The Hermit of Park Avenue

Out of all the downtown Detroit skyscrapers that I managed to sneak into over the years, the Park Avenue Building at the western corner of Grand Circus Park always stood as probably the hardest and least-likely one to access. It was actually occupied by some reclusive guy, who lived in it and watched over it. One day in about 2005 or so when my buddy Chisel and I made one of our routine drive-by inspections of the building, we noticed a strange thing. A long extension cord was plugged into an outlet on the back of a different building across the alley, and went all the way into the backdoor of the Park Avenue Building. Was somebody stealing power?

After some high-level brainstorming we hatched a brilliant plan to unplug the cord, and wait to see if anyone came outside to plug it back in. When nothing happened we moved on to other things, but we came back by the next day and sure enough, it was plugged back in. So we unplugged it again, and waited. This same sequence of events repeated itself at least once more (we may have been slightly inebriated at the time), but this time as we were driving away some middle-aged white guy in beat-up Carhartts came storming out of the back door and followed our car, taking photos of the license plate on one of those cardboard Kodaks. So Chisel circled back around, and confronted the guy on why he was taking pictures of our car.

After a heated exchange between the two, tempers calmed down and the man claimed to have been put there by the owner of the building, an attorney or something "who also owned the Charlevoix Building," and who was trying to restore both in spite of political pressures put on him by Mike Illitch vicariously through city hall to demolish or sell for a lowball price. Our skepticism on these assertions was visible, but the man snorted, "Come on guys, Mike Illitch wants this whole area for a new hockey arena." Keep in mind, this was back in 2005. Chisel and I found this story pretty conspiracy theory-ish at the time, but the man told us to consider the massive blank expanse of land north of here—all owned by Mike Illitch—and to proffer some better explanation for it. That was the first we had ever heard of a rumor to replace Joe Louis Arena with a new stadium in this neighborhood—over a decade ago—and now it has come true.

As it turns out, the aforementioned owner of the building—Ralph Sachs—is actually a slumlord in his own right, and was responsible for allowing this building and the Charlevoix Building to decay to a hazardous state in the first place. He bought the Park Avenue Building in 1974, and has done little with it ever since. His deliberate neglect of the Charlevoix Building since 1981 put it into a hazardous condition that in my opinion qualified him for jail time. But because he is a rich developer he was allowed to get his wish instead and bypass the ruling of the Historic District Commission to demolish a historic building in a historic district, then market the cleared property. He was ordered however to pay for demo himself, instead of putting it on the taxpayer for a change. Luckily Sachs didn't get off so easy with the Park Avenue Building, although there was a scare for awhile because it too was targeted for demolition. In September of 2015, in part because of the fiasco with the Charlevoix Building and pressure from incensed historic preservationists, Sachs was given notice by the City that he had until November 14 to conduct nuisance abatement on this building, and properly mothball it to prevent further damage.

The hermit guy also gave us a rundown of the Park Avenue Building's history, but unfortunately declined to let us inside for a peek. He said something about how when famous local architect Albert Kahn designed this building in 1922 he over-engineered it big time, and even included a "cut out" area on each floor that could be readily removed for the addition of another stairwell, but for some reason this was never done. The guy was just full of interesting (if questionable) information, and I wish I remembered half of what he said in the ten minutes that we sat there talking to him in the middle of Park Avenue.

As I imagined what this guy's life might be like, living all alone in an abandoned 12-story building with probably little or no heat or water, I thought it both exciting and depressing. On one hand you have an entire skyscraper to yourself, but on the other hand the oppressive cold and darkness, the gloomy scenery of grey clouds and abandoned buildings out every window must drive a normal person to suicide. Detroiters are a little tougher to kill, it seems.

Despite our unconventional new friend we never saw him or his cord again after that day, although I know he continued living in the building for a few more years, and it remained as impenetrable as ever. Except for one complete fluke in 2008 where a few other friends of mine managed to get in briefly one day by climbing the building's entrance awning into the second floor. It would be another NINE years before I personally set foot inside this gorgeous structure.

