The "Wounded Gazelle"

Photos are from 2004-2007.

I had been lusting to get back into the Book-Caddy since our first mission there, where we had been rushed in and out, getting to see little of it. It took us forever, but we did eventually get around to putting together our own attempt.

According to my colleague David Kohrman, founder of Friends of the Book-Cadillac, and author of the classic website ForgottenDetroit (as well as a book about the hotel), the Book-Cadillac had over 1,100 guest rooms, and was the tallest hotel in the world when it was finished. Three basement levels extended below the street for its boilers and laundry machinery.

Local architect Louis Kamper was sent to study New York hotels when he was commissioned to design the Book-Cadillac. Those who were hired to run it were the assistant manager of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, a former valet to the King of Denmark, a former screen actress working at the Waldorf, and the new laundry head came from a similar post at the Astor in New York. To the grand opening came the Algers, Joys, Macauleys, Fords, McMillans, Sheldons, the Kampers, Mayor Smith, even Mr. Statler. Two-thousand people attended the first dinner. "Rare jewels flashed," as well as furs of ermine, sable, and mink, was apparently one of Detroit society's finest moments.

The building is surrounded by about 24 female figureheads, each one unique:


Like the Stott Building, it went into receivership during the Great Depression. From the 1930s to 1950s, it suffered gutting of its splendid original decor and rare marble appointments, to be replaced with heinous mid-century vomit, almost throughout. Some pieces of the original plaster ceilings however were still visible through the caked-on bullshit, such as this one in the main lobby:

Others were just completely melted:

Predictably, the 1970s were no kinder to the Book, but there was at least a slight increase in market share by picking up the scraps from the Hotel Fort-Shelby, which began to flicker out by 1974, and the Hotel Statler, which rolled over in 1975. In fact the new owners of the Book-Cadillac even went as far as to pickpocket the Statler Hotel's steaming corpse by repurposing some of its chandeliers for their own lobby renovation that same year.

I believe the English Room (seen above and at left below) was the one that was the most intact, its dark walnut paneling evident on the walls and columns:

The "so-bad-it's-good" blaxploitation / Detroitsploitation movie Detroit 9000 filmed several scenes in the Book-Cadillac's grand ballroom in 1973:

Overall revenue continued to decline, and the B-C desperately needed to close its doors in 1979, but the city couldn't afford to lose the upcoming Republican National Convention's business, and since the Book was currently the only game left in town the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation scrounged some money and propped its corpse up, Weekend at Bernie's-style, just long enough for that event. Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan was in attendance for that one.

During the RNC, in a uniquely "Detroit" moment, Mayor Coleman Young's limousine got jacked from in front of the Book-Cadillac, and according to the Free Press's 2001 Detroit Almanac, was even allegedly sighted driving around downtown a few days after that before being found abandoned. Detroit was officially entering its darkest days, and the B-C's time was growing short; it was currently operating with at least 500 abandoned rooms.

After the RNC, a renovation was attempted yet again in 1983, but development interest petered out as Detroit continued to plummet, and the Book-Cadillac was done for in 1984, though the city actually posted a security guard inside the building "to keep the vultures away."

Hizzonah Coleman Young tried to get money to demolish the building in 1993, and in 1997 even the guard was pulled from the building, which was of course when the looting began. It was also that year that Hudson's vast hulk was leveled, making the Book-Cadillac the largest abandoned building downtown.  Renovation/demolition attempts continued throughout the 1990s and 2000s with no success.

My first time into the B-C was in April of 2004, in the height of the race for the Dirty Dozen. The "Dirty Dozen Quest," as we dubbed it, was a list of the twelve biggest abandoned / nuisance buildings in downtown Detroit, as published in a list by the Detroit Free Press earlier that year.

Naturally, all of us like-minded individuals immediately printed out that page and stuck it to our refrigerators like a shopping list, and somehow along the way it turned into a race, or scavenger hunt to see which crew operating downtown at that time could check off all 12 first. But even though we were in competition, we also sometimes teamed up on the harder to access buildings.  

By the time 2004 rolled around, the Book-Cadillac had a security guard again, which made it one of the hardest on the list to crack. After much analysis, we decided that the best way to get in would be to bribe the guards, so we got together with Wide Open and pooled all our cash.

