Chene Street Chronicles: Max’s Jewelry Store

Researched & written by Eric Hergenreder for eherg.com/

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Chene Street was named after the Chene Family, who settled in Detroit early in its French history. At this time Detroit was a smaller farming community whose central hub was located along the Detroit River. Most of the city's farms were ribbon farms, which consisted of long strips of land beginning at the water, assuring every farmer had access to irrigation and transportation. The Chene family operated a large farm for a number of years with help from slaves and servants. There were Chene relatives all over the city, but the farm located where Chene Street currently lies was the most well-known. This land had been granted to the family by Louis XIV of France and eventually would also be home to the Alexander Chene House, a home that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and demolished in 1991 to make way for the E. Jefferson IHOP.

The Rosenbaum family began immigrating to American just after the turn of the century. They were a Jewish family from Poland and they left their home country to escape persecution by the Germans. The oldest son, Max, moved into a home on Chene Street on Detroit’s east side. This area was becoming more and more Polish, also housing some of Detroit’s rising black population. Chene Street started to become a commercial mecca, housing some 200 storefronts, most of which were owned by the influx of Polish Immigrants and black Detroiters who came from the south. Although the Polish and black communities were discriminated against at the time, this area began to thrive because of the unique skills and trades these merchants possessed.

Photo via: Marian Krzyzowski, University of Michigan Chene Street History Project and Mr. Ed Nowak, Nowak Bros Hardware Store

Photo via: Marian Krzyzowski, University of Michigan Chene Street History Project and Mr. Ed Nowak, Nowak Bros Hardware Store

The Rosenbaum boys opened their first Jewelry shop in 1914, then called Fredro Jewelry Store. The business did quite well, but the store did have its fair share of setbacks. In 1919, Max was robbed by five men while working at the shop at 1093 Chene. They pointed automatic revolvers at him, instructing him to open the safe and cash registers. By the time it was all said and done the thieves had stolen $6,000 ($100,000+ today) worth of diamond rings, gold watches, jewelry, and cash. Even amidst this major setback, the family would eventually open a second location down the street. These two businesses were merged when Max’s Jewelry store opened at 5553 Chene Street in 1927. The building featured a large marquee with Max’s sprawling down the sides and two clocks facing each way down the street. At the time this area was home to a number of Jewish-owned businesses, including grocery stores, restaurants, and clothing stores. Most of these business owners either lived in the Chene Street area or in the Dexter-Linwood neighborhood on Detroit’s north-west side.

Times were good for the Rosenbaum family. So good in fact that the eldest brother decided to open another Max’s Jewelry Store in Hamtramck. The two-floor business located at 1000 Joseph Campau opened sometime around 1940, remaining open for 54 years. Max operated this store until his death in 1980, having left the Chene location to his younger brother Sam after setting up shop in Hamtramck.

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The Chene location was the more unique location and was quite dazzling on the interior as well. The building featured glass cases on both sides of the main room and a middle-row of tables to show off larger items. Every morning all the jewelry would be removed from a safe in the back of the building and placed into displays, returning home to the safe at the end of each workday. The back of the building also housed an office for bookkeeping, a bathroom, and a small office for Sam. A large cash register sat on the back counter just before the half-wall partition that housed the offices began.

Sam Rosenbaum would be the proprietor of this location until the 1940s when he retired. Although he was no longer in charge of the business, he frequented the establishment until his death in 1954. He handed the business off to his son, Charles, who had been working at the family business since he was a child. Charles often went by Charlie Ross, which may have been an attempt to hide his Jewish heritage, but he was known by his full name outside of the workplace. Charlie was a proud business owner and an influential member of the Chene Business Association. As the population of Detroit began to decline, the neighborhood around the shop went with it. St. Stanislaus, the Roman Catholic Church that serviced the Poles of the neighborhood, closed its Junior High and High School by the mid-70s. Other shops and businesses on the strip began to close as well.

Photo via: Marian Krzyzowski, University of Michigan Chene Street History Project and the Rosenbaum family

Photo via: Marian Krzyzowski, University of Michigan Chene Street History Project and the Rosenbaum family

Undeterred, Charlie continued to operate his jewelry shop. As Detroiters left for the suburbs and big-box stores became the norm, the store struggled to keep up with the times. Charlie did not buy as much merchandise as the chain jewelry stores so he couldn’t keep his prices as low as theirs. The 1967 rebellion also took a toll on Charlie. He was robbed at gunpoint, not only losing all the jewelry in his safe, but his precious coin collection as well. The worst part about these thieves, at least to Charlie, was that they were from the neighborhood. He knew who they were, and they had to have known about him and his shop. It was like robbing your family in a sense, and it just felt wrong.

The exterior of Max's in 1974. Photo via: Marian Krzyzowski, University of Michigan Chene Street History Project and Alex Pollack, Detroit City Planning Department.

The exterior of Max's in 1974. Photo via: Marian Krzyzowski, University of Michigan Chene Street History Project and Alex Pollack, Detroit City Planning Department.

