Kovacs, Now That's a Word

One of the most iconic of the few remaining structures in Detroit's barren wasteland neighborhood of Delray is Kovacs Bar. Until recently Kovacs was known both as a king among Detroit dive bars, and as an inexplicably well-preserved nugget of the past—featuring "Detroit's longest one-piece bar," and one of the slickest, snazziest original bar backs one might ever see. It was even seen in the movie Hoffa, and some other production filmed in 2009 from what I've read. Unfortunately it has been a long time since there was enough clientele to fill up a bar of its length...

When I volunteered at Historic Fort Wayne a couple blocks away I would have loved going to Kovacs Bar after an evening's work, but I always finished up there after dark and by then Kovacs was always invariably closed for the day already. Well, when MDOT purchased the building to demolish it for the new Gordie Howe International Bridge, the family that owned it held an auction of the contents in 2017, and I finally got to go inside. I even got to roam the upstairs apartments as well.

While I was there I overheard people talking about how the famous bar had been purchased by the owner of the Sugar House bar, and was going to be reinstalled at some other bar elsewhere in the city, but unfortunately I forgot which one. The bar is built of mahogany, while the bar top itself is made of a single piece of walnut, giving birth to its reputation as the longest in the city. I can only fantasize about what it would cost to construct this thing today...definitely more than the whole building is worth at this point.

In 2009 my former exploring partner and fellow dive bar lover, John Carlisle, wrote an article in the Metro Times, eulogizing Kovacs Bar at what would be, at long last, its final days. He wrote that this building started out as the Angus Smith Hotel, built in 1889, "with a restaurant and beer garden selling cigars from a manufacturer on site." I noticed the same thing when I looked at the c.1910 Sanborn map of the area...a beer garden and cigar factory are shown on the same block:

Three houses to the north was the small Aluminum Castings Co., and in the narrow parcel to the east that is now a large powerline easement, stood the Chicago Railway Equipment Co., surrounded in rail lines. A block away from Kovacs stood the Solvay Process Co.'s company gymnasium, as well as a dance hall. Now that's some old-timey company town paternalism right there.

As I wrote in an older post, the Detroit Sulphite Pulp & Paper Co. and Solvay Process Co. opened plants here in the mid-1890s, which is when the Hungarian population of Delray soared, earning it the nickname "Hunkytown." Carlisle writes that Solvay "provided the village with jobs, paved streets, sewers, and a horse-drawn, four-wheeled fire truck manned by company employees, who also built the neighborhood's first hospital." The dawn of the 20th century when the first blast furnaces were going up on Zug Island heralded both the beginning of the steel industry in Detroit, and Delray's golden era, right before the village was annexed into Detroit.

Carlisle says that after Prohibition the Angus Smith Hotel underwent a few name changes before a Hungarian named Micl Kovacs came here in 1934 and turned it into a tavern. His son Steve took over as barkeep when he returned from WWII; old Micl Kovacs passed away not long afterward. Kovacs was described as "a great big guy, a strong son of a bitch... He marched all the way through Europe in the infantry."

Of course Delray was never one of the city's glamorous neighborhoods, and by the 1970s it was already notorious as a rough, industrial nightmare. Many of the Hungarian families that lived here joined in the "white flight" after the 1967 Riot, and formed new enclaves in downriver suburbs like Allen Park. The toxic desolation of heavy industry also played a big part in chasing the humans out of Delray; it's been argued that city government has long preferred Delray cease to exist as a neighborhood so that large industrial corporations can be given open space to pollute at will. A really moving, in-depth article by Marcon Trbovich from the Detroit Free Press of May 1972 is subtitled, "Down at Kovacs' in the grimy depths of old Delray, a gypsy band and a fiery waitress named Roszika are making their last stand..."

Image via Newspapers.com
The story begins as one particularly well-krauesened young man hoists his drink to make a toast...
His dark eyes shimmer beneath a veil of whisky as the sound of tinkling ice cubes flits over the smoke-clouded air in Kovacs' Bar, now almost vacant near the closing hour. Shallow incandescent light splashes into shadows on the barroom floor. "Delray," the young man trumpets. "Now that's a word. You can't explain it. It's smoke billowing. It's steel smelting. It's goddamn Hungarians dancing! 
He is drunk, of course. Delray is not as romantic as his flamboyance suggests. Delray is failing housing and boarded up stores; it is Zug Island belching filth onto the roofs of houses for so long it's impossible to imagine what color they were when they were new—which was a long time ago. Delray is downriver, and one makes the drive west on Jefferson with the acute awareness that life becomes darker and darker the farther downriver you go. The Delray the young man toasted is dead.
The nights where Delray was lit up with the lights of taverns and had lively streets are long gone. The tone in the article makes it sound like it was written last week, not way back in 1972, but it goes to show Delray has been in the dumps for a long, long time.

The gypsy band, or "cast of characters" as Trbovich puts it, includes Alexander Shandor on violin, Lester Chiko on viola, Boldie Garber on cymbalom, Marty Hallup on bass fiddle, and the waitress—Roszika Mahar—on vocals. Roszika, or Rosie, was quite the character on her own and apparently a fixture of this place, according to the article. She lived in a little hovel on Burdeno Street, not far away. From that cover photo, Roszika actually reminds me a lot of my best friend's mom when I was growing up, who was of Hungarian descent.

It appears that the Kovacs gypsy band made this place the de facto epicenter of the old Hungarians that used to live in Delray—and quite a novel attraction to curious outsiders and newspaper columnists for many years, since there seems to have been a lovingly-written, eulogistic article about Kovacs printed every few years. But Kovacs Bar was the real deal; on certain nights able to cast a spell upon itself that would transport the building and its occupants to a medieval peasant village deep in the haunted mountains of Hungary...anyone who walked in would be whisked away to another time and place. The musicians were more Slovak than Hungarian in their background, Free Press writer Sandra Bunnell said, "but the music is pure, heart-rending gypsy."

