Demolition Means Progress

Photos range from 2004 to 2005.

In May, 2004, we made our first trip to the Donovan Building, a narrow ten-story office building that sat boarded up on Woodward. We were in the midst of the "Dirty Dozen Quest," but that didn't mean we couldn't take a detour upon hearing that something good had been recently cracked.

We were in there mere days before the MONEY-FARS rollers were done, which sort of announced that the place was open for business to every swingin' dick riding down I-75...

The Donovan was designed in 1922 by none other than Albert Kahn, and from 1968 to 1972 housed the famous Motown Records' home offices, right before their controversial move to Los Angeles. The Jackson Five and other Motown greats had conducted business here, and the record company also did a lot of its audio mixing work here as well.

The Donovan Building was still owned at the time by Motown founder Berry Gordy, who claimed it would one day be restored and turned into another Motown museum, though I wasn't holding my breath. The shorter, white building on the right used to be the Sanders Confection Building:

As we would soon find out, the Donovan was already a Motown museum of sorts, being full of Motown-related debris and artifacts, scattered in disarray throughout its interior.

Our approach to the building was marked by a singularly hilarious incident. As we walked up to our wide-open entrance, we noticed a board leaning up against the back wall of the building. Then, getting closer, we saw that there was a shoe sticking out from behind one side of the large plywood sheet. Our initial reaction was one of dread that we had finally found our first dead body. A second later, a woman's head poked out from around the other side of the board.

An awkward moment passed while we stood there sheepishly realizing what we had interrupted, and laughing at the situation. The two were surprisingly cool about it though, and helped us get into the building by using their board as a ramp. The mostly toothless working girl introduced herself as "Shorty Dorothy," and claimed she was a "nurse," but specialized only in "head" problems. She also told us about all the cool artifacts that were to be found in the building, some of which had belonged to Diana Ross, she said.

The entrance was a package conveyor slanting into the basement, where I found some floorplans to the building itself that were dated 1967, and were no doubt drawn up for the renovation when Motown Records moved in. They indicated (among other things) that the Vice President's office was on the 7th floor.

The fact that the three globes of the lobby light fixture are still unbroken tells you that this is a pretty old photo:

The plaster in here was pretty damned intact...this building would have been a very easy renovation:

An archaic 1960s Pepsi machine also sat in the lobby hallway. Precursor to Michael Jackson’s eventual patronage of the “Choice of the Next Generation”…?

Next to it were stacks of glass Pepsi bottles in the old wooden crates, and the elevator doors stood open, belching forth mounds of broken debris that had been tossed down from above.

There was a lot of evidence in here as well that clashed with the Motown related artifacts we were finding; apparently the JOWA Security agency was the final tenant of this building before it closed for good, and their paperwork, empty boxes for Taurus revolvers, and uniform pieces were mixed in amongst the Motown sound.

Moving up to the second floor, we found all the windows to be covered not in wooden boards, but in a translucent blue plastic sheeting of some sort, causing all the incoming light to be filtered to a deep, cool hue.

They allegedly called it “Motown Blue,” and it was a trademark of the building’s ’67 renovation, memorable to anyone who had ever visited the company. I had heard a unique theory that it also had something to do with the fact that in African tribal culture, the color blue was thought to keep bad spirits away. 

Anyway, it resulted in a really neat effect as we explored and dug through mounds of old Motown stationery and envelopes. There were ancient ditto machines and other office equipment scattered about the walnut-paneled offices.

This floor also marked the bottom of a narrow light-well that ran down between this building and the attached Sanders Building nextdoor, which was abandoned as well.

You could step right out a window and walk around in it:

We moved up again, and through the various successions of floors found the building itself seemed to be in pretty fair shape, though there were definitely some issues with water on the upper floors, their halls being flooded up to an inch deep. 

The middle floors of the Donovan contained all kinds of Motown paraphernalia, including literature, LP jackets, etc. One room was stacked with unopened boxes of old Memorex reel-to-reel recording tape:

The "Space Room" as we called it, had one wall completely painted up in a trippy outer-space scene, which I wish I had a better photo of, but I guess I was trying to get a shot of this dumb bottle by the window instead. Anyway the Space Room was the designated weed-smoking station. If you were into that sort of thing I mean...

On another floor, we found piles and piles of hand-written fan letters, mostly dating to the late '60s, written by kids from across the country who either wanted to join the fan club, or were asking Motown to let their group try out to be the next big sensation. 

