"V" for Vanquished

35mm photos date from March 2004-2005; digital photos from 2006 onward.

A big chunk of Detroit is missing, in the wedge between Michigan Avenue and Lafayette Boulevard...


The Lafayette Building that used to sit at 132-144 West Lafayette Boulevard was an integral part of that block, and in turn an integral part of the unique shape of downtown Detroit that I don't think can ever be put back the way it was.

The Lafayette was one of the twelve giant, abandoned, architecturally significant buildings that were on the "Dirty Dozen" list published in 2004 by the Detroit Free Press, as a way of highlighting downtown's most troublesome vacant properties.


























The Lafayette Building was constructed in 1923, a 14-story neo-classical style structure designed by architects Elmer George Kiehler and C. Howard Crane (the latter was of course the famed Detroit architect responsible for the city's great theaters). After an illustrious life as an iconic Detroit office building it sat vacant for over a decade before finally being demolished in 2010.

Detroitblog wrote in 2006 that the Lafayette's parcel was previously occupied by the Bressler Block, which had been owned by Charles E. Bressler since 1850 and consisted of several old two- and three-story buildings, including businesses such as Striker’s Saloon, "which had for years been a gathering place for prominent Detroiters," the Detroit Book Exchange, Higgins Books, and the Wynn Saloon, as well as several small eateries. Hmmm, book stores and saloons....sounds like a block that I would have spent a lot of time haunting if I were a pre-1920s Detroiter.


In 1906 the Bressler Block was sold to E. L. Ford, not—contrary to erroneous claims I've read—to Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford. I believe the 13-year-old Edsel was still tinkering with miniature motors in the attic of his father's garage on Edison Street, a bit too young yet to be concerned with downtown real estate ventures (not to mention Edsel's middle initial was "B," not "L").

No, Emory Leyton Ford was descended from a totally different Ford family than the one that is famous for the Model-T. In the late 1800s, industrialist John B. Ford founded the Michigan Alkali Co., a pioneering chemical firm (now part of BASF) that was based in Wyandotte, Michigan. His sons Edward and Emory became the heirs of Michigan Alkali in 1907, and Emory was one of the founders of the Ford Republic, a unique boys' home that was built in Farmington Hills that same year.


In any case, the Bressler Block was sold to E. L. Ford and Benjamin Berry, who in turn sold it to George G. Epstean and Associates. Detroitblog said that Epstean and Julius Berman announced plans for a massive new tower there that would be “Michigan’s finest office building in the heart of Detroit.”

According to detroit1701, Epstean named this building in honor of Marie-Joseph du Motier, Marquis de la Fayette, a Frenchman who came to the Thirteen Colonies during the American Revolution and served as a general under George Washington. La Fayette was also instrumental in gaining France's support for the Revolution.


Detroitblog's writeup of the Lafayette Building noted that there were 31 stores located on the building's ground floor, with had frontage on three major streets: Michigan Avenue, Shelby Street, and Lafayette Boulevard. Furthermore, the main floor was laid out as an arcade, so its many stores also had "frontage" on the inside; most stores had entrances on two sides. Not only that, but the basement and second floor were also devoted as retail space, while the rest of the tower was offices.

The large blank elevator wall facing Campus Martius seems to indicate that the builders were predicting more taller buildings to be built on the parcels where everyone's favorite coney islands stand:


My first trip into the Lafayette was in early 2004, before any of the vandalism had really started. The building's major copper had likely been scrapped out years prior, but other than a few very discreet homeless people I couldn't discern there being much traffic going into this building prior to my first visit.


Through its life, Detroitblog wrote, the Lafayette was also home to a number of railroad companies, the state Tax Tribunal, venerable Detroit clothier Henry the Hatter, and—most notably of all—the Michigan Supreme Court. The Theodore Levin Federal Courthouse opened down the street from the Lafayette in the 1930s, and the Lafayette soon became a popular building for lawyers to have their offices in as well.


This next shot looking east from the corner of Michigan & Washington shows the Lafayette, and the old "red monkey bars" that used to clutter that part of the city...they were some sort of hair-brained urban art structure that was removed sometime in 2004 if I recall correctly:


Here is my very favorite angle of the Lafayette, a view taken from the Book-Cadillac Hotel:


The interior of the building was an arcade decorated in an Italian Renaissance style, its walls covered in Botticino marble.


The ceilings were given fanciful Rococo domes, and the light fixtures were all bronze, while the storefront windows were massive single panes of glass, some of them elegantly curved:


The store interiors were all originally trimmed in black American walnut he said, though it appears from these photos that the walnut may have since been painted-over in gold leaf:


Those curved display case panes were still intact when my friend took this next picture on a visit we made in 2007, but they were all smashed out soon after:

Photo by a friend.
A total of seven elevators stood in an arc at the narrow end of the V-shaped building, and each floor of the building was equipped with two marble drinking fountains, supplied with water that was refrigerated—and even sterilized by Ultraviolet rays. How or why they went to that extreme seems a bit crazy.


