Of Flag Warz, United Vandals, and Mayan Prophecy

Photos are mixed from March, 2004 to December, 2006.

The first actual downtown Detroit building that I ever infiltrated was the 18-story United Artists Theater at 150 Bagley. It was on the "Dirty Dozen" list of most offensive abandoned skyscrapers c.2004, according to the Detroit Free Press. We were casually scouting the area and happened to notice that the board covering the front door had somehow been blown clear off, and out into the street—as if the mammoth building had suddenly sneezed. We parked across the street and blinked in disbelief at our good fortune.

As we did this, we observed a lone, backpack-wearing white guy amble up to the entrance, then glance up and down the desolate street before walking right in without noticing us at all. The wind was bitter, and hinting of sleet as we crossed the empty, silent street. He was obviously up to the same crap as us, since there could be no other reason for a young white kid to be in downtown Detroit by himself on a cold, grey March morning in the early 2000s.

We finished gearing-up and hurried toward the yawning, darkened hole to make our own hopefully more-nonchalant entrance. In those days downtown Detroit was not the bustling Gilbertopolis of seamless surveillance that it is today; it was a smorgasbord of vacant towers with wide-open entrances, and so little human presence on weekends that you could probably lay down and take a nap in the middle of any given street. And the homeless often did just that.

We used to say that we were going "window-shopping" downtown...that was our euphemism for browsing the weekly selection of what abandoned skyscrapers had a window open for us to get in, or that we could coax our way into easily enough. Back then there were enough of them routinely sitting open to trespass that you could actually be that choosy of a shopper, or even bring your coupons too if needed (i.e., crowbars). These days a little more discretion is called for, and the selection is nothing like it was. In those days of pervasive downtown silence, the sudden sound of peeling plywood could echo clamorously for blocks around, but there was no one there to hear it.

The United Artists Building was the one that had all the colorful graffitied windows, painted in the early 2000s by the United Vandals, or KJ5 (real name Kevin Joy). The "United Vandals" thing was of course a cynical play on the United Artists name.

I'm not sure who first came up with the theory that the Mayan-themed glyphs painted on the windows were done that way in order to represent a calendar to count down to the Mayan doomsday, but the interior of the building was certainly plastered with the number 2012, which was the year of this supposed Mayan apocalypse. It was December 12th, 2012 to be exact, but perhaps because the glyphs were buffed from the windows in 2005 the world did not come to an end on that day. In fact, it only seems to keep getting steadily worse.

Detroit's connection to the Mayan theme comes from architecture found in the Fisher Theater and Vanity Ballroom, which might be where KJ5 drew his inspiration from.

Once inside the front door we noticed that the lobby had been modernized, and reeked of 1960s mod. I apparently did not even bother to take a photo of this lobby. We then found our way into a strange, wedge-shaped alley with a door leading into the theater portion of the building.

Upon crossing the threshold, the most jaw-dropping sight I had yet beheld in all my days of exploring abandoned buildings opened up before me with a suddenness I was not prepared for. We stood, gaping stupidly in disbelief beside the stage area of the most cavernous, monumental, otherworldly space any of us had ever laid eyes on.

It was a moment I won't forget as long as I live...a thin, blue stream of light briefly trickled in through the hole in the roof, shining through the oculus directly onto the rotted stage like a ghostly limelight, and as our eyes adjusted we could make out from its ambient luminescence the mind-bogglingly extravagant ornamentation lavished on the interior of this world-class theater.

Utterly dumbfounded as to how I should go about trying to photographically document this tremendous place, I spent many minutes agog, merely shuffling around in confusion, neck craned upward in awe and reverence for this chance to view a piece of splendor from a lost time so removed from my own that my modern sensibilities were totally unequipped to understand how such a thing ever came into being. This was my introduction to downtown Detroit exploration; up to this point my asbestos diet had consisted solely of relatively small, banal structures, so this was a bit of a culture shock.

