Fistful of Awnings

Photos date from March 2004 to fall of 2005, and are scanned from 35mm prints.

The Statler Hotel was one of the bigger members of the "Dirty Dozen," but it was one of the least alluring by many accounts. It had no grand rooms left, no fancy lobby, little to no swag to root through, its exterior decor was rather plain, and its interior was in fairly rotten shape. But it had plenty of history to ponder.

With some measure of awe, we beheld the mountain of brown brick known as the Statler, and located the entrance which we had scouted earlier. In the building's crotch, as it were, there was a grate leading into the basement where some boards had been screwed on to cover the hole in it, but of course they had been pried off and neatly laid back on top of it—probably Wide Open's handiwork. The Statler was constructed from 1913-1914 and was at the time Detroit's largest and most exclusive hotel, the crown jewel of the Statler chain. Not only was it the largest in Detroit, it was the largest in the Midwest, at 1,000 rooms.

It was the first to have private baths in each of its guest rooms. It was designed with a conservative neo-Georgian flavor, very different from the ostentation seen on buildings elsewhere downtown:

Looming sharply against the sky, the massive angular hulk rose 18 stories above Washington Boulevard, but soon had large black nets attached to its top edge to—you guessed it—prevent falling chunks of the decorative masonry from landing in the street and killing people. Seems there's a common thread going there....

The mammoth Statler's basement was simply gigantic, and due to the building's bizarre, three-tined layout, we puzzled for a long while trying to figure out how to get upstairs. This was nothing to be ashamed of though, as I have yet to meet any explorer who has not at some point become hopelessly lost in the labyrinthine caverns below the Statler beast.

We found all kinds of antique machinery, the kitchen area, and even some parts that sloped downward steeply. There were still talk-tubes intact here and there—metal pipes for chefs to speak into so they could easily communicate with the dining rooms on the upper floors.

There were also some ice floes leftover on the floor in spots where water leaked in. Even though it was warm outside, our breath still froze in the air down here. After about half an hour, we found a way up.

We got up to the ground floor, but the stairs ended, and we had to find the main stair...also not an easy task. This place was confusing as hell...we wandered through the lobby and mezzanine levels before we finally located the thing.

Hiking as fast as we could skyward, I remembered that this was the very same hotel where the great Harry Houdini was staying when he gave his last performance, in 1926. We were walking in the footsteps of literally hundreds of famous people who had stayed here, including President Franklin Roosevelt.

My grandparents also had their wedding reception (and honeymoon) here. I'm not sure if that was simply because they couldn't afford to go anywhere, or because travel was discouraged during the war? I know they stayed in room 1122, or so they told me. 

Our tour through the mezzanine made it clear to us that this building was in rough shape. It had been gutted so thoroughly that it bore almost no resemblance to its former self. According to info on the website of my colleague David Kohrman (undoubtedly the greatest Statler aficionado in the world), the Statler was scraped pretty clean in August of 2000 by a $2.5 million state-sponsored site cleanup, where the flooded basement was pumped out and I'm guessing most of the loose plaster and detritus was removed from the main floors.

Photo by Chisel
The venerable Statler stayed open 'til the bitter end in 1975, which also meant that some of the remaining d├ęcor was mostly an appalling disco-era disaster. Here, in what might have once been part of the lobby, you can see a few remaining pieces of original marble or plaster still clinging to their I-beams:

I did happen to catch a glimpse however of the reverse side of this old back-lit sign above the Washington Avenue entrance, which was apparently uncovered when this place was stripped clean:

Here is a window case from the lobby area, one of the only extant pieces of original decor that had not been stripped to the bone:

According to David Kohrman again, "The famed hotelier E.M. Statler saw great promise in Detroit when he selected the city as the site for the third of his 'complete hotels'..." When the Detroit Statler opened in February of 1915, "it was clear that Statler's genius, Detroit's prosperity, and the artistic ability of its designers had created one of the great marvels of hotel architecture."

The Statler was in business during the height of Detroit's explosive growth as an industrial power, supplanting the old iconic Hotel Pontchartrain as the principal hotel and de-facto business epicenter of the city. The fact that Statler chose to build it here was, in a way, the status symbol that signified the city had indeed "arrived" as a great metropolis. As Kohman points out, Mr. Statler famously decided whether to build his flagship hotel in Detroit or Pittsburg with the well-publisized flipping of a coin, but never specified which side of the coin meant what. Chances are he had Detroit the Dynamic in mind all along.

