The Burlesque and the Arabesque

35mm images from May 2005, digital images from 2014.

The National Theater, the last remnant of Detroit's old Monroe Street theater district, was an especially tasty looking morsel that had enticed us for some time, so we were definitely eager to give it a run. It sat boarded-up directly across the street from the shiny, (then) brand-new Compuware Building.

Note that in these old photos that the old marquis awning had not been removed yet.

The National Theater, as I'm sure you've probably heard a million times by now was designed by Albert Kahn (and Ernest Wilby) in 1910 and was said to be the only theater he ever designed. But let's not forget he also went on to design a few very notable auditoriums, such as Hill Auditorium, the Cass Technical High School auditorium, and plenty of other similar ones.

Built into the facade were hundreds of lightbulbs, which was a bit of a fad when commercial electricity started coming into its own around that time. The interiors of many churches were also decked out with thousands of lightbulbs in celebration of this new technology.

The book The Legacy of Albert Kahn by W. Hawkins Ferry has a historic photo of the National, which shows two small storefront shops housed on its main floor, flanking the main entrance. It also mentions that the type of glazed white terra cotta that Albert Kahn used on the National Theater was en vogue at the time, and he also used it on the c.1908 Grinnell Bros. Building, which I explored in another post.

The National Theater represented the crest of a wave; it was the high-water mark of the old Monroe Street theater district. Vaudeville shows started to go out of style right after the National opened, and the theater district shifted to Grand Circus Park with the new movie palaces opening up around there, such as the Madison Theater in 1917, and the Adams Theater later that year. As David Kohrman wrote on, the National "was typical of the early movie houses," and built at a time when "the entertainment industry was in a period of rapid change."

Once inside, we could tell this was a much different setup than the United Artists Theater…it even had a lot of Pewabic tile in the vestibule (The AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture stated that Pewabic tile was also used on the facade as well as glazed terra cotta).

I got the impression that this snazzy little joint could as easily be reused as a concert-club not unlike St. Andrew's Hall. As I recall there was at least one proposal to do this with an Afro-centric theme, but it lacked capital.

Here (photo at right) you can see a touch of the original paint designs on the wall where all of the newer paint has peeled away:

A couple more plaster medallions and other surviving details...

This was a much smaller, more compact space than the United Artists, but the seats here too had been stripped out. In fact, it was still rather tidy inside, from the cleanup that had been done a few years prior.

This 800-seat venue became known as the National Burlesque Theater, and by the 1920s was forced to convert to showing movies in order to stay in competition with the massive new movie palaces of Grand Circus Park.

Kohrman also notes that the shift in Detroit's city-center also had something to do with the decline of the Monroe Block Theater District. The "old" Detroit social and commercial scene was centered along the riverfront, and had been ever since the fur-trading days of the 1700s, with Jefferson Avenue as its main drag.

As Detroit blossomed in the 1920s Woodward Avenue became the new "main street" of Detroit, and that was where everything gravitated to. The Monroe Block was an artifact of that fading past, anchored to the older geography of the riverfront.

In the 1950s, the National attracted crowds by staying open 24 hours. By the late 1960s it was holding rock and R & B concerts, then finally resorting to low-budge and pornos to stay open through the 1970s, as so many other aging downtown movie houses had by that time.

It was so dark inside the auditorium that I had to resort to some pretty lame flash-photos; the tight squeeze to get inside the building precluded being able to lug a tripod on this mission.

The National changed its name to the Palace, but wheezed its last gasp in 1975. It did achieve National Register of Historic Places status that same year though, along with the rest of the c.1850s Monroe Block of buildings—which were all torn down in 1990, leaving the National as the last standing survivor of that gilded era.

The stage was pretty fubar'd, as were the opera boxes extending in twin arcs toward the upper balcony, but what really made this place bizarre was the stage curtain, still hanging in place. On it was the single, ominous word, "ASBESTOS."

At first we didn't know what the hell to make of this—after all the sinister warnings one hears about the dangers of asbestos to people who explore abandoned buildings, it seemed comedic. But we figured that the curtain was probably a low-tech fire suppression system from the olden days when hot stage lights could often start fires, and the asbestos curtain would be dropped onto the stage to smother the flames, we surmised. At any rate, we found it to be absolutely hilarious looking (and as fate would have it, it was about to become a bit of a sensation online as well).

