Detroit’s Beautiful Yet Abandoned Art Deco Skyscrapers

What does a building have to do to get a little respect? It seems being beautiful and having an interesting history is not enough as the following ten skyscrapers of the Roaring Twenties will show. Detroit seems to be a whole treasure trove of amazing Art Deco skyscrapers, sadly waiting for a new purpose. Or the wrecking ball.

Why did Detroit of all cities experience a construction boom in the 1920s? For a variety of reasons. First of all, its strategic location along the Great Lakes waterway made the city a transportation hub. This plus the city’s industry-spurred growth and the establishment of the Ford Motor Company in 1904 brought migrants from the South as well as tens of thousands of European immigrants into the city.

To date, Detroit has one of the largest collections of late 19th and early 20th century buildings in the United States, a good portion of them abandoned as we will see. Here’s our list of the bold and the beautiful.

1. Book Tower, Detroit – 38 floors, 475 feet (145 m)

Standing tall and beautiful.

The Italian Renaissance style Book Tower took ten years from 1916 to 1926 to build and was completed just at the beginning of the Art Deco phase. Named after Detroit’s Book Brothers, the office tower was briefly the city’s tallest until the completion of the Penobscot Building in 1928.

In July 2006, the building was sold to the Pagan Organization whose offshoot Northeast Commercial Services Corp. filed for bankruptcy in May 2007, not even a year later. In January of this year, Bookies Tavern, the last occupant, moved out, leaving the building completely vacant. Though plans exist to renovate the Book Tower and turn it into 300 apartments and retail space, nothing has been finalised yet.

2. Broderick Tower, Detroit – 35 fl Beaux Arts 369 ft, (113m)

The Broderick Tower with a whale mural by local artist Wyland painted in 1997.

The David Broderick Tower, completed toward the end of the Roaring Twenties in 1928, is a mix of Neo Classical and Beaux Arts. It is named after David Broderick, an insurance broker, who bought the building in 1945.

Since Broderick’s death in 1957, the tower has changed ownership many times and closed completely in the 1980s. Except for bars and restaurants occupying the first floor, the building has been abandoned ever since. However, redevelopment has been underway and the tower is set to reopen in early 2010. Planned is a mall on the first four floors, office space on the two floors above and residential apartments on floors 5 through 34.


They just don’t build ’em like this anymore.

The United Artists Theatre Building was constructed in 1928 in Renaissance Revival style and is almost completely made of brick. Its offices space was used until 1973 and its movie theatre until 1978. For five years, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra used it as a recording theatre but the building finally closed in 1984.

Since then, the building has been in various stages of disrepair with windows and its ground floor taken over by graffiti, which was removed in preparation for the 2006 NFL Super Bowl. Though talk of a new lease of life for the building has been around since 2006, no concrete plans have come forward.


4. Michigan Central Station – 18 floors, 230 ft (70 m)

Crumbling splendour.

One of the most beautiful and dramatic buildings portrayed here, the Michigan Central Station was the world’s tallest railway station at the time of its construction in 1913. Built in Beaux Arts style, Doric columns have been used in abundance and the main waiting room was even modelled after an ancient Roman bathhouse.

Today, sadly little of the initial splendour remains as the building has been subject to extensive vandalism and any items of value like brass fixtures have been removed. The station struggled from the beginning to attract the development expected and its location two miles away from downtown didn’t help matters.

Sinister looking in black-and-white.

Amtrak ran train services from 1971 to 1988 when it moved to the new Detroit station. Since then, the Michigan Central Station building has changed ownership many times, and sold once even for as little as $80,000, but apart from being a film location occasionally, hasn’t been used at all. All renovation plans got pushed aside due to a lack of financing and the station was finally slated for demolition in April of this year. However, Detroit resident Stanley Christmas put a stop to demolition efforts by suing the City of Detroit, citing the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.


5. Metropolitan Building, Detroit – 15 floors, 183 ft (56 m)

Still impressive.

The Gothic Revival/Neo Gothic influence is written all over the Metropolitan Building’s beautiful façade. The office tower, built between 1924 and 1925, was soon known as the Jeweller’s Building because of the many jewellery manufacturers and wholesalers among its tenants.

