Billy & Me

Photos from 2005 / 2010.

I first ventured to Flint, Michigan looking for asbestos to snort in April, 2005. The Hotel Durant is mainly what drew me there. I snuck in alone through a scummy hole in the back that involved climbing down into a wreckage-choked elevator shaft and skirting around the edge of a long drop into a flooded pit on slippery tufts of plaster detritus. Perhaps my memory is magnifying the experience but I do remember it being fairly hairy.


Today however, one does not need to go to such lengths to experience the grandeur that is the Durant's lobby; the building is fully renovated and people live there now. This post is dedicated to those "experts" who declare that places such as the Detroit Statler and Madison-Lenox hotels are "too far gone" to be saved.

When I heard in December 2010 that the hotel had been renovated into apartments, I made a trip up to Flint to check that out while simultaneously scoping the situation at what was left of the monstrous "Buick City" plant, which would be demolished soon.


All of these photos are from my initial visit in 2005; photos of the renovated Durant follow at the bottom of this post.


Unfortunately I only had my ancient 35mm point & shoot Kodak with me, so the pics I took then are junk. And somehow I managed to miss the hotel's ballrooms.


The following is a train of excerpts on the history of the Durant Hotel, which I seem to have noted were originally found in the Kettering University Archives via search engine years ago, but now reside at thelandbank.org:
As Flint blossomed as an automotive boomtown in the early Twentieth Century, civic leaders desperately wanted a new hotel. It was reported that the current hotels of the day were turning guests away due to the sold out occupancy rate. In December of 1916 the Citizens Hotel Company, lead by Fred Aldrich, long time associate of Dallas Dort and William Durant, was organized by 40 stockholders, which included C.S. Mott and Arthur G. Bishop, for the purpose of building a new hotel on Second Ave.
Fancy French-style fire doors in the stairwell...eat your heart out, Statler chain:

The name of the new hotel was unveiled at a civic dinner in honor of Wm. C. Durant, then President of General Motors. He immediately pledged $300,000 toward the project. The hotel was supposed to have been rushed to completion within a year for a cost of $650,000. Instead it took three years and cost $2.5 million. World War I was one of the biggest reasons for the delay. A disagreement over who would run the hotel also delayed the opening. An agreement was finally signed with the United Hotels Company.
The hotel was designed by the architectural firm of Esenwein & Johnson, based in Buffalo, New York, according to the National Historic Register.

I decided to go to the top floor first. The place was in pretty rough shape but I could tell that this was the fanciest room in the joint once:


William C. Durant was a bit of a tragic figure; he founded the world's largest, richest corporation, but died virtually penniless and unknown. Unlike Henry Ford and Walter Chrysler, his name was never directly attached to a successful car.

Durant built the empire that put Flint on the map. In the process he also spurred the creation of Flint's premiere hotel, a luxurious palace that was the jewel in the crown of the Vehicle City's prosperity and became the center of its business community. Just as the Pontchartrain Hotel in Detroit was the epicenter of the Detroit auto industry, so too was the Durant Hotel the center of the Flint auto industry.

Rumor had it that Billy Durant had his own private room set aside for his personal use, since he practically lived there due to the fact that he traveled between Detroit and Flint so much in those days, conducting business. In the 1920s, travel between these two cities--which today are less than an hour's car ride apart--used to be much more strenuous and time consuming.
The 264 room hotel opened on December 14, 1920 with Governor Albert E. Sleeper being the first registered guest followed by the distributors of the Dort Motor Car Company where Fred Aldrich was an officer of the company. A Grand Opening was held on News Year's Eve complete with dedication speeches and dancing. Over 500 of Flint's finest were included in the affair. The hotel was a hit and was consistently filled to capacity with businessmen, social gatherings, and meetings for the local auto manufacturing plants. Business was so good that an addition was added to the rear of the building which included more rooms and a new ball room and service area. An eight room suite on the sixth floor was named the Durant Suite in honor of Billy Durant. This space later became home of the Flint City Club.
And there you have it. This was the Durant Suite--Room 554.

The first floor of the hotel offered a complete shopping district in itself. It was complete with a jewelry store, florist shop, fur shop, hat store, men's store, lingerie shop, shoe store, appliance store and a branch of the Genesee County Savings Bank. Two popular areas of the hotel were the Purple Cow Restaurant located on the Saginaw Street side of the hotel that featured murals of a purple cow telling a story of the people who ate at the restaurant. The Wheel Room was a very art deco lounge where the glass tables were made to look like steering wheels from a car, and the back bar was emblazoned with the Chevrolet logo.
Famous entertainers and visiting politicians would often stay at the Durant when performing in Flint; some of them included Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, and Doris Day.


The hotel became Governor Frank Murphy's base of operations when he came to negotiate an end to the violence between authorities and the UAW during the infamous "Flint Sit-down" strike of 1936-1937. 
The Durant began experiencing problems in 1939 when guest numbers slowed even though the hotel had been completely refurbished a few years earlier. Economic times were tough and the hotel mortgage was foreclosed on and put up for auction. Metropolitan Life Insurance purchased the hotel in 1940. A year later the hotel was in default again.
In June of 1942 a new management contract was signed with the Albert Pick Hotels Corporation in Chicago. They took full ownership of the hotel, renaming it the Pick Durant Hotel. The next two decades would be prosperous ones for the Durant as it continued to be utilized by General Motors for meetings. 
The ball room was heavily damaged by fire in 1960, a week before a major Buick Sales Convention was to be held. Contractors were able to completely refurbish the room complete with new floors, ceilings, and light fixtures in time for the convention.
By 1968 it was thought that the hotel would be sold again, but the Pick Corporation announced new remodeling plans a year later. 
Rooms were made larger to create hospitality rooms and large twin bed rooms. Each room was given controls for heat and air conditioning. Every room received a color television. A driveway entrance was added to the rear of the building with a direct connection to the lobby. The Royal Scot Grill served lunch and dinner on the first floor, the Candlelight room, the original ballroom, became a private banquet and meeting room.

