The Detroit Preservation Movement's Gettysburg

Photos from April 2004, scanned from film prints.

The Madison-Lenox Hotel was one of the 12 skyscrapers on the Dirty Dozen List, with which the Detroit Free Press catalogued the biggest, most heinous abandoned buildings in downtown Detroit. The Madison-Lenox was actually a pair of hotels connected in the middle, seven and eight stories tall, respectively. 

The investor who built the hotel was William W. Hannan--the same guy after whom the Hannan Memorial YMCA on East Jefferson Avenue was named. The "Madison Apartment Hotel" as it was originally called, was completed in 1901, designed by architect F. C. Pollmar in the "French Late Gothic" style.

The more decorative Lenox was added to it in 1904, designed by Almon Clother Varney, Detroit's most prolific apartment architect in those days, according to Detroitblog. A two-story connecting building was built between the Madison and the Lenox, which contained a restaurant. Almon Varney also designed the El Moore Apartments on West Alexandrine.

The building was closed in 1993, sold to Mike Illitch in 1998, and the demolitionhawks began circling in 2003. In 2004 the hotel was included in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's "11 Most Endangered" list, but by 2005 it would be rubble.

We knew of a way in, but it would require some upper-body strength. Being another Illitch-owned building, the place was actually well boarded-up--except for one spot, just hidden enough to keep most people out.

We found a stair and went straight up to the roof of the Lenox, in order to get there before sun set; they were not stair-"wells," as we were accustomed to, but there was one flight at a time, then you had to walk around a corner to find the next staircase.

As we came back out from the darkness on top of the dilapidated building, the sun had sunk low into the grimy lower-airs of the Detroit atmosphere, taking on a deep, flat orange hue, and refracting so that it looked twice normal size, and casting the whole sky in a pink hue, but unfortunately I couldn't capture it properly. I also had black & white film in one of my cameras.

It was at this point that we saw just how messed-up this building really the center of the Lenox's sinking roof was a massive, ugly hole, about 10 feet across:

It looked as though someone had shoved a giant red-hot poker down into the middle of the building, melting it away like butter. Whether this hole had any *help* in forming by its slumlord owner has been a topic of debate by more than a few people. It certainly didn't have any help in not forming, either, despite being owned by a billionaire for eight years.

It got dark quickly, and we soon decided that we should come back and explore the rest of this one later. We descended the marble steps and skated.

Exactly one week after our cursory first mission into the "Molten"-Lenox, we made a return trip to do a more thorough job. Sadly the interiors of this building were mostly very dark and hard to photograph without a tripod, which I typically never encumber myself with.

We entered and started looking around, noticing it to be as skanky as usual. Crap was strewn everywhere, and it smelled of rotting. But there was an assortment of old-style hotel room keys at the front desk with the Madison-Lenox name on them, which we of course appropriated as souvenirs loot. There was also a nifty old safe in the office, probably original to the building:

I don't think anyone thought the Madison-Lenox would be an easy renovation. It had a sucking head wound the size of a Florida sinkhole, and some of the masonry walls had a "wave" to them that probably shouldn't be there...basically it was melting from the inside out. Here is the view of the gash, from inside the top floor:

And being constructed of piled brick instead of reinforced concrete or steel, its load-bearing capacities greatly influenced the efficiency of its layout...corridors were narrow, the ceilings were low, and there were many tight squeezes by today's standards.

All that could've been feasibly saved anyway was the façade and the exterior walls; everything else would have to be replaced. But that’s not to say it couldn’t be done—it was just a matter of Illitch caring, something he doesn’t do an awful lot of unless he gets a big government subsidy. Even if that subsidy comes with the option to use the money to either demolish the structure or fix it up (hint: it did).

And honestly, it's not all that impressive in the décor department either. Sure, the entrance to the Lenox may look snazzy on the outside, but mid-century renovations left it with little in the way of a lobby. All it had was this 1950s fart-deco "M-L" banister...

...and some mosaic floor tile, coated in the usual filth:

It was pretty bland, to be honest, having suffered the brunt of some pretty pukey, half-ass remodeling up through the '70s. The rusted staircases in the building bore these nice little decorative bosses on them, I suppose:

So then what was so special or historic about the Madison-Lenox that made it presumably worth saving anyway? My colleague David Kohrman reminds us that if nothing else, it was the catalyst of one of this city's most bitter preservation battles, and was the battlefield upon which city government made its true feelings on historic preservation known--by skirting the law and going ahead with a "surprise" demolition under orders from Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.  This was, if I am not mistaken, the first time that this tactic was really utilized in order to circumvent preservation "discussions," at least on such a large scale.