The Lafayette Building was acquired in 1933 by industrialist Charles Bohn, head of the Bohn Aluminum & Brass Co., which started as a supplier to Packard Motors, at 2512 E. Grand Boulevard. Bohn made the Lafayette its headquarters until 1966, when it was bought by real estate magnate Art Pollack.

A 1941 issue of The Oil and Gas News indicates that at least two petroleum companies also had offices in the building, the Pyramid Oil & Mineral Development Co. held suite 1002, while the Prudential Oil & Gas Corp. occupied 1125. As was apparently very common for these downtown dinosaurs, the building began to change hands repeatedly during the 1960s, like a big game of hot potato.


Even by 1988, "the height of downtown abandonment," the Lafayette was still 75% occupied, Detroitblog wrote. However, Pollack, the owner, was having difficulties keeping up with the building’s numerous maintenance needs, and it was sold to Brooklyn-based J. Wolf Realty for $3.3 million.

The building's solid bronze directory, which may have also been the unwilling recipient of a coat of gold paint:


Wolf began renovations to the lobby and upper floors, but tenants complained of problems that went unfixed. The "absentee" New York landlords were accused of collecting $50,000 a month in rent to pay off the $35,000 mortgage bill, while tenant maintenance concerns still went unaddressed. Occupancy dropped from 75% to 50% in just a few years. When the Michigan Supreme Court moved out in summer of 1991, the end was near.


By the end of the year, the building’s owners owed almost $4 million in back mortgage (and interest) payments, and went into foreclosure, causing even more tenants to flee. The remaining tenants were put in a squeeze when the Detroit Edison shut-off notice came. Some of them managed to work out a payment plan with Edison, which bought their beloved Lafayette a stay of execution, but the difficulty of maintaining this empty hulk quickly proved to be too much for just a few tenants, and the last lingering straggler finally left the old building in 1997.


The Lafayette has remained dark since then, despite being bought by another real estate speculator in 1999, and the Downtown Development Authority purchasing the property in 2004. A plan emerged late in 2005 to lavish $40 million on the building to remake it into 125 luxury condos, but the developer couldn't come up with the cash. Instead, the boards on its outer walls were hastily painted with fresh murals as part of the downtown "spruce-up" prior to Super Bowl XL, so that the place didn't look quite so derelict and depressing.

When Quicken Loans got ready to move downtown, the Downtown Development Authority offered them the Lafayette Building for one dollar, but Dan Gilbert chose the Compuware Building instead. Ouch.


In 2009 bids were called for the demolition of the structure, though public outcry gave the building another brief stay of execution. After one last attempt at marketing the building, it was sloppily pulled down in 2010 by Adamo Demolition Co., who accidentally (or not) caused a massive section of the building to topple suddenly, resulting in damage to the street and a huge cloud of hazardous dust to cover the entire neighborhood.


On the fourth floor there was an exterior wall that seemed to be missing for some reason, and you could walk out into the courtyard between wings of the building:


Most of it was taken up however by what I guessed to be a former skylight, which appeared to have been tarred-over at some point.


Standing on it, you could look straight up at the three walls surrounding you:


Now that I think of it, I wonder what room used to be under that skylight, since we never spent much time on the darkened, heavily modernized 3rd floor.


On the 5th floor there was an actual courtroom still intact, with a judge's bench, witness stand, and jury box all left behind:


Even a stenographer's typewriter, a tape-recorder, and an American flag remained.


There were piles of evidence folders left in the judge's chambers...one had a series of photos from 1985 showing some dude's stash of illegal fireworks he was apparently busted for selling.


For some reason I don't have a photo of the holding cell that was adjacent to the courtroom, for keeping offenders detained before trial. It was basically just a cage with a steel toilet in it.

A view of the People's Outfitting Building and Stott Building:


The northwest corner offices of the Lafayette offered the best views of the Book-Cadillac Hotel, whose main entrance is seen here through an admittedly very dirty window:




Here is the same room, three years later:


This elevator lobby on an upper floor was happily not one of the ones sheathed in a dropped ceiling:


This was one of the few safes I ever found in an abandoned building that hadn't been chopped open yet:


There were several places in this building where homeless people had lived, and up inside the ceiling tiles numerous pigeons roosted and flapped noisily about, making a mess of the place like no other. You can see some of their feces streaming down the window and accumulating on the sill and countertop in the next photo:


Their waste formed a slightly nauseating inch-thick crust over much of the carpet. In places where they like to spend time perched in one spot, their poo can form stalagmites as much as a foot tall. If you startle them (which is regrettably easy), they will fly off madly in a cloud of filthy feathers at any random window to escape, then crash brain-first into the glass repeatedly until they are incapable of flight. That usually takes several minutes, unless they find an open window first. One is forced to ask, "Which came first—the stupidity, or the repeated ramming of the head into windows?"

