Lafer Preserver

Photos date from December 2005 and later.

The old Lafer Building on Broadway was the tall, skinny exclamation point at the end of another mostly abandoned sentence of storefronts that began with the Cary Building:

The only non-abandoned building on the block was the one that contains the iconic Henry the Hatter, who has been the hatter of choice for many famous Detroit personalities including Kid Rock, and Kwame Kilpatrick if I'm not mistaken. Bert's On Broadway later opened in the white building between Henry's and the Lafer, which was famous in the city's underground in the 1980s as "The Music Institute," one of the sites crucial to the formation of Detroit Techno music. Pioneers like Eddie Fowlkes, Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson performed here.

The Cary Building, on the end, was about to transform itself into lofts as well.

However accessing the Lafer did not guarantee us access to the rooftops of the neighboring buildings as we had hoped, unless we wanted to bash out a window on the 5th or 6th I recall they were all sealed, possibly to thwart roof-borne burglary attempts at some point in the past. Vertical Watch, yo!

Here is a closeup of the rear of the block, with even more nasty faded 1960s/1970s-era painted signage advertising what kinds of goods or services could be had in the Lafer Building, such as silverware, appliances, luggage, radios, watch repair, "old gold," optometry, etc.:

You just don't see those kinds of dingy old fire escapes anymore either, but for decades they were one of the things that defined the urban landscape of our major cities. It seems to me that you don't even see alleys anymore either; everything is now squooshed together into one mega-plex that is spaced well apart from other mega-plexes by a sea of parking lots. Obviously because we have eliminated dirty alleys from our cities, we have also eliminated all their shady activities, and unsightly things such as dumpsters too (that was sarcasm by the way).

The huge old wooden bar remained on the first floor of the Lafer Building when we arrived, but because it was so dark in there I didn't really get any worthy photos. An odd remnant of the mosaic floor tile in the building's entryway still bore the ancestral Lafer name:

John Lafer started the business that would become Lafer Bros. Grocery Wholesale in 1883 in Cadillac Square. His brother Frank G. Lafer partnered with him a few years later, and in 1907 Frank bought out his brother's interest in the business, eventually moving it here to this 9-story tower at 1323 Broadway, which was built in May 1915, and was designed by architect Joseph E. Mills.

Inside the Lafer Building was pretty empty, with each of the floors having been cleaned out completely at some point, except for a few odds and ends that hearkened back to its days as a grocer's building in the 1910s. This slide seen in the next photo sat near the rear of the building, and was utilized for moving bulk items from the stockrooms on the upper floors to the shipping room on the second floor when grocery orders were assembled for delivery:

The construction of this building officially made Lafer's not only the biggest grocer in Detroit, but the largest in the state of Michigan as well. The main salesroom was on the 1st floor, while the basement contained a refrigeration plant and cold storage. The 2nd floor was the ordering department and shipping rooms, wholesale department and country shipping stations on the 3rd floor, while the 4th floor housed one of the "most complete coffee roasting and tea blending plants in the country." The rest of the building was for storing stock, but I have a feeling they also had warehouses elsewhere in the city. I know by 1946 at least, their coffee and tea warehouse had moved to 2416 Hubbard, on the city's southwest side.

Here is an ad I found in the Detroit Free Press from September, 1933:

Another Depression-era ad:

Here's a snippet of another from 1936, but I don't know how many people could really splurge on the *fanciest* marshmallows during the Great Depression, or the tins of "Fancy Nova Scotian Lobster" advertised near the top of the list for 23 cents each:

There were plenty of more conservative items as well, like Quaker's Puffed Wheat for 8 cents or a can of Friend's Pork & Beans for 17 cents. If you ordered over a dollar's worth, you could have all of the items sent down that crazy spiral slide when orders were put together for home delivery. I'm sure Sylvester the Cat would appreciate the fact that they also had a pretty good deal going on succotash in March 1933...a "big no. 2 can" could be had for 11 cents.

Now here's a real interesting one from 1934...

...I'm not sure whether that adds up to a slight against Detroit's water quality, or a compliment, but judging by the number of old ads I'm seeing in the Detroit Free Press archives, their coffee was one of Lafer's big ticket items.

A help-wanted ad I found in 1945 also seems to indicate that Lafer Bros. owned a dairy and crop farm "15 miles north of Pontiac;" the ad was seeking a farm hand to work and live on the farm. It boasted, "Modern equipment. Room & board furnished. Salary in keeping with experience."