The idea was that they were hot to have the building demolished in time for the 2005 MLB All-Star Game at Comerica Park--in order to remove an "eyesore" from the public view, or to give Illitch a money-making parking lot, depending on which version of the story you subscribe to.  If I recall correctly, it was still a smoldering pile of rubble during the game, so neither condition ended up being fulfilled. It was definitely removed in time for the Super Bowl XL however.

What happened was, the Historic District Commission maintained that demolition could not be legally justified, because the building was not in fact in imminent danger of collapse, as the Illitches and politicians claimed.  But the most powerful and monied forces in Detroit wanted it gone, so it went. Even the director of the Detroit Buildings & Safety Engineering Department was complicit in the arrangement, lying to back up claims that the building was unstable and unrepairable.

The building--while decayed--was in fact not an imminent threat to public safety; You can even see that the copper flashing is still intact around the Madison's cornice in this next photo--a damned rare sight these days.

But they began a demolition anyway--subsidized with $700,000 of city money by the way--which they knew would be halted by a court injunction. Adamo Demolition was "mistakenly" told to begin taking it down, and by the time the Historic District Commission could file an injunction to stop them, the building had already been destabilized by demolition crews--exactly according to plan--and had to come the rest of the way down regardless.

In fact, there is a persistent rumor that the reason the hotel no longer had most of its windows is because Illitch purposely removed them back when he bought the place in 1997, so that it would speed up the building's decay, thus giving him justification to demolish it down the road (and to apply for public money to do so). This was all done in the face of several offers from different developers who were interested in rehabbing the building, but Illitch refused to sell. Accusations of demolition by neglect had been lodged against him as early as 2001.

Some of the original window casements had obviously been ripped out--not carefully as would indicate an attempt to replace them with new ones to better mothball the building, but savagely, with only the intent of allowing the building to decay more quickly.

Essentially Illitch was scuttling the ship. Here was one that remained, however:

And what penalty could be incurred from demolishing a building with such disregard of legal procedure?  Not much; a minimal fine at best, certainly nothing for billionaires such as the Illitches to be concerned about in the grand scheme of things, anyway. And so it goes, here in Detroit; "demolition by neglect" in action. Subsidized by tax dollars.

Had the battle not gone completely in favor of the monied speculators and corruption-ready politicians who enable this kind of cultural loss in our city, and if more people had been involved in the historic preservation fight, Detroit might not look as barren and homogenized as it does today in 2014. The Madison-Lenox may not have been exactly festooned in the richest mantle of historical importance, but its demolition set a frightening precedent for many more that followed and will continue to follow.

More importantly, it teaches us that we must learn to not merely weigh historical importance in superlatives alone; just because a building was not the site of some groundbreaking event, or doesn't feature some one-of-a-kind architectural style, or wasn't the "first" or "only" of something, does not mean that it should be demolished.

Buildings like the Madison-Lenox have value simply because they are part of a fabric that constitutes a greater historical context for the city of Detroit.  You cannot fire all but the first-chair musicians from your orchestra and hope to perform a symphony...the composer's score will never be interpreted accurately.

We went up the steps again, which were nicely veined marble slabs laid on a decorative bronze frame, followed by a nice bronze banister. We hung out on the roof awhile, due to the nice fresh air and balmy spring temperatures, and we watched while the lights came on in Comerica Park for some event:

This spot also gave a nice view inside the exclusive Detroit Athletic Club across the street. On the floor with the big arched windows is a swimming pool, which you can see through the window tint if they turn the lights on in there after dark. We also spied on people watching TV in the sliver-shaped Hotel Milner, across the skinny alley from us (note that this admittedly crappy photo was taken before the Milner was repainted):

We found a way across the low roof of the middle structure that led into the Madison, though we didn't get to see much, because it was in some rough shape. I mean it was hit. Not only was it water-damaged like the Lenox, but it had also suffered quite a bit of fire damage too. The crumbling staircases in there were 100% wooden construction, and would probably have been sturdier if they were made out of Saltines.

