Seward Hotel Boop-Oop-A-Doop

March, 2010

During World War II, this rather average Detroit apartment hotel was home to one of the most important, yet most overlooked cartoonists of all time. Read on...


As you might be able to tell, it was once a little fancier, architecturally speaking, but a lot of its ornamental details were stripped off during the 1950s. According to the book Detroit's Historic Hotels and Restaurants by Patricia Ibbotson, this 10-story apartment building began life as the Seward Hotel in 1926, billed as "Detroit's Leading Uptown Hotel." Being just north of New Center in the 1920s, it was certainly in a high-demand area. My colleague Benjamin Gravel says that the hotel was designed by Detroit architects Louis and Paul Kamper (Louis Kamper designed the Broderick TowerBook-Cadillac Hotel, etc.).


I can hardly thank Google Books enough for the nifty little informational tidbits that it has given me access to over the few short years of its existence. The latest little factoid that I've picked up is that according to the book Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution, a very important cartoon animator lived in the Seward Hotel in the 1940s: Max Fleischer--the creator of "Betty Boop," and inventor of the Rotoscope. According to tvtropes.org, Max and his brother Dave Fleischer were two of the most prolific yet least-known men in the history of animation.

The Fleischers started in the era of silent films, yet pioneered the blending of animation with live-action, long before Roger Rabbit. They also created the Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy cartoon (1941), played an integral role in making the immortal classic Popeye what it was (1933-'42), and even produced the first cinematic adaptation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948). 


Here is a c.1976 photo of the front of the Seward Hotel, found on PlacePromo:


Stepping through a busted window, the first thing I found in the Seward Hotel was this rather old-timey looking lounge:


A mention in the Billboard 1944 Music Yearbook indicates that the Seward was on the jazz/lounge music circuit, and that Charlotte Ross, "a pianist with charm," played there that year.

Max Fleischer lived here in the Seward Hotel with his wife Essie during World War II while he worked at the famous Jam Handy Organization studios (also known as JHO) at 2900 East Grand Boulevard--which, amazingly, is still standing today.


To talk about the significance of Jam Handy would be to go off on a tangent better suited to its own post, but let us suffice it to say that JHO's documentary and instructional films, newsreels, and commercials were yet another of those serially-overlooked "Detroit things" that unmistakably undergirded the 20th century American mindset. JHO invented many of the film conventions we take for granted, and indelibly shaped the way we saw consumer goods--especially cars. To illustrate this, consider that the Simpsons character Troy McClure was a direct parody of the JHO style of film.


Naturally the reason JHO was based in Detroit near New Center is because it mostly did promotional work for General Motors, especially Chevrolet. Max Fleischer was living in Miami when he lost his job due to turmoil within Paramount Studios in December 1941, and was unsuccessful in getting the capital to start his own studio company. That was when his friend Jamison Handy came along and hired him to work on commercials and military training films, so Fleischer moved to the heart of the Motor City just at the dawn of its "Arsenal of Democracy" days.


According to the book Out of the Inkwell, Handy first tried to step in to help Max keep his job under Paramount, but since that was a bust Handy convinced him to move to Detroit to help fulfill government contracts for army training films. Max had in fact made the very first training films during World War I according to that book, which was why Handy thought he would be a perfect fit at JHO. In the meantime Max would be allowed to also pursue any other animation interests he wanted.

After the war ended Max started to relocate to New York City, and commuted back and forth from Detroit for a few years in the early 1950s. It was during this time that he was still working with JHO and developing "one of the most important and widely used inventions ever created for motion pictures, Rear Screen Projection," not to mention technology for three-dimensional movies that didn't require special glasses. Fleischer's technological inventions, such as Rear Screen Projection and Rotoscope have continued to be used occasionally by Hollywood for special effects up to the modern day.


Though Fleischer's most popular work was already behind him by the time he came to Detroit, he was still just as influential, and evidently continued to work on Popeye cartoons here until 1942. He also continued to patent "countless inventions" according to tvtropes.org, even though Paramount acquired the rights to all his previous patents. Tvtropes.org goes on to assert that the Fleischer brothers and their techniques had a profound influence on the world of animation for generations to come, and that their contributions have been said to help inspire later landmark animation classics such as Astro BoyLooney Tunes, and Ren & Stimpy.


