Lights Out for the King of the Corridor

May, 2006.

Sitting suspiciously close to the Detroit Masonic Temple along Cass Avenue is a large abandoned hotel that was once known as the Hotel Fort Wayne, and later the Hotel American. It was built in 1926, with 300 guest rooms.

I first snuck into this 11-story beast one night in January of 2006 on a spur-of-the-moment tip from a friend of a friend, who lived in Brush Park and happened to keep a steel fire-escape ladder in his possession. I did not ask how or why, but a couple awkward minutes later were inside.

It quickly became evident however that we had aroused the suspicions of a local security guard, so we had to make a hasty leap back down into the alley and make our escape, but my memory of briefly seeing the hotel's fancy ballroom area lit up dimly in the eerie glow of the streetlights that night was a big precipitating factor in my making it a point to come back as soon as an easier access method appeared.

Of course anyone from around here knows that the Cass Corridor was at one time Detroit’s most notorious skid row for decades. Detroitblog once described it as "the wild, lawless home of the dregs of society." Depravity was omnipresent on any given night, he wrote, as the streets were "usually crawling with people at 3am, and just about everyone you saw at that hour was doing something wrong or illegal, or both," and this hotel was right in the middle of it.
Back before the cleanup of the area began, that corner was the Cass Corridor’s epicenter, the halfway point where all the neighborhood’s sleazy offerings were particularly concentrated–hooker hotels lined Temple to the east, freelance drug dealers stood along the sidewalks in each direction, a liquor store across the street always had a long line, the transvestite bar next door was usually packed, and Cass Park down the street wasand still ispopulated almost exclusively by roaming homeless people.
The Hotel American was the king of all the fleabag hotels in the Corridor when it closed in the early 2000s, but today it sits right in the midst of some of Detroit's hottest "comeback" real estate areas.

One may wonder why this hotel was originally named after Fort Wayne, the oft-forgotten but still standing c.1842 military fort in Southwest Detroit, that is only known (if at all) amongst Detroiters as the fort where "no battles ever happened." Seems like kind of a random choice to us in this day and age, especially when no one seems to find Fort Wayne a particularly glorious namesake (despite its deep and extremely colorful history). I guess the attitude was different back in 1926 when the name was chosen, and memory of the fort's important role in the city's history was stronger.

But think back for a moment to some other Detroit hotels of note...

...The Hotel Fort Shelby should come to mind, so-named because it sits upon the spot where Detroit's second fort once stood. By now you are probably already facepalming yourself for not having realized the connection sooner, because naturally the long-demolished Hotel Pontchartrain was named after Detroit's first fort, Fort Pontchartrain. Ah-ha...naming this hotel after Detroit's third fort made a complete set.

Now to figure out the connection between it and the Masonic Temple next-door. This carving above the door seemed to imply some sort of connection to a fraternal order:

A circa-2007 entry from the old Detroitblog says that the hotel was commissioned and operated by the Knights of Pythias:
The Pythians organized a company, the Fort Wayne Hotel and Realty Company, to operate the hotel, and appointed Albert E. Hamilton, potentate of the Moslem Temple, Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, as directing manager.
The Pythians’ Wayne Lodge No. 104 occupied the entire second floor of the hotel, and anticipated a permanent enough presence to have their name carved in stone above their entrance on Temple, next to the Masonic Temple, where the lettering still remains, crisp as ever, just above the row of plywood boards sealing the ground floor.
The Knights of Pythias actually have a Michigan connection, in that they were founded by Justus H. Rathbone, a former Keweenaw County schoolteacher who wrote their original ritual in 1859.

The Detroit architectural firm of Weston & Ellington designed this hotel. One of the partners, Harold S. Ellington, had been a construction engineer for the Stroh Brewery in 1912. Weston & Ellington also went on to design the Metropolitan Building, and the Wardell Apartment Hotel (now the Park-Shelton) across from the DIA, but they got their start in designing institutional structures.