We couldn't get to the roof, but instead found a way into the bar between the two hotels. There, we found the treasure!

There was a wrecked cash register that still had some pennies in it, and also a cologne dispenser in the men's room that could be persuaded to yield several dollars in quarters. We reeked of nasty Drakkar Noir for the rest of the day, but it was worth it.

The bar was set up like it had last been used for a WRIF party...there were banners and radio promos everywhere, and there was a DJ booth, amps, and speakers laying around. The bar was full of empty liquor and beer bottles, and piles of car keys, apparently confiscated from people too schlitzed to drive home.

One of the very quirky things about the Lenox was the floor plan. Each floor had a round lobby where the elevators were, a common area that joined all the hallways together. They were hard to photograph convincingly, but in one of them I found a patch of the old fabric wallpaper still intact:

Another thing that any visitor to the Madison-Lenox would remember is that the room doors all had these tags on them with the name of the resident:

Some of the hotel had always been designated for "high-class" apartments, though it would seem that class level diminished over time.

The basement was somewhat mysterious, and just had the pungent smell of OLD. The basements of both buildings were conjoined, and we got there by walking down a short ramp in the Madison.


Behind a small door, I found a weird little crawlspace area, inside of which I saw signs that at least part of the then-103-year-old building was resting on a piled stone foundation:

Elsewhere in the dungeon, we discovered the remains of what seemed to be a porn studio. The sign taped to the wall (at right) says "No Talking Backstage During Performance!" in magic marker:

Raunchy tapes were everywhere, and we even found film clippings with hardcore XXX action, viewable by holding it up to our maglites. Judging by the bush factor, I'd venture a guess that it was done in the late '70s. I'm told that vintage porn reels are worth big money nowadays; I wish I would have known that then. The Madison-Lenox was definitely a treasure trove.

One interesting find that I made in the office of the bar area was a couple sheets of paper prominently pinned near the phone which said that if they didn't pay their city utilities, they'd be shut down. I don’t think those bills ever got paid...

There were so many weird nooks and crannies in this hobbled-together complex of buildings, and that's part of what made it fun to explore.  This next shot, from a mysteriously walled-off section of courtyard shows an example of the original windows, with their little quatrefoil accents at the top:

I was there the morning Adamo re-started demolition work on the Madison-Lenox after the injunction.  They started by going for the decorative facades right off the bat, so that even if demolition was halted again, there would be nothing left to save. They took an excavator with a claw attachment and grabbed the carved stone arch bearing the Lenox's name over the front entrance, then crudely ripped it out, and pounded it into small pieces to destroy it. Just in case you were wondering what the score was.

That piece of artwork that 104 years ago had been laboriously hand-wrought by master craftsmen was needlessly destroyed in a matter of seconds by some flippant corporate toadie in an orange vest. The same was done to the carved archway over the Madison's entry, as an obvious act of pure spite toward the preservationist lobby. From what I understand, Illitch had promised that the decorative arches over both the hotels' entryways would be saved and set aside for Preservation Wayne.

It was a sad day, and a test case for other such quasi-legal demolitions around the now seemed as if the powers that be had carte-blanche to demolish anything they wanted, and the Statler Hotel was next on the chopping block, possibly followed by the United Artists Theater.

That was a catastrophic year for historic buildings...all at the same time it seemed like not only were the Statler and Madison-Lenox immolated on the altar of sacrifice, but the Scovel Memorial Church, the Jefferson Avenue Baptist Church, the Donovan Building, and the Studebaker-EMF Plant also fell to the wrecking ball or the torch in 2005.

I was downtown on the last night of demolition, wandering around Harmonie Park just as the Tigers game was letting out, gawking at the remains of the old hotel, now just a pile of rubble in the dark. It looked a little too much like a crime scene, surrounded by yellow caution tape as if it were just another Detroit murder victim. There was a backhoe parked for the night atop the 30-foot tall heap of brick like a victorious conqueror. The pungent, unavoidable smell of rotten building filled the air as strongly as a freshly opened corpse.

"Fixin' A Hole,", October 29, 2003
"Dust in the Wind,", May 23, 2005

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this! I wandered across your photo tour after seeing the Lenox in better days from LOC site:

    Fascinating to wander through one last time.


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