It was a combination of these negative factors throughout the 1960s and Charlies daughter’s wishes for her father to leave the city of Detroit that led Max’s on Chene to close up shop in 1974. Even as the city tried to clean up the area after the rebellion, adding colorful artwork to a number of storefronts that were looted, including Max’s, Charlie couldn’t justify staying in the neighborhood in his old age. He moved the business to Ryan Road in Warren, an area that had seen a rise in its Polish population as swarms of families left Detroit. He wouldn’t stay long though, as he sold the property a few years later and moved to Florida to retire. When he sold, there was only one Max’s left, his brother’s shop in Hamtramck. There was another storefront at 4771 Michigan Avenue that was run by Harry Rosenbaum at one point, but after his death it became too much for the brothers to handle. They sold that location shortly after his death to help support Harry’s widowed wife and children.

After Max’s left it’s Chene Street location, the neighborhood fell further into despair. In the late 1970s, General Motors began planning a new assembly plant in Poletown to replace the soon-to-be-defunct Detroit Assembly in southwest Detroit. They began purchasing property and acquiring land through eminent domain, demolishing everything in their path. They evicted 4,000+ residents, demolished 1,400 homes, shuttered 140 businesses, and demolished a number of historic churches in the process. This combined with the addition of the Detroit Incinerator, built in 1986 just west of Poletown, proved to be quite problematic for the already shrinking neighborhood. The factory created a gaping hole in the neighborhood and the incinerator made the chances of gaining new family-oriented residents very unlikely.

(Left) Apollo Furniture Store sits empty in the old Max's location, (right) Van Dyke Pastry Shop after it was left abandoned. Photograph taken pre-arson in May of 2008 by Robert Monaghan.  SOURCE

(Left) Apollo Furniture Store sits empty in the old Max's location, (right) Van Dyke Pastry Shop after it was left abandoned. Photograph taken pre-arson in May of 2008 by Robert Monaghan. SOURCE

At some point after Charlie left Chene Street, a furniture store called Apollo Furniture began conducting business in the old jewelry store. The once bustling shopping metropolis was a shell of its former glory, and so was Max’s. The new owners painted over the marquee with what looked like basic acrylic paint so poorly that it was barely legible. Although different, the store remained open, serving those left in the neighborhood. It eventually closed and sat vacant for a good amount of time. Sometime before this the Eastown Bar across the street closed up shop as well. CE Enterprises, a computer installation and electronic repairs shop that was formerly an A&P Grocery store and then a hardware store attached to Max’s to the south, also closed up shop. The storefront to the north of Max’s, which has since been demolished, formerly Van Dyke Pastry Shop, was one of the surviving Polish footprints of the neighborhood until its closure.

Driving down Chene Street these days feels like something out of a movie, with very few storefronts remaining and even fewer of those remaining still open for business. Around 2012, a fire tore through Max’s empty storefront, leaving the property in full disrepair. In 2016 Max's was a filming location for Michael Bay's 'Transformers: The Last Knight,' which added vintage, albeit fake, ghost signs on its north outer-wall for a 3-hour dry cleaner and the E. Donaldson auto-mechanic shop.  It is currently owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority and sits wide open, as it has for over a half-decade. I took the non-historic photographs in this article on March 23, 2018 around 2am. A week or so before these photographs were taken a number of buildings down Chene Street had demolition notices pinned to their exterior. Although Max’s has not yet been threatened with demolition, the future does not look very bright for the historic jeweler that served Poletown for decades. 

 

Update: I inquired within the Detroit Land Bank Authority about Max's on Chene because I wanted to purchase the property and refurbish it into a community center, but they informed me that they were already in negotiations with a buyer. Although this saddened me because I was hoping to purchase the property, I am very hopeful that Max's might be saved. They may just be purchasing the building for the land it sits upon, but I remain optomistic. 

 
 
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A Historic Preservation Battle Fought & Lost: The R. Thornton Brodhead Armory

I purchased a book about historic buildings in Michigan a few months back and while looking through it I found a pamphlet from a tour of the Brodhead Armory from the late 1990s. I have explored the armory a number of times, so here is a combination of photos I have taken and information that I have learned from the pamphlet. 

 
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In the late 1920s Lieutenant Commander R. Thornton Brodhead, the head of the Michigan State Naval brigade, led a drive to establish a new naval armory. The state of Michigan appropriated $250,000 for construction, and the City of Detroit provided the land and additional funds.

On October 6, 1930 the Detroit Naval Armory was dedicated. The structure, standing on the Detroit River just east of the Belle Isle Bridge, was designed by the Detroit-based architectural firm Stratton & Hyde, featuring an Indiana limestone-faced exterior and ceramic tile crests made of Pewabic Pottery. William Stratton was a veteran of the Michigan Naval Militia’s USS Yosemite Crew during the Spanish-American War. 

Upkeep of the building was limited to primarily state funding, and as the armory opened during the Great Depression the Navy was forced to take advantage of the space they had to make money, hosting sporting events, rallies, and auto shows. Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke at the armory during his first campaign for the presidency and Joe Louis fought in the main area of the building in 1932. 

During the Great Depression the Federal Government paid a number of different artists to create works inside the building. These works gave the building the most extensive Works Progress Administration art collection of any other building in the state of Michigan. David Fredenthal began painting murals in the wardroom and officer’s bar of occupational and leisurely activities of sailors in 1936. Edgar Yaegar completed murals on the mess deck in 1937, portraying vessels that served Detroit’s Naval Reservists. John Tubaczuk carved extensive wood pieces all throughout the building, but most notably carvings of marine fantasies on the bannisters, and room-specific carvings on wooden-doors and insets. Gustave Hildebrand carved a number of unique plaster pieces on the first floor of the building, depicting occupational themes in scenes of sailors swabbing, plotting courses, and “holystoning” their decks smooth.