These included the Burtha M. Fisher Home for the Aged, the Sarah Fisher Home for Children, as well as the Arnold Home for the Aged. After Prohibition ended, Weston & Ellington took on brewery expansion projects as a means of staying alive through the Great Depression. They designed the Schmidt Brewery, a new brewhouse for Goebel Brewery, a stock house for Stroh's, as well as Vernor's bottling plant.

The Hotel Fort Wayne went bankrupt in 1933, and after changing hands several times and continuing to struggle through the Great Depression, it eventually came back to success and prominence. According to one source, the Hotel Fort Wayne was bought by a wealthy Detroit financier named David Katz, who invested in hotels and real estate. He owned four other Detroit hotels including the Royal Palm and the Eddystone (which he also bought out of bankruptcy from Lew Tuller in 1928).

Over six years ago, in a long-abandoned travel agency on the third floor of the building at 125 Michigan Avenue, I found a tri-fold pamphlet printed by the American Hotel Association, which probably dates to the late 1950s and advertises the Hotel Fort Wayne. On the reverse side, it advertises the Hotel Metropole in Cincinnati.

"For gracious living in Detroit," it recommended, the Hotel Fort Wayne was modern, distinctive, and offered high value at low prices—which started from $3.50 per night according to the pamphlet. The Fort Wayne's telephone number was TEmple 1-8600, but in my research I have also seen TE2-9797 used.

Amenities of this "largely" air-conditioned hotel included free overnight parking, a coffee shop and cocktail bar, barber shop and beauty salon, news and cigar stands, banquet halls, valet service, a bowling alley (which Detroitblog said was in the basement, though since it flooded I never saw it myself), convention rooms, a lounge, and some fantastic modern wonder known as "radio-television."

"Those who demand the best in comfort make the Fort Wayne Hotel their home away from home when in Detroit," the pamphlet proclaimed. The cocktail bar was touted as the "nationally-famous" Burgundy Bar. I attempted to fact-check this boisterous claim, expecting to find some obscure reference to it in a 1940s issue of Billboard, but it seemed unlikely that this off-the-main-circuit hotel would have any kind of big cachet to it.

Unsurprisingly there it was, in the July 27, 1946 Billboard, though it was being called the Burgundy "Cafe" back then. Sadly, no indication of the Burgundy's national prowess on the lounge circuit was given, and instead only laments that the business conditions in the trade were currently poor. Nonetheless the article reported that many local operations were going ahead with expansion plans, including the Burgundy.

A dance floor was being added by taking over part of the lobby space of the hotel, and meanwhile the Burgundy—which had "recently dropped even a pianist"—was closed for remodeling and enlargement. The owner of the operation was listed as Peter Parker, the former owner of the Ambassador Club and Parker's Restaurant.

Several other issues of Billboard came up as mentioning the Burgundy Cafe, such as a review of the newly opened establishment in the May 1947 issue, which described it as a "swank spot," where Dardanelle and Her Men of Music (later called the Dardanelle Trio) headlined the debut night with most of the music and dancing acts, while The Imaginators "did some convincing mimicry," with their sometimes comically exaggerated vocal tracks all played "on discs."

The Burgundy Cafe had been working on changing their emphasis from music to performance, and "present fare" was a "well-diversified all-music selection" according to the review. Helen Murphy was retained as the lull pianist, and after 9pm there was a $2 cover.

Other acts I saw listed in other issues of Billboard as having performed at the Burgundy in those days included: Tung Pin Soo, Irish tenor Jimmy Gavagan, Charley Chaney, swing organist Ray Regan, Jimmy McPartland, and others.

The October 5th, 1946 Billboard said that the Burgundy's policy was alternating an orchestra for dancing with a piano-vocal team for interludes. Its location in the Hotel Fort Wayne made it "a natural for showbiz people, as this hotel has long had a heavy following."

