Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Photos from February, 2005 and later.

In case you're a little skeptical, the Dirty Dozen quest wasn't something I made up for this blog for dramatic effect; it was actually real—all the explorers I knew of called it that, and we were all competing, to an extent. At least four other groups I knew of were out there trying to get into the Dozen. I can't remember who coined the phrase, maybe it was Detroitblog? Anyway, he wrote about it too, in a post he entitled "The Dirty Dozen":
Last year, the Free Press published a couple of articles on the high number of abandoned buildings in Detroit, and accompanied them with a list of what they considered the top 12 abandoned skyscrapers. All the explorers I know used this as a checklist, visiting each one and trying to finish the list. Though we’d all been in dozens if not hundreds of empty buildings in the city, those 12 were considered the classics. And all of us got stuck at 11, because one of the buildings was simply too well-sealed and impervious to entrance by us. Until now.
I know, making it sound like a "race" casts it in a very superficial and exploitative light, but this was a tongue-in-cheek thing, not a Columbus complex run amuck.


When I finally made it into the Whitney it ended a quest of about a year, and that long wait only increased my feeling that we would never topple the seemingly invincible David Whitney. I had driven or walked past it countless times, and each time nothing had changed about it; it was always sheer and unassailable, with not a foothold to be had for love or money. Long had we eyed it from other surrounding buildings.


On the outside, it didn't even really look abandoned—it had no smashed windows or graffiti on it, and we also knew it still had power. Unless we felt like lobbing a cinder block through one of its massive storefront windows, it appeared there was little chance of our ever getting in. It was in the best condition of any building on the Dirty Dozen list, which made it the most likely candidate to be renovated. But it might also be a sealed time capsule full of treasures, and that's what made it so enticing.


Its bland exterior completely disguised the architectural wedding cake that lay within; After we had eventually finished I came to the conclusion that the David Whitney had probably the grandest lobby space of any of the Dirty Dozen. It was a fitting prize for waiting so long to cross the finish line.

Sometime in the late summer of 2004, we noticed a potentially vulnerable plywood panel, but as soon as it was tugged on something inside crashed, and a beefy security guard immediately came out the front door, and there was a bit of a "chat." Obviously the panel was a booby-trap designed to alert him. We later read in the paper that the David Whitney had a live-in guard named Chaz, who was kept company by a rottweiler—a fact we already knew about straight from the horses's mouth.


Our hopes had been dashed yet again. Furthermore, upon talking to Detroitblog John we learned that he too once had a run-in with Chaz, who famously told him, “I’m authorized to bust a cap in you if I catch you inside.” We later learned that everybody else had also had nearly identical run-ins of their own with Chaz while making their attempts at prodding the Whitney for a weak spot.

After a few seasons had gone by, we noticed that Chaz seemed to have gone missing from his post. It was time to move in for the kill; we did it in a way that would allow us to re-seal the opening without a trace.


We had not gone three steps when we noticed something that made us freeze—a burglar alarm was sounding. If we ran back out, we might walk right into the waiting hands of arriving police, but if we stayed in the building, we risked that Chaz or his rottweiler would find us. It didn't sound like we had tripped it, but how long ago it had been set off we didn't know.


There were no sounds of movement in the building, so we decided to go upstairs and look out the windows to wait and see what happened. Our surroundings were absolutely mind-blowingly gorgeous but we had to ignore that for the moment.


The shrilly-beeping alarm panel was lit up like a Christmas tree; I had a feeling by this point that it had been going off unattended for quite a while, and that there was no danger. We found the staircase quickly and began the ascent straight to the roof.

Photo by a friend
When we came up into the elevator penthouse, we heard something else that freaked us out momentarily. It sounded like the squawk of a cop's two-way radio, but turned out to be part of the active communications gear for the antennae on the roof. The whirring sound of the active elevator motor could also be heard. The elevators might still operate, but we weren’t brave enough to try that yet; getting stuck in a malfunctioning one here would be less than ideal.