While the grandeur of the spacious theater was overwhelming, so too was the level to which it had been allowed to decay. The floor was piled high with fallen, rotted plasterwork, and the remains of the stage curtains hung down in tatters. Near the back of the main floor was a massive chandelier, weighing possibly 200lbs.

Everything else had been stripped. We fanned out, and each spent the next 20 minutes or so independently doing our best to capture all this on film, despite the low light (back then only one of us had a tripod or a digital camera, and it was a crude, early model). Though I felt that there was no possible way anything could possibly top this experience, my excitement grew as I realized that we had only scratched the surface of this monumental building—an entire skyscraper still loomed above us waiting to be explored.

Here is one of the lovely recessed house lights with colored glass, still almost perfectly intact:

My colleague David Kohrman took many photos of this building that are infinitely better than mine, so I exhort you to check them out HERE.

According to his website forgottendetroit.com, Detroit claims "one of the greatest theater districts in the world, even surpassing that of Chicago." As they say, poverty is one of the greatest preservers of history. The total lack of interest in Detroit real estate for 30 years means virtually nothing was demolished here as compared to cities like Chicago, and thus "Detroiters of today can enjoy the same opulent movie palaces that their grandparents enjoyed"...provided of course someone restores them before they topple over from neglect.

The United Artists theater chain was established in the 1920s by actress Mary Pickford, actors Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, and director D.W. Griffith. Incidentally, Mary Pickford starred in the first movie ever to be shown in Detroit's first dedicated movie house, the Madison Theater, and she was also a regular guest at Granot Loma, the palatial Upper Michigan castle of Louis Kaufman, perched on a cliff overlooking Lake Superior in the Huron Mountains.

United Artists had already built 16 theaters nationwide by the time they decided on a Detroit location, and they hired the renowned Detroit-based theater architect C. Howard Crane to design it, as well as their theaters in Los Angeles and Chicago. All three were designed in the same Spanish-Gothic architectural style, and some of the same molds were even used, but as David Kohrman notes, the Detroit United Artists was unique from all others, partly because of its oddly-angled lot.

C. Howard Crane designed almost all of Detroit's most prominent theaters, including the State Theater, and the Fox Theater, which today still stands in the top three most extravagant theaters ever built in America.

The United Artists (or UA) had a seating capacity of 2,070 people, which was comparatively small considering the Fox held over 5,000. It was one of the first theaters built for film only, screening first-run films--no accomodations for live stage productions were included. This was unique for the time, and a testament to the fact that the motion picture was steadily gaining in popularity. Since it opened when silent movies were still being made an orchestra pit was included, though it wasn't long before talkies made their way into the UA. The theater opened on February 3, 1928, with the film Sadie Thompson, starring Gloria Swanson. 

An entire chapter in the book Detroit's Downtown Movie Palaces, by Michael Hauser and Marianne Weldon is devoted to the United Artists Theater. According to that, the UA claimed Michigan's first glass fiber screen as part of an extensive 1950 renovation, and it was also the first to screen movies in 70mm format, in 1956. The premiere of Otto Preminger's classic Upper Michigan-based film, Anatomy of a Murder was held here in 1950. United Artists also paid "an astonishing $550,000 advance" to 20th Century Fox in 1963 for the exclusive Detroit engagement of the movie Cleopatra.

Vast bronze or iron grilles covered the massive radiators of the theater, sporting a decorative pattern of course:

Making our way up into the highest reaches of the balcony felt like climbing a mountain; an open fire exit door allowed a spill of light to come in:

Along the outer walls of the theater was the greatest water damage, as seen here by this totally stripped wall:

A plaster statue of an Indian maiden, once smiling but now disfigured, stands on her own detritus-covered pedestal:

Here is a historic photo of what that statue once looked like.