It closed in 1977 and has been vacant since. Unlike other buildings in the area, the Metropolitan was earlier not slated for redevelopment because of its contamination through decades of watch repair and watch making.

Unlike other buildings in the area, the Metropolitan was not slated for redevelopment earlier because of contamination through watch repair and watch making: since the 1910s, radium paints were used for luminosity on watch dials, the radioactivity of which does not decrease much even after decades. Recent plans reveal that the building could be turned into lofts.

6. Detroit Free Press Building – 14 floors, 151 ft (46 m)

Side of the building without the 14-story tower.

Like the previous building, work at the Detroit Free Press Building started in 1924 and was completed in 1925. The Art Deco façade is decorated with bas-reliefs depicting commerce and communication. Though the Detroit Free Press has long since moved out, the newspaper’s neon sign is still visible on the roof.


Thinking of better times – detail of the façade.

Together with Michigan Central Station above, the Detroit Free Press Building has been a candidate for housing the Detroit Police Headquarters under the city’s urban development scheme. In February of this year, plans were announced to turn the building into a sound stage for Motor City Film Works but no completion date or other details have been announced.

Image: ruhdew

7. Wurlitzer Building – 14 floors, 151 ft (46 m)

The old Wurlitzer sign of the building.

The Wurlitzer Building was constructed in 1926 in Renaissance Revival style and stands right next to the Metropolitan Building. The former office building was named after its most famous tenant, the Wurlitzer Organ Company. An original Wurlitzer can still be found in Detroit’s famous Fox Theatre.

Hotels deserve a special mention, especially their abundance in the early 20th century. Why would cities invest in so many hotels? Were people suddenly travelling domestically between cities? And why wouldn’t these travellers also use alternative accommodation like friends and family? The explanation lies in the fact that it was considered fashionable and more stylish to reside in a hotel permanently than to live in a regular apartment.

Therefore, the cities of the 1920s reacted to the trend with hotels that were actually apartment buildings with hotel services, built to accommodate the worldly Roaring-Twenty somethings.


8. Lee Plaza Hotel – 15 floors, 183 ft (56 m)

The Lee Plaza Hotel is a good example of the apartment cum hotel trend. It was built in such splendour that it even rivalled the Book-Cadillac in grandeur – a building since renovated, therefore not on our list.

The Lee Plaza is an Art Deco hotel built by Charles Noble in 1928. Since its heyday, economic hardship followed and the building’s ownership changed several times. It was even used as a senior citizens’ complex before closing as a residence in the early 1990s. Today, the Lee Plaza Hotel grins toothless, er, windowless into the downtown Detroit landscape, having had much of its artwork, internal wiring, fixtures and valuable material removed illegally by scavengers.

9. Park Avenue Hotel, Detroit – 13 floors, 120 ft (36 m)

Will the Renaissance-style building ever get a new beginning?

The Park Avenue Hotel is another one of the many Detroit hotels built in the 1920s that has long ceased operations. Together with the also abandoned Eddystone Hotel (see below) and the oldest and only operating hotel from that era, the Royal Palm Hotel, the Park Avenue Hotel was designed by architect Louis Kamper for Lew Tuller. All three are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Park Avenue Hotel was once used by the Salvation Army as their Harbor Lights Center homeless shelter. As of 2007, with the Salvation Army moving and development plans falling through, the building remains vacant.


Que sera, sera – the Royal Palm Hotel.

Looking at this picture of the Royal Palm Hotel is like looking into the past (or the future) of what the Park Avenue Hotel could look like if developed. Confusingly, the Royal Palm Hotel changed its name to Park Avenue Hotel but has since changed it back.

10. Eddystone Hotel – 13 floors, 120 ft (36 m)

An expensive billboard.

The Eddystone Hotel, just across the road from the Park Avenue Hotel, shares a similar destiny: Built by Louis Kamper in 1924, the hotel first flourished but for decades now has been waiting for economic revival.

And like the Park Avenue Hotel, it was used as a homeless shelter at one point, though any redevelopment plans have since fallen through.

That concludes our ghost tour of Detroit’s abandoned skyscrapers. There are more of course, not only in Detroit, and if you know of any that are as impressive, leave a comment.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12