From the big arched window on the 9th floor, one can see the equally iconic Serman's, a men's clothing shop that has remained open under the same owners since 1917:

With Henry the Hatter across the street, this corner proved to be quite the location for men looking to look good, even in these days of epidemic downtown vacancy. Some of the famous men that had shopped there included Tommy Hearns of Kronk Boxing fame, Marvin Gaye of Motown fame, and even Flavor Flav. The Free Press reported in 2013 that Serman's would finally be closing in the wake of being bought out by the latest billionaire real estate monopolist, Dan Gilbert.

The view of the Breitmeyer-Tobin Building was very decent from here: well as that of the Harvard Square Centre Building that we had likewise recently infiltrated:

Frank G. Lafer lived at 1163 Second Avenue until October 1915, then at 3061 West Grand Boulevard, where he died in May 1928. His eldest son, Gayard F. Lafer took over the business as general manager, and was also a director of the Equitable Trust Co., as well as the president of the Wholesale Merchants Bureau in 1948. He lived at 18645 Muirland Street, a cute little unique home in the prestigious Palmer Park subdivision.

We snuck into Lafer again in early 2006. We didn't know how long the place would stay accessible since renovations were underway, so time was of the essence. Knowing it was our last time, we had a little fun getting some rooftop snowball target practice in as well.

Some rather unique scenery from this rooftop, even in winter when the steam outlet on Farmer Street blots out most of the view:

The Lafer name remained on this skyscraper until 1946 when a jeweler and a clothier moved in, according to an old Detroitblog post. I imagine that few people went downtown to get their weekly groceries in the Postwar period, since neighborhood corner grocers had long since supplanted the 19th century practice of traveling to the "general store."

It would seem from old newspaper articles and ads that Lafer's had re-centered itself in Southwest Detroit at 2450 Hubbard (which is now the home of Boulevard & Trumbull Towing). Perhaps of little coincidence, that address stands directly across from the headquarters of the C.F. Smith Co., another very prominent Detroit grocer whose building I explored in an older post.

A legal notice I found said that "Lafer Bros. Inc." was dissolved in the summer of 1967, although it doesn't give the reasons why. The company president at the time was James A. Slater, and its secretary was Irwin K. Champan.

In 1957 a bar named Bar-x moved in on the first floor, and remained there until the building closed in 1983. Another bar named Club Reminisce opened for a short while in 1996, but went dark again by 1997.

An April 1998 article talks about how the Downtown Development Authority and the Greater Downtown Partnership worked to create a loft craze in the Necklace District of downtown Detroit by the early 2000s. The Ferguson Building was the first one slated to be renovated, and the Lafer was to be the second. That scheme apparently did not go beyond the stage of making pretty proposal display boards however, which we found laying on the 1st-floor bar covered in dust:

That attempt also marked the first time that the DDA was marketing city-owned/defaulted vacant properties for the purpose of lofts. The sticker price for the Lafer at the time was set at $465,000. The Ferguson and the Lafer were supposed to be the bellwethers of the downtown loft movement—or canaries in the coal mine, perhaps. Based on the success of these two projects, other developers would supposedly see how quickly they filled up, and in turn buy buildings of their own to renovate.

The Ferguson Building was successfully converted, and I had a friend who lived there for several years, but as it turns out the Lafer would not see any renovation action until seven years later, in 2006. I have a feeling that the Lafer Building's current market value is much more than $465,000 however.

And here is the gigantic hole where the J.L. Hudons's store used to be....

Today the Lafer Building has been converted into lofts, and as far as I know is healthy. The faded, yet dramatic "BROADWAY-RANDOLPH" 1970s mural on the north face of the building (where the old Strand Theater used to stand) was painted over in poopy brown in 2006 or so when the current renovation attempt was begun. I wish they hadn't done that; it was one of those things that gave downtown its flavor.

One more shot of that mural...

Most of you now know it is nothing more than a completely uninteresting blank brown-painted wall. Stay tuned for some really tacky banner ads about smart phones or shoes!

Here is an old shot of the Lafer I found in the DUCP, c.1976, when it was looking especially crusty:

Viewed from the Harvard Square Centre Building:

Anyway we later cracked our way into the Cary Building and made our way across the rest of the roofs we had not yet been on, but this adventure proved to be fruitless, as none of the buildings gave access unless we were to crowbar our way in.