I think this may once have been a mezzanine balcony railing overlooking the lobby, before it was blocked off:

Demand for hotel rooms in Detroit in the 1910s was so high when the Statler opened that both it, and its predecessor, the venerable Pontchartrain had to build additions two years later. Demand for rooms and convention space was still not being met as the 1920s opened, and work on the mammoth Book-Cadillac Hotel was begun. In fact Mr. Statler was all set to begin building a second 1,000-room hotel on Woodward, but ultimately scrapped that idea, perhaps upon hearing that the Book brothers were planning theirs for the other end of Washington Boulevard.

Back to Houdini for a moment. As it turns out this hotel's top floor, the 18th, was outfitted as a medical department, with a "complete surgery." Harry Houdini was allegedly rushed back to his room here at the Statler Hotel after struggling through his performance at the Garrick Theater, but then was quickly sent to old Grace Hospital as his condition worsened.

According to an article in the New York Times, Houdini was actually attended by the Statler's house physician before being referred (against his will) to Grace. I have heard an unsubstantiated alternate version of the story--that he did not perform at the Garrick Theater as scheduled, per his wife's wishes that he instead move the show to the Majestic Theater, because of its better proximity to Grace Hospital. 

At any rate he died there, in Room 401 of Grace Hospital, on Halloween of 1926, and was embalmed at the Hamilton Funeral Home on Cass before being sent back to New York in one of his decorative stage coffins. Houdini's connections to this city were many; he first performed his underwater escape stunt at the Belle Isle Bridge, he owned a magic shop in the basement of what is now Foran's Pub, and when he called for a nationwide coalition of magician's societies, Detroit's was one of its first and strongest supporters.

Though the Book-Cadillac and Fort Shelby Hotels went bankrupt in the Great Depression, the able Statler managed to cling to solvency, and by the 1940s its new Terrace Room and Lounge Bar gained world renown as hot nightclubs where all the best bands wanted to play. It was also in this era that the Statler became the first hotel in the world to offer air-conditioning.

Here is the Lounge Bar, in a photo of a photo from David Kohrman's book, Detroit's Statler and Book-Cadillac Hotels:

Compare to the appearance of the same room in 2004, as my flannel-clad colleagues gaze in wonderment:

Here is a vintage Stroh's Beer can, an old-time Detroit favorite, still sitting on a windowsill in the stairway, decades after it had been chugged:

In 1954, the Hilton chain bought out the Statler chain in what was then the largest real estate transaction in history. By the 1960s, the dawn of the roadside motel had taken its toll on the old big-city hotel business, and these downtown beasts could no longer compete. One by one, in the '70s Detroit's hotels said goodnight, just like on The Waltons. The Statler flatlined in 1975, and was unresponsive to numerous attempts at defibrillation. 

In late 1988, with the brand-new People Mover built downtown to "wow" Detroit Auto Show goers, someone suddenly realized that its futuristic elevated monorail track merely served to give riders a perfect view into the cracked windows of the now countless vacant buildings downtown, a downright ghostly tour of Chernobyl-esque proportions. So $70,000 was spent to install the infamous awnings on the Statler and many other such vacant downtown dinosaurs to disguise their blight, but these lasted only a couple years before becoming tattered and shredded, accentuating the apocalyptic desolation of the city even further. Both Donald Trump and Don Barden made proposals in the 1990s to demolish the Statler and put a casino there, but the idea was rejected.

We reached the roof, panting, and stepped out into the fresh breeze. This was cool...the oddball floorplan lent itself to a fun and interesting roof layout, containing two large light-wells running down the center of the building:

Click for full size.
Of course there were mountainous piles of debris and detritus at the bottom, either chucked from the roof, or from the 200 or so windows looking out onto it. 

We did our thing, taking photos, and I decided to climb on top of the elevator service room.

As I grabbed the iron ladder, I noticed a huuuge spider the size of a friggin grape. Then, I noticed about five more. These were of the same plump variety as I saw on the Lafayette Building's roof...was there some sort of boon to living on roofs, for obese arachnids?

An up-close view of the windows of the United Artists Building, a view of them not available from any other vantage point:

There were a few more rooftrees up here, and I later realized that they (and the stagnant puddles they spawned out of) bred clouds of gnats and such—spider food. "Roofspiders." I cleared the webs off the ladder with a stick and climbed up.

Here, the Broderick Tower and David Whitney Building await renovation...if you look close you can see a couple of my friends on the roof of the Broderick, waving:

Down the street the old Leland Hotel can be seen, and the Ambassador Bridge in the distance:

The breeze was nice...I pried off my sweaty boots and socks to air them out as I laid down and relaxed. The view up here was tremendous; putting yourself above the main roof has the advantage of an increased downward visual arc—the roof you're standing on blocks less of your view and you feel like you are floating in midair, able to see in all directions at once.