Luckily on the day we showed up with loot in hand, the guard working was a female who was also susceptible to flattery. After some sweet talk, the requisite palm-greasing, and a dab of bullshit, we were given our free hall pass—all five of us. She said we could definitely go in and "take some photos for a few minutes," but I don't think she had any idea that we wanted to go further than just the front lobby, hahaha.

Since that day, the long-awaited and much-vaunted "renovation" of the Book-Cadillac seemed to have come and gone, amounting to no more than the stripping of its interior and a couple accidental fires. But it still had construction equipment laying around the site, and as such there was a new 24-7 security company on duty—in a trailer even (there were now two guards at all times), which I suppose was indicative that there might still be something brewing.

I nonetheless had a few ideas on how to get into the now relatively well-sealed skyscraper, namely climbing onto the entrance awning and hopping in through a second-story window. We went for it one morning, planning on seeing if we could get ourselves in, and if so, we would call for the others to meet us inside. Detroitblog John was going with us this time because he wanted to get back in one more time as well; by this point in the script everyone was pretty sure that the renovation plan was a bust again, and that demolition was looming.

We figured it would be no sweat to find a way in on the opposite side of the building from the sleepy guard—there was no way he could be any the wiser. We were slightly wrong. The three of us began our slow, innocent circle of the 33-story hotel, looking for a viable entrance. We eventually found something we were not expecting—a hole in the ground.

On the other side of the construction fence I saw a large wooden sign covering a huge hole in the sidewalk. Thinking back to a building in Saginaw I had infiltrated through just such a hole in the sidewalk, I quickly peeked into the dark fissure. Bingo—it led directly into the Cadillac's basement. There was a huge drop—perhaps 20 feet to the floor—but I could see a huge scaffold erected down there, looking almost as though it were actually holding up the sidewalk itself, and would be perfect for us to climb down.

Figuring it best to be swift, I said, "This is it, gentlemen," then dragged the wooden sign aside, and began lowering myself into the hole in the sidewalk. I started climbing down, and the other two followed right behind. As the last man was climbing in, that's when disaster struck—a loud voice boomed "What the hell are you doing in there?! Get out of there now or I'm calling the cops!"

It was the security guard. How the hell he knew we were there, I don’t know. There must've been some sort of surveillance camera that he was watching, but we didn’t see anything like that around (and we had been looking). Usually they stick out like a sore thumb. Up through the hole at ground level I could see the guard's shiny shoes, standing on the other side of the fence while our guy was half-in and half-out of the hole, totally dumbfounded.

He tried talking his way out of it but the guard of course wasn't buying any of it and kept shouting to get out of the hole. He was already on a cellphone, obviously calling the cops. I was down below, hiding in the shadows by now, just in case we hadn’t been seen yet. We could overhear more threats being made that the cops were coming, but our third man pretty much said "no thanks," and walked away. He kept walking until he was out of sight of the guard, then called us on his cell.

In the meantime, I had already begun looking for a way up into the building. To our surprise, many of the stairwells were completely choked off and unusable due to the massive deluges of rubble that had vomited out of them from above during demolition. We eventually found one that was "passable," and ascended several stories before stopping to assess the situation.

When our associate called, he told us what was up outside, and that he was going to keep an eye on the situation from afar, to help us get out of there via phone contact. According to him, the guard was still staring down into the hole, a fact that we verified by looking out of a window from above. Damn—he knew we were still inside. We knew this gig was essentially a wash at this point, but we also knew that immediate escape would probly not be too smart right yet.

You have to choose your comrades in this business wisely; you do not want a tyro who will panic and make poor choices when placed under stress. My partner was always skittish of being busted, yet I knew he had been in tight pinches like this before and made it out competently.

In some jurisdictions the police do not enter buildings to chase trespassers inside abandoned buildings, but we knew from experience that the cops did sometimes come in. The Detroit Police aren't afraid of sh*t, but at the same time, they aren't about to search a massive building for somebody hiding, or one that poses distinct safety risks. Of course, if they wanted to come in after us today the hazards had been removed, and all they'd have to do is use the construction entrance.

We decided that we might as well explore the building a bit, since it now seemed we would probably be stuck in here for awhile. The guard had sat down at our hole, still on the phone, waiting for us to try and emerge, and for the cops to arrive. If they were going to arrive.