At any rate this building became notoriously skankier and skankier as one ascended, due to water damage and pigeon filth. The floors were often buried deep in fallen plaster and mushy, rotted tiles as well as dead birds.


This office was positioned right in the middle of the "V," with a window that looked out from the building's crotch:




One notable thing I found about the Lafayette was that even right up until the very end, it was still sporting its old-timey original windows, with the wavy-glass panes...


...No wonder nobody wanted office space in downtown Detroit—all the buildings still had ancient windows that were probably drafty as hell. I mean, I still have old wooden windows in my own house, but at least they've seen fresh paint and glaze in the past 90 years.


As we went up, we found lots and lots of cool junk from the '70s and '80s, including an old professional Beta VCR, a Dictaphone, and some groovy reel-to-reel stereo equipment. Detroitblog made note of this assemblage on the 12th floor, where some homeless person had seemed to bring together a living room setup with all of these items, in an office that had thick shag carpet:

Photo by a friend.
He also noted that the typical galaxy of prescription bottles for anti-psychotic drugs like Haldol laid scattered around the floor as usual, undoubtedly indicating the presence of an individual who had been released from the "custody of the state" at either Northville Regional or Ypsilanti State Hospital prior to their life on the streets. One bottle’s prescription label showed it was made out to someone named "Oddie McCool." At least someone has a sense of humor.

After being evicted from the United Artists Building in 2006, the United Vandals / Dead House Painters took up artistic residence in the Lafayette Building, painting windows just as they had in their former quarters, but this time on a much grander scale:


Campus Martius being rebuilt, c.2004:


Here's a blast from the past...who remembers the "old" Free Press Building?


This was one of my favorite abandoned buildings downtown, but it was torn down in 2005 before I was able to get inside:


A couple close-ups of the massive terra-cotta ornaments that made up the incredibly heavy cornice of the Lafayette Building:


When the Lafayette was finally demolished, I managed to rescue an intact one of these pieces from the debris pile...nearly broke my back in the process though:


The Penobscot Building and the Dime Bank loom nearby on a moonlit evening:


A gorgeous twilight view westward down Lafayette Boulevard toward the (new) Free Press Building and the Fort Shelby Hotel:


The Book-Cadillac's darkened hulk seems to make an ominous wall along Michigan Avenue:


The view up Shelby Street at night looked a lot darker back then than it does now; since this photo was taken, lights have come on in the Farwell Building, Broderick Tower, Whitney Building, and the Book-Cadillac (left). The People's Outfitting Building (right), has been demolished.


The Lafayette Building often became our de-facto downtown nighttime-hangout roof after the Broderick was kept better sealed, or if the Metropolitan and Wurlitzer got boring, and after the Fort Shelby was renovated. I remember one such night in 2008 or so, when I came to the final realization that this little hobby of ours was completely and utterly ridiculous.

We were sitting up there quietly enjoying the peaceful winter air, and heard the gradual crescendo of someone's thundering footsteps in the stairwell begin to approach from below. A large guy clumsily burst through the door to the roof completely out of breath, only to shudder violently in terrified surprise before falling to his knees clutching his chest when he saw my partner and I standing there motionless in the dark, wishing that we had not been graced by his sudden obstreperous presence. “Oh god...you guys scared the @#$% out of me” he gasped, shakily. 


We were not impressed with this introduction, and our immediate thought as we both utilized this spare moment to trade annoyed glances while he tried not to have a heart attack was that this guy, whoever he was, had never been in an abandoned building before.

Despite this the guy collected himself, suddenly changing up his whole demeanor to begin laying on the I'm an abandoned building guru, and I've never seen you before, so you must be new to "the game" attitude, and explaining who he was by name-dropping his tacky website url for the first of several times during our brief encounter. 


Undeterred by our best efforts at trying to seem uninterested in his company, his next move was to ask the inevitable “how long have you guys been doing this?” question, his snooty attitude suggesting that he had no intention of being impressed by whatever our answer was going to be, and was merely waiting for us to finish giving our responses so that he could wow us with his venerability by throwing out the antediluvian date of “1996.” I was a little skeptical of that, seeing as he looked all of 23 years old, which would have made him about 12 years old back then.

At any rate he was quick to change the subject to inform us that he ~just so happened~ to be escorting a couple very important professional photographers from the Rolling Stone. Again, my partner and I looked at each other wondering if Rolling Stone would really hire this noisy buffoon as a guide. And why did a major media outlet care about some abandoned building in Detroit all of a sudden...?


