Staying Under the Radar

Photos date to May, 2006.

In our never-ending quest to insert ourselves into every single vacant skyscraper downtown, Chisel and I managed to sneak into the Lawyers' Building sometime in 2006. He's not actually named "Chisel," but that's the fake name by which I refer to him for the purposes of this blog, since, like a relentless chisel, he eventually bores his way into any building, no matter how well sealed.

The Lawyers' Building was pretty much off everyone else's radar, as with the rise of "urbex" beginning to surge in popularity, most people were gravitating to the downtown eye candy like the Metropolitan Building and Broderick Tower. Having done those to death already, I was happy to concentrate on lesser-known buildings like these.

It looks like the building's top floor was added later, although it does blend in quite well with the rest of the architecture. The dark marble slab facade at street level however looks like a much more recent remodel job.

This was one of those 10-story ones that—like the Wurlitzer Building—had that skinny thing going on, but was unfortunately rather empty inside. The lobby and first floor had been mostly gutted of any original decor it would have possessed:

There was also limited power still on inside, which meant we had to be careful of alarms.

The main room where we found anything interesting was on the second floor, where some developer had set up an office of sorts, we presumed, being that it was full of items pertaining to that interest: papers, documentative photos of the building's condition, and even samples of the masonry. We also found a stack of photos taken of Detroit from a helicopter or airplane, mostly of the Packard Plant, which we guessed were taken around 2001.

According to the AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture, the Lawyers' Building was built in 1922 and designed by Bonnah & Chaffee—one of Detroit's few "Chicago-style" towers. Just as the Book Brothers were redeveloping Washington Avenue with their architect of choice, Louis Kamper, so too was John J. Barlum elevating Cadillac Square to prominence with his architects, Bonnah & Chaffee, who were also responsible for the Cadillac Square Apartments (originally the Barlum Hotel) nextdoor, and the 40-story Barlum Tower a few doors down (now called the Cadillac Tower). They also designed the vastly different Farwell Building over in Capitol Park.

Sadly, John Barlum lost all of his properties to foreclosure when the Stock Market crashed in 1929. Good thing John Barlum did not own 90+ properties in downtown Detroit, or that could have been a real disaster (ahem, Dan Gilbert couchcough).

Perhaps one of this building's most salient features was its commanding view of the old Wayne County Courthouse across the street, which is one of my favorite buildings in the city:

One might also guess that this building took its namesake from that association, as I imagine it would have been quite convenient for many a lawyer to have an office across the street from the county seat.

The Wayne County Building was so big, and we were so close to it, that it was hard to get it all in one shot. So I took several. Currently the only operating tenant in the entire monumental building was a day care. As such, the old County Building itself was rumored to be closing soon.

The Lawyers' Building is listed on the National Historic Register and according to the Michigan SHPO, catered "primarily to middle class level tenants, many of the spaces were rented to unions and benevolent organizations. One of these unions, the A.F.L's Waiter and Waitress Union, went on strike against the Barlum Hotel while renting space in their office building," a fairly bold move. There was also a "Waiters' and Waitresses' Club" in the building, which—of all things—got pinched by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission in 1939 for gambling and selling drinks to non-members.

On September 18, 1923 another raid by sheriff's deputies caused "a near-panic" among patrons of a spacious and luxurious "club" that occupied the entire top floor of the Lawyers' Building. Most of those present were attorneys and public officials, who, I presume, would've had some cause for embarrassment to have their name associated with the incident.

The Wolverine Athletic Club was also founded in this building in 1924 according to an article in the Detroit Free Press, which kicked off that July with a membership drive to attract 3,000 members. Their new club building was to be 20 stories, and stand at the corner of Bates & Cadillac Square, costing up to $4 million and projected to be one of the finest clubs in America. I have a feeling that the Wolverine Club didn't last very long however, since I haven't found any other references to them anywhere else.