The arced shape of the roof no doubt caused all the water to collect in the troughs at its sides and eventually filter down the walls once it rotted-through, washing the plaster right off of them:

Back on the main floor, walking out through some doors into an even darker room, we found ourselves swallowed into a large, seemingly dimensionless space, treading on mounds upon mounds of fallen plaster ornament, slowly dissolving into mush under our feet:

I shined my feeble flashlight beam upwards to reveal what little still clung to the walls, and realized that we must be standing in what was actually the theater's lobby or atrium. The few scraps of plaster that still remained intact were enough evidence to tell me that this room was once absolutely boffo with ornamentation...even a few mirrors remained to suggest that this was once a dazzling place of unimaginable beauty (or gaudiness):

Since we had entered through the office portion and then stepped through a hole in the wall into the theater first, we didn't realize that there was also a lobby for the theater portion, and we were kind of seeing things in backwards order from what a movie patron would have experienced in the days of yore.

Most of the ceiling and walls of this octagonal room were stripped to bare brick and lath however, water damage having apparently been awfully severe in this part of the structure. I stepped up some stairs to look out over the mezzanine for a few flash photos:

Sadly the camera flash washes all the magic of the scene, presenting the details in stark, brutal honesty, but it was so dark in there I had little other choice. Forgottendetroit.com has a historic photo of what this room once looked like.

After a few minutes of standing in this disorienting, circular pitch-black space, we realized there was a doorway leading to yet another lobby beyond this one:

This was what was called the "storm lobby"...once again the plaster ornamentation was off the hook, but for some reason much better-preserved in here.

Unfortunately there wasn't any more light here than in the previous lobby, so more harsh flash photography was necessary.

More "Indian" maidens were the star attractions in this room. These were each about 20 feet tall.

In the vestibule I looked up to find a high but narrow ceiling that was filled with more mirrors, and more of those frilly conical structures seen in the theater, called "fan" vaults:

The mirrors are there to give the impression of spaciousness, since exterior windows can not be used on a theater, which depends upon darkness. Looks like a plaster patch was even done to the ceiling here as part of the failed restoration / development attempt in the early 1990s:

Having drooled over this outrageous wedding-cake lobby orgy long enough, we made our way back toward the theater.

A huge grand staircase led up from the octagonal lobby to the loge level, though it barely contained even a scrap of its former glory any longer...cascades of water damage had stripped it to the bone.

The loge level, the most sumptuous patron area, was originally outfitted with tapestries and silk curtains according to Hauser & Weldon's book:

The antechamber to the men's bathroom on the loge level had these beautiful--and pristinely preserved--plaster panels on the ceiling:

That look...when you realize that another historic building has been demolished by neglect:

We eventually moved back into the blandly renovated lobby where we had first entered the building, so that we could investigate a stairway we saw. We were stunned by what we found down there...

In the pitch-dark and oppressive stillness of the basement we came across a gigantic bank vault...like something straight out of an action movie. The circular door was about seven feet tall, and about two feet thick of machined steel. The hinges alone were stout enough to have been used as hardware on a battleship:

It had a back door too, which was open...

Inside was a crazy mirror-walled room of deposit boxes and safes, almost all completely covered in surface rust from the dampness down here.

Naturally we began instinctively checking all the nooks for anything good left behind, but quickly surmised that the deadline on that free-for-all had already long expired.

In 1991 a nightclub named the "Currency Exchange" opened in this former bank. According to David Kohrman the old bank vault itself was used as a club within a club I suppose, named "The Vault," naturally. That sounds like the kind of genius scheme that someone would hatch in Detroit in 2015. Well, I guess the 1990s weren't all that long ago.

Returning from the depths of the vault up to the bank lobby again I found myself noticing a small, odd closet tucked away somewhere in the back. Upon peeking inside I noticed there to be nothing but a small ladder that led up into some kind of attic space.

Naturally I had to see where this went, and lo & behold I popped out above the crappy modern drop ceiling into the original 1920s lobby!

Wires held up the fake ceiling, and were anchored into the old original ceiling, which still bore its finely gilded wooden rafters. What an incredible find!

