Crown Jewel

Photos from spring 2004 and onward. Some are scanned from film prints.

If you don't like the dirty yellowish tinge of arc-sodium streetlight on terra-cotta, you might want to turn away now. Okay, if you're still with me, let's go...

The 14-story neo-Gothic style Metropolitan Building was one of the abandoned hulks that earned a spot on the Detroit Free Press's Dirty Dozen List, which catalogued the hulkiest of the abandonedest of the blighted buildings plaguing downtown Detroit by the mid-2000s. For us, it was a sort of a shopping list that we slowly checked off as we were able to infiltrate each one and explore it floor by floor. By the way, there was a cumulative total of about 225 floors in the Dirty Dozen list.

It stood huddled in the center of the densest concentration of abandoned towers in the city (which was dubbed the "Skyscraper Graveyard" by Jose Camilo Vergara), and was an immediate neighbor to the equally tall and abandoned Broderick Tower and Wurlitzer Building. The Metropolitan is also one of the most architecturally unique (and eye-popping) of any building in the city, by virtue of its strange shape and layers of wedding cake frosting.

The V-shaped alley that wrapped around the Metro was sort of a legendary, magical place in my mind, because it gave clandestine access to all of these abandoned hulks, not to mention the Madison Theater. It was made even more surreal by the presence of this sign bolted to the side of the Metro, a sign that could only ever exist in a place like pre-2010 Detroit:

Really? You're not going to stabilize the falling brick, or even put a scaffolding around the building to protect pedestrians? You're just going to slap a sign on the side of it and call 'er good? K...

There were some pretty nice up-close views of the Metro's fancy details from the Wurlitzer Building across the alley:

The city did eventually place a scaffolding along the front sidewalk of the building, and abate the loose chunks of terra cotta that were threatening to plummet earthward and puncture the roof of some hapless vehicle, or some hapless Tigers fan's cranium. They then tacked black netting over it kind of like you see along the highways through mountain passes where there is loose rock that could avalanche into the roadway.

The "contaminated materials" being referred to by the same sign were traces of radioactive paint leftover from the building's past as a center for jewelry making; not only was jewelry sold here in its many shops, but it was also made here on the upper floors, some of which included the old watches with the glow-in-the-dark faces that were hand-painted with Radium, back before people realized that radiation wasn't good for you.

Some 1940s cars also had the same treatment on their speedometers, for night driving. At any rate, the people (usually women) who painted these kinds of things have come to be known as the "Radium Girls" because they all died of its horrible withering effects at a very young age.

According to the AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture, the Metropolitan Building was built in 1925 on a diamond-shaped lot in the center of the geometrical wonder known as downtown Detroit's "Necklace District," because it resembles a necklace from above. It was designed by Detroit architectural firm Weston & Ellington, who also designed the Hotel Fort Wayne. 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 Wardell Apartment Hotel (now the Park-Shelton) across from the DIA, 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.

There was also a sweet view of the Metropolitan from the 16th floor of the Broderick Tower:

...In that shot you can see where a huge section of the "battlements" either fell off or was removed from the building's tail end.

The lobby wasn't quite what I was expecting at first, and was a sort of Middle Ages throwback.

Looking back towards the front doors:

Carved wooden rafter beams:

I guess you could argue that for all of the water damage the building's upper floors suffered, the lobby's florid plasterwork was in remarkably good shape.

The AIA Guide states that the three lower floors of the Metropolitan Building had shops catering mostly to females, while the upper floors were mainly occupied by jewelry manufacturers and wholesalers.

The website detroit1701 says that jewelers’ lathes at that time were powered by compressed air, so there was a compressor in the basement and pneumatic lines were piped into suites on the upper floors to provide for hookups. There were also gas lines for their small forges as well.

I have a feeling that the Shinola watchmaking company (whose every move the news media can't seem to shut up about) would simply love the caché that moving into this building as their new headquarters would bestow upon them. If only it had been move-in ready a few years ago.

David Kohrman's writeup on ForgottenDetroit mentions that a mezzanine was added to the lobby in 1927, which I believe you can see here:

The demise of this building was due to nothing unpredictable; jewelers moved to the suburbs as places like Northland Mall began dominating the retail industry. The building was finally foreclosed on and boarded up in 1979, which is how the city came to own it, and they have held it ever since.

In 1997 the city had all the hazardous materials cleaned out of the Metro, and another cleanup of remaining low-level contaminants was done in 2003 in preparation for a possible redevelopment, which obviously did not come to fruition. The black anti-avalanche netting was not installed until at least five or more years later.

In September of 2014, Curbed reported that some renovation-like work appeared to be happening on the building, but interest in redeveloping the structure has still been pretty low up until lately.

Ironically enough, the long-ailing Northland Mall is in the same process of closing down for good even as the recent news of the Metropolitan's revival is being announced. I honestly never thought I would live to see the day when the trend of Detroit suburban sprawl might be reversed.

ForgottenDetroit also has some good photos from the 2000s, one of which shows the old Krieg Church Goods sign on the front of the building, a feature that I had totally forgotten about until just now. It was visible when I first started going into the Metropolitan, but was probably removed during the facade cleanup prior to Super Bowl XL in 2006.

I found it interesting because if I recall correctly we ran across a bunch of old church stuff in the Wurlitzer Building next-door that was printed or sold by them. The Krieg Bros. business has been around in Detroit since at least 1947, according to a Michigan Department of Labor report I turned up in a quick Google search.