We really didn't even want to know, but as we would find out in the coming months and years, our city and our favored haunts were about to become the macro-focused topic du jour of not only pop culture zines, but the entire worldwide mass media machine.

Pretty soon bumbling guides like this guy would be leading gasping reporters and photographers through places that we never thought anyone would ever give a shit about. Pretty soon, our little hobby was about to not be so novel anymore, nor would we necessarily be able to expect privacy in an abandoned building in the city anymore without some nosy journalists or film-makers mucking about while we're trying to smoke a joint in peace.


It wasn't that we felt like we owned these places, we just had grown up accustomed to the reality that one could expect to find solitude in an abandoned building in Detroit without running into the press.

So it sure made us look at things in a whole new perspective, though it took a long time to fully come to grips with the scale of the change in public opinion that was at hand regarding Detroit and its ruins. Thankfully, the change seems to have been a net positive so far, and it has led me from exploring abandoned buildings for merely self-interested reasons, to sharing what I have learned about them to hopefully bring a deeper and better-rounded understanding to more people. There's actually a lot more to it than that, but I'll leave it there.


Another ghostly shot of the Book-Cadillac:


Here's just about as good a shot of the now-deceased People's Outfitting Building as one can ask for:


And the pigeon porch:




Michigan Avenue west:


Peeking through the crowd at the old Chamber of Commerce Building:


Toward the Chancery Building:


This was an especially rotten corner of the Lafayette's roof (the federal courthouse is in the background):


If you stood up on the ladder to the roof of the elevator penthouse and turned around, you could get a pretty good look down into the "V":


The Peter Smith & Sons' Building was another fun one to explore:


Another particularly memorable visit to the Lafayette Building was one insanely beautiful October evening in 2006, as the sun was hitting the city with unusually perfect light, setting off the turbulent autumn sky in magnificent contrast. I think I forgot to bring my camera that day so these photos are mostly my friend's, but I think I may have used his camera to snap a few as well.

Photo by a friend.
The six-inch-deep roof marsh, with various wetland grasses growing in it:

Photo by a friend.
Love that gold and purple!

Photo by a friend.
The Stott Building again, glowing like a red sandstone mountain:

Photo by a friend.
This next one is a shot that I really wish was mine, but I couldn't say now for sure whether it was taken by him or me:

Photo by a friend.
The Detroit River can be seen whipped up into a choppy grey froth by the autumn winds:

Photo by a friend.
The multiple rows of cornice fleurs-de-lis facing in numerous varying directions:

Photo by a friend.
The perfect sunset...

Photo by a friend.
It almost looks like the building is made out of solid gold, like a pharaoh's death mask:

Photo by a friend.
On one of my last visits, I climbed out of a fourth-floor window down onto the roof of the building at 126 Lafayette...


...because I wanted to take this shot:


Here you can better see the ladder that leads down to the neon sign...which I was about to climb, of course:


I also took the opportunity to pop the roof hatch of the then-vacant 126 Lafayette to check it out, as I chronicled in another post.

While I did make an effort to climb down the ladder from the roof to get down to that neon sign, I chickened out about halfway however...


Not necessarily because I was afraid of falling, but because it was broad daylight and I was fully exposed to any authority figures who might chance to be looking up. It would seem from this next photo that I did indeed consider a second, nighttime attempt, but for whatever reason I chickened out once again.


A look straight down onto the black triangle that is the center of the dichotomous coney island universe:


Here is the blank spot next to People's Outfitting:


And yes, in case you were wondering, I did make a foolhardy run on the Lafayette Building even after demolition had begun, because somewhere in the back of my asbestos-riddled brain I must have some irrational desire to die like Richard Nickel...


Blurry, but this is a view looking from the south wing of the building to the north wing, which had lately had its face ripped completely off:


A view down the street, taken from the stairwell if I'm not mistaken--a stairwell that never had any windows at all until that night:


And here's another freaky shot...those aren't windows, those used to be elevator doors:


RIP, Lafayette Building.


References:
"Frosting on the Cake," Detroitblog, May 16th, 2006
http://detroit1701.org/Lafayette%20Building.html
The Oil and Gas News, Vol. 14-15 (1941), p. 93
For the Good of the Children: A History of the Boys and Girls Republic, by Gay Pitman Zieger
http://www.michmarkers.com/startup.asp?startpage=L1790.htm
The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922, Vol. 1, by Clarence Monroe Burton, William Stocking, Gordon K. Miller, p. 421
Michigan Place Names, by Walter Romig, p. 202

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful photos and fantastic read. Thank you, sir.

    ReplyDelete