Devil's in the Details

Photos are from 2004-2005.

It used to be easy to just walk in the front door of almost any non-abandoned skyscraper in Detroit and have free run of the place, even in the supposedly stricter post-9/11 world [insert joke about terrorists not caring to blow up worthless Detroit here]. Of all of them, the Book Tower was perhaps my favorite though.


The attached Book Building and the tower itself were basically free to wander before the building started emptying out in 2006 (Bookie's Tavern was the sole tenant until 2009 when the building became totally vacant).


As a kid I always found the Book to be the most attractive of the members of Detroit's skyline, not because it was beautiful, but because it was so gaudy and filthy that it was interesting. There was so much soot-stained baroque ornamentation lavished onto its every surface that my young mind was enthralled at such extravagant excess.


These classical female figures holding up the sooty cornice of the Book Building are called Caryatids:


I was surprised at how easily I could just walk up into the vacant offices on the 10th floor, open a window, and have an up-close look at their um, favors...


It looks as if some of the leg pieces have broken off or were removed, and replaced with wood instead. As of December 2016, renovation efforts have removed some of these old damaged caryatids and replaced them with fiberglass clones. Blech.


Some slightly different ones on the tower portion, with a more 1920s-"Gotham" style:


According to my architectural-expert friend Sloop, this particular type of scroll ornament over the arched entryway in the next photo is called a "Jim Morrison Head":


Aside from its peg-legged female entablature guardians, the history of this building is not super interesting, and seems to follow the basic pattern: Built in the '20s by _____ millionaire/merchant, designed by important architect _____, was once the tallest building in _____ until another taller one was finished like a week later, began declining in the '60s.... We've heard this story a million times.


I have to say though that it is one of my top three favorite buildings in the city. Louis Kamper was trying so hard to make this building look as gnarly as possible that he apparently forgot to put enough staircases in the building. So they had to tack a steel fire escape onto the outside of it. It's probably the tallest building in the world with an exterior fire escape. I'd also heard that some chick jumped out the 13th floor window to commit suicide, but accidentally landed on some other dude and killed him. One of the building's owners in the 1980s also committed suicide right after he bought it. Then there was the time that one of the building's antennas fell off during a storm and crashed into the street.

Talk about a crappy history...you have to feel sorry for the damn thing. From a distance, it looks like a squared Tower of Babylon.


When I visited, the only difference between the Book Tower and any of the abandoned skyscrapers I've explored in the city was that you could use the elevators, which was awful handy:


There were nice motifs on the elevator doors:


But most of the upper floors were in not-so-good shape even before the building closed.


Despite the elevators, it was more fun to walk outside on the rusty old fire escape, dangling ~30 floors above the city, which allowed nice closeup views of the thick crust of terra cotta details that had been slathered onto the tower's upper levels.


Yeah, I know kids have been getting in to the Book Tower in recent times, but I haven't really felt a need to go back just to see it in even worse shape. That's basically how I felt about old Tiger Stadium; I knew I could get in, but I didn't want to. I wanted to remember it the way it was.


The 36th floor was under renovation in 2004 as you can see, no doubt being turned into someone's party pad. A friend of mine knew someone who was renting an entire floor near the top of the building back then, and claimed they were only paying $1,000 per month at the time.


Now that the Book-Cadillac and Broderick Tower have been divided up into million-dollar condos, I'd imagine the sun has set on that bargain-bin deal. The closest thing to this you can rent for $1,000/month anywhere near downtown these days is a tiny corner of an attic somewhere in the 4000-block of Warren Avenue, where you might be sharing space with some raccoons. DETROIT RISES!


I dug a Free Press special section out of the archives that covered the c.1976 Washington Boulevard makeover by Rosetti, Associates. In December 1975, 80-year-old Elmer Holmgren, a former aide to Frank Book, had just closed the door to the last remaining Book family office in the Book Tower, and moved out to Troy.

The Book Brothers' many enterprises had once occupied all of the space on the 35th and 36th floors in the 1920s, but in "their final days, the various Book enterprises were reduced to relics, scattered around a single room on the 20th floor," room number 2014 of the tower that bears their name. Among the relics were a rock taken from the excavation for the Book-Cadillac Hotel, samples of ore from their northern Michigan mines, souvenir pens that contained oil from the Book Brothers' Wyoming oil well. They even had gold mines, and a copper mine in Ireland. Holmgren told the Free Press that he had been with the Books since the beginning, and had even helped build the tower.


In the previous shot you can see that the Peoples Outfitting Building is still standing, and the One Kennedy Square Building is just being constructed. In this next shot you can see that the Statler Hotel is under demolition, and the Donovan Building is still standing, as well as the Elizabeth Garage:


The Book family had originated in the area of what later became Washington Boulevard, and felt a connection to it that led them to invest all of their personal wealth into developing it as a thoroughfare that would rival New York's Fifth Avenue and help Detroit live up to the nickname "Paris of the Midwest." Their plan for the boulevard included a total of ten buildings. The Book family had intermarried with the lumber-wealthy Palms family, a name you may recognize from the Palms Building, which houses the State (Fillmore) Theater.


Speaking of the Book-Cadillac, here it is with the old sign still attached, pre-gutting (at left):


Grand River Avenue, radiating away from the very foot of the Book Tower, out towards Lake Michigan:


At the time I was visiting, the "attic" area of the Book Tower was still an active communications equipment suite, and the door was still locked:


As a result I was forced to climb outside to get to the roof:


From there it was a free-climb up a cable tray (that's not actually a ladder):


I didn't go much further than that, seeing as the thought of having my toolbag roasted to my thigh like a fried egg didn't much appeal to me, regardless of my reproductive intentions. Nowadays, the microwave dishes have been removed; I imagine the loss of that contract was the death knell for the building. Even the David Whitney Building had operating radio repeaters in it while it was closed.


