Killed In Action

April, 2006.

There was a complex of vacant-looking warehouses at Vinewood & Toledo that Chisel and I had been eyeballing for some time.



At least three of the six or seven buildings in the complex were designed by Albert Kahn from 1917-1922, though each had its own individual flavor. The only one that had any kind of identifying features was a three story office with the name “C.F. Smith Co.” engraved across the top:


C.F. Smith was a grocer in Detroit that operated from about 1910 to the 1950s. They claimed to have some 600 stores in Detroit in the 1930s-40s, pretty much cornering the corner store market. According to the book A 50-year Adventure in the Advertising Business by Ernest W. Baker, C.F. Smith was defeated by the advent of the supermarket. 

As grocers kept building stores with bigger and bigger floor space, C.F. Smith's remained a neighborhood corner grocer with a zillion locations. They eventually found themselves unable to stay competitive with the lure of the glamorous, futuristic, fluorescent-humming world of convenience known as the "super-market" however, which was steadily drawing their customer base away in a zombie-like trance.


One way in which they smartly combatted the big chain threat in the 1950s was through creative advertising tactics innovated by Morris F. Tandy Advertising Inc., based out of the Kales Building. He realized that if the store centered their ads on just one basic food item at a "very special low price," such as milk or bread, they could sell a boat-load of that item during the sale period, which of course also helped lots of other stuff walk out the door too. For instance, advertising cottage cheese at a couple pennies off would result in moving several trainloads of the stuff inside of a week (and probably pineapple too, or whatever you eat with cottage cheese). 

The Tandy agency claimed to have originated that advertising concept with C.F. Smith. Another concept that Tandy and C.F. Smith pioneered was the printing of expensive full-page, full-color ads in every Sunday Detroit News; in 1950 the News had the highest home delivery circulation of any daily paper in the nation, which really did wonders for the image of the neighborhood chain. C.F. Smith was eventually bought up however by a Chicago chain.


When Chisel and I had decided one day to give the place a go, we pulled in and found to our surprise the entire lot filled with various cars, all belonging to people who were apparently working inside, and a large banner hung nearby announcing that lofts were coming soon. Well, at least the place would be saved from ruin, it seemed.

Some months later, I happened to be cruising by again and noticed that there was no one to be seen—probably because it was Sunday. My agnostic ass immediately pulled over to investigate. There was a very cool stone railroad viaduct adjacent to the plant as well, which I had originally wanted to photograph.


It carried the tracks of the old Michigan Central line over Grand Boulevard, and reminded me of the carved stone that had been employed on parts of the train station, leading me to believe that the two may have been constructed at the same time. The old train station was actually not very far away from here at all; no more than ten blocks from where I stood.


On either side of the old overpass were stone staircases, a holdover from biblical times when Detroiters actually walked places…before we were “transformed into a Frankenstein behind the wheel.” I had read some of these ancient texts, that speak of a dimly-remembered time—before the dawn of the automobile, even—when a mysterious race of beings known as the "Pedestrians" lived. 

The stairs were cracked and overgrown by trees; they had probably not seen a human footprint in decades. I meandered up the staircase that led to the “backyard” of the tall abandoned warehouses and came to a fence.


Easily walking through a huge hole, I found myself in a courtyard full of detritus…an abandoned semi-truck, three or four school buses, a sailboat, a Buick, and a mountain of household clutter heaped up against the backside of one of the buildings. It was obvious that during the initial renovation work on this building, its contents had been hastily shoveled out a back window of the fourth story almost as if a bonfire were to follow. I knew that this would be my way in.


However, I did not yet know that this would be the sketchiest entrance I would ever make on a building to date. Amazingly, these buildings were uniformly well-secured and sealed, hence my resorting to this un-recommendable method of entry. Once I approached and began to mount the towering pile of debris, I realized that it was not nearly stable enough to be climbing on…it was freshly dumped, and thus still very loose and shifty. 

Not only that, but it was comprised mainly of splintered wood and broken picture frames and glass. There were several mattresses thrown in the mix, just to make it extra prone to sliding around. First, I had to climb up the barb-wire fence that surrounded the base of this massive junk pile. I ended up getting scratched by the barb-wire and sliced on some razor wire that I hadn’t seen at first. Great; bleeding before I even got in.