It seemed like the walls had been whitewashed from their original coloration, but their plaster details were in perfect condition. Behind me was a huge archway, which I suppose once mimicked the large arched windows that made up the ground-floor facade of this building before the renovation:

The UA was extensively remodeled during the early 1960s, which meant totally covering up these old 1920s lobby details, removing the fanciful terra cotta cornice, and sheathing the base of the tower with sleek dark marble, similar to what was done with the Peoples' Outfitting Building.

This plaster medallion was about four feet across if I recall correctly:

These remnants of the old lobby remained hidden for another year or so until Illitch Holdings cleaned out the building, during the process of which they decided to remove the junky drop-ceiling to reveal the original splendor.

Starting the ascent into the tower of the building, we found typical sorts of junk. Hauser & Weldon cite the American Automobile Club (AAA) as the main tenant of the office tower, whose rotating sign was long a recognizable landmark spinning at its pinnacle, but when they moved to the suburb of Dearborn the entire building was left essentially vacant. I have seen both 1974 and 1984 listed in various sources as the year of their departure; either way, the UA was in lean times during both of those decades. (Judging by the appearance of AAA's Dearborn headquarters on Auto Club Drive, I would say it looks more like it was designed in 1984 than 1974).

One of the great things about exploring this building was that despite its almost complete emptiness of any interesting artifacts to look at was the fact that most of the interior was bathed in gratuitous spills of colored light, thanks to the Mayan glyphs painted on the windows, turning what would otherwise be a mid-'70s snoozefest into an enjoyable 18-story climb.

As Detroitblog noted, "the paintings were also a thumb in the eye of Mike Illitch," who clearly neglected the building for the first several years he owned it, and failed to seal it up or abate its hazards until he was forced to do so by the city. The window graffiti made his derelict building into a tourist attraction, and it got the attention of the international media, so naturally the glyphs had to go.

KJ5 eventually changed the name of the United Vandals to the Dead House Painters after the UA windows were buffed. After leaving the UA behind, he went on to paint the windows of the Ternstedt Mfg. Plant offices on Fort Street, the Lafayette Building, the Hotel Strathmore, the Philby Apartments in Highland Park, and the Park Avenue Building.

The United Artists Theater itself stopped showing films in 1971 according to David Kohrman, and its fixtures were auctioned off in 1975. Like its other Grand Circus Theater District brethren, the UA resorted to screening pornos and slasher flicks toward the end, but saw negligible profit.

For a district that was established upon the notion that entertainment was a grand affair which should be housed in haut palaces dedicated to it, once the grandeur and novelty faded from the act of going to the theater, the market for such palaces ceased to exist, which is why today's theaters are sterile utilitarian structures devoid of any of the ostentation that the UA possesses. Today we can watch movies while we drive, or take a shower, or ignore important meetings at work--why would we need a soaring baroque temple to the art of cinema when we have that ability at our jaded fingertips?

For some of us, the answer is because we seek something more out of life than just direct stimulus input--we want a more enriching experience, we want the pomp and circumstance, the organic authenticity of doing things the way they were done in the "good old days." But for many others, I think they don't give a rip about such things, sadly, wanting only convenience and expedience.

From 1978 to 1984 the UA's theater was used by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for recording sessions, because its acoustics were better than those found in their Ford Auditorium or the decayed Orchestra Hall (also designed by C. Howard Crane). I have a vinyl album of the DSO playing Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," which was recorded in the UA. I also heard an interview with a DSO musician on WRCJ (Detroit's classical music station) several years back, who remembered recording there in those days with snow coming in through the roof in the winter, and pigeons fluttering around them while trying to play.

He said that for the winter recording sessions space heaters would be brought in to keep the musicians comfortable and to keep their instruments from going out of tune, but because they made noise they had to be shut down during actual recording. Once they were turned off of course the heat dissipated immediately, funneling up through the hole in the roof, or out into the rest of the huge vacant building, so it hardly offered much of a real comfort for the players. There was no electricity either, so generators had to be set up outside and cables strung in through the doors.