Nifty old fluorescent light fixture:

This is one of the shop spaces on the second floor, where undoubtedly many display cases of jewelry would have been:

This was the tail-end of the building that jutted back into the alley:

This thing here looks old enough to where it might actually be an original built-in display case:

Supposedly I had a great uncle who had a shop in this building after WWII, and my grandmother tells me that above the doorway to his office he mounted the Browning Automatic Rifle that he carried. I wonder if he also dealt in plundered Nazi treasures, heh.

Sadly, because of the two cleanups of this building over the years, all furniture and moveable items were gone, and most of the floors looked empty like this:

Hey Mack, what's the big idea? Somebody already cleaned out the joint:

Looking down on one of the Metro's numerous roof is totally covered in shattered terra-cotta that seems to have been raining down for years:

Fast-forward to the upper levels...

This was the last stairway, the one that led up into the building's turret:

Like I said, there were numerous different sections and levels of rooftop to this building, which made it fun to explore from so many different angles. The crown of the building is totally clad in this heavy terra-cotta ornamentation:

Naturally, this was the main photography subject for the Metropolitan Building, and I certainly wasted no opportunity to avail myself of it.

Sadly these upper areas looked to be service levels only, and I doubt very much that the general public was ever allowed up here when the building was open.

Of course, now that residential conversion is on the table, I'm sure that these top floors will become someone's million-dollar-per-month condo, and that the general public will continue to be excluded from enjoying it. On that note, I'm glad I didn't waste any chance to visit it while the building was left abandoned.

Perhaps the eventual new owners of this building will make an allowance for those who love urban observation decks, and find a way to make some part of it accessible without cutting into their bottom line. I wouldn't mind paying a few bucks to go up here once in awhile. Sometimes it's not about how tall a building is, it's about the quality of the view from it.

An old Detroitblog post reminded me of an incident one night in October of 2004, when some "large and clearly deranged guy" got up on the roof of the Metropolitan Building and "began chucking pieces of the building down 15 stories onto John R, drawing many, many cop cars."

He finally came out, wielding a large pipe, and shouting "something about how he was running for president or some such thing. Now that’s a campaign stunt!"

It was possible to get on top of the building's turret, by following a series of ladders:

This is where the building's flagpole is mounted:

It was also where the water pressure tank for the building was hidden:

This was the Met's highest point, unless you shimmied up the flagpole--which I actually did one night, up to about halfway. Too bad it's kind of hard to take photos while clinging on for dear life. If only GoPro existed back then...

This was one of the larger roof trees that had taken root on the was probably 20 feet tall:

The Metropolitan was one of my favorites to visit at night, due to the crazy soft light that played on all the fancy details of the building's crown.

Here's a view of the rear of the Metro, from the V-shaped alley I mentioned near the start of this post:

One of the things about the alley at night was that it came alive with rats...thousands of rats...they could be seen just swarming around if you sat there and watched them from a window. A friend and I did this one night while we were a bit hosed, and tried throwing chunks of brick at them. We were always too slow, so we decided to go down into the alley and start whacking them with a 2x4, which was only slightly more effective, though still pretty much like playing Whack-A-Mole.

It seemed like the alley was hollow underneath, and that it was filled to the brim with nothing but a swarming mass of the vermin, like some horrific Indiana Jones movie scene. Every little crack in the pavement would have them coming or going every couple seconds, to or from the dumpsters that were around. My buddy would throw a brick against the side of the dumpster so that a bunch of them would scramble out from under it heading for safety, and I would start hammering the bastards with the 2x4. Good times!

One interesting thing we definitely noticed was that once the Broderick Tower renovations began, the rat population in the Metropolitan Building seemed to double, as if they had been chased out of one of their strongholds and were forced to crowd into the Metro. That was when the lobby began to really stink like piss and filth.

The view of Merchant's Row from the different roofs of this building was very good.

Maybe a little too good...

And now the Broderick Tower is all lit up with occupied apartments, so standing on the roof of the Metropolitan at night feels sort of like being on a stage with an audience.

Here's the Kaiser-Blair Building (Oslo), which was another fun rooftop:

Looking towards Ford Field and the abhorred 36th District Court:

Alley behind the Wurlitzer Building, before the collapse / brickalanche:

This gratuitous view of the Skyscraper Graveyard doesn't exist anymore, now that the Broderick Tower and David Whitney Building have both been renovated:

The Metropolitan Building definitely reminds me of the Tribune Tower in Chicago, which was built in 1922 and undoubtedly inspired Weston & Ellington's design:

Maybe even the Woolworth Building in New York a little bit, too. The American Furniture Mart Building in Chicago was in the same vein, built a year after the Metro, by yet another different architectural firm.

Look closely and you can see Orion's Belt in this one:

The Book-Cadillac Hotel renovation was still coming along when this photo was taken:

Hmmmm, might've been smoking a little that night, judging by this next photo...

This next shot was inspired by an old photograph taken by Richard Nickel, entitled, "Chicago Cheesecake" appears in the book Richard Nickel's Chicago: Photographs of A Lost City, but sadly I can't find the image anywhere online.

Just can't get enough cheesecake...

Here's another shot from before the rear of the Wurlitzer Building peeled off, shedding about a ton of bricks into the alley, causing it to be blockaded-off for weeks:

All the pointy windows on the 12th floor:

We went to the basement one night on our way out, and I realized that I had never been down there before, for some reason. There was a fancy stair leading down to what appeared to be more shops with glass storefronts. I liked the little "M" medallion on the surprisingly unmolested original bannister:

Photo by a friend
There was only one way to go for this building--UP: one has pushed the button yet though.

Update: As of December 2018, the Metropolitan has reopened as a hotel:

AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture, by Eric Hill & John Gallagher, p. 52, Wednesday, October 6th, 2004
Richard Nickel's Chicago: Photographs of A Lost City, by Richard Cahan & Michael Williams, p. 89

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