Lee's Surrender

35mm photos from 2003-2005, digital from 2006 to 2011.

Designed with a unique Mediterranean Art-Deco flare, the 15-story orange-glazed brick and terra-cotta monolith Lee Plaza Hotel at 2240 West Grand Boulevard was one of the swankiest places to live in the city. It was also the first abandoned skyscraper I ever explored.

The AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture says that it was designed in 1927 by celebrated Detroit architect Charles Noble, and opened in 1929. The building was named for Ralph T. Lee, one of the most prominent real estate moguls in Detroit during its meteoric rise in population, who was responsible for dozens of the classic 1920s apartment buildings across Detroit. Lee Plaza was his flagship.

According to David Kohrman's forgottendetroit.com, the public perception of transient hotels was changing during that time, from one of cheap hovels for the working poor, to vogue palaces for the affluent businessman on the move.

I have a strong suspicion that much of the reasoning behind building Lee Plaza here on the Boulevard was to offer conveniently located accommodations for the white-collar employees of General Motors and Fisher Body, both of which had lately headquartered themselves in nearby New Center--which was planned (as its name suggests) to become Detroit's "new downtown" in the 1920s.

Of course the Great Depression kiboshed that vision, and just as Michigan Central Station was optimistically placed too far away from the action, so too was Lee Plaza speculatively placed just a little bit too far from the fringes of New Center to survive the coming downturn in urban Detroit's fortunes.

The Highland Towers apartment building was built in a similar concept, to provide luxury--but temporary--accommodations to professionals on the move, such as auto company executives who moved around a lot due to their line of work. Many wanted the stability of home ownership but didn't have the resources to commit to it, and didn't want to live in the plain, cramped apartments that were typically available.

So a luxury apartment building with hotel amenities was the solution, and Lee Plaza offered this, but as Kohrman put it, "The changing world that created it would also in turn destroy it."

Eventually the Lee was made-over into public housing for low-income seniors, which is the purpose it last served prior to closing in 1997. The Lee was placed in the National Historic Register in 1981, partly because of the fact that it was never redecorated or remodeled--which is an incredible rarity--meaning that its historic interior remained in an unusually original state. As of November 2015, plans have been announced to renovate Lee Plaza, at a cost of $200 million.

The columns at the entryway looked to be polished marble:

Among the decorative terra-cotta details decorating the Lee's facade was a series of sculpted lion heads. According to David Kohrman six such lions made their way into a Chicago townhouse project in 2001--a project that was even lauded with a historic preservation award, before it was realized that the lions were stolen. Only about half of the total number of stolen lions were ever recovered.

Here is the heavily coffered front lobby...notice that many of the plaster ornamental details too have been crudely chopped out of the ceiling by architectural thieves:

There is a historic postcard image on forgottendetroit.com, showing what the lobby originally looked like. 

The main lobby also had two small lounges on either side of it:

Among the amenities that the Lee offered were a beauty parlor, a billiards room, a grocer, a library, a florist, and of course a cigar / newspaper stand. I didn't find most of these features on my visit, probably because a lot of the first floor was dark and sometimes cramped with furniture left behind. The basement was also partially flooded.

Even the public restroom stalls had stained hardwood doors and solid marble partitions, mosaic tiled floors... 

...and a fancy vaulted ceiling for the ante-chamber that led to them:

The Lee's gorgeous, walnut-panelled dining room even once rivaled the opulence of the Book-Cadillac, Detroit's finest hotel:

Again, it sounded like General Motors execs made up much of the Lee's early clientele, being that GM's world headquarters was situated here in New Center since 1922. A 1965 book, Labor: Readings on Major Issues by Richard Allen Lester makes it sound like Lee was also a popular luncheon spot for company flings, though there was a definite divide between how the company treated its blue collar and white collar employees when celebrating successes or rewarding good work.

That was how the topic of Lee Plaza was brought up in the book; there was reference made to the fact that during one such fĂȘte the two classes of employees on a particular team were split up and white collars were entertained at the luxurious Lee Plaza dining room while the hourly employees were left behind to eat in the company garage off of chairs.

"Peacock Alley" is the main hallway that runs almost the entire length of the first floor, giving access to the meeting rooms, dining room and service facilities, Mr. Kohrman wrote. As its name suggests it was a fancy place--most likely a good spot to "see and be seen," as the rich like to say.

It was lined along its sides by a series of tall mirrors, some of which had already been shattered (the rest of them didn't last too much longer). The ceiling was barrel-vaulted, its plaster design was the work of Corrado Parducci, and it still showed its gold-leaf beautifully.