The hotel finally closed in 1973, and resisted several attempts at resuscitation by different developers. The Genesee County Landbank acquired the building in 2005, who luckily seem to have their act together much more than Wayne County. The property was preserved and found its way to a new owner. I guess pandering to billionaire pizza baron land speculators with itchy wrecking-ball fingers is not the accepted norm there, which may come as shocking news to Detroiters.


The hotel is briefly visible in the historic footage in the beginning of Roger & Me.






The above photo is one of the ballrooms, I believe. It overlooks the lobby:


When I returned to the now renovated Durant, I found it strangely deserted...there was no front desk and no one was around...it was a little bizarre. So I re-explored the place a bit on my own, and re-photographed areas that I remembered photographing five years prior. It was a bit odd.





c.2005

c.2010
Here you can see the old hotel front desk down below:


I still have a 1970s-era "HOTEL DURANT" room key fob that I pilfered out of one of the little key nooks behind the desk.


Durant's life story is even more interesting than that of the hotel that bears his name. The grandson of a former Michigan governor and lumber baron, Durant was a bit of a maverick, but he did more to build General Motors than any other man. In 1904, he moved Buick production to Flint, and soon Buick was the top producer in the world, and Flint was one of the premiere cities to live in America. Durant became Buick's president, and established Champion Ignition and other parts suppliers.


Before General Motors, Flint produced railroad cars but basically was just a nowhere place after the lumber business dried up. It was not on a major river, and was even further off the main trade routes than Detroit. Durant turned Flint into the rival of Detroit with the headquartering of flagship Buick, A.C. Spark Plug, Fisher Body, and Chevrolet plants here in the first quarter of the 20th century.


Durant founded General Motors in 1908, and the stock it issued allowed him to purchase Buick Motors. Six weeks later, he bought Oldsmobile. He then acquired the troubled Oakland Motors (which became Pontiac), then set his sights on Cadillac and AC-Delco. He also created the Frigidaire company. Within 18 months, he had acquired substantial interest in about 30 carmakers, but overextended himself and lost GM to the banks. Durant was a terrible businessman, but an amazing salesman.

Undeterred, he quickly teamed up with flashy, popular race car driver Louis Chevrolet, and formed Chevrolet Motors. Through his fast-paced wheeling and dealing, Durant used the profits from that enterprise to regain control of GM in 1915. By 1920 however, his recklessness and incompetence at management cost him the company again and he was forced to resign.


Still undeterred, he formed Durant Motors in 1921 to compete with Chevy and Ford, and produced for 10 years, but the Great Depression put an end to that venture. From an article by Richard A. Wright,
He still had a plant in Lansing and he signed a deal to build and market the Mathis, a small French car. But in the depths of the Depression, it never got off the ground. In 1936, William Durant filed in bankruptcy, claiming debts of $914,231 and assets of $250.
While obviously heartsick over his financial reversals, he seemed enthusiastic about his new business and planned a nationwide string of bowling alleys.


In 1940--still undeterred--Durant opened a bowling alley called the North Flint Recreation Center (located practically in the shadow of the gigantic Buick plant he built three decades earlier). Always thinking big, he had plans for 50 such bowling alleys across the country. Durant firmly believed that this would be the next craze, that one day the bowling alley would be an indispensable element to every residential neighborhood. He died, destitute, before he could see the truth of this.

As it turned out, country music star Dusty Owens worked as a pinsetter at the North Flint Recreation Center while in high school.


Durant suffered a massive stroke in 1942. From Bernard A. Weisberger's book The Dream Maker: William C. Durant, Founder of General Motors:
On the night of October first, Durant lay in room 554 of the hotel that bore his name, turning over in his mind a list of business prospects...then he awoke realizing that something terrible was wrong. He tried to rise from bed, but toppled over to the floor, partially paralyzed. He managed to get to the phone to reach Fred Aldrich...on December 15 he left by ambulance for Detroit and the train ride home. He didn't know it then, but he was never to return to Flint.
William Durant died in New York City in 1947--the same year as Henry Ford.


If you drive past the old General Motors Building on Grand Boulevard in Detroit and you look close, you may notice that in the corners of the arches along its front entrance are medallions carved into the stone emblazoned with the letter "D"...it doesn't stand for "Detroit," it is a reminder that this building originally used to be called the Durant Building. According to motorcities.org,
Durant ordered construction of the General Motors Building on West Grand Blvd. in Detroit, to be the largest office building in the world. (In fact, it was to be called the Durant Building and it has the initial "D" at its corners near the top in the manner of Napoleon, who decreed the letter "N" be put on buildings erected in Paris during his reign.)


References:
The Dream Maker: William C. Durant, Founder of General Motors, by Bernard A. Weisberger
The Free-Wheeling Gambler Who Created Conservative General Motors, by Richard A. Wright,  Detroit News, July 30, 1996

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