I also did not have my camera with me that night, or maybe I just I ran out of film. C'est l'vie.

"Brownout," Nov. 17, 2006,
"On Broadway," June 1, 2004,
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, September 13, 1933
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, July 14, 1933
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, September 30, 1934
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, May 16, 1928
Legal Notices, Detroit Free Press, June 5, 1967
Help Wanted, Detroit Free Press, March 39, 1945
"Lofts Spur High Hopes," Detroit Free Press, April 7, 1998, p. 64
"Elect Lafer," Detroit Free Press, January 15, 1948, 21
"Lafer Brothers New Home," Detroit Free Press, December 19, 1915
"Business and Industry," Detroit Free Press, July 29, 1946, p. 18
"Passes After Long Illness," Detroit Free Press, May 15, 1928, p. 9

Staying Under the Radar

Photos date to May, 2006.

In our never-ending quest to insert ourselves into every single vacant skyscraper downtown, Chisel and I managed to sneak into the Lawyers' Building sometime in 2006. He's not actually named "Chisel," but that's the fake name by which I refer to him for the purposes of this blog, since, like a relentless chisel, he eventually bores his way into any building, no matter how well sealed.

The Lawyers' Building was pretty much off everyone else's radar, as with the rise of "urbex" beginning to surge in popularity, most people were gravitating to the downtown eye candy like the Metropolitan Building and Broderick Tower. Having done those to death already, I was happy to concentrate on lesser-known buildings like these.

It looks like the building's top floor was added later, although it does blend in quite well with the rest of the architecture. The dark marble slab facade at street level however looks like a much more recent remodel job.

This was one of those 10-story ones that—like the Wurlitzer Building—had that skinny thing going on, but was unfortunately rather empty inside. The lobby and first floor had been mostly gutted of any original decor it would have possessed:

There was also limited power still on inside, which meant we had to be careful of alarms.

The main room where we found anything interesting was on the second floor, where some developer had set up an office of sorts, we presumed, being that it was full of items pertaining to that interest: papers, documentative photos of the building's condition, and even samples of the masonry. We also found a stack of photos taken of Detroit from a helicopter or airplane, mostly of the Packard Plant, which we guessed were taken around 2001.

According to the AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture, the Lawyers' Building was built in 1922 and designed by Bonnah & Chaffee—one of Detroit's few "Chicago-style" towers. Just as the Book Brothers were redeveloping Washington Avenue with their architect of choice, Louis Kamper, so too was John J. Barlum elevating Cadillac Square to prominence with his architects, Bonnah & Chaffee, who were also responsible for the Cadillac Square Apartments (originally the Barlum Hotel) nextdoor, and the 40-story Barlum Tower a few doors down (now called the Cadillac Tower). They also designed the vastly different Farwell Building over in Capitol Park.

Sadly, John Barlum lost all of his properties to foreclosure when the Stock Market crashed in 1929. Good thing John Barlum did not own 90+ properties in downtown Detroit, or that could have been a real disaster (ahem, Dan Gilbert couchcough).

Perhaps one of this building's most salient features was its commanding view of the old Wayne County Courthouse across the street, which is one of my favorite buildings in the city:

One might also guess that this building took its namesake from that association, as I imagine it would have been quite convenient for many a lawyer to have an office across the street from the county seat.

The Wayne County Building was so big, and we were so close to it, that it was hard to get it all in one shot. So I took several. Currently the only operating tenant in the entire monumental building was a day care. As such, the old County Building itself was rumored to be closing soon.

The Lawyers' Building is listed on the National Historic Register and according to the Michigan SHPO, catered "primarily to middle class level tenants, many of the spaces were rented to unions and benevolent organizations. One of these unions, the A.F.L's Waiter and Waitress Union, went on strike against the Barlum Hotel while renting space in their office building," a fairly bold move. There was also a "Waiters' and Waitresses' Club" in the building, which—of all things—got pinched by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission in 1939 for gambling and selling drinks to non-members.

On September 18, 1923 another raid by sheriff's deputies caused "a near-panic" among patrons of a spacious and luxurious "club" that occupied the entire top floor of the Lawyers' Building. Most of those present were attorneys and public officials, who, I presume, would've had some cause for embarrassment to have their name associated with the incident.