At first I was surprised by this claim, but then I realized that the hotel was immediately next to the Masonic Temple, which had the largest theatrical stage in the city, as well as other performance halls.

Naturally, entertainers who were in town performing at the Masonic could have stayed at the Hotel Fort Wayne. Perhaps this business of being "nationally famous" wasn't so farfetched after all. The Dardanelle Trio broadcasted "thrice weekly" according to one issue, which seems to indicate that it was indeed a hopping joint.

Times were good for the hotel until the 1960s, which of course was when the Cass Corridor began to nosedive into decline. That was also when it received the name change to the "Hotel American." Detroitblog wrote that the hotel "was sued in the early '60s by model Virginia DeLuce, who alleged that she was bitten by a rat during her stay there." The hotel lost the suit, and of course this did nothing to help its image.

In 1966 a $2 million fraud scandal involving owner David Katz caused the collapse of his business empire, and subsequently his health. A mere two years later, disgruntled service employees on strike over the terms of their latest contract made false bomb threats at the hotel, and a couple rooms were even set on fire. The labor strife was ironed out but the damage to the Hotel American's reputation was permanent.

In 1970 the hotel changed hands again, bought up by local businessman Edwin Munro, and it reopened as a hotel as well as offering apartments to senior citizens and college students, "two groups that couldn’t have less in common," Detroitblog wrote. "The odd formula didn’t last long. Neither group enjoyed sharing living space with the increasingly shady tenants," and so the hotel began its terminal downward slide into becoming the biggest flophouse in the Corridor.

There was a brief renovation attempt in the 1990s, but that stalled out and by the early 2000s the structure was boarded up. Or, "shuttered," as the newspapers like to call it in their arcane lingo.

Ever the macabre wordsmith, John Carlisle wrote of the hotel's last dying breath on his Detroitblog in  February 2007:
For years after the hotel closed one eerie lightbulb remained lit around the clock, hanging from the ceiling on the second floor, in a room with a wide window facing Cass. It cast a spooky, pale glow on the room’s walls, whose chipped paint and faded plaster gave the floor a sick hue. It was visible from the street, even from a block or two away, and added to the creepy atmosphere of the neighborhood and the hotel within it. After shining steadily for years, it burned out late last fall, plunging the hotel into a final darkness.
I too remember noticing when that last brave lightbulb finally flickered out in early 2006, and I knew then that it wouldn't be long before the hordes of zombie scrappers broke their way in and began feasting on its copper guts in the dead of night.

This large skylighted room on the second floor was the main ballroom that I had seen in the dark on my first visit.

On the floor in there I found this old Faygo service/rental invoice, dated August 23, 1980, and marked by someone's pen as "Past due":

In the process of rooting around in the lobby I also acquired myself an old room key, a favored souvenir of any serial trespasser:

Heading upstairs.

Most guest floors were the typical monotony of emptiness and detritus, but overall the building was in solid shape.

The hotel was designed with many larger suites:

The open fire stair design lent itself to ease of scrapping, since the hacked pipes and radiators from upper floors could be delivered to the bottom with great convenience:

Another great thing about this hotel is that while there is no skyline view from the windows on the west side of the hotel, there are some great up-close views of the fine masonry details of the Masonic Temple nextdoor:

On a lark, I decided to look up what had been here on this corner prior to construction of this hotel. The Sanborn map for 1921 shows the site to be occupied by the "Wayne Castle" of the Knights of Pythias, a lodge hall. It does not show a date of construction, but it appears to be a structure with a pitched roof.

Well, some of those up-close architectural views were a little on the austere side, I suppose:

There is a light court in the center of the hotel, ensuring all rooms have some sort of a view:

Across the street, here is the infamous Temple Bar still in its original decor, before it was painted all brown:

Come to think of it, that was back when a draft of beer there cost 75 cents. With the influx of more college kids in the past ten years, it costs quite a bit more to drink there now, you might say. Behind it in that photo can be seen the Alhambra Apartments.