Our celebration was short, but to see the roof of that building from that vantage point was a moment I had waited a long time for. To finally see the letters spelling out DAVID WHITNEY BUILDING from behind was a great satisfaction; and the rush of hitting a new rooftop is always heightened by the euphoria of exhaustion you get from jogging stairs for 10 minutes.


For quite awhile we were silent, and did nothing more than stare out into the distance where the lights of New Center sparkled, taking it all in and savoring the seemingly balmy February air.






One thing that I found so profoundly strange about this experience was that "ghost ship" feeling that I have described before; in that you can hear the building's equipment running, and the lights were on, but there was no one at the helm. No crewmen in the rigging, or down in the engine room. We were alone on this ship as it sailed autonomously into its uncertain future, wherever the winds may direct it. Very eerie.






Looking down into the light court, with the lobby skylight at the bottom:




The abandoned Broderick Tower next-door:


Once we had finished getting testicular cancer from standing near the cellular equipment, we moved up toward the front of the building where the big David Whitney letters stood, each about 10 feet tall. It was like being behind the famous Hollywood letters, except these were red. Soon we knew it was time to retreat, so that we could be prepared for a full scale run-down of the building tomorrow.


Early the next morning, we noticed that the alarm was still screeching as before, a sure sign that we were golden. It had been going for at least 12 hours now, and Chaz was nowhere to be seen. When we investigated his living quarters more closely however, we found some disturbing evidence: two space heaters—running; a microwave, stereo, and a clock—all plugged in and showing correct time; and a calendar turned to this month—February 2005. Yesterday was marked as "payday."


We slowly realized that Chaz had been here last night to punch-in at some point before we came in. Where he was now remained a mystery, so we were a tiny bit nervous about that (and whether he would show up today from an early lunch break while we were in his building). When we found a rottweiler-sized bag of Kibbles & Bits on the second floor, we didn't feel too comfy either.


While exploring on the third floor, the silence was shattered by the deafening squawk of a voice on a PA system. We all froze in terror as the racket echoed harshly off the smooth terracotta walls of the atrium—had Chaz returned to sick his hellhound on us and bust the aforementioned caps in our asses? Luckily we realized that it was merely the speakers in the People Mover station attached to the front of the building.


That gave us a little jolt, as did the station's surveillance camera, which still pointed into the Whitney. This place was still pristine; thankfully it had not been let go of like so many other Detroit skyscrapers, so no scrapper's hammer or saw had yet touched it. The marble floors were clean enough to eat off of, and the lights still worked, we found out. On some upper floors however, we noted the inevitable beginnings of serious water damage.


There were many things left behind, even one office had a room stacked full of renovation blueprints to the Whitney itself. We soon found our way back to the roof as the sun was getting low on the horizon. The weather was unseasonably warm, and we shed our coats while contentedly basking in our glory.


Just as we were enjoying the fruits of our victory we noticed something going on next-door. Across the street, up in the penthouse balcony of the Broderick, I saw two people with backpacks and cameras—other explorers. We yelled over to them and they waved and yelled back. None of us recognized them.


We went back inside to explore the rest of the floors on our way down while keeping an eye out the windows. On one floor we found a large vault, but there was nothing much else of especial interest besides some dried-up office plants, though there was a nice view of the Himelhoch’s Building next-door. We didn't get around to exploring the basement, unfortunately. We left after dark (with the alarm still blaring in the lobby), and the building was resealed by the next morning.


When we cracked into the Whitney, immediately afterward it was like we had "opened the carcass" so to speak, because all the wolves simultaneously converged to feed; within hours every explorer I knew of at the time had been in it, was currently in it, or was on their way there. It was clear that every one of us was simultaneously watching that board with hungry eyes, waiting for the inevitable moment of weakness to come.

Both Detroitblog and David Kohrman wrote of receiving ~the phone call~ and either being jerked from a sound sleep, or canceling other Sunday plans in order to hastily assemble their gear and speed down the freeway well in excess of the posted limit in order to check off that big No.-12. One acquaintance of mine even ditched out on a wedding they were supposed to be at in order to come downtown; the mighty fortress had fallen at last, but it would not remain vulnerable for long.