Sadly, when the Park Avenue Building did finally become explorable, it was practically blown open with a SCUD missile, allowing pretty much every kid with a camera or spray-can in the tri-state area to come inside. The mystique of the Park Avenue being the untouchable tower was dispelled overnight, like a dream. The hermit had not been living there for a long time, either. As I recall, it was somewhere around 2012 when this building suddenly started to look extra haggard, and I got the impression that he was no longer around. I wondered if he had finally frozen to death inside his lonely fortress of solitude. In the meantime the former Hotel Briggs next-door (then called the "Park Apartments") had also become vacant, making this corner particularly depressing, although the Briggs was soon bought for redevelopment.

Clawing our way around a darkened corner that was choked with piles of clutter, we found the building's main lobby:

The entire lobby was filled with random junk, to the point you could barely see the room itself. This was to be a recurring theme throughout the lower half of the tower.

There appeared to be a restaurant or kitchen of some kind taking up much of the first floor frontage along Adams Street, perhaps once a snazzy lunch counter?

Paint was flaking off the walls to reveal beautiful tiles that had been covered up:

A closer look:

The Park Avenue Building was built in 1922 as a speculative office building, designed by Albert Kahn. The 1921 Sanborn map shows four small dwellings previously stood on this spot, with two larger rooming houses next-door where the Hotel Briggs would later be built. The Hotel CharlevoixHotel Tuller, and Kales Building were already towering on all other sides of this site.

As Ren Farley of points out, there were three main redevelopment efforts going on in downtown Detroit in the 1920s: the Book Brothers' plans for Washington AvenueJohn Barlum's plans for Cadillac Square—and the Park Avenue Association's plans for this area here. I imagine that hotelier Lew Tuller was a member of this association, seeing as he put forth so much capital in the building of his three new hotels on this stretch north of the original Tuller Hotel.

The aim of the Park Avenue Association was to make Detroit's Park Avenue the equal of the famous one in Manhattan. As part of their development efforts, the Iodent BuildingDetroit Life BuildingBlenheim ApartmentsWomen's City Club Building, and Tuller's Royal Palm Hotel were all erected before the onset of the Great Depression.

Up on the second floor, prime office / commercial space with higher ceilings than found in the rest of the building:

In 1923 the Absopure Coal and Coke Company was planning expansions in the face of the prediction that Detroit's population would hit 2 million by 1930. They offered re-screened coal and Solvay coke for heating fuel, as well as household ice, for which they were building some new plants in the city. They hired Albert Kahn in 1920 to design a 6-story factory building at E. Warren & Dequindre Avenues, which I explored in another post.

They also planned to "take over the Park Avenue Building" for their general offices. The building was being renamed the "General Necessities Building" that year according to David A. Brown, president of General Necessities Corp. (of which Absopure was a division). Absopure's company offices were previously at the south corner of Grand River & Henry. General Necessities also made "Frigerators" under the Absopure name.

Absopure was later bought and moved to the Lafayette Building in 1927, by the Detroit City Service Co.—a new company with new management, "composed of men well and favorably known to Detroiters." On the new company's board of directors was the popular Frank Cody, Superintendent of Detroit Schools, as well as some other industrialists and bankers.

By now I'm sure you're wondering whether this Absopure company had anything to do with the well-known bottled water company that exists today under the same name. The answer is yes—they are the same company, started at the foot of Lycaste Avenue in Detroit in 1908 as ice and fuel suppliers, according to their company blog. Absopure's owners formed the General Necessities Corporation in 1916 as a manufacturer and distributor of coal, ice, ice cream, refrigeration, and water.

A historic timeline at says that "Arthur Portteus and William H. Gard purchased General Necessities' water business assets in 1933 and incorporated under the name Absopure Water Company, Inc." General Necessities Corporation had been dissolved the year prior, presumably a victim of the Great Depression. In 1973, Absopure merged with Chicago-based Beatrice Foods, but retained their brand name and original logo. In 1982 the family bought Absopure back from Beatrice Foods, and now have distribution in all 50 states. They became the first water company to recycle its own plastic bottles, in 1986.

An advertisement in the February 15, 1923 Detroit Free Press showed that the Knabe Warerooms of Janney-Bowman, Inc., dealers in all types of pianos, were moving from the Book Building to their new location here in the General Necessities Building, a new studio they were calling "The Ampico," with demonstration rooms for Ampico Records, installed "for the convenience of present and future Ampico owners."