The Wolverine Athletic Club was also founded in this building in 1924 according to an article in the Detroit Free Press, which kicked off that July with a membership drive to attract 3,000 members. Their new club building was to be 20 stories, and stand at the corner of Bates & Cadillac Square, costing up to $4 million and projected to be one of the finest clubs in America. I have a feeling that the Wolverine Club didn't last very long however, since I haven't found any other references to them anywhere else.

Oddly enough however, this building was also home to the Wolverine Bar, an association of black lawyers, since neither the Detroit Bar Association nor the American Bar would admit "colored" barristers. The Wolverine was started by 16 black lawyers in 1925 as the Harlan Law Club; it was named after the U.S. Supreme Court justice who dissented in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson civil rights case, and was renamed the Wolverine Bar Association in 1930. Their goal was to create an "organizational haven" for black attorneys in Detroit to discuss their problems.

The famous Ossian Sweet case was defended by the legendary Irish-American attorney Clarence Darrow as everyone knows, but he was also assisted by a Wolverine Bar member, William Bledsoe.

Future Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer was the president of the Wolverine Bar in the late 1970s, at a time when the organization was at a crossroads of purpose. An interesting article in the Free Press tells of how questions were being raised as to whether the club should remain focused on the issues of black attorneys, or concern itself with the law's effect on the entire black community. Part of the critique was that the organization had become nothing more than a social club for the black bourgeois of Detroit, and had forgotten about the urban poor.

The Wolverine was still based in this building as late as 1980. Chester Smith was one of the Wolverines who had kept his offices here in the Lawyers' Building since the 1950s, because it was "the only place downtown where they'd let Negroes have offices when I was looking for one." Out of the 600 black lawyers in Michigan in 1980, about 480 of them were Wolverine members, including Congressman John Conyers.

Back in 1925 there was another article about some jackass attorney named William L. Thorpe who figured he was special and could get away with parking directly in front of the Lawyers' Building whenever he pleased. His scheme involved filing an injunction against the police, to prevent them from "molesting" his car anytime it was parked legally. This worked for two years according to the article, and although it sounds as if he had to deal with a bunch of tickets (that Thorpe undoubtedly had thrown out), his car was never towed. Then one day the matter came before Judge Ira W. Jayne.

Judge Jayne wasn't having any of this sh*t and dissolved Thorpe's injunction prohibiting police from ticketing his vehicle, since by parking there Thorpe was violating an ordinance. The judge "sobered" the police and corporation counsel for not taking action against the injunction sooner. Thorpe was fined $10, which back then was a pretty hefty sum. For some reason this whole episode strikes me as a workable plot for a silent slapstick film.

Like the Book Tower, the Lawyers' Building was used by at least one person to commit suicide. On February 28, 1937, Harry A. Houttman of 2184 Hilliker Ave. jumped out a 9th floor window "to relieve all my sufferings," according to a note found in his pocket. He was a conductor on the Detroit Street Railway (DSR), and 45 years of age. Eyewitness John L. Griffith, an employee of the Treasurer's Office in the County Building across the street saw the grisly incident unfold from his window, which no doubt put a bit of a damper on his workday.

The union of the DSR conductors and motormen was actually based in the Lawyers' Building, which is undoubtedly why Mr. Houttman was able to jump out a window. A mutiny on the union took place in March 1938. The men threatened to walk out if their union leaders did not enact the system seniority plan, which had already been approved by vote, twice. Union officials were against the strike, but a spokesman stated, "I don't know if we can hold the men."

Free Press article from June 1944 announced that all Selective Service draft boards for military enlistment would all be moving here to the Lawyers' Building, and to the Owen Building, by the end of the month.

Lt. Governor Clarence Reid also had offices in this building in the 1950s, which I verified according to a Lawyers' Club yearbook I found on Google Books. The Lawyers' Building was known as the American Title Building at that time. Here is a historic PHOTO of Lt. Governor Reid at a desk with another man, perhaps taken in his office here.

In 1958, McGhee & Co. of Cleveland took up offices in this building as well, becoming the first "Negro-headed" securities investment firm to be licensed in Michigan, according to an article in the Free Press.

There was active cellular equipment up here too, meaning that the owner was still deriving some sort of revenue from the building. The roof lining was in ship-shape though...I wonder if those cell repeaters paid for it.

