Jacob's Ladder

Photos mostly from 2004-2005, scanned from 35mm prints.

Besides the well-known abandoned towers of Detroit's so-called "Skyscraper Graveyard" such as the Statler HotelBroderick TowerDavid Whitney Building, and United Artists Theater, there was a cluster of three slightly smaller derelict towers that huddled at the corner of Park and Adams. One was the Charlevoix Building, a rotten, pug-ugly wreck that seemed to beg for the mercy of death, and which also held the dubious distinction of having killed some bystanders in 1912, when its steel chimney fell off and dropped 11 stories to the street below. It was the oldest hotel still standing in downtown Detroit when it was demolished in 2013.

The Charlevoix Building was erected in 1905 and designed by local architect William S. Joy (perhaps related to Henry B. Joy, president of Packard Motors). W.S. Joy was born in Detroit in 1864 and apprenticed under Mortimer Smith, one of the partners of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, Detroit's oldest and most prestigious architectural firm. William Joy designed several other buildings in Detroit according to detroit1701, including the Marlborough Flats, the Norwood Theater, the Wellington Apartments, and the Vendome Building, all of which have now been demolished too. I have read that he also designed the Alhambra Flats, but this is not confirmed.

According to the book Detroit's Historic Hotels and Restaurants, by Patricia Ibbotson, the Charlevoix was originally built as a speculative office building, converted into a hotel in 1912, then made back into an office building again in 1922. I have a feeling that it was occasionally a mix of both, seeing as in 1916 a wool merchant was listed as being based there. The Charlevoix was owned by the Grinnell Realty Co. (Ira Grinnell owned a tower at 1515 Woodward, which I explored in an older post).

An ad in the 1915 Michiganensian states that Hotel Charlevoix was "conducted on the Reliable, Desirable, and Refined plan," that 150 of its 200 rooms had private bathrooms, and touted its cafeteria as the best in the city, while moderately priced. I found another ad in the Detroit Free Press from 1920 claiming the Hotel Charlevoix cafeteria was the "best place to eat," advertising service at all hours, and on Saturday.

The Hotel Charlevoix was mentioned in the July, 1918 Detroit Pathfinder, which was a ten-cent travel guide most likely found at the newsstand of the typical railroad station in those days. The blurb stated that the Charlevoix had 200 rooms on the "European plan," and was "Absolutely fireproof," with a Mr. H.M. Kellogg as manager. It is seen in this next shot to the right of the Park Avenue Building, which was built in the 1920s (I think the dumpsters were from either the Kales Building or Cliff Bell's renovations):

As a hotel, the Charlevoix was not among Detroit's most prestigious, but it was a still respectable alternative to the giant Tuller, and Statler Hotels nearby. In fact it sat right in the midst of Lew Tuller's empire, which had hotels stretching up Park Avenue. In my opinion this must have contributed to the Charlevoix reverting back to an office building in the early 1920s when Tuller's Eddystone, Royal Palm, and Park Avenue Hotels were scheduled to open.

Seen in 2004 or 2005 (at left), with the Elizabeth Garage still standing as well (at right):

Back then there was a bunch of wreckage behind the Charlevoix Building, including a derelict car or two...definitely not anything you'd typically see on a Pure Michigan billboard:

Due to the closing of the Hotel Charlevoix, stated a blurb in the August 26, 1922 Detroit Free Press, the Detroit Motor Club planned to move its offices to the Hotel Griswold, a "more central location." The Detroit Motor Club was one of the men's social clubs of the city's good old days, which included among its ranks all the "captains" of the auto industry, and was once 1,000 members strong.

The first floor was packed full of junk, and this was about as good of a shot of the "lobby" as one could get:

The Charlevoix Building stood at 2029-2033 Park Avenue, in the corner of town that I referred to as "Illitchtown," because he has held the real estate of that entire area in thrall for so long. Ralph Sachs, the owner of the Charlevoix Building was even more of a deadbeat, clearly using the ol' tried and true tactic of "demolition by neglect," since after he took ownership in 1981 it has steadily gone down the drain without a single effort on his part to improve the structure. The tenants were soon gone after Sachs took over and it stood abandoned ever since, despite several other successful renovations in the area.

Until very recently, the whole area has remained stagnant and completely without pedestrians—except on days when the Tigers were playing and people showed up to park in Illitch's grossly overpriced  gravel parking lots so they can then pay to get into his stadium and watch his teams lose again while eating his pizza. The only other building we had explored in this 'hood was the Detroit Life Building, which the Illitch Empire claimed to be renovating in 2009.

Chisel had already been into the Charlevoix Building once, but did not get past the first floor once he discovered that the entire stairwell had been removed from the ground up. There was however another way up into this gutted skankfest of a building, if one was intrepid stupid enough to dare it.

One first needed to utilize a series of shaky-ass wooden ladders that ended at the fourth floor, and then after that if one was hearty foolhardy enough to continue, the rusting, broken-up fire escapes tacked to the side of the building were the only option. Chisel was with me, and it was a crappy day out; a late-April blizzard/rain mix, accompanied by a chilling wind.

The foul weather would hinder our getting good roof pictures, but it also ensured we would be the only people out and about on the streets, so we would have all of downtown to ourselves. When we got inside I found that Chisel wasn't bullshitting about the stairwell being ripped out...I could stand under it and look all the way up the building through the ugly hole that was left behind:

I was undaunted however, and began climbing. Chisel, being weighed down by a shiny new camera, decided to stay at the bottom after trying twice to climb the first ladder. It was about as sturdy as a house of cards, so he remained below with "9-1" jokingly dialed into his phone while I went up carrying only my junky point & shoot. I had no trouble getting up the chintzy scrappers' ladders to the fourth floor.