Other names the Seward Hotel has gone by in the past include: Wellington Place, Wellington Plaza, and Wellington Commons. An MLive article told how the Wellington's 400 residents were evicted in July 2009 when the building's landlords evidently went out of business and Detroit Edison sent a notice saying that the power would be cut in 30 days.


Abayomi Azikiwe, the founder of the tenant advocacy group "Moratorium NOW! Coalition," said the conditions were "very bad," and included "pest infestations" and other building maintenance issues. The Wellington offered studios and one-bedroom apartments, for around $500 per month.

The current residents were all relocated in a rush, and many possessions were left behind. From what I remember reading in another story (defunct link) the Wellington's owners were based out of state, and decided to forfeit the building after being unable to keep up with expenses on it, but evidently neglected to give the tenants any warning of the impending bankruptcy until the shut-off notice came. This story was given prominent TV news coverage.


I now see that I didn't take many interior shots, since it was mostly dull modern rehab throughout, but I have this photo of an apartment taken by a friend who was with me:

Photo from shadowsandrust.com
View from a utility room:


In October of 2011 Curbed reported that the Seward was sold to Kathy Makino with high hopes for redevelopment, but that obviously hasn’t come to fruition yet, and scrappers slowly gutted the building like a slain deer. The Seward's descent into blight was swift, as apparently the previous owners slacked on maintenance, and appetite for scrap metals was still at an all-time high.


Henry Ford Hospital:


Since one of my closest friends lives in the area I see the Seward almost on a daily basis, and I have watched with little surprise as the building has steadily gone downhill for the past five years since I was last inside it.

Recently however it was brought back to my attention when myfoxdetroit reported that the Virginia Park Block Club were actually fighting to keep a developer from turning the vacant old Seward Hotel into low-income housing. At face value, such a headline invites one to fall into one's preset mental stereotypes and make assumptions that the block club is discriminating against the poor with a "NIMBY" mentality.


According to some, the developer in question--Kathy Makino--has made herself persona non grata in that community by exhibiting extremely poor management of her several other existing low-income housing units on Seward Street, and the Virginia Park Block Club doesn't want more of the same.

Furthermore, they claim that Makino lied to them about the type of development she had planned for the Seward Hotel in order to keep them at bay, and that she does not care about the health of the community, only the money she gets out of owning subsidized properties. The article claims Ms. Makino has been asked repeatedly to address issues in her decaying buildings, but allegedly refuses to do so, and community members don't want her to control any more properties in their neighborhood. A more recent article published by Crain's Detroit however suggests that some of the allegations made about Ms. Makino in the Fox 2 story were untrue.


Ms. Makino even went so far as to contact me after this blog was posted to help clear the air on her reputation. She told me that she "never promised a boutique hotel or refused to meet with them," and that when she arranged a meeting with the community groups, she says they stood her up and didn't show.

Regarding the Fox 2 report where Steve Cowin "said that he calls the police every night on the drug dealers in front of my building at 80 Seward because I don't care about the neighborhood," Makino insists that for one thing she doesn't even own 80 Seward. Secondly, "it couldn't be further from the truth that I don't care about the neighborhood...anyone that truly knows me knows how I feel about the city of Detroit, the neighborhoods, and the people that live in those neighborhoods." Ms. Makino further explained to me that it has been extremely difficult to wrangle the financing to start the project, over the past four years since she bought the building.


Metropolitan United Methodist Church, which hosts a pretty cool jazz impromptu on Tuesday afternoons:


Russell Industrial Center can be seen behind it:


The old "Trinity" telephone office:


The view out toward Highland Park:


West, down leafy Seward Street:


South, toward Second Street:


As you can see I had quite a ball taking photos from the roof...call me crazy but I think the Seward Hotel might have one of the coolest rooftop views in the city. You're essentially right in the geographical center of town, treated to a 360-degree equidistant viewpoint.






I had fun climbing the old sign scaffolding as well:






North, up the street to the Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church:


Herman Kiefer Hospital:


East, toward Hamtramck (the American Axle plant is in blue):


Toward Eastern Market:


The Bonita Apartments (seen at right), was also abandoned, so afterward I went in there too:




There was nothing of interest in the Bonita, so we just made a quick trip to the roof.






Seward Street is actually lined with quite a few nice buildings:


Here's hoping it can get a little nicer.


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