Lions and Tigers and Beatniks, Oh My

One old hotel, far from downtown out along the east side near the border of Grosse Pointe seems to stand out on its own from its surroundings...indeed it is quite a bit taller than any other building in the area. 13115 East Jefferson Avenue, better known as the Hotel Winston, or in its heyday as the Hotel Savarine, like many such Detroit buildings, has a much richer history than one would guess by looking at it.

It is located across from Golightly Career Center, and lays its main claim to fame in the fact that it was once the haunt of several Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions players, as well as legendary American writer Jack Kerouac, as I will soon explain.

The hotel was designed by local architect Louis J. Chesnow. Above the line of the now mostly missing drop-ceiling, I could pick out a few vestiges of the hotel's former glamor:

In 1930, Clarence Burton wrote that "fifty years ago" Detroit had less than 1,000 hotel rooms in the city. By the time the historian was writing his account that number had multiplied by 25, and he declared that "No phase of Detroit's commercial life has recorded any greater progress than has the hotel business."

"During three years of Detroit's most intensive hotel construction era, approximately fifty hotels--large, residential, and small--were built," Burton noted, "and since 1924 fully 16,000 rooms have been provided for the city's growing transient trade, convention business, and residential clientele."

The Savarine opened as a luxury hotel in 1926, with 524 rooms--only half the size of the Statler or Book-Cadillac

By the 1990s the area was in economic distress and the old hotel had been renamed the Hotel Winston, converted to 158 units of low-income apartment housing. By 2004 it had "fallen into disrepair," and lost its Housing Assistance contract. 

In 2006 however, new owners announced a tax credit-backed $2.78 million renovation. A development study from University of Michigan said that as the "Winston Place Apartments," it would consist of just over 100 living units, 20,000 square feet of retail space, and 10,000 square feet of office space. Supposedly "historic preservation" would be a part of the plan, and a total of $277,270 in tax credits was allocated.

Unfortunately this renovation never quite made it to completion and as the project languished, the neighborhood continued to decline, taking the Winston with it. The newly installed windows and other metallic building materials slowly disappeared, and the structure was laid open to decay. 

If you have seen the recent documentary movie BURN, about the Detroit Fire Department, you may remember the scene in which the character Doogie was permanently crippled by collapsing rubble from a burning building that had once been a storefront.

That storefront, the Weingers Market (seen in the first photo of this post), used to abut the Hotel Winston. Several other firemen were also injured in that 2010 blaze, which seemed to signify a breaking point where DFD command finally began to seriously consider the option of letting vacant structures burn in order to reduce the unnecessary risks to Detroit firemen.

It also did nothing to help the Winston's image.

I remembered reading Jack Kerouac's iconic piece of literature On the Road many years back, and of his sorties in Detroit. Of course there is the line about how Detroiters were the most "solid core of dregs that could be gathered," and how he observed our patterns of behavior as a three-shift town by staying up all night in movie theaters when he couldn't afford a hotel. I wondered if he was talking about the Eastown Theater, but I didn't put any thought as to which hotels he may have stayed in.

A book by Edie Kerouac-Parker entitled You'll Be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac talks about the fact that the hotel Jack Kerouac usually preferred to stay at was the Hotel Savarine, because it was the digs of several Detroit Tigers, and because Kerouac was a baseball fan. The Savarine was a residential hotel like Lee Plaza that catered to single men of means, but who were not necessarily wealthy. On a side note, the Walbri Court Apartments in upscale Palmer Park served as the home of several Detroit Tigers who had wives and young children; Tigers owner Walter O. Briggs had it specially built for them in 1925 by Albert Kahn.

Kerouac had a wife who was a Grosse Pointe native, and due to his discharge from the military spent a year here in Detroit with her during WWII, specifically the winter of 1944 wherein he was employed at the Federal-Mogul Foundry. He had an office job there and spent most of his time slacking off reading literature. That, and the fact that he had a friend in Grosse Pointe to dispense party money to him on demand might say something about his authenticity as a grizzled, drugged-out vagabond beat poet, but who am I to judge?

Though the Hotel Savarine has been well-celebrated as a hangout for Detroit Tigers baseball club players back in the 1940s, it also served that purpose for Detroit Lions football players during the same time period as well. In his book Tales from the Detroit Lions, Charlie Sanders talks about how one might "hear a little talk" about politics here and there in the Lions locker room, "but it was nothing like it was in Abe Kushner's trainer's room in 1940 at the Hotel Savarine" Sanders says.

Quite often there were political debates going on between Whizzer White, the star running-back (who also happened to be a Rhodes Scholar, and future Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), and guard John Wiethe, who was running for state assembly in Ohio. Both players, Sanders notes, were named All-Pro that season. 

Sanders went on to recount another story once written about by newspaper man Edgar Hayes of the Detroit Times, where during a particularly heated debate coach Potsy Clark said that if a certain candidate won in the current election he would buy a farm and quit coaching. After Coach Clark lost the bet, the team gathered in Kushner's trainer's room at the Savarine to heckle him. Abe Kushner was the Lions trainer in those days, and organized a basketball team in 1940 featuring mostly Lions players, called Abie's Babies. They actually wore trunks that looked like baby diapers and had a baby bottle on the front of their jersey, and barnstormed around the state for cheap-ticket audiences.