There was much beauty to still be found in the elaborately plastered space, but it was all fading fast, thanks to a roof failure several years ago. The opera boxes were practically melting right off the wall:

But a new roof had since been donated, and the building was stabilized for now.

A look down from one of the boxes shows that the stage was mostly collapsed:

A pair of these columns held up the balcony:

The spectacular glazed terra cotta facade of the building belies its comparatively stripped and barren interior, yet it was still a treat. We were able to get up into the projection suite and find that (to our surprise) there was still some projection equipment there:

Next was the roof. I was pleased to find that it was fairly strong for walking on, despite the massive leakage.

Personally, I love low roofs; you don't get to tower over the city, but it's just enough to give you a superb view of the surrounding skyscrapers. The view of downtown from this squat structure was sweet.

The first time I ever made it into this building was at night, with no camera. Around us loomed the Water Board Building, Cadillac Square Apartments, and Cadillac Tower. From the Compuware glowed a ghostly orange hue of Sodium light, giving the whole scene an odd tint. Campus Martius was in full view, but the city—as always—seemed incredibly dead for a Friday night.


Back then, in the early 2000s, after 7pm there was no traffic—on foot or otherwise. It's a downtown ghost town unless there's a Tigers game. If you snapped your fingers, you could hear it echo off of the surrounding skyscrapers. I looked up at the Water Board Building and noticed a few lights turn on; probably a night janitor doing his rounds. You could tell which skyscrapers were vacant or abandoned by which ones were completely dark.

The Cadillac Tower (former Barlum Hotel):

The Water Board Building:

Close-up on one of the National Theater's flanking towers:

Here is a zoom shot of one of the terra cotta details of the towers:

After closing for good the National was bought and sold a few times during the 1980s, but the City of Detroit eventually seized it for back taxes, and at some point in the recent past—amazingly—made roof repairs to stave off decay. Thanks to that, an interior cleanup in 2001 by Preservation Wayne, and some more recent facade improvements, you can barely tell the building has been vacant now for forty years..! That's three years longer than I have been alive.

A parking garage had been built where the Monroe Block used to stand, but it too was eventually abandoned and recently demolished. It was feared for a short time that the National would be demolished as well, but at the moment the theater stands on the block all by itself.

After having remained basically sealed for many years, the National Theater was recently popped open again following the demolition of the parking garage next to it, so I got a chance to go back in after about ten years to retake some of my photos and see how much more decay had occurred since I last was inside.

It was interesting to see that behind all the boards that were erected along the front of the theater, the entire front wall and exterior doors of the vestibule had been stripped away:

The missing wall allowed streetlight to filter in, making for some cool photos.

The ticket booth:

Matthew Lambros' website "After the Final Curtain" has some better interior photos than mine, and the website has some historic images and postcards of the National.

The mezzanine between main floor and balcony, where the bathrooms were located:

There was a lot more plaster missing, but the first thing I noticed was that the "ASBESTOS" curtain was gone. Seeing as it probably weighed a couple thousand pounds, I doubt it was pilfered by some urban explorer looking for a souvenir; it was probably removed during the most recent abatement.

This time I got much better photos, thanks to having a tripod and the ability to "light-paint" with long exposures.

These views are from one of the boxes themselves...probably the only way I'll ever be able to afford these kinds of seats is under these exact circumstances.

Wow, look at this huge pile of cake frosting in a corner of the theater ceiling:

Heading up to the roof for some night shots.

I think it's even a better experience at night than during the day.

There was also graffiti on the roof now, which was not there during my initial visit.

As we were up here I could hear some other people inside the building below us. We paused and listened silently before determining it was more people like us...except they were making a lot more unnecessary noise than us.

Finishing up, we decided to leave for the night. We predictably ran into our new visitors on our way down to the main floor again (some Ann Arbor college kiddies), and it wasn't long at all before we determined we didn't want to hang out with them. Basically they were from the flipflops-and-shining-your-flashlight-in-everyone's-eyes-while-loudly-"whispering"-and-tripping-over-debris school of exploring.