Again, the office tower had closed for good by 1984, though some of the ground-floor shops remained. In the early '90s the building was bought by a developer who was interested in bringing it back as loft apartments, with nightclubs in the theater and storefronts. It was around that time that the Currency Exchange club was operating in the bank portion of the building.

In 1997 the UA was sold to Don Barden, one of America's top black businessmen, who owned casinos in other states. He planned to turn it into a casino but he was denied one of the three casino licenses available in Detroit at the time. He was essentially forced to sell the UA to the Illitch family who wanted it for either a parking lot or for the new Comerica Park development. Mike Illitch was already sitting on the abandoned Adams Theater at the time, with no plans for it.

Barden fought the deal in court but lost, and the Illitches took ownership. According to one article, Barden said that he believed the city was screwing itself when it turned him down for the casino license, saying that the owners of the other Detroit casinos at the time "were taking profits out of the city when he would have reinvested profits into the city." The Illitches have not announced any plans for the UA since they acquired it, and that was 20 years ago. For reference, the Illitches renovated the Fox Theater from 1987 to 2006, at a cost of $10 million.

The old Detroitblog reminded me that there was a homeless guy living in a room on the 16th floor...
A closer examination of the scene suggested that it was occupied by two different people at different times. The first seems to have been the person who decorated it nicely, who made a bookshelf for themselves, kept a closet with toiletries such as deodorant, and fashioned a sort of apartment out of it, even setting up a corner with decorative elements near a window with drapes. The second tenant seems to have been a drug addict who lived in filth. Newspapers were strewn about, mixed with bits of food and food wrappers, and jugs of dried something. Other rooms on the same floor were designated trash rooms, with the same mix of food wrappers and newspapers thrown around in giant piles. A pile of receipts showed small quantities of food purchased with food stamps. A note from Detroit Receiving Hospital showed the person was treated for an abscess in the throat. Another letter was from a Wayne County Pre-Trial Diversionary Program.
I remember wandering through this room myself, though I don't generally take photos of people's abodes, since I don't find them too novel, but I am often confused as to why a homeless person would choose to live on the upper floors of a skyscraper. If I were living on the streets I would choose a home with a lot less stairs separating me from my resources, though I imagine it would certainly be nice to stay up there once in a while.

The UA was mentioned in the short story Snow Angel by E.J. Olsen, as a place where a man had been hired as security guard while it sat vacant in the 1980s, who had a cot and a heater set up on the top floor. Most likely the building did have a paid watchman during that time.

Climbing through a random hole in the wall on the 2nd floor one day, I found myself...outside the building, but inside the marquee! 

I was hovering over the sidewalk while pedestrians passed below me, and what was even more incredible was these two terra cotta guys--Comedy and Tragedy--who had been hidden behind this marquee since 1950 when it was installed. Looking at historic photos of the original c.1928 marquee, it also looks like they were obscured by that one too...what a trip that these two fancy details have been in hiding for basically the entire 80-year history of the building.

When the painted windows of the UA were scrubbed for the Super Bowl in 2005, this marquee was also removed, they were exposed to the light of day for the first time, and many architecture enthusiasts took note--but I had already known about them thanks to this little chance encounter.

The crumbling UA has dropped loose bricks on cars at least twice over the years, and has been cited for defective or hazardous window sashes, which explains why large sections of exterior brick have been shucked off of the upper reaches of the tower. 

The UA's abandoned hulk also starred in the first Transformers movie and/or The Island (a remake of Logan's Run). I dunno, it was one of those ones that was made during that period where Michael Bay was all up on Detroit's jock.

Another view of that weird little internal alley between the tower and the theater portions:

Immediately across the street was the office tower of the equally magnificent Michigan Theater:

Looking straight down to Bagley Avenue and the marquee:

The Statler Hotel, in its last days:

Here is the building's swinging flagpole, which served as the focal point of a strange rivalry that involved the placing, and replacing of different flags by two opposing groups:

You might remember seeing it play out over the course of a few months if you were downtown much around 2005 before the UA's windows got buffed. In fact, it was almost sort of like the final straw of absurdity before Illitch finally had enough and cleaned up the building, and locked it down for good. 