We sealed our entrance back up again, but that summer the front of the building was ripped wide open and left notoriously accessible, during which time droves of buzzed, flipflop-clad Tigers fans wandered in and out randomly on game days snapping iPhone pics, and vandalism multiplied as word spread. That was right about the time that "urbex" blew up in Detroit and soccer moms began dropping their kids off downtown to play in the abandoned buildings.

The Whitney—once the most pristine, impregnable abandoned landmark in the city—was on track to becoming the new Michigan Central Station, thanks to the birth of social media and the newfound disregard for caution and decorum that was common amongst the new crowd (as well as a general lack of street smarts).


The mind of the young suburban public had swung overnight from "ZOMG Detroit is like so dangerous, I won't even go to the Fox Theater without a Kevlar vest," to "ZOMG going in abandoned buildings is way cooler than the mall!" Even Detroitblog John started to question whether he should continue to post. "The whole point back then was to share something few people had seen" he said, but when suddenly everyone started coming to see it for themselves it called into question whether we were doing more harm than good, and whether we were culpable in the unforeseen popularity explosion.
Though I never described how to get into any buildings, I take some share of the blame for publicizing this as something interesting to do. You try to share some beauty and it draws certain people who seek it out to destroy it.
I found the popularity-surge beyond bizarre, but perhaps in the long run it was for the best that more people became aware of and interested in the steady decline of Detroit and its architecture? Nailhed.com did not exist back then, precisely for the reasons Detroiblog cited above.


Today however, it hardly matters whether I post photos from abandoned buildings because that cat is already out of the bag, and yowling loudly for more Fancy Feast. I might as well share some photos for posterity, and teach people some history in hopes that others will be inspired to learn and stand up for preservation.

The Whitney was eventually re-secured (basically permanently), after some explorers made anonymous pleas to the owner to protect it before it was too late. And I'm happy to say that today, the building has been restored and formally reopened almost as I type this. This landmark was literally rescued from the jaws of oblivion.


I just remembered an interesting story. One night in 2006, after the Whitney had really started to go to hell thanks to being left wide open for so long, we were in there hanging out as usual and ran into a guy who had taken up residence in the building. He was middle-aged and explained that he was a refugee from the suburbs, where it was much more difficult to be homeless, since they of course frown upon the destitute there.


We smoked the peace pipe and BS'd in general with this guy for awhile before deciding to go explore the basement, since we had never been down there in all of our previous trips into the building. We came across a strange room...inside it was a table, and on the table was a desktop computer—which was running.

Obviously this is a rather bizarre thing to find in a dilapidated building, so a closer look was warranted. The screen was turned on and it seemed to indicate some sort of control system for the Detroit People Mover monorail system, which of course had a stop attached to the outside of this building. We decided not to mess with it any further. Later we ran into the squatter again, and when we mentioned finding the computer downstairs he got a little upset, saying the police had once shown up and "messed with" him because he had done the same thing.


We were skeptical of this until we saw a DPM vehicle with a light-bar on top of it pull up onto the sidewalk next to the building and park. We fanned out to see what was going on, and quickly decided to make our exit at stage left. I planned to walk right out of a side door on the opposite side of the building, but as I reached for the handle, at the very same time I saw another arm reaching out to grab the same handle from the outside...and it was clothed in a blue polyester sleeve!


In a miracle of quick thinking, I stopped reaching for the handle and instead turned the deadbolt to lock the door, before silently sprinting through the shadows toward the main stairwell. My buddies had also figured out that it was time to take cover. I careened up to about the 4th floor and picked an office to hide out in while listening for what might be going on down below.

I heard police radios squawking and multiple officers come inside with keys jingling. Seconds later I heard a struggle and some yelling, which I assumed was the sound of our homeless buddy getting the stuffing knocked out of him in his room by at least three cops.


