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The exterior of Fort Street Union Depot in Detroit. The facade is red brick with a clock tower.
Fort Street Union Depot.
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

The 13 most senseless building demolitions in Detroit

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Fort Street Union Depot.
| Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

The current development boom in greater downtown Detroit has included a significant number of historical building renovations, including some once considered beyond saving. But because so much of Detroit's architectural heritage has already been destroyed, it’s important to remember the lessons learned by the most avoidable and often pointless losses.

What aspects make some demolitions more regrettable than others? It may be that a building is particularly historic, beautiful, irreplaceable, or connected to important people or events. A loss is even more painful still if the structure is replaced by something less valuable or more harmful: surface parking lots, urban expressways, fast food restaurants, or vacant lots intended to “attract development” that never materializes. Here are just ten examples that represent a cross section of all of these factors. Note: We decided to stick with individual buildings instead of larger areas on this map.

Did we leave out a building that you miss? Let us know in the comments below.

Note: Buildings ordered by year demolished. Aaron Mondry wrote entries for Statler Hotel, Old City Hall, and Saturday Night Building.

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Detroit Museum of Art

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When a successful 1883 art loan exhibition proved that Detroit was ready for its own museum, leading citizens incorporated the Detroit Museum of Art two years later and began raising funds for a permanent building. Museum trustees selected plans submitted by architect James Balfour of Hamilton, Ontario. Critics said the design was too extravagant, and more suitable for a location with an expansive lawn rather in the heart of a bustling city. But the Norman-style museum was erected anyway, and it was here that early treasures of the Detroit Institute of Arts, including the Van Gogh self-portrait, were originally displayed. 

After the museum relocated to Woodward Avenue in 1927, the old building housed the Detroit Public Welfare Department and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The former museum saw the wrecking ball in August 1960 to make way for the expressway now designated I-375. But it may end up being all for nothing—city planners now want to return the I-375 right-of-way back into traditional surface streets.

Old City Hall

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This gorgeous Second Empire building was, in many ways, the center of city life in Detroit for 90 years. Built in 1871, old City Hall hosted major events—parades, festivals, speeches—at its perch next to Campus Martius. The building had a huge clock tower designed by W.A. Hendrie (which he described as his “masterpiece”) and sculptures by Julius Theodore Melchers.

But in the 20th century, the building began to show signs of its age. It didn’t match standards for architecture or safety, and it desperately needed cleaning and updates. Unfortunately, there wasn’t the appetite to make the necessary changes.

After a new City Hall was built (now the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center), the old one’s clock was ticking. It was finally demolished in 1961. One Kennedy Square occupies the site today.

Courtesy Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Detroit’s Second Opera House

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After the city's first opera house was destroyed by fire on the morning of October 7, 1897, its owners rebuilt on the same spot on Campus Martius where the original had opened 28 years earlier. Architects Mason & Rice blended French Renaissance and Corinthian elements in the facade's design. Theater attendance declined as the city's elite moved farther from downtown, and the venue began primarily showing films in 1931. Several proposals for what to do with the dying theater were announced, including a restaurant, an indoor sports center, and a bus station, but all fell through. In December 1935, work began on converting the theater into a second location for Sam's Cut Rate, a drug store that later evolved into a discount department store. 

In 1965, the City of Detroit purchased every lot on this block and leveled it completely the following year in order to attract development. The block remained unoccupied until Compuware's headquarters opened there in 2003, nearly 40 years later.

Fort Street Union Depot

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The Fort Street Union Depot—Detroit's "other" monumental railway station—was the creation of architects James Stewart & Co. of St. Louis. Composed of red brick with red sandstone and terra cotta accents, the Romanesque Revival design was dominated by a seven-story, four-faced clock tower at the southwest corner of Fort and Third streets. After the last train left the station in 1971, inadequate attempts to board up the structure failed to prevent the ravages of vandals and scrappers. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, which owned the depot, decided to tear down the building to avoid liability and the costs of renovation. Wayne County Community College's main campus occupies the corner today.