Motown was famous for picking unknown talent right off the streets of Detroit and turning them into stars. Motown was also known for sending their talent to etiquette school, because they wanted their stars to be role models, and to represent the company in a professional light. When Motown occupied this building they had become the largest black-owned corporation in the world, and were not only a business, but also an instrument for the furthering of black aspirations in a still very segregated world.

The file cabinet in the center of the above photo contained such fan mail, and some of it was already strewn around the floor. Here is one I kept:

There were hundreds and hundreds of these letters. Some of them were still sealed, having never been opened since that day in 1968 when the starry-eyed youth whose admirable penmanship and shaky grammar was contained within had licked and sealed it, before handing it with high hopes to "Mr. Postman." 

There were also piles of unopened business mail addressed to Berry Gordy, such as one I saw from Blue Cross Blue Shield regarding his health insurance.

In another room we found a busted-up recording studio, with a lot of outdated equipment. There was a piano on that floor, and I had to wonder whose fingers had graced its keys. I played a couple ditties on it, even though it was badly out of tune. 

Elsewhere we came across a room that contained the effects of none other than Marvin Gaye. Here is my fellow explorer Chisel, already nose-deep in the cookie jar:

With the things we were finding, this was starting to get personal...and a little stalker-creepy:

Marvin Gaye had apparently used the room for awhile, because it contained receipts and car insurance papers of his, and even some invoices dating to 1968 from the famous old Hudson's store, where his wife had purchased quite a collection of fine fur coats and hats, some of mink or sable, and costing up to $7,000—over twice the cost of the average car in those days. They also bore his old address on Appoline Street:

Another scrap I found (and subsequently lost) was an IOU written to Mr. Gaye, scrawled on the back of some Algiers Motel stationery. The “Algiers Incident” during the 1967 Rebellion went down in Detroit history as one of its most infamous and shameful tragedies.

The other main tenant of the building appears to have been Rare Earth Records, as we found their name printed on many office doors, memorabilia, and other paperwork found laying about. Motown Records was the king of imprint labels, and Rare Earth was their bid to make inroads on the white rock music market. This move was made in 1968, right around the time Motown bought this building as their corporate headquarters.

The Rare Earth label was named after a high school band that originated in 1961 by a bunch of white boys, and went on to become Motown's first successful "white" band. They were part of the Motown empire until 1978, according to their own website.

As you can see, despite the newly constructed suburban-style crapshacks taking over Brush Park, some old vestiges remained, and the mansion at 97 Winder had not yet been renovated:

Here is another zoomed-in view of 97 Winder, right after the street was repaved:

The roof of the Donovan was excellent, providing the best panorama of downtown that I had yet found from any abandoned Detroit rooftop. 

The elevator penthouse was also pretty nifty, full of all kinds of old original equipment...

Some kind of heavy duty switches:

An old fan with a linen drive-belt...notice also that the maker's mark stamped into it marks it as an American Blower unit, which means it was manufactured in Detroit:

More close-ups of nearby buildings before the renovation craze downtown...including the Broderick Tower, David Whitney Building, and Detroit Life Building:


Nearby could be seen the now-demolished Cass Tech (also designed by Albert Kahn), where Diana Ross and many other famous Detroiters had gone to high school:

Directly on the other side of the freeway from us was the recently built Hockeytown Cafe, where we could see (and hear) a live band getting set up for a gig:

And here is a cool, never-to-be-recreated shot including the Masonic Temple, William ApartmentsAlhambra Apartments, Hotel Fort WayneEddystone Hotel, and recently-demolished Hotel Park Avenue, all of which I have explored in other posts on this website:

To the east could be seen the Brewster-Douglass Projects, with the Packard Plant crouching behind it, filling up the horizon:

Here's a nice view of the former Kresge Building, and if you have sharp eyes you can make out the Motor City Casino before they added all of that weird UFO-style architecture all over their historic building (click to enlarge photo):

And now for an obligatory look downriver, with the rooftop of the Film Exchange Building in the foreground:

Gazing up Woodward Avenue in this next shot, we see a billboard that carries a somewhat creepy foreshadowing of the mortgage crisis that ravaged Detroit's neighborhoods not long after the photo was taken, plunging us into the darkest depths of recession...and a reminder that it was largely facilitated by our current self-styled corporate "savior," Dan Gilbert, who owns Rock Financial:

It was the predatory tactics of these mortgages from Dan Gilbert's company that gutted Detroit's neighborhoods, resulting in the destruction of black home ownership in the city. This in turn set up the Detroit Land Bank Authority to gobble up all of these homes and auction them to flippers and suburban landlords who would subsequently rent them out, sometimes to the same people who used to own them! Meanwhile Dan became the richest man in Michigan, and used the money he made off that scam to buy up most of downtown. Some savior!