After awhile the noise died away but I wasn't sure if they had left or not, so I silently crept up to about the 12th floor for a better hiding spot, and so I could look out the windows safely to see what was going on on the street. After taking a nap up there for about an hour I figured the coast must be clear, and made my way out to rendezvous with my comrades. I had no idea there was a such thing as "People Mover Police," or that they had the authority to come beat the hell out of homeless people over nothing, but there you have it. I still feel guilty about that. You would think they would just lock the damned door to that computer room?


By the way, it was possible to open a window and step out into the light court by walking on the skylight.


After people had started trashing the place by ejecting furniture from the upper stories, holes began to develop in the heavy-duty plate glass skylight.


Peeking my face down through the hole was a very strange sensation, making me feel as if I were floating four stories above the marble lobby floor:


The David Whitney Building is named for David Whitney Jr., the famous Detroit lumber baron who came to Michigan in 1857 just as the Great Lakes logging era was heating up, and purchased pine lands in the northwoods, becoming very rich in a very short period of time.


Whitney also owned a fleet of ships that hauled lumber and iron ore on the lakes, making him even more money.


When David Whitney died in 1900 he was the wealthiest man in Detroit, worth about $15 million. This parcel along what would become thriving Grand Circus Park was purchased by Mr. Whitney in 1885, and he built the five-story Grand Circus Building on the site two years later. It was demolished to make room for this new structure. David Whitney Jr.’s son, David Charles Whitney, commissioned this new skyscraper for the site, naming it in honor of his father.


Standing 19 stories tall on Woodward, with the Broderick Tower across the street, the Whitney formed the second half of the gateway to downtown, which I refer to as the "Detroit Argonath." It had been built in 1914 by renowned Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham, whose hand had also given Detroit the Ford Building and Dime Bank, making this city one of the best repositories of his work that exists.


According to the AIA, Burnham actually passed away during the designing of the building and his firm completed it in his absence. Furthermore, W. Hawkins Ferry wrote that the Whitney Building signified a "decline of the impact of the Chicago school in Detroit;" instead of following the trend toward cleaner, sleeker skyscrapers, Detroit buildings were exhibiting "increasingly archaeological detail" as architects like Louis Kamper unearthed ever more anachronistic ornamental flourishes to slather onto their projects.


Detroitblog John noted that the construction of the Whitney Building and the Statler Hotel across the street from it "commenced at roughly the same time," and developed into a contest between the contractors of both buildings. Much like the Dirty Dozen Quest itself, both construction crews rushed to see who would finish their building first. "The Whitney’s contractors, the Lanquist and Illsley Co. of Chicago, narrowly beat the Statler firm by two tiers of structural steel, and proclaimed victory by flying an American flag from the topmost projecting beam," Detroitblog wrote.


Several sources say the Whitney Building was built to attract doctors and dentists as tenants. The location was so prestigious, Detroitblog wrote, that there was a waiting list to lease offices there. Ironically,
There was also a downside to having a skyscraper full of doctors’ offices; on several occasions, despondent patients who received a bad prognosis threw themselves out a window and into the central light court. After a few of these instances, the building managers had to nail all the corridor windows shut.
The light court was originally a "luxury" feature that D.H. Burnham designed into the structure so that every office could have access to fresh air and natural light.


On the other hand, the "upside" to having a skyscraper full of doctors’ offices was that it attracted at least one revolutionary practice to the building. Detroit's being the birthplace of the automobile industry has also given it status as the birthplace of many other things that go along with cars, such as the first traffic light, the first drive-in, the first car wash, the first mile of paved highway, and so on.

The David Whitney Building shared in the significance of one of those Motor City "famous firsts"—it was the birthplace of the Straith Clinic, the first plastic surgery practice to specialize in helping car-accident victims, and perhaps the first advocate for automobile safety devices.