As soon as I touched the mountain, the crap started avalanching. And every time after that the slightest move would cause minor slides, which threatened to become major ones. It was like climbing up a sand dune…except it was on like a 70-degree incline, and contained very large shards of glass. I had to be extremely careful and slow-going, so as not to provoke a catastrophic landslide, especially once I got higher up, because the farther I ascended, the shakier it got, and the farther I would end up falling if I slipped. 

And of course, if I did fall, I would also have the pleasure of getting showered in whatever splintered debris was raining down the hill after me. So, a couple times I found myself suddenly having to stop in a dangerously precarious position, wide-eyed, and pray for the junk to stop slipping under me.


I did end up getting to the top, slowly but surely, but it took me a lot of courage to make the final leap up into the open fourth-story window. I was just glad to be off that sketchy-ass junk pile. Inside looked like every other Kahn-crete factory with your martini-glass columns and such. It was basically scraped clean here, and had large puddles of water from all the rain we’d been getting lately. I decided to make this a quick one, and get to the roof, probably the most interesting feature of this 10-story warehouse. 


When I went looking for the stairwell, I noticed that there were a few lights on, meaning that there was at least temporary power, so I went more cautiously. If there were some kind of alarm it would most likely be on ground level, but still, the prospect of having to make a hasty descent on that damned junk pile was extremely unattractive. In fact, I quickly realized that if going up it was dangerous, going down it (even without having to rush) would be certain death…there was no way it could be done without ending up surfing to my doom, followed by an avalanche of loose glass. Therefore I resolved to find a better way out.


I found the roof and wow was it cool. I was able to walk across the top of a skybridge to get to the other building, 2410 Vinewood, which was actually an addition supposedly designed by Smith, Hinchman & Grylls in 1927, according to this webpage. However, Detroit architectural guru Benjamin Gravel says that SH&G did not design anything for C.F. Smith, and that the overwhelming majority of the buildings in this complex were designed by Pollmar & Ropes.


The little Spanish tile-roofed penthouse that housed the elevator motor was the building's highest point, and from up in there I could see quite a view. 


It was an angle on the skyline that I had never had before…MCS was directly between me and downtown, looming in the foreground with the grey silhouettes of skyscrapers crowding up behind it on this rainy day. The tracks of the Michigan Central Railroad curved gently eastward from behind me and led right up to the back of the mammoth, hollowed-out train station, and just beyond were the mouths of the rail tunnels to Canada. 

To the east were the Ambassador Bridge, and the old familiar spires of Ste. Anne’s Church. Following the river south, I could see the Boblo Terminal, and the ugly protrusions of Zug Island. Besides MCS itself, I was standing on perhaps the highest point in all of Southwest Detroit.


Seeing MCS as actually part of the downtown skyline was a treat:


Here is a cool zoom shot of the neighborhood showing the stacks and furnaces of Zug Island, as well as the Sybill Oil watertower, which I actually climbed in a different post:


As I was up there enjoying the view and trying to keep my camera dry from the rain that had picked up, I heard a low rumble from behind me as a train approached. It was a Canadian Pacific freight bound for the tunnel, and I managed to snap a few as it passed right next to the building (the twin spires above it are St. Hedwig’s):


The last time a train rumbled this close to a building I was in was at the Prudden Wheel Plant in Lansing. After that I decided to go back in and see the rest of the building, though I expected it to be cleaned out. Which it was, except for a few floors that were still cluttered with crap. From what I could tell, it looked like the local church had used the place to store some of their assorted stuff over the years. The place was like a garage sale waiting to happen. 

I didn’t find much else of interest; the roof was pretty much it. So I reluctantly went back down toward my slippery junk-mountain, hoping to find a better way out. Which I didn’t. I certainly didn’t feel like busting anything open, since this place wasn’t really abandoned. In fact, I couldn’t even go on the ground floor, since the heavy door from the stairwell was stuck shut.


But, I did find one window in the stairwell at about the second floor that was open…if I could find a rope-like implement, I could *theoretically* rappel my way down to the ground and out the front gate. After a 15-minute search which turned up squat else, I finally decided on the stout power cord to an archaic printer. The bastard must’ve been 20 feet long! Which as it turns out, is exactly how long it needed to be for me to use it for a two-story climb. 