Another book, Fun at Work, Hudson Style: Tales from the Hudson Motor Car Company by Harry F. Kraus, mentions in passing that most of the new hires in the nearby Hudson plant's engineering department lived at the Hotel Savarine. The Hudson Motors plant used to stand at East Jefferson & Conner, six blocks west of this hotel, across from both Continental Motors, and Chalmers Motors. I explored the Hudson Motors Body Plant in a different post.

I didn't climb the old sign frame, partly because I didn't want to advertise my presence to everyone on Jefferson Avenue, but mainly because there was a falcon's nest up there and the owners were home, and in a rather testy mood. So unfortunately that view will have to wait until another day.

The light court reminded me a bit of the Statler Hotel, on a smaller scale:

The views off of this roof, as recommended to me by my trusted colleague Navi, were unexpectedly pleasurable and unique.

Granted, we were far away from the downtown skyline, and the river was barely in view, but just something about this location in the middle of the east-side prairiehood just made it extremely pleasurable on a summer's eve.

I have to admit, despite its odd location, I must rank this amongst my favorite rooftops in the city, probably on par with the Hotel Seward.

The view east to the Grosse Pointe border included the legendary Vanity Ballroom:

Even though the hotel itself lies dark and defunct, its thoroughly 1920s name curiously lives on in the form of a jazz and swing ensemble of musicians from Oakland County, calling themselves The Hotel Savarine Society Orchestra, performing popular music of the 1920s and early '30s at events such as classic car shows.

Music was apparently fairly important at the Hotel Savarine as it was in many similar hotels back in the Jazz Age. Often each hotel of note would have its own band, performing nightly in the hotel's lounge to entertain guests. As a hotel manager, having a good house orchestra and bandleader was important for drawing guests to your establishment.

A 1943 issue of Billboard recorded that a man named Frank Kini was doubling as magician-emsee in the Continental Room of the Savarine Hotel at that time. That was the same time period in which Kerouac was frequenting the Savarine.

Such news blurbs were common in Billboard in those days; a 1946 issue announces that the pianist Helen Murphy was currently opening at the Hotel Savarine, and elsewhere on the same page marks the opening of the new Satire Room in the Hotel Eddystone and an appearance at the Penobscot Club by singer Jerri Blanchard.

Drexel Street slices its way north through the prairie:

To the south was a mix of new infill housing and surviving 1910s-20s bungalows, with Peche Island in the background:

To the northwest, the Chrysler empire:

Looking west on East Jefferson Avenue:

New Center, seen behind the Chrysler Jefferson East Assembly Plant:

I found this zoom view of the Continental Motors Plant, with the Budd Wheel Plant behind it to be quite cool:

Houses clustered on Lenox Street:

The cupolas and chimney of Jackson School are visible in the distance here, to the north:

Hotel Whittier is seen to the left of the RenCen in this shot:

I didn't have to pay a penny for this advertising:

From this height, using a zoom lens can really highlight the desolation of some of this city's outermost areas, and accentuate just how much tree cover there is.

A freighter of the Algoma line approaching Belle Isle:

The glorious sunset I had hoped for was showing no signs of coming, so I made my way back out of the building on this late summer's eve.

Here's a postcard I stole from somewhere online showing the original appearance of the exterior, as well as the "Famous Fiesta Bar," which was lavishly air-conditioned and decorated to appease even the most discriminating postwar aesthete:

Undoubtedly our buddy Jack Kerouac tossed back more than a few brewskis at that snazzy bar, possibly while gossiping with one or two of his heros on the Detroit Tigers. Apparently Kerouac was also acquainted with a few of Detroit's famous jazz musicians, Tommy Flanagan and Elvin Jones. When the Village Vanguard jazz club was the place to be in Manhattan, the book Jazz In Detroit by Mark Stryker tells a story of a night where the three ended up at Flanagan's apartment for a jam session. Kerouac apparently said something outrageous that Elvin and Flanagan took offense to, and Elvin threatened to kill Kerouac. There's no more detail than that, but now you know every little bit of detail I can glean for you on Kerouac's relation to Detroit...have I sufficiently tarnished his image in your eyes yet? ;)

History of Wayne County and the City of Detroit, Vol. II, Clarence M. Burton, p. 892
Fun at Work, Hudson Style: Tales from the Hudson Motor Car Company, by Harry F. Kraus, p. 27
You'll Be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac, by Edie Kerouac-Parker, p. 27
Billboard, Vol. 55, No. 36, September 4, 1943
Charlie Sanders's Tales from the Detroit Lions, by Charlie Sanders, p. 126-127
Billboard Vol. 58, No. 36, September 7, 1946
"Winter of His Discontent," Metro Times, January 20, 2010, by John Cohassey

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