I was involved in the flag wars, but it's a really long story. If you look back at the fourth photo in this post, you can see one of the flags flying at the top of the building. There was also a Mexican flag, a UN flag, and a gay pride flag. Like I said...long story.

This was the base of the rotating AAA sign that twirled on the roof for many years:

Here's the top of the Kresge / Kales Building, which had just started to undergo renovation at the time:

Here along the UA's cornice, you can see the tarred-over stubs where more florid ornaments had once graced the building's roofline, in a more gilded time, but which were removed by the 1960s:

Some of the carnage from more recent masonry failures still remained strewn about the roof deck:

The bottom of the Cass Corridor, stretching up to New Center...

...in that photo it is easy to note the proximity of the Film Exchange Building to the Grand Circus Park Theater District.

Hotel Briggs, also known as The Park Apartments (left), and the vacant Park Avenue Building (right), with the still-standing Donovan Building visible in the distance:

Another odd viewpoint, showing the Fine Arts Building before it was reduced to a standing facade:

One day I was hanging around on the roof of the Statler Hotel when I noticed an old rusty 35mm film canister sitting up there that someone had lost. So I picked it up and decided to have it developed, hoping that I would finally have my hands on lost blackmail photos of Mike Illitch having intercourse with a monkey dressed as "Little Caesar" or something.

When my developer guy handed the prints back to me a day later however, it was then that I figured out that this lost roll of film had in fact been one of my own! I guess that explained why I always had a weird feeling like I was missing a lot of shots from the Statler. These two photos of the UA taken from Statler's roof were on that roll.

I made my last visit to the United Artists at night in December of 2006, with a friend. I still didn't get any decent photos of the octagonal main lobby, so I'll post some of his:

Photo by a friend.
By the way, this lobby space was renovated in 1950 so that a snack bar could be installed, according to Hauser & Weldon. If I thought it was dark in here before, it was even darker at night, and light-painting with flashlights became mandatory.

And here is another from the storm lobby, again lit by the weak incandescent lightbulbs we still had in our Maglites back then.

Photo by a friend.
Then one more trip into the auditorium...I brought my violin that night to play a few tunes, because I wanted to sample these much-touted United Artists acoustics for myself if they still remained to be had in this decrepit hall. But the sound I heard as I played on the stage alone in the dark that night was dead...of damp and missing plaster. It was nothing compared to the lively echoes I previously experienced in the waiting room of the Michigan Central Station. Oh well.

Behind these grilles is where the organ pipes to the mighty Wurlitzer were once held:

Photo by a friend.
After the big cleanup of the building in 2005, Illitch Holdings hung a huge mesh banner on the northeastern face of the building, advertising available space for lease. As we passed a certain set of windows where the telephone number to call just happened to line up, we couldn't resist taking a vanity photo or two:

313, bitchiz.

That also just so happened to be the floor that had a window which opened up onto the theater portion's roof, if I'm not mistaken. So we ended up taking a shortcut to the projection room:

Then we stepped out onto the theater's roof to take in the nighttime view of quiet Grand Circus Park and enjoy the cold, shitty Michigan weather with a few brews.

Here you can see the Elizabeth Street Garage before it was demolished, with ambient night light coming through its large windows:

Awfully quiet at night around the holidays in Detroit. Even quieter than usual.

Finishing one last-ever climb of the 18-story tower, we hung out and snapped a few longer exposures of the ambient light coming in through the arched windows to play across the ceiling, while cracking some more brews and chilling the hell out.

Those were the nights.

Oh, one more thing...

Detroit's Downtown Movie Palaces, by Michael Hauser, Marianne Weldon, p. 91-102
"Now Showing," Detroitblog.org, February 25th, 2004
"Paint It Black," Detroitblog.org, December 16th, 2005
Detroit Noir, edited by E.J. Olsen, John C. Hocking, p. 156

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