Alexander Chene House

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Alexander Chene built this Federal-style brick home on East Jefferson around 1850. In 1902, millionaire Charles B. Warren purchased, renovated, and added onto the structure. After serving as a University of Detroit fraternity house, it was converted into Little Harry's Restaurant in 1933.

Anita Baker and her husband, Walter Bridgforth Jr., purchased the Chene House in 1990 and announced "exciting plans" for the site. They obtained a demolition permit despite the building's historic designation, but the permit was rescinded once the error was made public. The couple, who bought the property for $575,000, attempted to claim a hardship exemption, but the city's Historic District Commission ordered them to sell the property instead. It was listed for $950,000 and found no buyers. A year later, the demolition request was added to the commission's agenda as a “walk-on item” with no public notice, and approved. Although preservationists won a court-issued stay on the demo on April 5, 1991, a wrecking crew arrived the next day and tore down two-thirds of the building anyway. The ruins were declared a safety hazard and demolition proceeded.

Two years later, an “exciting” development was announced for the site: an International House of Pancakes, which still stands today.

Gleaner’s Temple

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In an odd move for a farmers' insurance and fraternity organization, the Gleaner Clearing House Association moved its headquarters from Cairo, Illinois to Detroit in 1908.  Groundbreaking for the Greek Revival building, the work of architect George L. Harvey, occurred on June 8 of that year. In 1958 the building became Newman Hall, a Roman Catholic social organization for Wayne State University students. It was later used as a medical treatment facility. In 1994, WSU purchased the building and demolished it two years later to create twelve faculty parking spaces. Today the space remains a surface-level parking lot.

Hudson’s Department Store

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As we’ve detailed before, the Hudson's building was constructed in stages between 1889 and 1946. The city acquired the building in 1996 and imploded it two years later against the protests of urbanists, preservationists, and the thousands with cherished memories of the once-elegant department store. The $12 million implosion coated downtown with a layer of dust, and damaged the Detroit People Mover track so severely that the system was completely shut down for two months and not in full operation for a year.

Bedrock Detroit is currently constructing a tower on the site that will be one the city’s tallest skyscrapers. By the time the first tenants move in, the site will have been vacant (except for an underground parking garage) for nearly 35 years.

An old black and white photograph of Hudson’s in Detroit. Photo courtesy of Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Statler Hotel

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This 800-room Renaissance Revival hotel was the only building in Detroit designed by prominent New York architect George B. Post. When it opened in 1915, it was part of a ring of skyscrapers being developed around Grand Circus Park. At the time, according to Historic Detroit, it was the “most expensive and luxurious hotel” in the city.

After years of low occupancy, the hotel closed in 1975 and stood empty for 30 years. It was finally demolished in 2005. Like several downtown buildings around this time, it was part of an effort to eliminate blighted buildings in preparation for Super Bowl XL.

The site sat vacant for many years, but the City Club Apartments-CBD Detroit is currently under construction there.

Wikimedia Commons

Donovan “Motown” Building

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The Donovan Building Company hired Albert Kahn to design this ten-story retail and office building, which opened in 1923. Most notably, it served as the headquarters of Motown Records, which began moving into the building in December 1967. The dream was short lived, however, and the record company left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972. 

As late as the early 2000s, urban explorers noted that the building still contained intact architectural details as well as mountains of Mowtown memorabilia. In anticipation of Super Bowl XL, the city pressured the building's owner, Cherry Lawn Realty (partly owned by Berry Gordy Jr.), to tear down the building "for parking." In January 2006, the building where the Jackson 5 auditioned for Berry Gordy Jr. in his eighth-floor office was reduced to rubble. The site remains vacant today.

While digging through my archives for Dry Dock photos I came upon this unrelated image of one of the final sunrises on...