The anchor from the Yanic, a ship built in 1863 and used by the Navy until 1929, is centered in the front yard of the building. Brass portholes from the USS Dubuque, the first of two ships to hold said name, were installed in a steel bulkhead at the base of the stairwell leading to the wardroom.

 
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During World War II the building became a training center for electrical and diesel engineers, housing and training over 1000 sailors that would ship off to Europe, Africa, and Japan. Captain Brodhead died in the late 1940s and the State of Michigan honored him by renaming the Detroit Naval Armory in his honor. It has been named the R. Thornton Brodhead Armory since. The Navy used the building until sometime before 1989, when it was leased to the Marine Corps. At the time this pamphlet was printed, which is hand dated 1998, the armory was home to the headquarters element of the 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment (1/24) and their medical support unit, Naval Reserve 5th Marine Division (1/24). It also served as the Marine Corps Mobilization Station, where unassigned reservists mobilize in times of war or national emergency. The armory was also home to P.A.L.’s Youth Basketball League, high school graduations, and special sports activities, often free of charge. It appears to have been left abandoned sometime around 2004, ownership being transferred to the City of Detroit some time thereafter. Support beams were stolen by scrappers, caving in the roof sometime around 2014. Most of the ornate woodwork has been stolen by thieves, but some of the murals still sit somewhat intact.

The pamphlet I found was produced by the Brodhead Armory Preservation Society, a group that was established in 1998, "for the purpose of coordinating efforts to rehabilitate and maintain the armory as a historic structure and to raise funds for that purpose.” The group, based out of Royal Oak, realized that the Marines would do all they could to maintain the armory, but also knew it would take a lot of money to restore and conserve the artistic treasures the building housed. It appears they were running tours of the building to gain public awareness of the beauty it held with the Marine Corps’ permission, accepting donations to help upkeep the more ornate portions of the building. Although it appears the men and women of the Brodhead Armory Preservation Society were fighting the good fight, as you can see by the photos shown here they were unable to stave off the destruction due to scrapping, neglect, and the weather. This should be a reminder that although we have lost so much here in Detroit, we cannot let such events put a damper on our attitude towards historical preservation, as there are still a lot of battles to be fought.

 
Photo from the  Detroit Historical Society  of the armory in the 1930s. Students from Cass Tech, Crosman, Smith, and West Commerce High Schools present for an event.

Photo from the Detroit Historical Society of the armory in the 1930s. Students from Cass Tech, Crosman, Smith, and West Commerce High Schools present for an event.

 

Knowing how to get involved with historic preservation can be a little daunting at first, but in Detroit we have a number of ways to make it a little easier. A great way to make a difference is to consider donating your time or funds to an organization like Preservation Detroit. A great way to keep updated on current events is to follow HistoricDetroit.org on Facebook, and also check their website periodically. Crain's Detroit and the Motor City Muckraker are also good sources of information as well.

For more on the Brodhead Armory, check out this article from Detroit Urbex. It shows a number of before & after photographs of the wooden carvings and murals.

Written by Eric Hergenreder. Photos taken by Eric Hergenreder in December of 2015.

Ditch Your Digital Camera—Why You Should Shoot Film On Vacation

Even before I picked up a camera a number of years ago, I was traveling as much as my schedule and wallet would allow me. There has always been something that has drawn me to hitting the open road, heading to the airport, or catching a train. When I was young my family moved to England for my father’s job and while living across the pond my family traveled to a number of European countries. I think it was those specific vacations at such a young age when the travel-bug bit me for the first time. As I grew older I still loved to travel, but it wasn’t until I picked up a camera that I really started wanting to travel across the globe as much as possible, this time documenting my travels. I took my digital camera, an assortment of lenses, and countless other photography-related odds and ends with me to St. Louis, Sorrento, Seattle, Vancouver, Venice, South Carolina, Florida, Rome, Philadelphia, and a number of other locations. Although I had an amazing time on all of those trips and took numerous photographs that I enjoy very much, something just didn’t feel right when I was traveling. I didn’t get that same sense of adventure that I once did, I felt like I wasn’t on vacation at all, like it was just another day shooting in Detroit with my friends. Whereas I do love shooting in Detroit with my friends, I feel like shooting at 4am along an ancient Venetian canal with the stars dancing above my head should feel a little special, right?

 

These photos are from the first roll of film I shot in December of 2016. I used a Canon AE-1 and expired Fuji 400 35mm film.

 

It wasn’t until I picked up a film camera in the beginning of 2017 that I began to realize that it was my digital camera that was causing these vacations to feel far different from how they once had. I was so focused on getting a perfect shot of everywhere I went that I somehow forgot that I was on vacation and that I was supposed to be enjoying myself. I first had this thought on one particular day while adventuring around Venice in the spring of 2017. We had decided to head to Burano, one of Venice’s most colorful and vibrant islands. I had brought along some color film to shoot in my Canon AE-1, and as I had already visited Burano before I decided that I would ditch the digital camera for the day and focus on shooting some film while adventuring around the island. As I wandered around the radiant island, I snapped photos here and there, had some pizza, and walked through some unique looking storefronts. Although the architecture wasn’t as unique as the main island and the buildings weren’t nearly as magnificent, I had more fun shooting on Burano than most of the rest of my trip to Italy. 