Actually some of these photos from the roof were lost for a long time. On one of my last trips into the Statler, I found a slightly rusty 35mm film canister sitting on the roof, so I took it home to have it developed to see what was on it. When I got it back, I recognized a lot of the photos...because had actually taken them--it was my lost roll of film, and it had been sitting up there for months!

I also once found a utility room near the roof with the mother-stash of Civil Defense ration drums. They were all empty as per typical, but in there I also found a stock of the white stone blocks used in making the cornice of the building...apparently replacement pieces in case some were damaged? Had they been sitting here since 1914? They were in perfect condition, almost as if they were leftover extras from construction.

I also noticed that the large, numerous urn-shaped ornaments that used to stand all along the edge of the roof had been removed, no doubt to prevent their falling off and knocking a hole through the street. The same had also been done at some point to many downtown buildings of this vintage.

Once it started to get dark, we noticed that some people above us over in the Trolley Plaza Apartments directly behind the Statler had noticed our presence on top of the crumbling edifice. At first they stared and pointed at us as if they were about to call the cops, and we saw one of them with a telephone cord extending up to their ear. We thought about making a "strategic withdrawal," but when we noticed them smiling and laughing, and dancing around the apartment to music, we realized that these were probably just Saturday night party people, not snitches. We waved back.

Twilight had fallen, and we were ready to explore the rest of the bulky Statler, from the top down.

Inside most of the hotel's guts was a plaster-dusty mess…utterly wasted. Whole walls had melted into slag mounds; the floor had a four-inch-deep layer of detritus covering it, and the place had the smell of death just permeating its every pore. The stairwells weren’t the sturdiest I've been on either, and in fact, only a couple months later, Detroitblog John and a friend had some metal steps near the roof partially collapse under them, resulting in a bit of a fall.

When we found the main dining room, it was nothing to look at...only about 5% of the plasterwork remained, but surprisingly none of it was left on the floor, and we were able to get a good look at the nice hardwood slats. The rooms in this beastly hotel were nothing special either, usually empty, filthy, and Swiss-cheesed for their plumbing.

The 2nd-floor ballroom was nothing much to look at but still the most interesting feature so far. It had a half-inch-deep puddle of water across most of it, but the arched tops of the hotel's main windows were located around its perimeter, allowing some light to filter in from Grand Circus Park.

On a different night in 2004 my brother, and my associate Dr. Drunk, accompanied me back into the Statler.

In a couple odd, out-of-the-way pockets in the belly of the Statler, we came across a few remaining pieces of original plasterwork still intact:

Who can forget the big arched windows of the mezzanine:

It was an unseasonably warm April night in the D and a Tigers' game had just ended, but within the span of an hour Grand Circus Park was as empty and quiet as a cemetery again, as seen in this view under the People Mover track from a mezzanine window:

We were able to get out onto the roof of the building immediately adjacent to it along Washington, the AAA Building, and although its roof hatch was sealed tightly at the time, there was a nice view of the back of the Statler from here:

There were a lot of break-ins to the AAA Building via the roof as well from what I understand, as there was still a functioning business in it at the time. When the Statler's demolition came, the building suffered even more damage if I recall correctly, and finally closed up. A severe fire then "mysteriously" swept through the building, capping things off nicely, and it has sat as a scorched basket of rot ever since. I never got in there, but Frank Nemecek did.

We had also been treated to post-game fireworks from Comerica Park, but by the time we got in the building and were hoofing the stairs to the Statler's roof, the show had ended.

The United Artists Building, still wearing all of its "Mayan" window artwork / graffiti, as well as its 1950s-vintage theater marquis:

The demolition in 2005 of the old Statler was not without drama, though it was far less battled over than the Madison-Lenox. It seemed there just wasn't enough left of the place to justify a renovation on that scale of a building, despite the usual spurious reports from "experts" that it was structurally "too far gone" to save. That was complete BS, as usual. Again, when the powers that be decide they want something gone, it usually goes.

Was the building in rough shape? Yes. Was it unrenovatable? No more than the Book-Cadillac.

It also appeared that hope was flickering back to life inside the cold shell of the Kales Building.

By late summer of 2005 on the other hand, the poor Statler was looking every day more and more like Swiss cheese, and was soon surrounded by a demolition fence. Due to the proximity of the People Mover, the Statler could not be imploded (unless they wanted another debacle like what happened when Hudson’s went down), so instead crews abated it by clearing all debris and interior walls floor by floor, then bulldozed all the debris into the hotel's light courts.

