Midnight Oil

Photos date from February 2008, September 2010, and January 2012.

With the recent news that the CPA Building at 2238 Michigan Avenue was going to be demolished I realized that I had never written anything up about it on this website before—so I composed this entire post from scratch in about five hours. 


First of all, the "CPA" doesn't stand for Certified Public Accountant in this case, it stands for Conductors' Protective Association, which was a mutual assurance company for employees of the railroad. Which makes sense, since you might have just remembered that it stands across from the old Michigan Central Station.

And, as I am so good at finding out about, this building has a cool historical connection to one of Henry Ford's clandestine ventures in the 1930s...read on.


It was a frigid morning in early 2008 when a friend and I first popped into the CPA Building at the corner of Michigan Avenue & 14th Street in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood. It was one of the places we had had our eye on for many years but which never seemed to show any weakness, so when that moment came where an opening appeared, we pounced without delay. Sure enough it was sealed up again pretty quick, and stayed sealed for another two years.


The exterior is carved white Bedford limestone while the lobby was faced in Bottichino marble. There were actually two lobbies, one on the Michigan Avenue side for the bank that we were able to access, and another on the 14th Street side which contained the elevators to the office floors. A branch of the Central Savings Bank anchored the building's first floor when it opened on November 1st, 1924, and J.L. Hudson's proudly outfitted the building with office furniture.


An article in the December 14, 1924 Detroit Free Press says that the CPA Building was designed by Alvin E. Harley, while The Lennane Co. was the builder. 


According to his architectural firm's website, Alvin Harley studied under Albert Kahn, from whom he drew most of his inspiration, which might explain why the CPA Building looks like something Kahn might draw. On the other hand, you might be surprised to learn that he also helped design the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center and Veteran's Memorial Building, as part of Detroit's c.1954 Hart Plaza makeover.


Mr. Harley also designed the Globe Theater, the downtown Milner Hotel (now the Ashley), as well as several homes for auto industry executives in Palmer Woods and other distinguished Detroit-area neighborhoods. He later partnered with Harold Ellington to design the Vernor's Bottling Plant, the Rackham Memorial Building, the Douglass Housing Projects, and GM's Pontiac Truck Product Center.


Since we were't able to get upstairs on that first visit, I took a lot of photos of plaster details in the bank branch, heh.


And here of course is a vault, up in the mezzanine:


On a later trip to the building in 2010 I got to see the 14th Street lobby, with its very different coffered ceiling:


The Conductor's Protective Association was one of the most unique entities in the history of insurance associations—its sole purpose was to pay out $500 to any railroad conductor who lost his job for any reason whatsoever. It filled a need that existed in the times before "Uncle M.A.R.V.I.N.," or any other state or federal unemployment insurance.

Back in the days before organized labor fought for workers' rights, it was much harder to stay employed, even if you were a good employee. Companies could let people go at any time, for any reason, and there was no transferable seniority when you got rehired.


Notice what good condition these photos show the building to be in. This was what a typical corridor looked like upstairs...it was beginning to stink in here however since the building had lately gone from tightly-sealed-and-intact-for-years, to busted-open-and-used-as-toilet-by-masses-of-homeless.


The CPA was organized in October of 1906 by Charles J. Whalen and William J. Ross of Detroit, both of whom were Michigan Central RR conductors. Originally it was designed to cater only to conductors of passenger lines of the MCRR, but that was quickly expanded as the idea proved extremely popular.


Upon reaching the sixth floor—the uppermost—I found what looked to be the big shot's office. It was sumptuously paneled with dark wood and outifitted with fancy leather furniture. Even in the old days, this was where the CPA's offices were located. I'm sure that some other local fat-cat businessman used this room to suit their cigar-smoking fantasies in the meantime though, since the CPA left long ago. The last mention of the CPA occupying this building that I could find during my brief research was in 1982.


That view though...


I found a nice crystal decanter in here that I swiped and still use at home for Scotch.


According to an article in the December 29, 1908 Detroit Free Press, there were already 2,600 members in the CPA, from almost all of the Great Lakes states. Members paid $5 to join and $1 per month thereafter, and by 1908 the association had taken in $32,000. There was a falling-out between the founders Mr. Whalen and Mr. Ross however, and in 1908 Whalen split off to form the very similarly-titled Engineers' and Conductors' Railway Protective Association—a move which landed the two in court.


Despite the internal rift, the organization continued to thrive. A 1909 issue of The Railway Conductor contained a brief letter from a member of the Detroit-based CPA who lived in Oswego, New York. Mr. W.J. Bonner had apparently been so pleased at the promptness with which the CPA had delivered him his $500 check that he felt the need to set it in print so that more people might see it, and join such a fine organization. 


At the time this building was constructed in 1924, the CPA was still the only firm of its kind, insuring conductors against the loss of their job from being forced out due to old age, illness, or injury. They currently had $12 million plus $1 million in reserve, and 15,000 members across the continent.

Mr. Ross told the Free Press, "Michigan is the only state in the union that has a law which governs our kind of insurance. Nevertheless, we have insured railroad men in almost every state in the union and nearly every one of the Canadian provinces." I have a feeling this resulted in more legal entanglements, as I quickly glanced at a court case from 1911 or so that dealt with a plaintiff in Spokane.