I immediately noticed that there had been massive changes inside this building since last I had visited it. Every floor we had come up to was completely stripped bare, right down to the concrete floors and structural steel beams. It was a 100% totally different place; it was no longer the was a nameless, faceless skeleton. A blank slate. All of its beauty was gone, every speck of personality, and every bit of atmosphere. It was like we were on the Holodeck of the starship Enterprise and someone had shut off the simulation, leaving us in a dark, blank, square room. Oddly enough, it even seemed less spacious in here now as well.

At one point we realized that we were standing in the main lobby; it was so stripped that it was unrecognizable. The same went for the grand ballroom...with all of the decorative plasterwork gone, it was no longer the same place. It was a sad feeling, like finding out that your best friend who was in a coma has just awakened, but has complete amnesia.

One would not know to look at it that this was a place with a richly storied past…that this was where Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra met for the first time, or that Lou Gehrig had collapsed here on the grand staircase in 1939, suddenly stricken with the disease that is now named after him. Or that it had been the setting for the 1948 film State of the Union, starring Katharine Hepburn. Or that several U.S. Presidents and other great dignitaries and celebrities had stayed here. Suddenly it seemed there wasn't much point to our being here—there was nothing left to explore or revel in.

Well, at least we could still do the roof. So we headed up more, stopping to take breaks when we got winded. My partner was still hung-over from the night before, so it was often that we stopped. Every couple minutes we called our guy on the outside to find out the situation down below, and we also leaned out the windows to check on the guard, but he was still sitting there by our hole. Which was good—because I had absolutely no intention of going back out that way.

If the guard remained there, that would make it easy for us to find a way out on the other side of the building. After awhile we started seeing floors that had not yet been stripped out. They were still intact with walls and beds and papers and junk. We saw a police cruiser come by the building but only stayed a couple minutes before leaving again. usual, the DPD either didn’t have the resources to devote to this silliness, or just didn't care. As well they shouldn’t. We continued to the roof in order to get this all over with as soon as possible.

You can see the Lindell AC still standing in this shot:

Like many of Louis Kamper's buildings, it had a lively, complex roof with many levels. The Cadillac really has an odd shape, and a very intricate roof design, rather fun to play on, the three copper "ziggurats" of course being the highlight.

We crawled out through one of the dormer windows in the slanted copper roof onto a balcony of sorts that would have been a most excellent chill-spot had we been able to make use of it more often. By the looks of the folding chairs and empty beer cans that were littered about up here, it historically had been such for many people, back when the building was much more easily accessible.

Still, the guard was watching our hole, and the cops had not come back. Nonetheless, we knew we couldn’t hang out in here all day long, so we soon started back down. Another good thing was that a fourth buddy had now arrived in the area with his Jeep, improving our chances of effecting a smooth escape greatly.

How we were going to get out was still to be determined. Kicking out some random board would decidedly not be the best option, though there seemed to be little alternative. We stopped on the 4th floor briefly, as there was one photo-op that both John and myself had always wanted to get.

The four gigantic statues of Antoine Cadillac, Chief Pontiac, Navarre, and "Mad" Anthony Wayne (who stood vigilantly atop a pediment on the front of the building overlooking Michigan Avenue) were viewable from windows on this floor. Each statue had to be at least 15 feet tall, and I had never seen anyone else with up-close pictures from this vantage point of these monstrous sentinels but us. We spent a good ten minutes trying to get a good shot of them, seeing as this was very likely our last-ever time in the building (the main holdup was getting those stupid cheap windows open). The larger-than-life historical figures posed admirably for us for one last time before we moved on to face the inevitable.

Antoine De la Mothe Cadillac, founder of Detroit, and Chief Pontiac:

As we got to the bottom, our man called to tell us that a second guard had appeared now, staying near the trailer, while his comrade guarded the hole. He was still on the phone. Our nervousness began to mount again, and the need for a way out became more urgent. I was determined to use those damned second story windows for something, since the first floor was completely sealed. They were all wide open and through them we could see everything outside just fine, but damn was it a long drop. We of course debated kicking a board out on ground level, but with the amount of noise that would involve would make it risky, and we didn't want to damage the building, so I searched around for some climbing implement, while my other associates communicated on what was happening outside.