I had once thought about trying to camp out in the building overnight and get some nighttime shots, but I never got around to it.


I think it was in 2005 when my then-partner in crime nothing illegal whatsoever had this hilarious little episode of being stuck out on that fire escape on the night of the fireworks because the building security had somehow caught on to him, heh.


Not a bad place to be stuck for awhile, if you ask me.


My very good friend (and psychologist) Dave O'Connor, who runs desolatemetropolis.com, has some much better photos from the Book's fire escape at night. Here's a couple, one of which is framed and hanging on my wall:


I was supposed to be there that night but if I recall correctly I was still detained at work. Hanging out on the side of a skyscraper in the middle of a hot afternoon is one thing, but chilling on one in the middle of a balmy summer's night is absolutely incomparable. It ranks amongst my top-five most enjoyable lifetime experiences.


And yes, there were falcons back in 2004 too:


You can't be afraid of heights in this business...


The photo above shows a look down onto Washington Boulevard, as it was still being converted from the "red-monkey-bars" situation of the 1990s to the sterile, urban-planner-approved version of today.


The Book Brothers planned to build an 81-story tower next to this one that was to rival the tallest buildings of Manhattan, just as Detroit was beginning to rival New York as America's hottest city. According to articles in the Free Press it would feature 40 floors of parking garage space, and the plans included a subway station in one of its four basement levels, as well as walking tunnels that would connect the Book Tower to the Book-Cadillac Hotel "and other structures along the boulevard." A book by Joseph J. Korom says that the 81-story tower was to be topped with the "most powerful searchlight in the world."


In fact, if this tower had been built to 81 stories, it would have been the tallest building in the entire world, but the onset of the Great Depression cancelled the project, just the same way as it cancelled similar plans for the Fisher Building in New Center, which was to have been a trio of towers, with the central one being 70-some stories if I recall correctly.

If not for the Great Depression, it would have been very interesting to see whether Detroit would have had a chance at surpassing New York as the great American metropolis; the numbers certainly suggested that it was on pace to do so, with both its population and land area expanding much faster than New York's. The fact that New Center was deliberately planned as a "new downtown" for the Motor City seems to indicate that things were heading in that direction. But I have a feeling that Great Depression or no Great Depression, Detroit was bound to hit a wall very soon anyway.


About the woman who I mentioned earlier as having committed suicide by jumping from the 13th floor...I did some looking in the Detroit Free Press archives and found that her name was Sarah Watson Leisen, of Grosse Pointe. The man she landed on was Raymond Dolan, who worked on the 34th floor, for Japan Airlines. He died two hours later from a fractured skull. There was even a photo showing just which window Miss Leisen had jumped from, and where she landed:


Miss Leisen had been undergoing treatment for depression at the time of the incident and was going through boyfriend trouble. Leisen had also recently suffered a "flash-back" from LSD she had taken while attending University of Hawaii. Apparently LSD was used in "group therapy sessions" she had participated in there. According to coworkers, she came into the office, hung up her purse and scarf, set her breakfast roll on a chair, and jumped out the window.

Another search in the Detroit Free Press archives turned up a photo from 10 years earlier, where Leisen appears (smiling at right) with a friend before embarking to study abroad in Europe:


In 1989 the ailing Book Tower was purchased by local developer John W. Lambrecht, but he too committed suicide a couple months later. Like Miss Leisen, Mr. Lambrecht was also from Grosse Pointe. After his death his wife Sue Lambrecht took over his properties and managed to keep the Book Tower going for many more years.

Mrs. Lambrecht finally sold the tower in 2006 to some bozos from New York, then it went to another interest out of Vancouver who were just as incompetent. It seemed like the very second the Book-Cadillac restoration was looking like it might be believable, the Book Tower began going under. Like downtown "Whack-A-Mole," as soon as you think you've got one problem whacked, several more pop up. Okay, I just totally dated myself by the fact that I am old enough to have played Whack-A-Mole. Ouch.


In 2010 the Book Tower was bought by Key Investment Group, who also failed to do anything with it that I might have noticed. In 2015 it was purchased by Dan Gilbert for $30 million, and by 2016 renovation work was underway.


References:
The Buildings of Detroit, A History, by W. Hawkins Ferry, p. 212-213
AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture, by Eric J. Hill, John Gallagher, p. 72
http://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/book-tower
http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2015/08/detroits_book_tower_skyscraper.html
The American Skyscraper, 1850-1940: A Celebration of Height, by Joseph J. Korom, p. 348
"The Book Returns, Reminder of an Era," Detroit Free Press, February 22, 1980, p. 8
"Book Tower Highest," Detroit Free Press, July 24, 1927, p. 51
"Woman Leaps and Two Die," Detroit Free Press, December 15, 1973, p. 1
"Socially Speaking," Detroit Free Press, January 14, 1964, p.12
"Never Say Die on Washington Boulevard," Detroit Free Press, February 29, 1976, p. 187
"Realtor Who Helped Build Downtown is Dead at 45," Detroit Free Press, December 14, 1989, p. 13
"High Wind Smashes Antenna to Street," Detroit Free Press, March 20, 1986, p. 11

2 comments:

  1. I can't find any better pictures of the more "gotham" caryatids and my camera can't zoom in enough from the ground. Did you get any closeups?

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    1. Thanks. And no, that's all I have. I guess it didn't occur to me to go look for that window.

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