As you can see, the makeover of Cadillac Square was just getting underway at the time of my visit:

A view of the nice glazed terra cotta facade, though it needed a lot of TLC:

In September 1981 the Lawyers' Building was unexpectedly sold for an undisclosed price to an undisclosed buyer. It had a Metropolitan Savings & Loan branch occupying the first floor at the time. It was sold by a Harold Smith of Birmingham, who had actually just bought it from Metropolitan less than a year prior and was renovating the interior (a renovation had also occurred in 1977 from what I can tell).

The bank and a cleaners were the only tenants at the time and it was even speculated, incredibly, that "eventually the vacant land could be worth more than the building." This statement came from the lips of the buyer's representative. So even in the early 1980s the writing was on the wall for downtown Detroit architecture. Perhaps the buyer was related to Mike Illitch? Nevertheless, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

According to a couple posts on from February 2010, the Lawyers' Building was offered for sale at $1.7 million, an awfully steep asking price for the time. The last party to attempt renovating it allegedly "lost their enthusiasm" when one of the partners was stabbed while locking the place up one night after they bought it, one person claimed.

A view down Randolph toward the river shows the Windsor Tunnel terminal, which when built in 1929 was supposed to make Cadillac Square one of the greatest commercial thoroughfares in the city. In fact, Randolph was widened into a boulevard back then to accommodate the addition of tunnel traffic:

Here are a few of the aforementioned photos that I found on that desk on the second floor. I scanned them and photoshopped them a bit, but as you can see these are mostly just reference snapshots showing parts of the building that were damaged or needed repair:

Nonetheless some of them showed cool angles and details of the building that even I couldn't get.

Taking a quick glance back at the Sanborn maps of the Lawyers' Building's location, I noticed that several four-story buildings were still standing here in 1922, some owned by Schroeder Paint & Glass Co. I explored Schroeder's factory on 12th Street in an older post.

As seen in a historic photo from the Detroit Public Library, the Hotel Wobrock occupied the actual spot where the Lawyers' Building stands now. These buildings must have been demolished and construction on the Lawyers' Building begun right after the Sanborn maps were drawn.

The rest of the block at the time included the Burns Hotel, and the Newcomb-Endicott Department Store's warehouse and workrooms; one building labelled "Paints & Oils" is difficult to conceive of nowadays, but this was the tail end of the era in which some of downtown's central business district was still occupied by "dirty" industrial uses. It wasn't long before skyrocketing 1920s real estate values got rid of all that in favor of more office buildings, hotels, and banks.

But by 2006 with most of downtown Detroit's empty land so worthless that for decades it had been used merely for gravel parking lots, it isn't hard to imagine "dirty" industrial uses coming back to the central business district. Of course this current "rebirth of Detroit" in the 2010s has driven downtown real estate values back up, but who knows if that will last or if it's another bubble due to pop?

A cool window reflection effect on the County Building in the background of this one:

The County Building again, with a flag flying...this photo was probably taken before the county government made the stupid decision to relocate:

Today the Lawyers' Building is no longer vacant, with a 7-11 store on the first floor, with the remainder of the building open for lease uses including office, loft, studio, and retail space.

Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 4, Sheet 3 (1922)
AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture, by Eric J. Hill & John Gallagher, p. 102
"Business Men Plan Revival For Square," Detroit Free Press, December 22, 1929, p. 9
"Waiters Club Loses Permit," Detroit Free Press, September 22, 1939, p. 3
"Wolverine Club Drive is Started," Detroit Free Press, July 20, 1924, p. 5
"Attorney Loses his Injunction Parking Right," Detroit Free Press, April 26, 1925, p. 2
"10 Years Ago," Detroit Free Press, September 18, 1933, p. 6
"D.S.R. Conductor Plunges to Death," Detroit Free Press, February 28, 1937, p. 1
"Call DSR Strike Parley," Detroit Free Press, March 2, 1938, p. 1
"Draft Boards Shift," Detroit Free Press, June 21, 1944, p. 7
"Detroit Office Building Sold," Detroit Free Press, September 12, 1981, p. 3B
The Lawyers' Club, 1956-1957, by University of Michigan, p. 95
"Business Briefs," Detroit Free Press, October 21, 1958, p. 10
"Detroit Development Map," Detroit Free Press, December 18, 1977
"The Wolverine Bar: The Group Has Style, But Some Question its Substance," Detroit Free Press, June 22, 1980, p. 7G