 

These are a few of the images I took while walking around Burano. I used a Canon AE-1 and some cheap Agfa 400 35mm film.

 

Although I had the time of my life on the entire trip, that one specific day in Burano stood out to me even after returning to classes a week later. I explained time after time to interested friends and colleagues about my trip, about how my favorite portion was on this tiny island in the Venitian Canal that had hundreds of colorful little homes and cute little shops. I told them about how I had some of the best pizza of my life whilst drinking a Heineken, of course explaining how much better the Dutch beer was in Europe than America, as it skunks on the trip over the Atlantic—you know, all the stupid things Americans say after returning from vacation. After explaining the story of my time on the island so many times, I really started to analyze why I had such a great time there, and I began to realize it was because of my digital camera. During the rest of my time in Italy I was so focused on capturing every single moment, scene, and historic building perfectly I forgot to enjoy myself and truly take in my surroundings. Yes, those photos turned out and I’m quite happy with a number of them, but I truly believe that if I had been shooting film I would have remembered my entire trip as fondly as I remember Burano. 

Now I’m far from saying that you shouldn’t take your digital camera on vacation, that would be simpleminded. There are lots of situations while in a foreign place that facilitate using a digital camera. Whenever I am planning a trip I typically research for hours upon hours different locations that I want to shoot, looking up sunrise and sunset times, and mapping out my attack plan from location to location. For specific places you've traveled thousands of miles to see, use your damn digital camera, get the perfect shot, and show everyone you know when you return. But while walking around the streets of someplace new, instead of focusing on your LCD camera screen, focus on what’s going on around you, what people are doing, how they’re doing it, and try to understand why they’re doing it. You don’t need a perfect photo of the itsy-bitsy alleyway just outside your hotel door. Snap a quick photo with a film camera and be on your way. Whether or not it turns out perfect after you get it back from the darkroom doesn’t really matter, regardless of the quality the image help you remember what it was, why you took it, and your time coming to and from your hotel. Some of my favorite photos I have taken to date were taken whilst just walking around the streets of Venice by myself with some Agfa 400, climbing the cliffs of Anacapri overlooking the beautiful blue waters of the Mediterranean with some Portra 400, exploring frigid Philadelphia with some expired Fuji 800, or walking through Toronto’s Chinatown in the rain with my friend Jill with some Ilford XP2 loaded up.

 

This is a small collection of photos I have shot on film during my travels. 1-Sorrento, Portra 400. 2-Philadelphia, Fuji 800. 3-Chicago, Ilford XP2. 4-Palm Beach, Portra 400. 5-Toronto, Ilford XP2. 6-Sorrento, Kodak Gold 400.

 

Even as I write this I know I’m going to get some flak for this article. My friends call me a hipster, other photographers think I’m crazy, and my mom thinks I want to be broke forever. To all of those people, maybe even you reading this, I love shooting film and there isn’t anything you can say to change that. Film is beautiful, and it’s damn easy. Load it up, choose a shutter speed, read your light meter, and BLAMO—you’ve got a timeless photograph. When I’m on vacation I don’t want to get caught up looking through my photos to ensure I got something perfect while visiting somewhere that should be taking my breath away. I want to snap a quick photo or two, and enjoy my fucking vacation. Film isn’t making a comeback, it never died in the first place!

 

Self-portrait shot with my Canon AE-1 & some Fuji 400

 

Are you interested in getting started shooting film? Worried about costs? When I first got into analog photography I was flat broke, but was able to immerse myself in the hobby without breaking the bank. I wrote an article about how to get into film photography cheaply, check that out here >>>

How To (cheaply) Get Started With 35mm Film in Metro-Detroit


Written by Eric Hergenreder

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!

Over A Dozen Ticketed at Fisher Body 21 in Wake of Cooley High School Arson

By Eric Hergenreder - 


Photo by  Robert Monaghan
Cooley High School Auditorium Friday evening/Saturday morning

Cooley High School Auditorium Friday evening/Saturday morning

It was a busy weekend for Detroit police and first responders. Late Friday night into Saturday morning a fire broke out in the auditorium of Cooley High School, a property that is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been vacant for almost a decade. Photos taken by Detroit Fire Fighters show the entirety of the seated areas in flames, smoke billowing through the high gold painted ceilings of the massive auditorium. It is suspected that the cause of the fire was arson, as there hasn’t been power in the building for a number of years. Although the photos do look grim, it is possible that most of the damage is just cosmetic, with the seats being destroyed and smoke damaging the walls and ceiling.

Over the past couple of years Nicole Pitts and Lamar Williams were raising money to purchase the building and turn it into a community center, but last month they were informed that the building is no longer for sale and the city had other plans for the property. The couple was ready to immediately secure the property after the sale, which may have saved this historic auditorium. The property as of late had become a haven for scrappers, vandals, and urban explorers.