Some guest rooms in here were empty, others were jammed with old furniture, some of it rather interesting. but since I didn't photograph that kind of thing back then, too bad.

The hallways are a little narrower than those of today, but by no means cramped:

Here is a view down to the glass block sidewalk that once would have provided illumination for the hotel's extended basement, I presume, where its bowling alley was located:

You can taste the irony on this one, even without licking it...

That photo on the front of the phone book was taken inside the now abandoned Pontiac Silverdome. The fact that the much-touted Super Bowl XL had only just moved out of town a couple months ago when I took this photo was not lost on me, as many people were still questioning whether or not it had really been the economic boon that it was promised to be.

Back then in 2006, things were steadily getting much, much worse for Detroit, and would continue to do so for several years.

At the 11th floor was where all the real water damage was isolated. This was probably the worst of it:

One night in late December of 2010 a young intoxicated male who was in the building mistook a set of open elevator doors for the stairwell, and executed a pretty graceful jackknife dive from the fourth floor all the way to the iron wreckage in the flooded basement at the bottom of the shaft.

His friends were able to successfully extract him from this predicament before emergency crews arrived, and amazingly he survived and recovered, with only some scars as a reminder.

The roof...

There was a great view of the SS Kresge Building on Second, as well as old Tiger Stadium and Michigan Central Station in the distance:

The views of downtown from this hotel are excellent. That is, unless the newly-constructed "Pizzarena" is blocking said view...

Note the blank spot to the right of this parking lot where the old William Apartments used to stand:

Notice too that the Hotel Charlevoix, and Elizabeth Street Garage are still standing in this shot:

New and Old Cass Tech, and the cranes beginning to erect the new casino:

Sweet views of the Masonic Temple itself:

The Woodward corridor, seen from afar:

The Hotel Eddystone and Hotel Park Avenue:

First Unitarian Church can be seen here, to the right of First Presbyterian Church:

Looking north up Cass, toward Wayne State University and New Center:

Happily there were no crumbly Wurlitzer-esque masonry issues up here:

The neighborhood to the south:

Some more detail shots from the Masonic Temple...

A lone Cass nomad, wearily pushing his haul down the street:

A perfect view of that mysterious "V" split that Cass Avenue does:

Now you can sort of see the Weston & Ellington influence here, and a similarity to the Metropolitan Building:

I can't help but remember the time that John and I were up on this roof one Saturday night, drunkenly messing with the Cass Creatures hanging out in front of the Temple Bar (back before it changed from a TSTV hooker hangout to a college kid hangout) by lofting snowballs near them as they solicited their "services" on the streetcorner below us. Thankfully, we have grown up since then (I think).

With the 2017 completion of the new Detroit Redwings hockey arena practically across the street, I foresee the Hotel Fort Wayne's chances of survival improving greatly.

Hopefully the lurid tales I've just related from its dark and seedy past won't scare off investors or potential guests to the building. If only people knew what foulness had occurred in some of the now-renovated and occupied downtown buildings while they were abandoned...heh.

American Hotel Association pamphlet, c.1960s
"Biz or No Biz, Detroit Spot To Add Dancing," The Billboard, July 27, 1946, p. 40
Advertisement, The Billboard, October 12, 1946, p. 39
"Detroit Showbiz New Hangout," The Billboard, October 5, 1946, p. 34
"Night Club Reviews," The Billboard, May 3, 1947, p. 40
"In Short," The Billboard, June 21, 1947, p. 40
"Magic," The Billboard, February 1, 1947, p. 29
"Vacancy," (February 8th, 2007)
Detroit's Historic Hotels and Restaurants, by Patricia Ibbotson, p. 62
City of Detroit City Council Historic Designation Advisory Board Final Report, Proposed Eddystone Hotel Historic District
Sanborn map, Detroit Vol. 2, Sheet 32 (c.1921)

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