An Ampico, by the way, was a type of player piano that could also "record" on paper scrolls. By 1925 they had relocated again to their own new storefront across the street in the Kales Building however, perhaps indicating that a little bit of rivalry existed between building owners during the Roaring Twenties, vying for tenants by offering competitive rates.

A new branch of the American State Bank of Detroit (based at 633-637 Griswold) would be opened here by February 1st of 1924. Other tenants of this building during the 1920s included: Michigan Mutual Liability Co., Dictaphone Corp., Detroit Ad Service, McGill & Wind Tailors, Great West Life Assurance Co., Straus Land Corp., Sun Life Assurance Co., Real Silk Hosiery Co., Brownwell Corp. (homebuilders services), and Apartment Properties Inc.

An article in the June 21, 1925 Detroit Free Press headlined "Visiting Realtor Will 'Dissect' Detroit Building" said that Carlton Schulz of the National Association of Real Estate Boards chose this building as the subject of a paper entitled, "How A Business Building is Analyzed by a Property Manager."

Schulz would present the paper to that body in an upcoming convention, during which it was expected that the General Necessities Building would become a "mecca" for visiting realtors during the convention that week. The entourage would also stop at the Masonic Temple, and the General Motors Building.

The famous Cliff Bell's:

A 1937 ad declaring "You've Got to Have Mink" shows that a prominent Detroit furrier, M. Wellman, was based on the second floor of the building, with store space. Wellman's had been in the building since at least 1929.

In 1929 there was also a full-service U.S. Post Office opened in this building as well, called the Grand Circus Park Station, which was expected to become one of the largest in the city, owing to the fact that it sat in one of the "densest business sections" of town. It would even have its own mail carrier, and was designed to reduce the load on the main post office, thereby reducing downtown congestion.

A view of the long-vacant Women's City Club Building (also notice the fallen rubble on the fire escape landing at right):

A typical elevator lobby on an upper floor:

In one room on like the 7th floor or something, we found what looked like a laboratory where blood and urine samples were tested.

The fridge was full of test tubes, and there was all kinds of electronic lab equipment strewn about.

Lots of these things around too...I think they were X-ray tables, if I remember correctly:

For anyone who might've missed out on exploring the Broderick Tower, this was very close to the same thing. Doctors' offices occupied most of the space on several floors, with lots of antiquated medical equipment left behind, likely too bulky and obsolete to bother removing from the building when the rush to close up shop began.

In fact, there were entire rooms filled up with old equipment:

The common corridors of the building's upper floors also had an extremely similar look and feel to those of the Broderick Tower:

Speaking of which, here it is, faintly looming across Grand Circus Park in the snows of some fine January afternoon weather:

The building's central light court was a prominent feature of every floor, running from the roof down to about the third floor...

The windows were generally the frosted kind, designed to let light in but also keep office workers from being distracted by the splendid view to be had outside. This is the kind of soul-warming view I imagine Bartleby the Scrivener would have enjoyed from his office:

The blank wall of the former Briggs Hotel (Park Apartments):

Looking out of a rear window, the view has opened up considerably here, since the neighboring Charlevoix Building was demolished:

Look at all that open land! It's almost as if some billionaire land speculator has been systematically demolishing all of downtown Detroit for 20 years...or something. Don't let me mire you in my wack-brained conspiracy theories though.

But in all honesty if Mike Illitch really could have things his way, we would pay taxes directly to him and scrape every historic building from the map of Detroit so that nothing is left standing but a 1,000-foot-tall Little Caesar statue to which everyone would be required to genuflect five times per day while chanting the words "PIZZA!PIZZA!" and feeding our firstborn children into its flaming mouth, to be baked into $5 pizzas that we would then be obliged to consume. The dude seems like a real-life version of Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons."

On a different topic, suite 404 of this building was occupied in the 1940s by the Detroit Council of Churches, according to a volume of the Michigan Christian Advocate. The Detroit Council of Churches was formed in 1919, a link on the Bentley Historical Library website says, to form "a comprehensive and aggressive federation of churches" to help the many different religious congregations of the city network on "matters of evangelism, social service, and publicity." This provided a much stronger united voice on common causes than any single church would otherwise possess. The DCC also took official positions on issues at the local, state, and national levels, particularly "matters such as gambling, Prohibition, McCarthyism, civil rights and the needs of the inner city, and other issues of morality."