I wandered upstairs to check out the living quarters above the bar, which I presume used to be the home of the Kovacs family, and later sublet as cheap apartments. I was amazed to find that all of the original fancy Victorian trim was still intact from the building's days as the Angus Smith Hotel in the 1880s...

Two opposing staircases met here on this double landing in front of an arched doorway.

I wish I had a wider-angle lens to capture this spot, but hopefully you still get the idea:

Even the interiors of the apartments all still had their original trim intact and in near-perfect shape:

Suddenly, it didn't feel like I was in Kovacs Bar anymore, this was a totally separate world.

Well this was a little creepy...you would think that whoever lived here last would have at least taken their kids' photos with them?

And all this stuff was up for sale.

Sandra Bunnell did an article in Tavy Stone's Detroit Guidebook called "The Good Hungarian Life" in March 1970, which said there were 50,000 Hungarian-Americans in the Detroit metropolitan region at that time. It listed several of the businesses that still made up what was considered the moribund "old Delray"...
Alex Kocsisko's Bakery, 8148 W. Jefferson
Delray Music Shop, 8120 W. Jefferson
Mikos Nagy's Delray Supermarket 8346 W. Jefferson
Steve Szabo's Hungarian Import Store, 434 S. West End
Al's Bar, corner of West End & South Street

About the only thing I can see left of old Delray now (Hungarian or otherwise) is Lockemann's Hardware & Boats, located at 7630 W. Jefferson since 1918, which I frequent as often as I can for my boating and home improvement needs. Nothing beats a classic family hardware; you can actually talk to a clerk, they actually know where stuff is in their store, and they actually know enough about home improvement to give good advice. We've been bamboozled in the modern day by the big-box Home Despot type stores.

John Carlisle also once wrote about Lockemann's as well, but the article doesn't seem to be online anymore.

Honestly, today driving through Delray feels exactly like driving through a northern Michigan ghost town; there is a small cluster of vacant Victorian storefronts, and one requisite still-functioning business, all surrounded by empty countryside. Once enveloped by the densely urban city of Detroit, the village of Delray has reemerged as its own distinct locale again now that Detroit has thinned out and seemingly receded back to its pre-1907 annexation boundaries.

This bathroom's a little narrow...but as far as I can tell the second floor of this building still had its original layout; no walls had been added or removed, at least not in a really long time.

I found another guidebook from 1970 that mentioned Kovacs Bar, called Detroit: A Young Guide to the City, by Sheldon Annis. It recommended patronizing Kovacs to the hip, 1970s Detroiter—"the later the better."

In February 1975 Sandra Bunnell wrote another Delray-themed article in the Free Press, "Little Hungary Preserves Some Charms," which again listed the surviving Hungarian businesses (noticeably fewer than last time) and talked briefly about Kovacs. It was still owned by Steve & Mary Kovacs, who said, "We'll keep going as long as people come."

Carlisle writes that Steve Kovacs died in 1996, and his wife put the bar up for sale, which is when 72-year-old Bob Evans bought it on a lark, after he and his wife Delores retired. I guess they felt sorry for this gorgeous old place isolated in such a desolate part of town, and decided to keep it going as a hobby and as some form of income to supplement their retirement. Unfortunately it wasn't long before they realized that it was a dead-end.

At first, Bob tended bar while Delores planned and cooked lunches for the dozens of hungry steelworkers and truckers who came through the area every day. But many of Delray's last holdout businesses succumbed to the weak economy of the past decade. Carlisle writes that when U.S. Steel took over Zug Island and imposed layoffs a few years ago, the company also prohibited the remaining contract workers from leaving for lunch, fearing they'd come back drunk and create liability issues.

In my experience hearing about Ford's Rouge Steel Plant in the 1990s from a former employee, it was definitely the case that mill workers would leave during lunch and get drunk, or worse. Half the time they wouldn't come back at all, or not until it was time to punch out. So it doesn't surprise me that U.S. Steel would reportedly "send security around to check the cars at the bars," and not only Kovacs' Bob said, "but from here to Wyandotte."

As a result of that Bob and Delores lost half of their clientele, and wanted to get out of the business, but of course no one wanted to buy the building from them (at least not at the price they were looking to get). They lucked out when MDOT needed to demolish it for the new bridge to Canada, but its passing will mark the final death of old Hunkytown.

Here, alongside the eastern face of the building where another abutting building was once demolished, mixed in amongst the rubble are many shattered old bottles from 100 years ago:

Click for full size

A few original Victorian details even remain intact on this side porch, which is even more amazing than the fact that the interior detail survived.

I felt obliged to buy something from the auction, so I bought a small pry bar that I found in the back room, since I needed one to work on my house. I affectionately refer to it as "Kovacs' Bar"...since it's in the rules somewhere that all crowbars need to have a name.

Here is a view that I shot from the artillery berm at Historic Fort Wayne several years ago:

I'll be sad to see Kovacs go, such a landmark in a part of town that I once considered home for a brief period in my life. I only wish I could've ordered a beer.
Sanborn Maps for Detroit, Vol. 5, Sheet 84 (1910)
Sanborn Maps for Detroit, Vol. 5, Sheet 88 (1923)
"Celebrating the Good Life of the Gypsies at Kovacs', Last of the Great Hungarian Bars in Old Delray," Detroit Free Press, May 21, 1972, by Marcon Trbovich, p. 11, 13-15
"A Dirge on W. Fort," Detroit Free Press, March 28, 1986, p. 12D
Detroit: A Young Guide to the City, by Sheldon Annis (1970), p. 227

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