According to detroit1701.org, the CPA evolved into the Locomotive Engineers and Conductors Mutual Protective Association, and their primary product is still job interruption insurance for rail workers, although their offices are now located in the suburb of Southfield. According to their website, lecmpa.org, they still offer wage loss protection to 30,000 transportation workers "in all crafts and industries throughout the United States," and are a nonprofit, member-owned company.

Perhaps the time is ripe for a move back to their old headquarters?


One of the things I was most pleased about regarding this building was the spectacular views from it...all of the buildings on the surrounding skyline seemed to line up perfectly to form all kinds of aesthetically pleasing scenes.

Fort Shelby Hotel, the casino, and Most Holy Trinity Church:


Here you can also see St. Peter's Episcopal Church:


The Film Exchange Building, and Detroit Life Building are prominently seen in this next one:


The Broderick Tower under renovation, the United Artists Building, and the Detroit Edison Headquarters, plus one of the world's greatest hardware stores—Brooks Lumber—in the foreground:


Here is Slow's Bar BQ directly across the street, which at the time was well on its way to achieving tourism mega-fame, as the one BBQ place in Detroit that it was "safe" for white people to go to [/sarcasm]:


Now back to what I was saying about Henry Ford's involvement. Author F.R. Bryan writes in his book Scenes from the Life and Times of Henry Ford that back in the mid-1920s when GM was building up New Center, Henry Ford decided that he too wanted to get in on that action and build a big fancy downtown-style development that would either rival or equal GM's glitzy New Center.

Ford chose to do this "on Michigan Avenue, right opposite the Michigan Central Depot...you get two solid blocks of land down there." Obviously, he is talking about the very spot this building stands upon, and as F.R. Bryan writes, the deal was supposed to go down "without the public knowing it was being purchased by Henry Ford."


Just imagine if Ford had pulled this off and made Corktown into another "New Center"...the long-bemoaned fate of Michigan Central being considered so hopelessly distant from downtown might have been averted!

Mr. Ford was good friends with the president of the Frischkorn Land Company, perhaps the largest real estate firm in Detroit at the time. Ford trusted Mr. Frischkorn to conduct the purchase on his behalf, and by doing so the deal would remain inconspicuous. The rumors that circulated once the plans started to go into action included speculation that Frischkorn was buying for the Pennsylvania Railroad to build an equally massive terminal across from Michigan Central's, or that a new National League baseball stadium was going to be built. Keep in mind, the freeway behind the CPA Building did not exist yet. 


Bryan states that Ford's specific reason for the purchase was never quite outlined, but that Ernest Liebold, Henry's personal secretary and most trusted lieutenant, had believed that Mr. Ford intended to build a "fairly tall building, the first floor to be used for vehicle displays, the next five or six to be Ford Motor Company offices, and a multi-storied hotel above the offices." He indicated that Ford was willing to spend about $25 million on the project. (For what it's worth, Henry Ford also offered to purchase the old star-fort at Fort Wayne from the Army around this same time* to have it moved to Greenfield Village, but the Army refused). In 1927, Ford began purchasing the stock of Frischkorn Associated Companies.


There were about 50 parcels to be purchased along Michigan Avenue as part of this secret development plan, as well as Vermont, 14th Street, and 17th Street down to Vernor, and up to Pine Street. Parcels bought with existing tenants were rented, including Abram Cement Tool Co., Kroger Co., the Detroit Times newspaper at 2066 Michigan Avenue, and several private residences. 


Progress in the land purchasing process was halted however by one lone holdout, who stood right in the middle of the development: The CPA. According to Bryan, the building had cost $300,000 to build and their sale offer was $900,000, which Henry Ford refused to pay. The highest he would go on this building was $600,000, and as we all know Henry Ford was the most obstinate man in Detroit.  Ironically $900,000 is exactly what the current owners—who are trying to needlessly demolish the building—paid for it back in June, 2014.


Neither Ford nor the CPA budged, and Ford reputedly began changing his plans to build completely around the CPA Building, which I suspect may have been in an effort to drive them out by making it undesirable for them to stay in such crowded circumstances—a tactic that Ford was used to employing to get his way.

By 1937 however Ford had given up on the entire idea, due in part to the constraints of the Great Depression, and agreed to sell all of the land back off again, at a 25% loss. Ford Motor Co. had acquired Frischkorn Investments Co. however, and changed the name to Oakwood Realty Co. in 1944. I suspect that this was the genesis of what is now called Ford Land. You may recall that there is a lesser-known neighborhood on Detroit's west side called Frischkorn, located near Warrendale and the Aviation Sub, which was where Ford once owned an airfield.


One of the reasons I was drawn back to the CPA Building in 2010 was because a friend had told me that they saw "blueprints" to the old Eloise Asylum / Wayne County General Hospital in there on one of the upper floors, that I had missed before.


Naturally I had to check that out, but it turned out to be more like renovation plans.