When it was down to a stripped steel skeleton, it was cut to pieces with torches and hauled to the dump.

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

Getting back into the butchered Statler was cake enough, but as always, navigation once inside was a challenge. I don’t care who you are, you always get lost in the Statler. It is laid out so confusingly that it is impossible to get anywhere inside without making several wrong turns and circles. There are many different stairwells, most of which only go between a couple floors, and don’t even reach the roof or the ground.

Add on top of that now the fact that the inside had been totally changed since last we were here by gargantuan piles of debris cutting off access to entire halves of the building and clogging many stairwells, prohibiting their use. It was a challenge that took Chisel and I quite a while to unravel, having to turn around and backtrack out from several now-invalid routes and dead ends.

The brutality with which the demo crews had gouged into the Statler's aging edifice was dramatic and awe-inspiring. When we found the two light-courts that were now serving as massive 120-foot-deep trash cans, the carnage was unreal. This photo is over three stories tall from top to bottom:

Entire walls were gone, and there were detritus mountains at the bottoms of these gargantuan wells that I just could not get a photograph of because my lens was simply not wide enough.

Chisel and I stared in disbelief, hardly recognizing the building we had explored once upon a time. This was a totally different place from what we remembered; daylight spilled in on all sides where before much of the Statler’s interior had been dark. Whole floors had been carved away from underneath and yet cabinets remained above, containing mundane items that once would’ve needed but a stepstool to reach, now would have required a helicopter.

We could see into guest rooms where walls had been ripped away to reveal the backs of closets, coat-hangers still in place, suspended over a five-story chasm to the debris pile below. Wallpaper streamers flapped freely in the breeze here and there because the walls they were once attached to had fallen away and disappeared:

In this sudden change of setting we found a few little rooms that we had never seen before, including this one where the velvet drapes were still somehow preserved:

Granted, we never had much love for this gutted place, so we hadn’t explored much of it anyway, but minds change when you realize you’re about to lose a landmark.

This wrecked scene was once known as the Wayne Room if I'm not mistaken.

The ballroom was also trashed beyond recognition. An eight-foot-high mountain of bricks and plaster stood in the middle of it where my grandparents had once danced and enjoyed cocktails on their wedding reception:

Through the gaping windows light spilled in, and we could see the People Mover as it passed by, empty as always.

My partner Chisel, spotted in front of yet another oddly preserved scrap of original plaster decor:

We continued onward with much care, in spots wishing we had Sherpas to carry our gear over the dizzying escarpments and treacherous mountain passes of this expedition:

It was still biting cold out, and the wind whipping through the now windowless upper floors of the Statler convinced us that it was about time to head home. We were rewarded for our sisu however, by the discovery of yet another room I had never seen before that too still had its original decor intact. David Kohrman said that this was a meeting room known as the "Judge Woodward Room":

Of course, it took us twice as long to get back out of the Statler as it did to get in, due to the infernally disorienting setup of the now changed hotel, and we ended up having to crawl through a debris-choked stairwell that was just so bad that we had refused to use it on our way up. 

This involved belly-crawling through chalky, dust-covered rubble to squeeze out of the top 1/8th of a stairwell doorway that had been filled nearly to the brim with cold bricks and pointy wreckage, then pushing through the makeshift fencing that had been tacked over said doorway to denote its being used as a rubble dumping chute.

After the grueling crucible of negotiating our way out of that, it was down past the perpetual ice floes and freezing lake in the basement, and to our exit, where we emerged into the fading winter “daylight” once more. It was a hell of an excursion. I realized I was now less the gloves that I had brought in with me. The Statler had eaten them. I was lucky that was all she ate; I felt like we had escaped the belly of a whale.

A later revisit to the rapidly fading Statler a week later showed a much reduced structure, already brought down to the bare bone on a couple upper floors, including the roof. Here is one of the several small pieces of demolition equipment left in-situ for the weekend:

This was once one of the upper floors, but it was now the new "roof":

The United Artists Building again:

Outside one day I noticed that some architectural details were in fact rescued from the Statler's heights by the workers, though I don't know what eventually became of them:

Perhaps they took their talents on tour, landing lucrative careers as porta-pottie doorstops:

Seems to be about all historic architecture is worth in this town, anyway. The agonized look on that one's face says it all: "WTF?"

I had snapped some sweet shots of the "faces of the Statler" once with Chisel's camera, looking down along the cornice from the 18th floor, but alas he lost them in a subsequent hard-drive crash.

Detroit's Statler and Book-Cadillac Hotels, by David Kohrman

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