As part of their series, those two big-name European photographers Marchand and Meffre (who got all kinds of accolades for shooting Detroit when it was big news) photographed the Lee's ballroom--the one with the busted piano that was already well on its way to super-stardom as an extremely overplayed metaphor for Detroit's collapse by that time. It was one of those shots that everybody and their cousin came to Detroit to re-take, almost like it was one in a series of levels in a video-game that you had to unlock in order to "win" at Detroit.

Here's the piano in late 2003...I guess I'm not immune from the lure of the cliché either:

I think by 2010-ish when the piano was finally put out of its misery by a 1/4 stick of dynamite, there had been well over 1,000 photos taken of it and posted online.

One interesting point however of this played-out lobby is the clock, whose outline can still be seen on the wall in the background here:

A c.1927 volume of the trade journal The Jewelers' Circular says that the Time System Co. of Detroit had recently finished installing a Hahl Clock System in the newly completed Lee Plaza apartment hotel. "These clocks are not only accurate timekeepers" it read, "but are also noiseless in operation and require no winding or care." The master clock drove all the other clocks in the building, to keep perfectly synchronized time.

According to their company history, the Hahl Clock Co. of Chicago was the first pneumatically-synchronized clock system in the world, and they relocated to Detroit in 1918. Under the new name "Time Systems Company," the company engineered and manufactured "electric minute impulse clock systems," tower clocks, nurse call systems, automatic telephone systems, and pioneered developments in modern fire alarm systems by 1920.

By 1930 Time Systems Co. had reorganized as the National Time and Signal Corp. and had "introduced industrial timing systems for Detroit's growing automotive industry." Today they are still based in the Detroit area, at Wixom, Michigan. This sounds a bit superlative for a simple apartment building; perhaps this connection to the automobile industry had something to do with the choice to put Hahl clocks in an apartment building full of GM executives?

Moving upstairs to the living areas we found fairly standard corridors, though the unique "Servidor" doorways into the living units are evident here:

Servidors were a type of door with something like a metal cabinet built into them that allowed dry cleaning to be delivered and hung inside the interior cabinet of the door; it opened from both the outside and the inside, which allowed garments to be delivered and hung inside without the resident having to be there or be disturbed. David Kohrman pointed out that they were also invented "to reduce the need for tipping." If you recall, the Fort Shelby Hotel also had Servidors.

This next unit below also exhibits what looks to be a similar system for delivering other larger room service items, perhaps food trays:

My first trip to Lee was in the depths of winter...most people don't even set foot out of their house when it's only 7°F, let alone go someplace like this. Lee Plaza had all of its window frames brutally removed by scrappers, allowing the 30mph winds to whip through the entire building, lacerating our skin with a nasty bite. It's a miracle we didn't get frostbitten that day...I can't imagine what the wind-chill factor was.

After 10 minutes our hands were already stinging horribly, and our cameras were beginning to malfunction from the cold. We kept them working by holding them inside our jackets for warmth.

On the upper floors, with the hallway doors all flapping freely, the brutal winds shot right through the skeletonized tower from one side to the other. There was also a fair amount of snow still dry-frozen in swaths near every window.

Thankfully there were plenty of other warmer-weather trips to Lee in the ensuing years, allowing for a more leisurely pace to explore and photograph the 15-story cheese-grater. Here is a detail shot of some of the terra-cotta goodness that encases the front of the building facing the Boulevard:

There were also a few rooms that were fairly clean, enjoyable places to sit on a recliner and take in the street scenes for awhile:

This decorative plaster ceiling bracket in the dining / kitchen area was well preserved, as was the built-in shelving in the background:

Many of the apartments in this building were very large and spacious--perhaps even on par with the square footage of my house--and all of them had their own kitchens and dining rooms if I recall correctly.

Scrappers (I called them "miners" back then) had already gutted the building of most of its plumbing long ago, resulting in a lot of punched-out interior walls.

Artifacts were aplenty here, though typical mundane personal effects. Only the last tenants of this building were not the affluent professionals of yesteryear but senior citizens, so it reflected those tastes.

However, as one ascended to higher levels the old 1950s-'70s televisions found in the apartments seemed to grow in size. The views of the neighborhood from the tower's huge windows also proved to be rather engrossing.

Here's the Sacred Heart Seminary, on Chicago Street:

I always found this "little house on the prairie" to be quite a sight:

Seeing gaping holes in the side of a building when you're more than ten stories off the ground is a little crazy...

...it reminded me immediately of a relevant scene from Ghostbusters.


On one particular visit to Lee in the midst of summer, evening was drawing in on us and the sun cast a long mellow light across the city. People were out and about in the ‘hood, and we could still hear the sounds of an outdoor jazz concert that was going on in a pavilion several blocks away.