Also included were renovation plans to the Jeffries Public Housing Projects:


A business called Greer Shop Training was based here in the CPA Building in the mid-1950s, according to an ad in Popular Science, where prospective mechanics could sign up to get a diploma in any of several mechanical engineering courses.


I think the CPA left around the time the train station itself closed in the 1980s, but there is a modern bank teller window on the west face of the building, indicating that it probably housed some sort of financial institution until perhaps the 1990s or early 2000s.

Detroit1701.org also conjectures that parts of this building were used in the early 2000s "as a dormitory for Mormon missionaries who worked in Detroit. Subsequently, I believe the Mormons built their own dormitories for their missionaries." I remember seeing their lights on upstairs and people sometimes coming and going by the 14th Street entrance, but I personally thought the sign said Latter Day Saints, not Mormons. Same basic thing, anyway. When they finally left however the building was put up for sale in 2002. 


The Fisher Freeway (I-75) eastbound, and the big hole where Tiger Stadium should be standing:


I recall in like 2014 or 2015 seeing a website pop up from the building's new out-of-town owners that seemed like it was written by some German art hippies being held at gunpoint, asking for ideas from the community and using the faux pas term "blank slate," so I was not filled with confidence then that anything real would happen for the CPA Building. And now they are talking about demolishing it. 

Pardon me for not bothering to read too deeply into the specifics of their story, but from here it smells just like the same old brand of B.S. that every land speculator has come to Detroit with for the past several decades. I only wish that millionaires and billionaires were held to the same standards of property maintenance and legal compliance as those of us who own and are struggling to renovate residential houses in the city to live in. We don't get to play the billionaire's pity card. 


Seems to me like when you are a real estate development company and you own a viable historic building across the street from Slow's F@#$%ing Bar BQ, and you can't make something happen, then you need to seek another line of work. Or, you are just lying about why you "need" to demolish a piece of our cultural history after having idly sat on it for years.

In my opinion if even Henry Ford himself couldn't get the CPA to bend over for the wrecking ball, then you shouldn't be able to either.


Okay, so I took a ton of pictures of Michigan Central Station, trying to get that one perfect shot that shows just how squarely the train terminal sits across Roosevelt Park from the CPA Building. The cheese-grater, in all its glory:


The Mercury Bar, Roosevelt Hotel, and Roosevelt Warehouse:


Nowadays these streets are much more crowded at night than you see in these photos, with the increased popularity of Corktown. Back in 2010 it was still pretty deserted.


Looking west down Michigan Avenue toward the Southwest Detroit Hospital:


Random fact: the original telephone number to the CPA Building was Glendale 9537.


The spires of St. Hedwig's Church punctuate the dusky skyline of Southwest Detroit:


And here is maybe the best skyline shot I've ever taken of the city (albeit a little grainy), looking up Michigan Avenue:


A perfect late-summer sunset, with the crescent moon to the upper right, the lights of the Ambassador Bridge coming on behind the train station, and the steeples of Ste. Anne's church:


With preservationists out there burning the midnight oil to save the building as I type this, here's hoping that City Council and the owners of the CPA Building make the right choice, and save this historic structure. Detroit has been demolishing perfectly good historic buildings by the hundreds for decades, and it has done nothing to stave off the advance of blight...it has only made blight worse and turned our historically important city into a wasteland of empty lots where cool stuff *used* to be. Nobody comes to visit a city to see an empty lot.

The most common rebuttal is that it is "not cost effective" to do historic restoration. Now, if they were building structures today that were at least appealing or durable, then "preservationists" wouldn't be so rabid about saving old ones. The key is to have your country's economy and value system structured so that old buildings are treasured, and not left to rot until they cost a fortune to restore. But this is how we do things in America.

Note: My colleague David Kohrman has just posted a writeup of his own on the CPA, which includes much better photography, at forgottendetroit.com.

UPDATE: As of November 22, 2016, Detroit City Council voted unanimously to stop the demolition of the CPA Building by approving "a resolution to grant the building interim historic designation for up to a year, during which the building will be studied carefully for historic relevance and safety," according to MLive.


References:
Sanborn Map for Detroit, Vol. 2, Sheet 43 (1921)
"Would Destroy R.R. Men's Union," Detroit Free Press, December 29, 1908, p. 10
The Railway Conductor, Volume 26 (1909), p. 513
"Unique Organization Boasts New Building," Detroit Free Press, December 14, 1924, p.70
Friends, Families & Forays: Scenes from the Life and Times of Henry Ford, by Ford R. Bryan, p. 256-258
47th Annual Report of the Commissioner of Insurance of the State of Michigan, Part II (1916), p. xiii & lvi
Report of the Treasurer of the State of Michigan, (June 30, 1911), p. 52
The Northwestern Reporter, Volume 146, p. 147
The Conductor and Brakeman, Volume 25 (1908), p. 398
"'81 Torch Drive Honor Roll," Detroit Free Press, June 24, 1982, p.93
Popular Science, Aug. 1958, p. 38

1 comment:

  1. It is a shame and an indication of the mental state of Detroit to even contemplate destroying a salvageable building of such quality. My railroad friends have an attachment to this place as this where many, if not most, got their "fired insurance" as it was called on the Southern Railway.

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