Fisher Body 21 after it was buffed. Photo by  Tom Poeschel

Fisher Body 21 after it was buffed. Photo by Tom Poeschel

Due to what happened at this historic site Friday night, police must have already been on edge when they received a call to investigate people in the Fisher Body plant Saturday evening. Around 40 people met inside the abandoned General Motors factory to take photos and light-paint. Light-painting is the process by which photographers take photos while spinning lights, fireworks, and steel wool to create splashes of light. Although the end result may be stunning, the process is quite dangerous, especially in old and abandoned structures with lots of tinder scattered around. In 2016 an iconic shipwreck in Point Reyes was burned to the ground due to spinning steel wool, and a few months later a historic 1920s building in a US National Preserve met the same fate. Given all the known danger of this kind of photography and the fact that a historic Detroit high school burned down due to arson the previous night, it was no surprise Detroit Police weren’t happy to be called into the long-vacant factory in the Piquette Avenue Historic District. Police came in with large flashlights and their guns drawn, unknowing what exactly they were walking into. After seeing the photographers on one of the upper floors, the search began. After over an hour of questioning, searches, and writing citations, the photographers were finally free to leave and the police left the property. 

According to our reports, a number of the photographers were from out of town. Coming all the way from New York, New Jersey, Canada, Indianapolis, and northern-Michigan, these photographers were not exactly met with open arms. Perhaps this strong stance by the Detroit Police beckons in a new era. Detroit is no longer a place for photographers to visit and wallow in ruin porn. Whatever the case, thanks to DPD another building was saved from potential arson.

Buildings in Detroit That Need to Be Saved in 2017

The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.
— Jack Kennedy
 
The Eastown Theater being demolished in 2015. Photo by  Eric Hergenreder

The Eastown Theater being demolished in 2015. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

 

A couple weeks back I heard that there were plans for the CPA Building on Michigan Avenue to be demolished. I always thought of myself as somewhat of a preservationist by ideology, but lately it seems I have been slacking on those claims. The CPA is truly a gem of Corktown, and the good people of that neighborhood worked their asses off to save it. Here are some other buildings in Detroit I feel should be saved, a couple ideas for what they should be turned into, and how we can go about ensuring this happens.

The United Artists Theater

The tattered inside of the United Artists Theater in 2016. Photo by  Eric Hergenreder

The tattered inside of the United Artists Theater in 2016. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

The United Artists Theater, which is currently owned by the Ilitch family, is in desperate need of a miracle. The Tigers Tycoon has threatened it with demolition a handful of times, but at this point, it still stands. The building has been secured (for the most part, my shattered heel says otherwise) and it sits empty on the corner of Bagley and Clifford. Originally Ilitch wanted to demolish the structure to make way for Comerica Park, but when the ballpark was moved to the other side of Woodward the empty movie palace was saved. It was then stated that it would be demolished to make way for more parking for the stadium/theater district that sits only a few blocks away, but Ilitch’s plans were met with uproar from preservationists. In the 1980s the theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Grand Circus Park Historic District, which makes it much harder for anyone to demolish it, but far from impossible. The United Artists Theater needs to be saved because it truly is a beautiful building, and in the right hands it has the potential to be the only venue in the city that can rival The Fox in terms of overall beauty. The venue is also said to have perfect acoustics, a feat that not many theaters in the world can boast. Another key reason to save the United Artists Theater is to preserve the rich history in film that the City of Detroit has. Detroit was by far one of the best cities for the theater, movies, and shows in its heyday. The United Artists Theater was said to be one of the most beautiful of them all, and not many of these palaces are left. Another abandoned theater downtown, The National Theater, is much smaller and located in an area that Dan Gilbert has had his eye on for years. Although it too is on the National Register of Historic Places, the rest of the block was once as well, but it is the only remaining building in the original theater district of Detroit. Assuming Dan Gilbert gets his way, as he often does, I do not think that the National Theater will be saved, or for that matter is as grand, magnificent, or breathtaking as the United Artists Theater. Another great aspect about the United Artists is the office tower that connects to the building. We are currently running out of room for offices in Detroit. Dan Gilbert recently announced he may have to start putting some jobs in the suburbs because there is simply no room left for him in Detroit. The United Artists’ office tower is 18 stories that upon my examination seem to be in alright shape. It wouldn’t be a cheap endeavor, but at the prices that office spaces are currently going for in Detroit, I can imagine it would be a profitable one.

Belle Isle Zoo

The gratified interior of the Belle Isle Zoo in 2015. Photo by  Eric Hergenreder

The gratified interior of the Belle Isle Zoo in 2015. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

Many people have asked me when meeting on Belle Isle for various activities what the big chunk of fenced off land in the middle of the park that looks like a safari is used for. Well ladies and gentlemen, it used to be a zoo. A full-fledged zoo. Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! Believe it or not, Belle Isle used to be quite nice. Not that it isn’t now, but as you can tell driving around the park, it used to be truly magnificent. Since the DNR has taken over the park has seen an incredible turn around and I feel that the State Park System is responsible for that. Many do not see any reason to do anything with the abandoned zoo in the middle of the park because, well, it isn’t hurting anything and the park seems to be doing fine. Whereas that may be true, the park is doing well and attracting more visitors than ever, it still isn’t a destination for many folks outside of the city of Detroit. During the Summer months the park is packed with Wayne County Residents from shore to shore and everyone is having a lovely time. That’s nice and all, but I truly feel that if the park service was able to convert the old Belle Isle Zoo in to something new, fun, and unique, Belle Isle would become a destination for all those around Michigan and a must-stop location for people visiting Detroit. A number of times I have been into the zoo to find skateboarders riding on what I can only imagine was once some sort of water habitat for the illustrious Detroit-water-hippopotamus. Imagine boasting one of the greatest skate-parks in southeastern Michigan on Belle Isle. The influx of young people to the island would be incredible. Now I’m not saying that the redevelopment has to be something like a skate park or that the park needs to have a zoo again, I just really believe that if the park service could do something unique and cool with the land that Belle Isle would bring people to the park that had never been there before, or at least in a really long time. The land really should be redeveloped to enable Belle Isle to become even greater than it already is.