And of course no coverage of the Donovan Building would be complete without illustrating just how close it sat to the Fisher Freeway. You could literally leap into traffic from here if you so desired:

Looking east past Ford Field, prior to those big box condos that now perch on the left side of the freeway:

Comerica Park:

The Donovan was a truly special building, filled with layers upon layers of raw Detroit history, and it was a brief, unique moment in time that we were able to skim through it with our giddy little fingers. Sadly however, the tower was soon picked clean of most Motown memorabilia by scavengers (such as ourselves), and the entrance was resealed.

On about the 5th floor, a hole had been pounded right through the solid brick wall into the adjoining Sanders Building, which of course allowed us to gain access, but we found it to be basically empty and uninteresting...

The top floor was unfinished, and likely used as a storage space only. A small roof monitor was also present:

This building was of course one of the many owned by the iconic Detroit confectioner Sanders, and according to Detroit1701, it was likely attached to the "Fred Sanders Henry Street Chocolate Factory," and naturally had one of the company's famous ice cream parlors on the main floor. But Berry Gordy purchased the building as part of the new Motown complex. 

It was in the basement of the Sanders Building that they set up another recording studio, though from what I understand the only record ever actually cut down there before they relocated was Marvin Gaye’s hit What’s Going On. Incidentally, it was heralded as one of the touchstone albums not only of the Motown genre, but of its time.

I explored Sanders Confectioners' c.1941 factory on Oakman Boulevard in another post on this website.

The decorative terra cotta on the Sanders Building facade was a little more fanciful than the conservative Albert Kahn-designed girlfriend saved an intact one of these florid terracotta pieces from it during demolition:

Of course any building worth its salt must have a vault:

Fancy bannister leading down to the main lobby:

As you can see I was still very much in the bush leagues back then when it came to low-light photography; I was wielding a Kodak 35mm point & shoot with a flash, that had been purchased at Kmart:

That's the old ice cream parlor area, which seemed to have a fancy atrium-like setup with a mezzanine, if I recall correctly. I do recall being very low on film by this point, so I'm afraid this shot is all I have to go on. Remember being low on film?

The rushed demolition of these two buildings "to make way for the Super Bowl" signified perhaps the greatest single act of recklessness toward our historical heritage in recent memory; Motown and Sanders are two of the cultural institutions that immediately come to mind when one thinks of the word "Detroit." Not only that, but they were the last standing members of the row of storefronts that once filled this now completely barren four-and-a-half-block stretch of Woodward, making downtown look like an oasis surrounded by desert.

We made a point during the Super Bowl to keep an eye on the gravel lot where the buildings once stood, and we noted that but a meager handful of vehicles were utilizing this hard-bought parking real estate, for pretty much the entire duration. I guess they were some pretty f*cking important vehicles, to justify demolishing the last two skyscrapers in this barren field—and the filthy clouds of choking dust and debris that it generated, polluting the downtown air for the week that this was going on. I can say without reservation that this was the most shoddy, rushed, and dangerously conducted demolition I have ever seen.

The demolition was given no local publicity until it was already begun—so as to avoid any preservationist uproar that might put a halt to the work. The fact that no media outlet inside Detroit was talking about the demolition of Motown, yet people all over the country knew all about it by listening to the NPR radio news is pretty significant. And when it was covered here, it was mentioned only in passing by Channel 7, who noted absolutely nothing wrong with the fact that it was a rush job; instead they cheered-on the act of "making way" for the Super Bowl...whatever that means.

The most ironic thing that I noted about this whole debacle was that every Super Bowl ad or promo I heard in the month after the Donovan's demolition has practically screamed “Motown” this or “Motown” that; “Welcome to Motown,” or “Motown, Home of Super Bowl XL”....yet doing so somehow entailed demolishing a large portion of exactly that which made Motown Motown. Oh well...Motown Records itself has not existed since its knucklehead founder Berry Gordy drove it into the ground by moving it out to L.A. and financially screwing its talented artists. 

Before demolition began, the ugly cladding that had been placed over the glass-mosaic tessellation fa├žade of the Sanders Building was uncovered, and the mosaic itself was rescued (partially) by Detroit Institute of Arts employees.

Here is a photo of the building from around 1976, that I found in the Detroit Urban Conservation Project:

Image from DUCP

"Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing", (January 27, 2006)
"Sad and Blue," (January 19, 2006)