The DCC's first home was in the Downtown YMCA (which used to stand where Comerica Park is now), then it rented space in the Charlevoix Building, and finally took up residence in this building. I think by the 1960s it had moved again to 65 E. Columbia.

The rear of the State Theater is visible here:

An employment services directory from 1962 says that the Detroit Teachers Agency occupied suite 506 of this building at the time. Their organization was founded in 1920 and was then owned by Lenore T. Wilson. After 1934, it was owned by Joe Wilson, presumably a descendent.

At least all of the fluorescent bulbs had been abated from this floor of the building:

One other thing that the hermit had told us about was how Albert Kahn had designed this building the same way as he had designed the Packard Plant—reinforced concrete pillars interconnected by his patented concrete truss system—meaning that it was overbuilt to the hilt. I think the guy may have even opined that you could drop an aerial bomb on this thing and it would remain standing.

Outside, the David Whitney Building renovation was moving right along:

Above, the occupied Kales Building loomed, undergoing some facade improvements of its own:

I was quite pleased when I finally reached the 12th floor, the top of the building where all of the arched windows were:

Because arches are just cooler.

Juicy, juicy arches all around...

Half of the 12th floor was basically just one big open room with cubicles, surrounded by the arched windows...

...I bet it was really cool place to work back in the day. Well, if you are the type of person who likes cubicle jobs (blech!).

I'm sure that if Dan Gilbert buys this building (which absolutely no one will see coming), he will adorn this space with some sort of paisley / polka-dot color scheme some ping-pong tables, and a few Slurpee machines.

Perhaps KJ5's window paintings on the United Artists Building did not predict a Mayan 2012 Apocalypse, but his painting here on the Park Avenue Building seems to have foreshadowed a Donald Trump 2016 presidency... which he will apparently transmorph into some sort of sandal-wearing grasshopper mutant from a Godzilla movie? (Actually it's a reference to the Aqua Teen Hunger Force cartoon, I'm just being a smart-ass like usual).

The view from this floor is definitely sweet.

I once stood on the roof of this building back when it was still occupied, and the Statler Hotel still stood next to it:

Excellent view of the entire United Artists Building and Theater, with the Michigan Theater seen behind it:

Even further into the white curtain of snow, the Michigan Bell Building:

I leaned out one of the broken windows and tried to get a few good photos of this building's masonry facade:

For me, no trip to an abandoned skyscraper is complete until I get a few photos like this.

Okay, time for more arches.

This next shot was taken by my buddy Chisel, looking down on the Charlevoix Building from the Park Avenue Building's roof, before it was demolished:

Photo by Chisel (June, 2008)
On my last trip into the building, Cavemonkey and I caught a pretty decent series of evening shots from the 12th floor looking north up Park Avenue.

The Detroit Life Building seems to have some lights on inside, and the iconic clocktower of Old Main as well as the Golden Tower of the Fisher Building are visible in the distance:

I'll always love this shot of the Masonic Temple:

Looking south to the rest of downtown, the Book TowerUnited Artists Building, and Trolley Plaza are prominent:

Here the Broderick Tower and David Whitney Building are both lit up together for the first time in decades:

The Kales Building again, now in a deeper phase of facade renovation:

The Fox Theater's neon sign glows as a beacon on Woodward:

This next view would not be possible if the Statler Hotel were still standing:


Sanborn Map of Detroit, Vol. 2, Sheet 10 (1921)
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, January 28, 1937, p. 12
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, February 15, 1923, p. 10
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, February 3, 1924, p. 13
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, October 7, 1923, p. 13
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, November 8, 1925, p. 55
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, February 10, 1929, p. 51
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, December 4, 1926, p. 13
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, September 23, 1926, p. 2
National Directory of Employment Services, Vol. 1 (1962), p. 72
"Visiting Realtor Will 'Dissect' Detroit Building," Detroit Free Press, June 21, 1925, p. 20
"Post Office Sites Acquired," Detroit Free Press, December 13, 1931, p. 46
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, July 16, 1928, p. 24
Michigan Christian Advocate, Volume 70 (1943), p. 40
The History of the National Association of Teachers Agencies, p. 13