Statler-Hilton and employed over 800 people at the time. In the 1960s many renovations took place, stealing a lot of the original luster that the hotel had. In 1969 the hotel was sold to a group of investors that had no idea how to run a hotel. After numerous attempts to save the hotel and keep it open, the hotel closed in 1975 when the utilities were turned off. The City of Detroit inherited the property when the former hotel was foreclosed on. The building sat empty for three decades. In the 90s many believed that the Statler would be a good fit for one of the many casinos that would soon pop up in the city, but those plans never came to fruition. In the late 90’s the building began getting cleaned up, draining the contaminated basement, removing asbestos, and removing toxic equipment from the building. By 2003 the Statler was no-longer a hazard. The city had been trying to sell the property for under a year when demolition proceedings began. Many protested this, citing city ordinances that called for the proper marketing and attempted sale or rehabilitation of buildings before demolition permits could be filed. Just like many other buildings, the Statler saw the wrecking ball in 2004, a year before the Super Bowl and All-Star Game were set to take place in Detroit. Many believe that the city demolished a number of savable buildings downtown to make downtown Detroit look nicer, but in reality it made the city look like a barren wasteland made up of dozens of parking lots. The loss of the Statler made the landscape of Grand Circus Park even sadder to behold. All that sits there now is a large dirt lot.
The United Artists Building / Theater
The United Artists Building, which I hate with a burning passion for personal reasons, was conceived in the 1920s as Grand Circus Park became a powerhouse for movie palaces and theaters. The theater and attached office tower broke ground in 1927 and was completed in 1928. The theater was the smallest of those around it in the city and was the only one built exclusively for film showings. There were three United Artists Theaters, one in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The Detroit theater was very similar to the Los Angeles theater. The original marquee for the building was 80 feet tall and 7.5 feet wide. The theater was said to be acoustically perfect, and had an orchestra pit due to a lack of sound in many films when the theater was constructed. In 1950 the building and theater underwent a major remodeling job, modernizing everything from the façade to the interior of the building. The beautiful marquee was replaced with a smaller, more modern marquee that was on the building until 2005. Throughout the 70s the theater struggled, closing a number of times and resorting to showing porn to make ends meet. After its owner left the city of Detroit for Dearborn, the building began to fall into disrepair and most of its ornate objects were sold off. In 1979 the Detroit Syphony Orchestra began using the acoustically perfect United Artists Theater as a recording studio until they could no longer take the lack of heat and electricity, also noting rain coming through the roof and left in 1983. The building changed hands a number of times and almost saw the wrecking ball when the Ilich family planned to put Comerica Park where the building sat. The move of the stadium to the east side of Woodward Avenue saved the United Artist Theater and a number of other buildings on the block. In the late 1990s the Ilich family finally did buy the building, stating plans to tear down either the theater, the office tower, or perhaps both, to make room for more parking (sound familiar?). Throughout the early 2000s the building was ordered to be demolished by the city a number of times, but Olympia Entertainment and Ilich were unsure what they planned to do with the property, so they stated redevelopment plans to save the structure. In 2005 the marquee that was put in place in 1950 fell onto the street below. This, and the approaching Super Bowl, led the billionaire owner to cough up a little dough and clean up the property, removing the graffiti from windows and the façade of the building. The removal of the graffiti angered some. Many believed that the artwork on the building was prettier than the deteriorating building itself, and once removed, there wasn’t much to look at. The building has since gotten new doors, security cameras, and a new roof. Although the building is more secure, it is still vacant, and I was ‘lucky’ enough to get in one summer night in 2016. I can attest for the beauty that this building once held, but I also can see the amount of money that it would take to rehab the building. Even though I have a unique hatred for this building, I really do hope it can be renovated. It is by far one of the most distinct buildings I have ever been in, and if it could potentially be saved, it would be an anchor of the Grand Circus Park district.
The Wurlitzer Building
Rudolph Wurlitzer emigrated to the United States in 1853 and his company that produced musical instruments would quickly become the largest supplier of musical instruments in the country. Wurlitzer pianos are noted as some of the best to ever be made, and were sold through a chain of retail stores that held his name. Wurlitzer also made theater organs for theaters and movie houses, and a number of Detroit theaters, opera houses, and churches had them. Although Wurlitzer died in 1914 in his home of Cincinnati, his sons continued the family business leading to more success and also heightened the company’s presence in Detroit. The Wurlitzer building opened in 1926 and neighbors the Metropolitan Building, which was covered above. Originally the building was used to build the instruments that the company sold, but it was converted into the Wurlitzer Music Center in 1940. This renovation made the building a true store and teaching space, and even included an auditorium. The Wurlitzer company occupied the building until just before the 1970s and a random handful of tenants filtered through the halls of the building. In 1982 the last tenants of the building moved out, to their dismay. They did not leave because they did not like the building, they left due to a lack of heat and running water. The building sat empty until it was purchased in 1995 for a small sum. The new owner did nothing to secure the building until trying to pawn it off in 2003, after significantly more damage had occured. The owner claimed a number of times he was seeking to renovate the building, but no such plans went through. The building fell further into disrepair, and a 50-pound chunk of terra cotta fell from the roof of the Wurlitzer, leaving a gaping hole in the café next door. The impact was so loud that a number of people living downtown called 911 to report an explosion. Later in 2011 part of the real wall collapsed into the alleyway, and a similar incident occurred in 2012. The state of the Wurlitzer was due to bad management and neglect by its owner. The building was purchased in 2015 for just under $1.5 million. The new Brooklyn based owners revealed plans to turn the building into a hotel with a lounge on the rooftop and restaurant on the street level. The building was supposed to be open by the fall of 2016, but work has not yet finished. Work continues.
Instead of finishing this article with a song like usual, I would like to share this poem about Detroit. It’s always important to remember what makes this city important, and what makes it Detroit.
Detroit (While I Was Away) – David Blair