According to Straith's website, Dr. Claire L. Straith of Detroit was one of the original members of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, which came together after World War I to treat mutilated veterans. He eventually founded his Straith Clinic here in the David Whitney Building in 1936 when he became interested in remediating the terrible injuries of car-accident victims, and even made efforts to educate the public and the auto manufacturers on the dangers of car accidents. Straith had personal discussions with Walter Chrysler and Preston Tucker, and was instrumental in convincing the car companies to begin incorporating such safety measures as padded dashboards and seatbelts.


Naturally as the 1950s brought the onset of the suburban exodus, occupancy rates in the building began to lag. By 1965 the Whitney family sold the building to an investment trust, and in 1974 it was sold again to a management corporation. In 1985 Detroitblog writes, the building sold yet again, to Joe and Debbie Grella from New York, who began an extensive renovation of the lobby and atrium. They shifted the building's focus from medical tenants to attracting "the arts community," and hiring a pianist to play a grand piano in the lobby at lunchtime.


As you might have guessed by the mention of trading doctors for artists, this was the beginning of the end for the Whitney, just as it was for the rest of downtown Detroit outside its doors in those days. The Grellas did manage to increase the building's occupancy from 40% to 67%, but it still wasn’t enough to keep the doors open, and they foreclosed by 1990.

David Kohrman noted that the last tenants were shooed out so that the building could be converted into a hotel, but that plan fell apart and it stood vacant. Sounds familiar, heh.


Anyway, MGM Grand leased the Whitney briefly in 1999 as a hiring and training center for its new Detroit casino. In late 2000 it was sold to Becker Ventures of Troy, Detroitblog wrote, and since then stood vacant until 2014 when it was renovated. At time of writing, the Whitney Building has just celebrated its grand reopening, and announced that all of its apartments have already been leased.


The views to be had from the David Whitney Building are excellent.


Here is the ghost sign on the side of the Fisher Arcade:


Merchant's Row extends south from here.


The Broderick Tower again, possibly still my favorite hangout of all time:


Comerica Park:


Looking straight down to the People Mover Station:




The Fyfe Building, with the State Theater and New Center in the distance:


Masonic Temple and the Cass Corridor visible over the top of the crumbling Fine Arts Building:


Woodward Avenue in all of its splendor:




The lower floors of the Broderick Tower, prior to renovation:


Here's a toast to both of these immensely important anchor buildings being successfully renovated at long last.


References:
Buildings of Detroit, by W. Hawkins Ferry, p. 188
AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture, by Hill & Gallagher, p. 68
"The Dirty Dozen," Detroitblog.org, Feb. 18, 2005
"Back in Business," Detroitblog.org, Dec. 1, 2006
http://detroitfunk.com/?p=382
http://kohrman.blogspot.com/2006/08/detroit-sampler.html
http://kohrman.blogspot.com/2006/05/inside-david.html
All Our Yesterdays, by Woodford & Woodford, p. 227-228
http://www.straithclinic.com/history-of-straith-plastic-surgery-clinic-detroit.html

1 comment:

  1. When I got my start, I enjoyed attempting to bring out some life from the decay and the beauty with my photographs. It wasn't until I picked up a log book from an old cement plant, cracked it open and started reading the entries of the plant manager, that I understood there were once people here, employees, struggling to make a go of things or basking in the golden rays of the achievements and skyrocketing prosperity. The log book started with the glory days, documented great times and lucrative contracts which crashed and burned within 2 years as the quality suffered and corners were cut. It ended, unfortunately, with the logbook on the floor, in what I would assume was his office. The company was sold, the plant closed and the building fell into partial disrepair.

    I was lucky to be one of the few to ever see the place. I had the luxury of a key and a lunch break to spend my time exploring. The company I worked for at the time rented part of the building which was kept in better repair, while the section I explored, slowly decayed.

    In the years following, it has been of the utmost importance to me to learn and know the history of these places. Sometimes even just chatting with the owners or even the guards. As we get older, our boyish mischief is far less visually pronounced and to some, just the interest is enough to grant access and a bit of folklore. I think, in some ways, you all paved the way for our parents generation to view us less as a hoodlum and more of a blue collar intellectual. It may not work in Michigan, but it usually does in Massachusetts.

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