I was not enthused about this exit much more than I was about the shaky crap mountain, but I was willing to give it a go. I tied it around the window frame with a clove hitch—an infallible knot familiar to any Boy Scout—then threw the rest down to the ground. This was going to be dangerous as hell, seeing as an electric cord is no substitute for climbing rope, but I went for it anyway. I climbed out onto the window ledge, tried leaning out and putting my weight down on it, and suddenly realized how @#$%ing insane this was. 


I didn’t even have gloves, and that “two-story drop” looked a helluva lot farther than two stories…. You know that feeling you get when you look at a situation that you just know is bad, and everything turns grainy black & white and goes to slow-mo and the tense “Faces of Death” music kicks in, and you know in the pit of your stomach that it’s the scene of your doom?


I said f--- all that, and climbed right back in. But before I even got all the way back to the rear window that I had come in through, I had already quailed again at the thought of crawling down Mt. Glassmore. Grimly, I came back to the printer cord tied to the steel window sash, and sat thinking for a bit, trying to work up my courage. I finally decided to pull the cord back in and tie knots in it every foot or so. That way at least, if I slipped—which I most assuredly would—I would have something to grab onto to slow my fall. 

Even if I tore my hands all up, I’d at least be able to walk away from it. The cord was all slick now with rainwater and pigeon crap from my having dragged it down the stairs. I tossed it back out the window with the knots in it and climbed back through the sash onto the ledge. I took a deep breath and took the first grueling step. I knew once I put my full weight down on it, there’d be no turning back; I’d have to go down, or risk falling while trying to scramble back up into the window. Neither could I risk sitting there in place for any length of time—that would use up too much energy…my grip would quickly weaken and I’d fall.


My adrenaline kicked in, and just as I went into do-or-die mode, I noticed my digital camera—which had been in the front pocket of my hoodie—was slipping out. Both my hands were currently busy keeping me from dying, so there was nothing I could do but watch in slow motion as the $125 piece of electronics containing all the pictures that I was currently risking my life for fell two stories to the blacktop. 

Surprisingly, it did not pop into a million pieces like confetti, but instead bounced. Already my hands were fatiguing from the extra strain of gripping the slick wet wire so I desperately began lowering myself as carefully as possible, also hugging the line with my legs, fire-pole style. I did indeed come very close to losing it, and ended up slipping down a few knots at a time—nearly a free-fall. Thank god I put those knots in there. I jumped the last nine feet or so, and landed surprisingly gracefully next to my brain-dead camera.


All in one motion, I scooped it up and started walking away immediately, trying not to think about how close I’d just come to dying, or how insane of a stunt I had just pulled off. I looked it over, and saw that thankfully it was basically in one piece still, but had suffered serious damage. There were gouges all over it, and the battery and memory card doors were both hanging open. 

I got back to the car and tried to turn it on, but nothing. I jacked the battery in and out, and flipped the switch on and off…slowly it came back to life, but acted as dizzy as a clubbed seal. I could hear bad sounds coming from inside it; no doubt the lens motor grinding away, and it gave me all kinds of weird error messages. I sat for several minutes trying to revive the reeling Nikon—the thing kept giving me different error messages and wouldn’t shut off even with the switch in the off position—damn thing didn’t know what to do. The screen tried to display, but showed only blank white or black. Eventually I cut off life support and it flatlined at 4:45pm.

*   *   *

As fate would have it, the following Devil’s Night would result in a large blaze on the upper floors of one of the buildings I was not able to get into. The fire was based on plastics and was tended to by the DFD for several days afterward. It was probably the only Devil’s Night fire that year to make the TV news. The building was then put on the city’s current nuisance-demolition list, but continued to languish.


The separate office building also burned, which makes me wonder if this was insurance-motivated:


Maybe there was some kind of conspiracy all of a sudden to eradicate the C.F. Smith name from Detroit history; as indicated in this DetroitYes link, another former C.F. Smith store burned that same Devil’s Night, over in the Old Redford neighborhood.


Another interesting little fact: Jimmy Hoffa grew up in a house about six blocks from here, at 4742 Toledo.


References:
A 50-year Adventure in the Advertising Business, by Ernest W. Baker
http://detroityes.com/news/070628/601pics/201.htm
http://ilovedetroitmichigan.com/detroit-architecture/albert-kahn-400-buildings-in-metro-detroit