From there I could climb out the window onto a fire escape on either side of the building and use one or the other (depending on which was less sketched out) to attain the rest of the upper floors. Piece'a cake. Actually, what I was walking on was about as safe as playing Polish Roulette, and I could see the incredible free-fall below me through the rotted slats of the rickety fire escape as the wind whipped against the side of the building, bringing stinging sleet with it:

The fire escape platforms at each floor were made out of thin strips of metal that were rusted out and crackled like Saltines when I put too much weight on one foot. They might have passed code back in 1930-something when they were likely installed, but almost a century later, they were positively fragged. God knows Ralph Sachs certainly couldn't be bothered to keep this hazard from falling off the side of his building into the public alley below.

The steps themselves were even worse—sometimes two or three steps were missing in a row, and most of those that had not yet fallen off were broken on one side, meaning that if you were to step on one it would bend or snap off under your weight. Since I was a little busy trying to prevent my own death for most of this time I didn't manage to get a photo, but here is one of Detroitblog's old ones to show you what that fire escape looked like:

Photo by Detroitblog
I explored floor by floor, sometimes yelling down to Chisel to see how he was doing at the bottom. There was not too much to see in this place, but it was cool nonetheless. The 7th floor had giant lunette windows that went all the way around the building:

As it so happened, Chisel was now actually talking to Detroitblog John on his cell while he was waiting, who readily admitted that climbing the Charlevoix was the easily stupidest thing they had ever done, and for us to be extra careful.

They also discussed the Statler Hotel, which was finally undergoing demolition...Chisel and I had planned on trying to get into there one last time today, since it might plausibly also be the last time anyone ever snuck into that building.

I actually had to use rock-climbing techniques to make my way up those fire escapes, taking extra time to make sure I was applying equal pressure to all my limbs, spreading my weight out, not shifting too suddenly, etc.

According to Detroitblog's post, the upper floors had at one time been "wholly devoted to unions...housing a number of small union locals with names like the Detroit Theater Employees Local B-179 and the Film Exchange Employees Local B-25, as well as a Hughes and Hatcher workers’ union." The Film Exchange Building was but a few blocks to the northwest, and I explored it in an older post.

Rexair Inc., now based on Big Beaver Road in Troy, Michigan, once had a branch office in this building according to a classified ad I pulled up in the August 17, 1947 issue of the Detroit Free Press. The ad was calling for ex-service men to apply for a job, "Experience not necessary." The company was listed at Suite 217, Charlevoix Building. "Unusual opportunity with large national concern. No limit to your earnings," the ad guaranteed.

Rexair pioneered the "bag-less" vacuum cleaner in the 1920s, and by the start of World War II they had grown considerably and merged with Martin-Parry Corp. of Toledo. After the war, Rexair sales skyrocketed, and according to Rexair's company history, this was mainly due to one of their more adept salesmen, J.V. Sanders, a young man from Kentucky who came to Detroit to become "the best salesman the company ever had."

Apparently this move played a significant role in Rexair's postwar prosperity as a vacuum manufacturer, and Mr. Sanders went on to a position of prominence in the company. One thing is certain—Sanders definitely made sure the Free Press was peppered with their ads in the 1940s. Rexair eventually built a new 100,000 square-foot factory up north in Cadillac, Michigan, in 1969.

There was already several inches of snow on the roof when I got there, despite the fact that it was almost May.

Mere feet away I could see the upper levels of the abandoned Park Avenue Building, standing only a little taller than the Charlevoix itself, and across the street was the beautiful white Kales Building, recently renovated and even occupied by a few residents. As you can see from the photo, they were still in the process of cleaning it back then.

I had had my eye on the Park Avenue Building for quite some time; it was another one of those mid-rises in the same league as the Charlevoix, but proved difficult to access. Stay tuned for a new post about that building coming soon.

I think this has to be one of my favorite murals in the city:

...The fact that he's got it looking like the machined surface of an intake manifold or something is pretty sweet.

At the beginning of the Statler's abatement for demolition, an ominous black netting was hung around its outer wall from top to bottom, to keep debris from raining onto the People Mover. From the roof of the Charlevoix, it looked eerily like a death shroud, as it progressively encircled the doomed building:

In 2012 bricks falling from the Charlevoix damaged a parked car, and demolition of the structure was requested by the deadbeat owner, Ralph Sachs. Since he knowingly bought a building located within a historic district, the Detroit Historic District Commission had to approve his request for demolition, and (since that body had not yet been filled-in with Mayor Duggan's yes-men) they voted to reject the proposal, since Sachs himself had caused the decay of the structure. Sachs claimed he had no money to do anything with the structure, which everyone knew was BS, but since the building literally was a hazard to the public, and because no buyer could be found on such short notice (big surprise), the demolition was inevitable and yet again another capital-scale slumlord got his way, at the expense of the public.

The Charlevoix was demolished in 2013 and remains an empty lot in the heart of downtown Detroit...it was probably the last surviving example of William S. Joy's architectural work in the city.

"Near Death," Detroitblog.org, March 23, 2004
Detroit's Historic Hotels and Restaurants, by Patricia Ibbotson, p. 33
The Michiganensian, Volume 19 (1915), p. XLIII
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, September 9, 1916, p. 8
The Detroit Pathfinder, July 1918, p. 18
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, October 16, 1920, p. 20
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, August 26, 1922, p. 4
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, August 17, 1947, p. 9
Detroit, a City of Today: Places of Pleasure. In Detroit Life is Worth Living, by Milton Carmichael, p. 24