Michigan Central Station

Photo of MCS under a fresh coat of snow. Photo by  Felicia Fullwood

Photo of MCS under a fresh coat of snow. Photo by Felicia Fullwood

Ah, the building of all buildings, the preservationists dream, and a billionaire’s hostage. Michigan Central Station is by far the most recognizable abandoned structure in the world. People once came from far and wide to trespass inside the building and it quickly became a symbol for the decline of Detroit. The colossal structure has since been fenced off and new windows put into place to make it seem like the property is savable. Where I do believe the building is savable, and do believe that it will indeed be saved, it is a preservationist’s job to make sure that this happens sooner rather than later. Since the late 90s it has been owned by Detroit billionaire Matty Maroun, who also owns the Ambassador Bridge to Canada. It was under his reign that the building was vandalized, all of its valuables stolen, and that the property became a trespasser’s dream. Maroun, surprisingly, did finally secure the station and put new windows in it about two decades after he purchased the property. Many saw this as a play to make the city happy with him, because at the time he was still trying to gain access to build a second bridge to Canada directly next to his current bridge, a plan which makes literally no goddamn sense because there is already a bridge going in down in Delray. Remember when I said that the building was a billionaire’s hostage? Now you might understand what that statement means. The fact of it is, Michigan Central Station would cost an arm and a leg to renovate. Estimates range from 100 to 300 million USD to repair to its former glory. But, at the end of the day, it was, and still is in my opinion, the most beautiful landmarks in the city. Many can argue that the Fisher or Guardian beat it out, but when it comes down to it, nothing compares to the old depot. There is nothing else like it in the world. It is truly one of a kind, and that is why it needs to be saved. Lofts. A trendy hotel. Another Casino. Sea-World Detroit. I don’t give a damn, just put something in my station that isn’t a police headquarters, prison, or trade processing center.

Hotel Fort Wayne / American Hotel

The American Hotel perched next to its neighbor, the Masonic Temple. Photo by Paul Hitz for  Historic Detroit

The American Hotel perched next to its neighbor, the Masonic Temple. Photo by Paul Hitz for Historic Detroit

As a kid coming down to Tigers games with friends or family it seemed like we would always park somewhat near the big building with the tattered ‘American’ sign on it. I never knew what this building was or why it was left to rot, but then again, I was a dumb twat of a child, so I’m not really that surprised looking back. The Hotel Fort Wayne opened in 1926 (the same year as its neighbor, the Masonic Temple) and was renamed the American Hotel in the 1960s after a renovation. As many Detroiters know, the Cass Corridor wasn’t always that pretty. Dan Austin described the area in the 1960’s as being ‘well on its way to becoming a home for those down on their luck,’ which really hurt business for the American Hotel and other businesses in the area. The hotel finally closed in the early 2000s, and just as many other abandonments in Detroit, was heavily hit by scrappers and vandals. The building is dangerously close to the new pizza stadium, which could mean one of two things for its future. It will either be knocked down for parking, or it will see new light under renovation. I think that Detroiters should fight for the renovation of this building because it truly is a beautiful and historic place. The views from the higher floors are breathtaking, the ballroom quite beautiful, and the skylight very unique. Not only would the renovation be great for The Masonic Temple and the new hockey arena, but it would really show a commitment to renewal of the Cass Corridor, an effort that has seemed half-fought at times. With the new arena going up fast, I think we can expect to hear news about this building very soon.

The Free Press Building

Photo of the Free Press Building from above by Dan Austin of  Historic Detroit

Photo of the Free Press Building from above by Dan Austin of Historic Detroit

Whereas this may be one of the more boring stops on the list, the former Free Press headquarters is an interesting piece of downtown. The structure is pretty weirdly shaped, making it very recognizable and unique when compared to most others surrounding it. The 250,000+ square foot building was designed by notorious Detroit architect Albert Kahn in 1925, but it’s been empty since 1998. Since the Free Press left just before the millennium not much has happened other than a couple sales and a number of renovation plans that never came to fruition. Offices, lofts, and a numerous other ideas have been tossed on the table, but no sort of plans have made it off the printing press yet. Recently it was rumored that the building was sold again, but the details from that transaction have not been confirmed at this point. I really hope this is true, because the last owners don’t have a spectacular track record for renovations, considering they owned the Stott for a number of years before selling it to Dan Gilbert. I really hope that it can be saved, because it too is one of a kind. It has a really unique shape and its tower really should be used for more than just acquiring all the different flavors and assortments of pigeon shit (I swear I saw a bogey flavoured one once). The building is an Albert Kahn masterpiece, which Detroit has been blessed with a number of, but regardless it will hopefully someday make a great complex of offices or a nice little pack of lofts just outside the main drag of downtown. And I mean, who wouldn’t want to be closer to the coneys?