Annoyingly, they also decided to depart at the same time as us, even though their party numbered like five or six people, and ours totaled three. They were immediately freaked out at the sight of what one of them thought was a police car driving down a nearby street, which brought even more annoyingly loud "whispering" and panicked conversations of what they "should do."

My buddies and I stood back, quietly trading irritated glances in the dark, hoping that these skittish knuckleheads didn't blow our cover as well as their own with all this bumbling. Because they were all crowding the exit, I couldn't see what the scene actually looked like outside, but I surmised it was a whole lot of nothing.

Finally they worked up the bravery to depart the building, and even though we acted like we were going to follow, we stayed behind for a while to make sure there were in fact no authorities laying in wait, and to allow some time for things to calm back down before we made our own exit. This hobby is silly and getting sillier by the day.

AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture, by Eric Hill & John Gallagher, p. 98
Detroit's Downtown Movie Palaces, by Michael Hauser and Marianne Weldon
The Legacy of Albert Kahn, by W. Hawkins Ferry, p. 14, 55


  1. I'm sure anyone who has explored abandoned buildings went through a kiddie phase (heaven forbid even you.) But my question is, what do you feel marks an mature urban explorer? Is it experience? Understanding? Respect/Historical awareness? I've been watching your site and another (Copper Country Explorer) for a few years now, and they are marked improvements in quality over typical ruin porn sites, with a great deal of the above characteristics in the content. So yeah, what are your thoughts on my and the younger generations of urban explorers as to how we can continue this rust-belt tradition.

    1. I try not to sound *too* condescending when talking smack about newbies, but sometimes it's too hard to resist. Yes, I too went through a "kiddie" phase when I first started doing this stuff. But there's certain things I *never* did, such as wear the flipflops, or shine your light in people's eyes, etc. That's just common sense's not like these guys were in grade school--they were college kids for christsakes. Maybe I should have specified that.

      Also, I'm not sure that there necessarily IS an imperative to "continue this rust-belt tradition" amongst younger generations; at the moment I think it has been a pop fad for several years, it's not like there is any danger of a tradition not being carried on, heh. If there is a problem it's not a symptom amongst newb explorers alone, it's in the general maturity level of the average human at large...which goes back to parenting and societal issues, etc. The whole human race could use a healthy dose of good old fashioned maturity all around, but specifically, it would be nice if people stopped doing things simply because "it's cool," and instead did them because they have a love of learning, and sense of exploration. People are more trite than ever it seems, but maybe I'm just getting old.

      For what it's worth, not all young explorers I've met are trite--not by a long shot, but the bulk of them are. The two conditions are not exclusively linked.

    2. It would also be nice if kids today had more street smarts. It's like the 24-year-old of today is equivalent to the 16-year-old of yesteryear...our kids are raised by televisions and internet games instead of real-world experience and human interaction. They also have Gen-X parents who coddle them rotten. I run into it a lot with the people I work with. Nobody seems to be able to handle stress anymore.

  2. Actually, that is not the stage curtain (Grand or Main), as that probably came down years ago, but is infact the asbestos fire curtain that sits directly behind the proscenium. You can see similar fire curtains at the Redford theater and the Baldwin theater in royal oak. Actually, you can't see them, as they are very rarely down except for service, and always up, and hidden. The Fisher theater's fire "curtain" is made from concrete and I've been told, you do not want to be anywhere near the front of the stage if that ever gets activated.

  3. I'll add my expertise on the big "Asbestos" curtain. It what is called an fire curtain in the theater world. It is a large, fireproof piece of scenery that sits directly behind the proscenium (stage opening). It is designed to separate the backstage area from the audience area. In the event of a fire, a technician pulls the release and the curtain drops into place. It counter-weighted in a way that it can come down into place without the need of electricity.

    Contrary to what Chris said above, it is not a catastrophic event when the fire curtain comes in. They come in pretty swiftly, but not so fast to damage it or the rigging. I'd be more concerned about the cloud of dust it would stir up over being crushed by it!

    They are still used in modern theaters. I'm not sure what they are made of now, but my guess would be a metal frame with a concrete board or NOMEX covering. Fire code mandates that any pyrotechnics or flames must happen on the upstage side of the fire curtain. It also has to be tested once a year. I believe it is a requirement for shows in the West End of London to "show" the curtain at some point of a performance, usually at intermission.