Posted by Forgotten Detroit on Monday, June 10, 2013

Lafayette Building

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Perhaps it was bad timing that ultimately did the Lafayette Building in. The neo-classical office building, designed by C. Howard Crane, opened in 1923 but ultimately closed in 1997.  Tenants included the Michigan Supreme Court and Walter's Pipe Shop, which rented space in the building for almost the entirety of its existence, according to Historic Detroit

The Downtown Development Authority (DDA) purchased the building from a slumlord owner in 2004 and became determined early on to demolish the structure. Preservationists fought to save the building, but in June 2009 the Detroit City Council voted against historic designation. Three days later, the DDA voted to raze the building. The following month, Quicken Loans announced it was moving to downtown Detroit, eventually spearheading a host of historic office building renovations. But it was too late for the Lafayette—it would be gone in a matter of months. The site is how home to an urban farm and green space.

A vintage photograph of the Lafayette Building in Detroit. Photo courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Park Avenue Hotel

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Celebrated architect Louis Kamper designed this thirteen-story hotel, completed in 1925. Each of its 252 rooms contained a private bath and shower, considered special features for a residential hotel at the time. The Salvation Army purchased the building and used it as a home for the elderly, called Eventide, from 1959 through 1980, and later as a homeless shelter until 2007. 

Two years later, Olympia Entertainment purchased the property through a shadow company, Eventide Properties. Olympia's Little Caesar's Arena, one block over from the Park Avenue Hotel, was designed in such a way so that the historic structure would have to be demolished to make way for the arena's loading dock. Despite the city having previously designated the property a historic site, Detroit's Historic District Commission voted 3-1 to allow the demolition to proceed. It was imploded on July 11, 2015.

Barat House

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This distinct midcentury modern building was built in 1960-1961 as an inpatient psychiatric facility for young women. Architect Robert H. Snyder, then head of Cranbrook's architecture department, consulted with psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Fischhoff to “develop a spirit of containment without restraint.” The Barat House served at-risk youth until the winter of 2016-2017, when the building was purchased by the Detroit Institute of Arts specifically to be cleared for sixty-five parking spaces. What made the loss especially disappointing was not that the building was particularly old or ornate, but that its destruction was brought about by a publicly funded nonprofit dedicated to preserving a diverse array of art and cultural artifacts. 

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Detroit Saturday Night Building

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Was it the most beautiful or historically significant building? No. Was it the most pointless demolition on this list? Possibly.

Built in 1914, the Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls–designed building housed the Detroit Saturday Night, a newspaper published in the city from 1907 to 1939. Developer Emmett Moten demolished it to make way for a surface parking lot that can accommodate a grand total of 12 cars for residents of luxury condos at the adjacent Fort Shelby. It was last standing structure on the block of Fort Street between 2nd Avenue and 1st Street.

Courtesy of Preservation Detroit

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Detroit Museum of Art

When a successful 1883 art loan exhibition proved that Detroit was ready for its own museum, leading citizens incorporated the Detroit Museum of Art two years later and began raising funds for a permanent building. Museum trustees selected plans submitted by architect James Balfour of Hamilton, Ontario. Critics said the design was too extravagant, and more suitable for a location with an expansive lawn rather in the heart of a bustling city. But the Norman-style museum was erected anyway, and it was here that early treasures of the Detroit Institute of Arts, including the Van Gogh self-portrait, were originally displayed. 

After the museum relocated to Woodward Avenue in 1927, the old building housed the Detroit Public Welfare Department and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The former museum saw the wrecking ball in August 1960 to make way for the expressway now designated I-375. But it may end up being all for nothing—city planners now want to return the I-375 right-of-way back into traditional surface streets.

Old City Hall

Courtesy Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

This gorgeous Second Empire building was, in many ways, the center of city life in Detroit for 90 years. Built in 1871, old City Hall hosted major events—parades, festivals, speeches—at its perch next to Campus Martius. The building had a huge clock tower designed by W.A. Hendrie (which he described as his “masterpiece”) and sculptures by Julius Theodore Melchers.

But in the 20th century, the building began to show signs of its age. It didn’t match standards for architecture or safety, and it desperately needed cleaning and updates. Unfortunately, there wasn’t the appetite to make the necessary changes.

After a new City Hall was built (now the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center), the old one’s clock was ticking. It was finally demolished in 1961. One Kennedy Square occupies the site today.