The Old Wayne County Building

The Wayne County Building during a thunderstorm in 2015. Photo by  Eric Hergenreder

The Wayne County Building during a thunderstorm in 2015. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

Believe it or not, there are a number of Detroiters that do not know that the majestic building on Randolph Street is a National Historic Landmark, let alone that it has literally nothing in it or that it has been for sale for more than half a decade. The building used to house numerous city offices and services until Wayne County left it in 2009. All the other tenants were gone by 2010, and it has sat vacant since. Luckily, the Old Wayne Co. Building has been able to remain safe from scrappers and vandals, a sort of rarity not many properties downtown have had the pleasure of knowing. The inside of the structure is truly magnificent, even with not much left other than the walls. Nailhed covers the five story building in-depth and was even was able to reach the top of the tower. The structure is truly about as stunning as they come, which might make some believe that it has a simple case for renovation, but the splendor that makes this particular stop on the list so unique also holds investors back. Not only would doing any renovations to the interior be expensive to complete, the final product of the renovation is limited to a short number of proposals. Buildings such as this would be very difficult to convert into anything, the layout doesn’t meet the needs of a modern office, and the size of the building limits Wayne County from moving back in. The remodel and reuse of this building is very specific, but even with that being said, it needs to be saved. The city thought about demolishing it in the 1980’s but it was saved due to the expensive cost to demolish it, a factor that saves a lot of vacant or dilapidated properties. Luckily, it was saved, and it lives to see another day. Hopefully one day I can pay my parking tickets in this beautiful building again.

Harvard Square Center

Harvard Square Center in 2015. Photo by  Eric Hergenreder

Harvard Square Center in 2015. Photo by Eric Hergenreder

The only thing that most people know about the Harvard Square Center is that there used to house a club on the main floor called the Paris Club, Detroit’s premier gay night club. I never made it to the establishment, but from the reviews I’ve seen online it had cheap drinks and a cool interior. The club was the last thing left in the building, and the rest has been abandoned since 1998. The tall-and-skinny tower was built in the 1920s and sits on Broadway Street. The view from the roof is absolutely spectacular, and the interior is somewhat clean from the information I have seen online. Although this is another somewhat boring property, the rehabilitation of this building could add much needed office space to an already crowded downtown, and the floor retail space may be a hot commodity when the Metropolitan Building hotel conversion is completed sometime within the next year or so. Beautiful terracotta buildings such as this deserve to be saved, and have a niche in the new Detroit.


Now, you didn’t think I would tell you about all these great buildings in Detroit waiting to be saved and not tell you how, did you?! Well, here’s how you can start, as told by somebody who knows literally nothing about preservation.

  • Stay informed. Websites like Curbed Detroit, Historic Detroit, and local papers often share information pertaining to old and historic buildings, their renovations, and demolition plans. You can’t do much if you don’t know what is going on. I also highly recommend Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit and Lost Detroit by Dan Austin. These books really help tell the history of preservation in the city of Detroit.

  • Join a preservation group like Preservation Detroit. Groups like this dedicate their time and money to preserving the City of Detroit, and by joining you will be keyed into new information and also your membership fees go towards raising money to save these buildings.

  • Write your councilmen and councilwomen before, during, and after demolition permits are filed. Discuss why you think certain buildings should be saved and their historical significance. These are our elected officials, and although they may not know the history of a particular building, and at the end of the day they are in office to serve the people of Detroit. If you and your super cool new preservationist friends all send letters to members of city council, they are bound to hear your cry.

To reiterate on the first point, staying informed to things going on in the city is key. Keeping up with renovations, demolitions, and abandonment are key to understanding how to properly give reasons for why buildings should be saved. We can’t save every old musty old building in the Motor City, but I’d be damned if we don’t give it a shot.   

A Conversation About Detroit’s Graffiti

Lately I’ve been thinking about all the buffing that’s going on around the city of Detroit. Mayor Mike Duggan is taking a very hard stance on graffiti in the city, leading to the arrest of a number of artists and the buffing of hundreds of buildings. Whereas I do think that this is a good thing, I can’t help but question Duggan’s strategy to tackle the issue. The city has been putting pressure on building owners to clean up the appearance of hundreds of buildings, which means buffing the exterior of the building. Upon first hearing this would be happening, I was happy. It’s hard to take pride in your city when there are buildings in shambles on every block outside of downtown. 

Fisher Body 21 after buffing in October of 2016. Photo by  Tom Poeschel

Fisher Body 21 after buffing in October of 2016. Photo by Tom Poeschel

After further investigation, I really don’t understand how this is really helping the city. Yes, Duggan’s iron fist is forcing building owners to clean up their buildings and he has ordered the clean-up of numerous city owned properties, but these buildings are still wide open to the elements—and graffiti artists. Fisher Body 21 in Midtown was recently buffed clean, but when you head over there, you can still walk right in. New graffiti has already been sprayed on the decaying walls of the old General Motors facility. Please tell me how that’s a good use of government funds? I understand that city leaders are trying to beautify the city, and many see graffiti to be an eye sore, but how is this any better? By buffing these structures and then leaving them wide open to the elements and vandals, the city is literally just throwing money away. The city needs to either clean these buildings up *and* secure them, or just leave them be until funds are available to do both. I understand the hard-nose attitude the city is trying to take with property owners, but sealing these buildings up is just as important as cleansing them of graffiti.