Suddenly he told us to stay still and be cool; security was on the move. Apparently the guard had seen our guy walking around the block again and was now walking around the building himself, still on his cellphone. The guard had no idea that we could possibly be coming out a second-story window; in his mind there was only one way out—that hole.

Our ride drove to a spot on Shelby St. where they could park in an alley directly across from the window we were standing in.

I looked around some more for a ladder or something—after all, this was a construction site, there should be a friggin ladder somewhere, you'd think. And wouldn’t you know it, there was! It was on the floor in a dark corner. Both of us smiled and suddenly felt much better about our chances of getting out quickly. It was wooden and rickety as hell, but by some incomprehensible stroke of luck it was just long enough to reach down two stories, and it wasn't even an extension ladder...this was the longest single-section ladder either of us had ever seen. We carried it over to our preferred window and called our ride back to let him know our plan.

He said that the guard had started to head back to the hole again, so now was our chance—we had to do it, and quick. Seconds later, our ride roared back into the alley off Shelby St., and I hucked this massive ladder out the window like a javelin before swinging down onto it without missing a beat. It was barely tall enough to reach our window, and climbing down to it was a risky procedure at best. Across Shelby I could see our comrades preparing to let us in the vehicle for a swift getaway. 

Just then a bus pulled up to the bus stop right next to the alley where they were parked, and a small crowd of people were milling about, waiting to get on. I almost ran down the unstable ladder, then impatiently held it steady for my partner to come down, all the while looking at the corner of the building, expecting that guard to come running back.

As soon as my buddy was most of the way down, I rolled my ass over that floppy construction fence and jogged across the street, noticing the vaguely-interested stares of a few people at the bus stop. We left the ladder where it was and our driver gunned it out of the alley.

He drove us over to Grand Circus, where my yacht was parked. As we rounded the corner, there was the security guard again, now looking for us on foot, quite obviously reciting the plate number of our vehicle into his cellphone.  We gave him the slip, then avoided downtown for the rest of the day. It was a somewhat bittersweet victory. We were probably the only people who had managed to sneak into the mammoth Cadillac since work began, yet it was no longer the Cadillac. The grand, decaying hotel that everyone knew and loved was essentially gone.

However, this was not the last time we ever got into the B-C. As things continued to change, we kept squeaking into the place for "one last time" on weeknights when we'd get a chance, and cart a few beers to the roof to enjoy while taking in the sublime scenery and note the changes that were occurring in 2006-2007 Detroit. Something seemed to be happening downtown...but whether it would last was still doubtful, and we looked down at it from our abandoned towers with but an academic interest.

The Book Cadillac reopened in October 2008 with much fanfare. Indeed, it heralded the pealing of the bells of hope for a downtown rebirth; the seemingly impossible had been accomplished, but quiet skepticism still hung in the air. Almost on queue, the hotel began to struggle financially, as one might expect from such an incredibly coffer-draining renovation effort, but it has managed to cling to life so far.

At first I was excited to see how the interior had been redone, but after seeing some photo sneak-peeks my interest waned. The fact that so little of the original 1920s touches remained intact pretty much guaranteed that modern materials and decors would dominate it, and in my personal opinion I think it looks hideous, but at least it is still standing.

Since the B-C has been renovated, three surrounding abandoned buildings have been demolished: 201 Michigan Avenue (seen above), the Lafayette Building, and the Peoples' Outfitting Building (both seen in the photo at right). Downtown Wack-A-Mole. One of them has been replaced with yet another bulky, unsightly parking structure, and the other two are essentially still empty lots. So far that seems to be the going rate for downtown's rebirth; demolish three buildings for every one renovated, explaining why our downtown is mostly open space.
Empty streets of the world's largest ghost town:

Here is a view out of town along Michigan Avenue, one of the five biggest, oldest and most important arteries of the city (at right):

It is also called US-12 and goes all the way to Chicago. It just goes to show how absolutely deserted Detroit used to be, completely devoid of all car or foot traffic. Thank god the city is starting to show signs of life again. It has been a long time since I have been able to successfully perform the "pin-drop" test downtown at night. 

Detroit's Statler and Book-Cadillac Hotels: The Anchors of Washington Boulevard, by David Kohrman
"Never Say Die on Washington Boulevard," Detroit Free Press, February 29, 1976, p. 187