Courtesy Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Detroit’s Second Opera House

After the city's first opera house was destroyed by fire on the morning of October 7, 1897, its owners rebuilt on the same spot on Campus Martius where the original had opened 28 years earlier. Architects Mason & Rice blended French Renaissance and Corinthian elements in the facade's design. Theater attendance declined as the city's elite moved farther from downtown, and the venue began primarily showing films in 1931. Several proposals for what to do with the dying theater were announced, including a restaurant, an indoor sports center, and a bus station, but all fell through. In December 1935, work began on converting the theater into a second location for Sam's Cut Rate, a drug store that later evolved into a discount department store. 

In 1965, the City of Detroit purchased every lot on this block and leveled it completely the following year in order to attract development. The block remained unoccupied until Compuware's headquarters opened there in 2003, nearly 40 years later.

Fort Street Union Depot

The Fort Street Union Depot—Detroit's "other" monumental railway station—was the creation of architects James Stewart & Co. of St. Louis. Composed of red brick with red sandstone and terra cotta accents, the Romanesque Revival design was dominated by a seven-story, four-faced clock tower at the southwest corner of Fort and Third streets. After the last train left the station in 1971, inadequate attempts to board up the structure failed to prevent the ravages of vandals and scrappers. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, which owned the depot, decided to tear down the building to avoid liability and the costs of renovation. Wayne County Community College's main campus occupies the corner today.

Alexander Chene House

Alexander Chene built this Federal-style brick home on East Jefferson around 1850. In 1902, millionaire Charles B. Warren purchased, renovated, and added onto the structure. After serving as a University of Detroit fraternity house, it was converted into Little Harry's Restaurant in 1933.

Anita Baker and her husband, Walter Bridgforth Jr., purchased the Chene House in 1990 and announced "exciting plans" for the site. They obtained a demolition permit despite the building's historic designation, but the permit was rescinded once the error was made public. The couple, who bought the property for $575,000, attempted to claim a hardship exemption, but the city's Historic District Commission ordered them to sell the property instead. It was listed for $950,000 and found no buyers. A year later, the demolition request was added to the commission's agenda as a “walk-on item” with no public notice, and approved. Although preservationists won a court-issued stay on the demo on April 5, 1991, a wrecking crew arrived the next day and tore down two-thirds of the building anyway. The ruins were declared a safety hazard and demolition proceeded.

Two years later, an “exciting” development was announced for the site: an International House of Pancakes, which still stands today.

Gleaner’s Temple

In an odd move for a farmers' insurance and fraternity organization, the Gleaner Clearing House Association moved its headquarters from Cairo, Illinois to Detroit in 1908.  Groundbreaking for the Greek Revival building, the work of architect George L. Harvey, occurred on June 8 of that year. In 1958 the building became Newman Hall, a Roman Catholic social organization for Wayne State University students. It was later used as a medical treatment facility. In 1994, WSU purchased the building and demolished it two years later to create twelve faculty parking spaces. Today the space remains a surface-level parking lot.

Hudson’s Department Store

An old black and white photograph of Hudson’s in Detroit. Photo courtesy of Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

As we’ve detailed before, the Hudson's building was constructed in stages between 1889 and 1946. The city acquired the building in 1996 and imploded it two years later against the protests of urbanists, preservationists, and the thousands with cherished memories of the once-elegant department store. The $12 million implosion coated downtown with a layer of dust, and damaged the Detroit People Mover track so severely that the system was completely shut down for two months and not in full operation for a year.

Bedrock Detroit is currently constructing a tower on the site that will be one the city’s tallest skyscrapers. By the time the first tenants move in, the site will have been vacant (except for an underground parking garage) for nearly 35 years.

An old black and white photograph of Hudson’s in Detroit. Photo courtesy of Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Statler Hotel

Wikimedia Commons

This 800-room Renaissance Revival hotel was the only building in Detroit designed by prominent New York architect George B. Post. When it opened in 1915, it was part of a ring of skyscrapers being developed around Grand Circus Park. At the time, according to Historic Detroit, it was the “most expensive and luxurious hotel” in the city.