We were sitting atop of the highest part of the roof, taking in the scenery and letting the cool breeze air-out our sweaty armpits, when we heard the sound of firecrackers going off in the neighborhood below. Normally, fireworks are not an uncommon sound for this time of year, but this steady pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop was perfectly even and measured, sounding an awful lot like a pistol emptying its 10-round magazine. We stood up so we could peek over the edge toward the source of the sound.

About three blocks to the southeast there was some yelling, and we watched as a Chevy pickup truck was hurtling over someone’s lawn, while another guy on foot ran down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. There was nobody lying injured in the street or anything…I guess somebody just felt like dumping a few random bullets at the house of someone they didn’t much care for.

We sat and waited to see whether the cops or an ambulance would show up. They never did.

That was the closest gunplay I had ever witnessed until I moved to the Warrendale area several years later (though by that point in my life I had already had guns drawn on me a few times by police). There is nothing extraordinary about any of this however, I only bring it up to illustrate the point that every single Detroiter—and many Detroit surburbanites—have at least one story involving gun violence.

This is not the norm anywhere else in America, and when I tell these kinds of stories to my friends from other cities, they all have a hard time grasping the casual nature of gunplay here. Since police never showed up that meant that probably no report was taken, and no statistic would be created, which meant the crime rate would not be affected.

The massive chimney, towering above the cornice-line:

A dizzying look down:

If you looked close at the brickwork of these upper areas, you might notice these little bosses of terra-cotta, shaped like flowers laid out in a diamond pattern...

...not quite sure I've ever seen that done anywhere else before.

This was the 15th floor.

Wandering on the upper service level with more lines from Ghostbusters running through my head, we came across a small cement stair leading up to the roof, with light pouring in from above. We stepped out into a huge canyon-like space, surrounded on all sides by the deeply inward-slanting, peaked roof:

A small ladder on the other side led up to a platform atop the elevator mechanical room tall enough to allow a view over the top of the roof's ridge, and we could see the entire grand sweep of the city. Our lips had turned blue by the time we got up here that first wintry day, but we didn't care—this was high adventure, heheh. In my previous years of exploring abandoned buildings I had never climbed an abandoned skyscraper before, so this was all still very novel to me at the time.

Looking east to New Center with the Fisher Building, Henry Ford Hospital, and the old General Motors Building huddled together:

Downtown was off to the southeast quite a ways:

We also found a doorway leading inside the peaked attic itself, a pigeon-infested fecal mess that ran the perimeter of the building's crown. In summer the heat was absolutely stifling up here:

It had small portals through which one could see (or climb out onto) the cornice...look at all that intact copper!

The Lee originally had a tile roof, as opposed to the copper one that is shown in these photos. I'm guessing that modification was made in the 1950s. Of course by 2008 or so, the Lee was completely denuded of its valuable roof when illegal scrapping and metal prices hit their zenith, and the Michigan economy hit its nadir. The fact that the city failed to keep the building sealed during that crucial time played a big part as well.

In order to get at the copper more easily, scrappers hammered large holes in the cement slab decking underneath:

No longer was the attic a dark, triangular hallway, it took on a more open-air feel:

Of course it also brought in tons more water to the building's interior, accelerating the decay to the point where the place is now less likely to be salvaged.

In this next shot you can see the northern area of "Midtown," which has been re-branded "Techtown" in recent years, though I'm not sure why everything in Detroit has to have the suffix "-town" added to the end of it in order to be legit...

A closer view of New Center, one of my favorite parts of the city:

Looking down to Southwest, with an extraordinary perspective on Lawton Avenue, seen extending away for miles towards the Ambassador Bridge on the righthand side of the frame:

The last time I went up in Lee Plaza was one winter's night in 2010 or 2011:

AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture, by Eric J. Hill, John Gallagher, p. 182
"Detroit's Stolen History," Detroit Free Press, Feb. 22, 2002, p. B-1
Labor: Readings on Major Issues, by Richard Allen Lester, p. 100
The Jewelers' Circular, Vol. 95 (1927), p. 93

1 comment:

  1. This is a great blog you've got going here. Interesting that you mention the Hahl Pneumatic Clock Co. in this post. I'm currently finishing up restoration work on one of their master clocks. It's a large 9 foot or more tall unit that advances once a minute. In our case, it has the Buchbinder Service Co. Detroit logo on it. It seems they bought out some leftover stock and converted them to electric. In one of the previous posts you can kinda see one in an old photo of the HP(I think)school library built into the shelving.


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