The Biddle House was once Detroit’s most luxurious hotel, but, like much of the city, its lasting legacy is tied to the automobile.
It was designed by A.E. Wales for Maj. John Biddle — the fourth mayor of Detroit — on the corner of Randolph and Jefferson. It opened its doors in June 7, 1851. It was one of Detroit’s earliest hotels - and at 500 rooms, one of the biggest hotels in the state. It was designed by A.E. Wales.
A fire in 1848 destroyed much of East Jefferson Avenue, but also opened the way for a destination hotel on what was the city’s most important street. The Biddle House was built on the former site of Gov. William Hull’s residence. Hull had fought in the American Revolution and served as governor of the Michigan Territory from 1805–13. However, he is best known for being the War of 1812 general who surrendered Fort Detroit to the British on Aug. 16, 1812.
The building had a quirky cupola - which appeared too small for the size of the building. Advertisements proclaimed that it was “strictly first class in all its appointments.” It was, as the hotel’s slogan said, “the traveler’s perfect home.” It was one of the city’s most beloved institutions, and was “patronized by Detroit’s leading men and many of them with their families lived there,” Clarence M. Burton wrote in his history “The City of Detroit, Michigan.”
On Aug. 12, 1865, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, then the idol of the nation, visited Detroit with his wife and their four children. The city turned out to welcome him, and the reception was held in the Biddle House. The New York Times wrote that day that “the street through which the general passed was crowded with people, who greeted the distinguished visitor with loud and prolonged cheers. … At an early hour this evening, a great number of citizens assembled in front of the Biddle House to welcome Gen. Grant to Detroit. Brief and eloquent speeches were made by Hon. Theodore Romeyn and Sen. Howard. The general, after bowing to the crowd, retired.”
President Andrew Johnson and David Glasgow Farragut - the first admiral of the U.S. Navy - also visited the Biddle.
But when the Russell House opened Sept 28, 1857, the Biddle’s days of being the finest hotel in the city were over.
As the years passed and business moved uptown, the hotel was closed for a time. It found an unexpected use when, on Jan. 27, 1893, fire destroyed the old Capitol High School on Capitol Square. For several months following, the high school was held in the Biddle House.
In 1898, Bill Metzger became the first auto dealer in the country, when he opened a salesroom in the Biddle. Metzger had been a bicycle dealer before that and, realizing the city’s future - and its fortunes - lied in the automobile, he changed gears. He sold a Waverly Electric to Detroit furrier Newton Annis of Annis Furs fame.
The Biddle was swept by fire Nov. 19, 1909, and then again Aug. 11, 1914. The western half of the Biddle not destroyed by the earlier blazes was knocked down three years later.