After years of low occupancy, the hotel closed in 1975 and stood empty for 30 years. It was finally demolished in 2005. Like several downtown buildings around this time, it was part of an effort to eliminate blighted buildings in preparation for Super Bowl XL.

The site sat vacant for many years, but the City Club Apartments-CBD Detroit is currently under construction there.

Wikimedia Commons

Donovan “Motown” Building

The Donovan Building Company hired Albert Kahn to design this ten-story retail and office building, which opened in 1923. Most notably, it served as the headquarters of Motown Records, which began moving into the building in December 1967. The dream was short lived, however, and the record company left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972. 

As late as the early 2000s, urban explorers noted that the building still contained intact architectural details as well as mountains of Mowtown memorabilia. In anticipation of Super Bowl XL, the city pressured the building's owner, Cherry Lawn Realty (partly owned by Berry Gordy Jr.), to tear down the building "for parking." In January 2006, the building where the Jackson 5 auditioned for Berry Gordy Jr. in his eighth-floor office was reduced to rubble. The site remains vacant today.

While digging through my archives for Dry Dock photos I came upon this unrelated image of one of the final sunrises on...

Posted by Forgotten Detroit on Monday, June 10, 2013

Lafayette Building

A vintage photograph of the Lafayette Building in Detroit. Photo courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Perhaps it was bad timing that ultimately did the Lafayette Building in. The neo-classical office building, designed by C. Howard Crane, opened in 1923 but ultimately closed in 1997.  Tenants included the Michigan Supreme Court and Walter's Pipe Shop, which rented space in the building for almost the entirety of its existence, according to Historic Detroit

The Downtown Development Authority (DDA) purchased the building from a slumlord owner in 2004 and became determined early on to demolish the structure. Preservationists fought to save the building, but in June 2009 the Detroit City Council voted against historic designation. Three days later, the DDA voted to raze the building. The following month, Quicken Loans announced it was moving to downtown Detroit, eventually spearheading a host of historic office building renovations. But it was too late for the Lafayette—it would be gone in a matter of months. The site is how home to an urban farm and green space.

A vintage photograph of the Lafayette Building in Detroit. Photo courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Park Avenue Hotel

Celebrated architect Louis Kamper designed this thirteen-story hotel, completed in 1925. Each of its 252 rooms contained a private bath and shower, considered special features for a residential hotel at the time. The Salvation Army purchased the building and used it as a home for the elderly, called Eventide, from 1959 through 1980, and later as a homeless shelter until 2007. 

Two years later, Olympia Entertainment purchased the property through a shadow company, Eventide Properties. Olympia's Little Caesar's Arena, one block over from the Park Avenue Hotel, was designed in such a way so that the historic structure would have to be demolished to make way for the arena's loading dock. Despite the city having previously designated the property a historic site, Detroit's Historic District Commission voted 3-1 to allow the demolition to proceed. It was imploded on July 11, 2015.

Barat House

Google Street View

This distinct midcentury modern building was built in 1960-1961 as an inpatient psychiatric facility for young women. Architect Robert H. Snyder, then head of Cranbrook's architecture department, consulted with psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Fischhoff to “develop a spirit of containment without restraint.” The Barat House served at-risk youth until the winter of 2016-2017, when the building was purchased by the Detroit Institute of Arts specifically to be cleared for sixty-five parking spaces. What made the loss especially disappointing was not that the building was particularly old or ornate, but that its destruction was brought about by a publicly funded nonprofit dedicated to preserving a diverse array of art and cultural artifacts. 

Google Street View

Detroit Saturday Night Building

Courtesy of Preservation Detroit

Was it the most beautiful or historically significant building? No. Was it the most pointless demolition on this list? Possibly.

Built in 1914, the Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls–designed building housed the Detroit Saturday Night, a newspaper published in the city from 1907 to 1939. Developer Emmett Moten demolished it to make way for a surface parking lot that can accommodate a grand total of 12 cars for residents of luxury condos at the adjacent Fort Shelby. It was last standing structure on the block of Fort Street between 2nd Avenue and 1st Street.

Courtesy of Preservation Detroit