Oddly enough however, this building was also home to the Wolverine Bar, an association of black lawyers, since neither the Detroit Bar Association nor the American Bar would admit "colored" barristers. The Wolverine was started by 16 black lawyers in 1925 as the Harlan Law Club; it was named after the U.S. Supreme Court justice who dissented in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson civil rights case, and was renamed the Wolverine Bar Association in 1930. Their goal was to create an "organizational haven" for black attorneys in Detroit to discuss their problems.

The famous Ossian Sweet case was defended by the legendary Irish-American attorney Clarence Darrow as everyone knows, but he was also assisted by a Wolverine Bar member, William Bledsoe.

Future Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer was the president of the Wolverine Bar in the late 1970s, at a time when the organization was at a crossroads of purpose. An interesting article in the Free Press tells of how questions were being raised as to whether the club should remain focused on the issues of black attorneys, or concern itself with the law's effect on the entire black community. Part of the critique was that the organization had become nothing more than a social club for the black bourgeois of Detroit, and had forgotten about the urban poor.

The Wolverine was still based in this building as late as 1980. Chester Smith was one of the Wolverines who had kept his offices here in the Lawyers' Building since the 1950s, because it was "the only place downtown where they'd let Negroes have offices when I was looking for one." Out of the 600 black lawyers in Michigan in 1980, about 480 of them were Wolverine members, including Congressman John Conyers.

Back in 1925 there was another article about some jackass attorney named William L. Thorpe who figured he was special and could get away with parking directly in front of the Lawyers' Building whenever he pleased. His scheme involved filing an injunction against the police, to prevent them from "molesting" his car anytime it was parked legally. This worked for two years according to the article, and although it sounds as if he had to deal with a bunch of tickets (that Thorpe undoubtedly had thrown out), his car was never towed. Then one day the matter came before Judge Ira W. Jayne.

Judge Jayne wasn't having any of this sh*t and dissolved Thorpe's injunction prohibiting police from ticketing his vehicle, since by parking there Thorpe was violating an ordinance. The judge "sobered" the police and corporation counsel for not taking action against the injunction sooner. Thorpe was fined $10, which back then was a pretty hefty sum. For some reason this whole episode strikes me as a workable plot for a silent slapstick film.

Like the Book Tower, the Lawyers' Building was used by at least one person to commit suicide. On February 28, 1937, Harry A. Houttman of 2184 Hilliker Ave. jumped out a 9th floor window "to relieve all my sufferings," according to a note found in his pocket. He was a conductor on the Detroit Street Railway (DSR), and 45 years of age. Eyewitness John L. Griffith, an employee of the Treasurer's Office in the County Building across the street saw the grisly incident unfold from his window, which no doubt put a bit of a damper on his workday.

The union of the DSR conductors and motormen was actually based in the Lawyers' Building, which is undoubtedly why Mr. Houttman was able to jump out a window. A mutiny on the union took place in March 1938. The men threatened to walk out if their union leaders did not enact the system seniority plan, which had already been approved by vote, twice. Union officials were against the strike, but a spokesman stated, "I don't know if we can hold the men."

Free Press article from June 1944 announced that all Selective Service draft boards for military enlistment would all be moving here to the Lawyers' Building, and to the Owen Building, by the end of the month.

Lt. Governor Clarence Reid also had offices in this building in the 1950s, which I verified according to a Lawyers' Club yearbook I found on Google Books. The Lawyers' Building was known as the American Title Building at that time. Here is a historic PHOTO of Lt. Governor Reid at a desk with another man, perhaps taken in his office here.

In 1958, McGhee & Co. of Cleveland took up offices in this building as well, becoming the first "Negro-headed" securities investment firm to be licensed in Michigan, according to an article in the Free Press.

There was active cellular equipment up here too, meaning that the owner was still deriving some sort of revenue from the building. The roof lining was in ship-shape though...I wonder if those cell repeaters paid for it.

As you can see, the makeover of Cadillac Square was just getting underway at the time of my visit:

A view of the nice glazed terra cotta facade, though it needed a lot of TLC:

In September 1981 the Lawyers' Building was unexpectedly sold for an undisclosed price to an undisclosed buyer. It had a Metropolitan Savings & Loan branch occupying the first floor at the time. It was sold by a Harold Smith of Birmingham, who had actually just bought it from Metropolitan less than a year prior and was renovating the interior (a renovation had also occurred in 1977 from what I can tell).

