Waking the Dead, Pt. 1

Photos date from March 2004, and are scanned from prints.

The Fort Shelby Hotel had a lot of cool features that made it fun to wander around in—multi-level roofs, a ballroom with a stage, two courtyards, a grand lobby, and lots of nifty stuff left behind.

Not to mention the view from the 21-story tower was fairly unique compared to the rest of the "Dirty Dozen," which were mostly clustered around the Grand Circus Park "Skyscraper Graveyard" as it was sometimes being called back then. The Fort Shelby was also the reigning third-tallest abandoned building in Detroit at that time, behind the Broderick Tower and Book-Cadillac Hotel.

Somewhat like the Book Tower it had an older, shorter section that the taller tower was added onto. The original 10-story building was built in 1916, and the 21-story addition designed by Albert Kahn was complete in 1927; in my opinion it has a somewhat confusing floor-plan due to the integration of the two different halves, and the fact that the older half was divided into three wings by its two interior courtyards.

The entry routine for the Fort Shelby was some pretty haggard backwoods-type @#$%, as we had to lower ourselves by a rope that we brought, 12 feet down into the basement through a former vent or skylight opening over the employee locker-room area.

Getting back out was the same thing but in reverse, meaning one had to scale the wobbly, Jenga-like mountain of desks, cabinets, and chairs we had erected until one was high enough to reach the rope again and climb out. It almost goes without saying that this resulted in at least one mishap over the years before that method of entry was outmoded.

Like the Statler, the basement had another section that was on a lower grade than the rest, which appeared to be the laundry room. Inside that area was a very deep square pit, filled with a lake at least two feet deep. Also in the basement we found some really nifty old Stroh's and Goebel's bottles.

Naturally, a paper case of Stroh's was appropriated for the museum. We found a closet later that had several unopened bottles of disco-era-looking 7-Up leftover from when the hotel closed.

One of my comrades opened one and poured it out—it still had fizz! So I wiped the asbestos off of one and tried it. It tasted just like the day it was bottled. I swiped as many as I could carry.

Going upstairs, the lobby in this place—though dark—was very spacious, and covered in marble and mirrors. I don't know why they had so many mirrors back in the 1970s...with as bad as people looked back then, who would want to see their reflection? This hotel closed in 1974, the height of the horror.

I felt dirty just being in here; in the ensuing 30 years since the hotel had closed, the musky stench of the Disco Era still had not yet had sufficient time to air out of this place.

The main desk was rather impressive, and behind it in hundreds of little nooks were room-keys still tucked away, each with a room number and the name of the hotel on it.

David Kohrman of ForgottenDetroit—whose second favorite place in the world was probably the Hotel Fort Shelby—says that it was designed by the Chicago architects Richard E. Schmidt, Garden, & Martin, with 450 guest rooms, a formal main dining room, and a coffee shop. It was Schmidt, Garden, & Martin's only work in Detroit.

Fort Shelby's original mission was to "provide affordable first class accommodations to the traveling public." Considering this, the reason for its location suddenly becomes clear—it was near both the steamer docks and the Union Depot, as well as the DUR (streetcar) station to the Michigan Central Station. It was also built at less than half of the cost of Hotel Statler, and thus offered competitive rates, as well as many new innovations. 

Like the Statler Hotel, each room had its own bath, as well as modern heating. The hotel owned a parking garage built across the street. But the hotel's most notable feature was the debut of the "Servidoor." David Korhman explains:
A servidor was a compartment built into a guest room door. Each side of the compartment had a door and a signal. A guest could place an item of clothing needing pressing into the compartment and a hotel employee would open the Servidoor from the hall to collect it. It could also be used to deliver items to the guest without disturbing them. The Servidoor's most praised service was its removing the need to tip employees. The Fort Shelby offered the first Servidoor service in Detroit.
One may recall that the Lee Plaza still has Servidoors installed to this day.

Hotel Fort Shelby proved to be quite successful, so they planned to add two 450-room wings to the existing structure, as well as a new restaurant known as the "Empire Room," which would become a focal point of Detroit society for decades. The Shelby's largest meeting room, the "Crystal Ballroom" offered a large event space with a stage. Other smaller meeting rooms complimented the Crystal Ballroom and its adjoining kitchen.

The Fort Shelby would have been the largest hotel in Detroit if all the expansions had come to fruition, but only the first tower was completed, in 1927. The decision to borrow capital for the project would "come back to haunt them," Kohrman says, by the Great Depression. The hotel defaulted in 1934, halting the expansion plans, and there was at least one sit-down strike, but thankfully with the massive mobilization that WWII brought, the Fort Shelby was soon back in the black, and thriving.