As someone who often finds himself inside these abandoned buildings, I also have another opinion to offer. Since when is a crumbling shell of a building covered with one (typically ugly) color paint prettier than a structure covered with art by local creatives? I mean, I’m not saying that ELMER and GASM are Michelangelo prodigies, but art is art, right? I understand that Detroit is trying to distance itself from its rugged and grimy past, but I truly believe that this very past is what makes Detroit the creative hub that it currently is. People love the murals in the Eastern Market District and other commissioned works around the city, but what many people don’t realize is that most of these artists started by spraying on abandoned buildings. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I find the tags on abandoned structures like Fisher Body, the Grand Trunk Warehouse, and other buildings around the city to be far prettier than a bare, naked, abandoned structures in shambles.

Photo of the United Artist Theater before cleanup, used with permission from  Nailhed.com

Photo of the United Artist Theater before cleanup, used with permission from Nailhed.com

The city has a history of removing graffiti from abandoned buildings when beatification attempts are being made. Before the Super Bowl came to town a decade ago then mayor Kwame Kilpatrick took a hard stance on abandoned structures, namely in downtown districts. One building that comes to mind is the United Artist Theater, which still sits abandoned today. The windows of the building were covered with pieces inspired by Mayan hieroglyphics in gold, reds, and blues. This really made the building look like quite interesting, and not like the abandoned movie palace that has been sitting empty at the hands of the Ilitch’s since 1995. The graffiti was removed before the 2006 Super Bowl to try and make downtown look nicer, but I can’t help but make the argument that the building was far more interesting, and beautiful, before they removed the artwork and left it bare and decaying. It’s far easier to point out the flaws of a building when there isn’t any paint slapped on it to take your eyes off the bricks falling from above. The Lafayette building had similar art on its windows before it saw the wrecking ball in 2009.

Photo of a recent  REMY  piece

Photo of a recent REMY piece

A friend of mine is the tagger known as ‘REMY.’ He has been exploring, and painting in, abandoned structures for a number of years in the city. He explained some of the things he has seen change since he started painting in pre-bankruptcy Detroit. “Four or five years ago the city of Detroit was a free for all, graffiti wise…lots of the city was abandoned and the police had bigger problems than artists,” REMY explained. He went on to tell me about how he and his friends used to paint street side walls in broad daylight at little to no risk at all, maybe a ticket if it was a slow day for police. He then explained how as the money began flowing into the city, stricter regulations went into effect. These laws were always technically in place, but for a long time city officials were more concerned with the bigger issues facing Detroit. As the beautification of Detroit came onto the radar of Detroit officials, the police came onto the radar of Detroit’s graffiti artists. REMY also believes that these new Detroiters “aren't able to look past the fact that it's a crime and enjoy the graffiti as an element of beautification, like the native Detroiters once did.” REMY describes this change as the end of an era, and that a lot of artists have changed up their style because of this. Having known him for almost a year now, REMY is also a skateboarder, explorer, and pretty talented photographer. As he told me, “It's kinda like either push the envelope, or get left behind.” REMY still paints and just got a new GoPro to highlight his adventures in Detroit. His tagging Instagram is @remy1r, you can see some of his work there.

Grand Trunk Cold Storage / Warehouse after buffing in October of 2016. Photo by   Tom Poeschel

Grand Trunk Cold Storage / Warehouse after buffing in October of 2016. Photo by Tom Poeschel

One thing that is very clear, the state of the Detroit graffiti scene is changing fast. I may not agree with the methods Mayor Duggan is currently utilizing to beautify Detroit, but I do think that some of what he’s doing is good for the city. It will be easier to take pride in a Detroit that lacks blight, but with the sheer amount of blight the city has, dreams of a blight free Motor City are a long way off. I also wish that the city spent money securing the buildings that are still salvageable rather than cleaning up all of them but leaving them open to the elements. I also don’t see the harm of artists putting their mark on buildings that are already dilapidated, especially if the city has neglected them enough to allow them to reach that point. I guess my question is, what roll will graffiti and street artists have in the Detroit of the future? I, for one, hope it’s one of some significance.


You can read more about the stance Mayor Mike Duggan and the City of Detroit have taken on graffiti at the link below.

http://www.detroitmi.gov/graffiti


As always, finishing with a link. Grimy subject above, grimy song down here. Been really into $UICIDEBOY$ lately for their dingy feel and hard hitting delivery. The duo hail from New Orleans and make some pretty dope music, check it out.

Detroit’s Dirty Dozen, Then and Now

Detroit has done a fabulous job of destroying its own history
— Greg Kowalski of the Hamtramck Historical Commission
Photo from  nailhed.com

Photo from nailhed.com

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

Photo from the Burton Historical Collection

Photo from the Burton Historical Collection

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.

http://historicdetroit.org/building/book-cadillac-hotel/

Reminents of the Grand Ballroom / photo from the Westin Book-Cadillac

Reminents of the Grand Ballroom / photo from the Westin Book-Cadillac


The Broderick Tower

Photo from the Detroit News Archives

Photo from the Detroit News Archives

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.

http://www.historicdetroit.org/building/broderick-tower/


The David Whitney Building