The bank and a cleaners were the only tenants at the time and it was even speculated, incredibly, that "eventually the vacant land could be worth more than the building." This statement came from the lips of the buyer's representative. So even in the early 1980s the writing was on the wall for downtown Detroit architecture. Perhaps the buyer was related to Mike Illitch? Nevertheless, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

According to a couple posts on from February 2010, the Lawyers' Building was offered for sale at $1.7 million, an awfully steep asking price for the time. The last party to attempt renovating it allegedly "lost their enthusiasm" when one of the partners was stabbed while locking the place up one night after they bought it, one person claimed.

A view down Randolph toward the river shows the Windsor Tunnel terminal, which when built in 1929 was supposed to make Cadillac Square one of the greatest commercial thoroughfares in the city. In fact, Randolph was widened into a boulevard back then to accommodate the addition of tunnel traffic:

Here are a few of the aforementioned photos that I found on that desk on the second floor. I scanned them and photoshopped them a bit, but as you can see these are mostly just reference snapshots showing parts of the building that were damaged or needed repair:

Nonetheless some of them showed cool angles and details of the building that even I couldn't get.

Taking a quick glance back at the Sanborn maps of the Lawyers' Building's location, I noticed that several four-story buildings were still standing here in 1922, some owned by Schroeder Paint & Glass Co. I explored Schroeder's factory on 12th Street in an older post.

As seen in a historic photo from the Detroit Public Library, the Hotel Wobrock occupied the actual spot where the Lawyers' Building stands now. These buildings must have been demolished and construction on the Lawyers' Building begun right after the Sanborn maps were drawn.

The rest of the block at the time included the Burns Hotel, and the Newcomb-Endicott Department Store's warehouse and workrooms; one building labelled "Paints & Oils" is difficult to conceive of nowadays, but this was the tail end of the era in which some of downtown's central business district was still occupied by "dirty" industrial uses. It wasn't long before skyrocketing 1920s real estate values got rid of all that in favor of more office buildings, hotels, and banks.

But by 2006 with most of downtown Detroit's empty land so worthless that for decades it had been used merely for gravel parking lots, it isn't hard to imagine "dirty" industrial uses coming back to the central business district. Of course this current "rebirth of Detroit" in the 2010s has driven downtown real estate values back up, but who knows if that will last or if it's another bubble due to pop?

A cool window reflection effect on the County Building in the background of this one:

The County Building again, with a flag flying...this photo was probably taken before the county government made the stupid decision to relocate:

Today the Lawyers' Building is no longer vacant, with a 7-11 store on the first floor, with the remainder of the building open for lease uses including office, loft, studio, and retail space.

Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 4, Sheet 3 (1922)
AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture, by Eric J. Hill & John Gallagher, p. 102
"Business Men Plan Revival For Square," Detroit Free Press, December 22, 1929, p. 9
"Waiters Club Loses Permit," Detroit Free Press, September 22, 1939, p. 3
"Wolverine Club Drive is Started," Detroit Free Press, July 20, 1924, p. 5
"Attorney Loses his Injunction Parking Right," Detroit Free Press, April 26, 1925, p. 2
"10 Years Ago," Detroit Free Press, September 18, 1933, p. 6
"D.S.R. Conductor Plunges to Death," Detroit Free Press, February 28, 1937, p. 1
"Call DSR Strike Parley," Detroit Free Press, March 2, 1938, p. 1
"Draft Boards Shift," Detroit Free Press, June 21, 1944, p. 7
"Detroit Office Building Sold," Detroit Free Press, September 12, 1981, p. 3B
The Lawyers' Club, 1956-1957, by University of Michigan, p. 95
"Business Briefs," Detroit Free Press, October 21, 1958, p. 10
"Detroit Development Map," Detroit Free Press, December 18, 1977
"The Wolverine Bar: The Group Has Style, But Some Question its Substance," Detroit Free Press, June 22, 1980, p. 7G

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