The postwar era saw the large chains dominating the hotel industry, with Hilton, Sheraton, and Albert Pick buying up independent hotels across the country. In 1951 this hotel became the Pick-Fort Shelby, though unlike what Hilton and Sheraton did to the Statler and Book-Cadillac hotels, Albert Pick left the hotel's original decor mostly alone.

The Crystal Ballroom:

As you probably know, the death of the downtown hotels was brought on by the birth of the expressway and the suburban motel, but the Fort Shelby was hurt doubly by the decline of the railroad and subsequent loss of visitor traffic when the Union Depot closed in the 1970s. Furthermore, it never had quite enough convention space to attract large conventions. Pick closed the Fort Shelby in December, 1973.

The hotel reopened in February 1974, under the ownership of three siblings, each of whom was below the age of 25, and lacked any business experience. They dumped a $3,000,000 renovation onto the poor old hotel, which at this point basically equated to holding down an old pig and putting lipstick on it. Most of the public spaces were covered in hideous color schemes, and converted some of the guest rooms into apartments. The whole business model was overtly geared to "youth," almost as a party palace.

In 2005, Detroitblog wrote (in one of his most classic entries) that the hotel "aspired to be a swingers' party for weirdos, hipsters, dopers, and, from the looks if it, castoff bit-players from TV shows like Maude."
Ah, the Shelby—their motto might as well have been "Come in and Get Laid by Creeps." 
Another slogan the hotel introduced at the time was “It’s Alive at the Shelby!” an ambiguous phrase that could’ve referred to any number of things there: parties, the spirit of the '70s, bedbugs, the walls after the acid kicked in, or pubic crabs.
...Or the Frankenstein experiment that was the reincarnation of this old hotel's clammy cadaver, for that matter. "It's alive, Igorit's alive!"

Not surprisingly this "youth-centric" combination led to a dismal financial failure—not to mention problems with crime—and the hotel closed permanently three months later. The apartment aspect of the business stayed in place for some time, but as the Shelby descended into the depths of seediness they too began emptying out, and before long the restaurants on the main floor started closing one by one. Less than a year after reopening, it closed for good. The last tenant, Shelby's Bar, managed to remain open until 1998.

The Fort Shelby Hotel was put on the National Historic Register in 1983, which should illustrate just how meaningless that truly can be when it comes to preserving a structure.

One interesting note however is that the Detroit poet, marijauna decriminalization martyr, White Panther Party founder, and mastermind of the rock gods MC5, John Sinclair also managed a club in this new incarnation of the the Fort Shelby, known as the "Rainbow Room." Recall that the legendary Grande Ballroom had recently closed up right around the time this new Rainbow Room opened.

Who is John Sinclair you ask? If you were born in Metro-Detroit between the Hippie Generation and Generation-X and you don't know who he is, then you are a square, mannnn.

In an old zine called Detroit Discovery, an ad for the Rainbow Room asks, "You wanna dance, drink and carouse? John Sinclair's new dance bar offers rock, and a chance to regale those weathered spirits." There was a $3 cover from Wednesday through Saturday, "but the color and commotion are worth it" the ad reassured, through a tightly-clenched toke. Clearly the Fort Shelby's helm had been spun around to follow a very different constellation.

David Kohrman wrote that when he explored places like this, he preferred to visualize them in their prime: "I do my best to not think about what took place within the rooms during the hotel’s last days."
There is one room where it is impossible to not dwell on those groovy days. The floor is littered with dirty '70s clothes, old newspapers, and other knick-knacks. It appears to have been the residence of a swinger dude. There is an advertisement announcing the reopening of the hotel’s jazz lounge where one could go to listen to jazz, JAZZ, and j-a-z-z. You were also welcome even if you were “doing a foggy day in London Town.” Given that this is the '70s we are talking about, I think I have a good idea what that means. 
Better still, the floor is littered with Polaroids, some are headshots, others of the ladies he met during his clubbing. Most of the pictures are faded, but a few are still laughably clear. One includes our swinger dude himself, with his arm around a bewildered gal and looking very much like he was "doing a foggy day." The photos all have handwritten notes on the back, many say something like this: "I forgot her name." Yep, sleezeball.
I remember seeing those exact items, and those exact rooms. This place was chock-full of them, but like David, I didn't see anything about the 1970s that I wanted to dwell on, and never bothered to photograph any of these artifacts, or look at them for more than a moment before dropping them and moving on, brushing my hands together vigorously to rid them of the psychological crud that is stuck to anything from that era. My main photography focus is usually the architectural features of the building, and any context to its surroundings such as views from the windows, or roof.

I am really unsure as to what this next shot was of, and in fact when I was flipping through my old photos to construct this post, for a minute I didn't believe it was even in the Fort Shelby, but slowly a faint recollection of this did come to me; I think it was in the basement:

Typically the rooms and hallways of the guest floors were very trashed, and show the brutal puncture-wounds where the plumbing was hacked out of the building. Climbing a stairwell allows you to get a good view of every bathroom you pass on the way up, through the two-foot wide holes punched behind the toilets. They were nicely tiled, and the medicine cabinets' mirrors were thick plate glass. Even the towel racks were beautiful, fashioned of solid chrome plated metal, and there were real porcelain tubs.

Despite this horrendous damage, the hotel was restored and is fully functional today. I offer this as a refutation to all those who think the Hotel Park Avenue or Hotel Eddystone need to be demolished because they're "too far gone."

There were two courtyards, rectangular and parallel to each other, about 10 stories deep. Again, there was debris that had been thrown from the upper windows, some of it from the roof of the 21-story tower—a much farther drop than that in the Statler's courtyard. The glossy, glazed bricks that faced inward on the interior courtyards made for a spectacular mirror effect on sunny days:

The old original telephone switchboard—probably constructed with the building in 1917 and far too big to get rid of—still remained in place, almost 90 years later. Evidence in the room suggested that parts of its mainframe had still been in use until modern times:

It was one of the coveted explorers' landmarks in the days of the Dirty Dozen, and a rite of passage to find it; you couldn't say you had "seen" the Fort Shelby until you had found the switchboard. It was an extremely rare find in this day and age to find something like this still sitting around, in-situ. It was one of the things that made the Shelby such a time capsule.

With the 2008 renovation of this hotel, these light-courts have been covered up.

We found our way out onto the roof of the 10-story section, which provided a great view of the buildings along Washington Boulevard.

From there a fire escape led up the spine of the tower.

Like any good old Detroit hotel, the Fort Shelby had an array of differing types of stairwells built at different times in different parts of the building, though I must say overall they were much easier to figure out than the Statler's mess:

Taking up a corner of the 19th floor was the Albert Pick Suite, and it said so right on the door in huge, flourishing gold script. Unfortunately my photo of the door did not come out, but I do have one of the interior. All the hotels in the Albert Pick chain had an "Albert Pick Suite," touted as the "best room in the house" (which was also noted in fancy script on the door). If I recall correctly it was the only one in the building with a fireplace:

There were several convention rooms, given Detroity names like the "Fort Room," "Lafayette Room," "Cass Room," etc., and there was a small kitchen area to service them. This is also where the large "Sky Room" was located, but you could hardly tell due to the fact that it had mostly disintegrated.

The stairwells in the tower got awfully treacherous near the top; water damage was almost complete by the 20th floor (it was actually worse than much of the Statler). The steps were covered in the plaster detritus eroded from the now-nonexistent walls, which made climbing the steps more like climbing a sand dune, while the helix of the stairwell appeared to be floating in space, unsupported in any way after the walls around it had melted into nothingness. You had to be sure-footed as a mountain goat to get up there.

Another less sketch-tacular stair (it had a railing) led up into the service penthouses:

One of the coolest things up in the service levels there was a big room that was just stuffed with old luggage, apparently that guests had left behind over the years. I found one with a tag on it dated to Halloween of 1969, and which had also been checked at Michigan Central Station. These were mostly filled with old mildewy garments, like polka-dotted dresses and bellbottoms and crap. Some of it was some pretty atrocious pimp gear.

In a hallway I came across two old beer cans from long-defunct Detroit breweries, Pfeiffer's, and Goebel:

Elevator  hoist motors:

The roof was very interesting, having about three different levels, the lower of which was divided into two separate halves. From here the view of the river and the Ambassador Bridge were the best from any abandoned building in town except perhaps the Boblo Terminal, but you could barely see the RenCen.

The plumes from the Ford Rouge Plant and Zug Island were easily seen, as was Joe Louis Arena, seemingly almost across the street. On the north side of the building, directly below us was Channel 4 News headquarters. 

This would be an awesome place to set up for the fireworks, and Detroitblog eventually did, but I never made it for this one. I always preferred the Wurlitzer, Metropolitan, Broderick, and Brewster-Douglass Towers.

Looking down at the two light courts of the hotel's older wing:

The Fort Shelby was reopened in December 2008 as a combination hotel and condo conversion, right at about the worst possible economic time for Detroit. After struggling for a bit, it seems to be doing okay now. 

I had some photos I took of the interior post-renovation, but I can't find them now.

CLICK for part two

Detroit Discovery, Daedalus Communications, 1974, p. 8
"Psychedelic Shack," September 28th, 2005 Detroitblog.org
AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture, Eric Hill & John Gallagher, p. 84
Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection


  1. It always annoyed me that the original plaster ceiling of the ballroom was torn out during renovations and replaced with wallpaper with a pattern similar to the plaster. Really stupid if you ask me

    1. Mold may have played an issue with that. Unfortunately the plastering of the time and that of today is not the same and those that can recreate it are becoming as rare as the buildings being saved.


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