Historic Detroit

Board of Commerce Building

The Board of Commerce Building is perhaps best remembered among Detroiters for the Cass Theatre, which was housed under the same roof.

The Board of Commerce was formally organized June 30, 1903. It had occupied three rooms in the Hammond Building on Campus Martius for a few months before spending a couple of years in the State Bank Building. At the end of the three-year lease, the bank decided it didn’t have the room to spare, and the board was looking for new quarters.

In early 1907, the board shelled out $45,000 (about $1 million today, when adjusted for inflation) for the home of Dr. William Brodie on Lafayette and Washington Boulevard, a thoroughfare then known as Wayne. The board used the house until 1912, when the organization decided it needed even more room to grow. That year, Brodie’s house was flattened and construction started on what would come to be known as the Board of Commerce Building.

On the stormy morning of Feb. 6, 1913, a procession was led from the Russell House hotel on Campus Martius to the site for the cornerstone-laying ceremony. On Oct. 6, 1913, more than 1,000 members of the organization turned out for the dedication.

The three-story brick building and the organization itself were prominent pieces of life in Detroit for many years. Former President Theodore Roosevelt spoke in the building’s auditorium on May 23, 1918. The venue also hosted William Jennings Bryan.

An addition and an attraction

In the 1920s, Detroit Free Press owner E.D. Stair was not only making a fortune with his newspaper, but also in showbiz. In 1925, Stair and the Shubert family opened the Lafayette Theatre in the former Orpheum, and its booming business fueled his interest in opening another down the road. It so happened that land across the street from the Free Press Building — behind the Board of Commerce Building — was undeveloped and being used as a parking lot. Stair saw dollar signs and a chance to expand his entertainment empire, which would eventually grow to about 30 theaters across the country.

In 1925, it was announced that an addition would be built onto the three-story Board of Commerce Building, converting it into a six-story office and theater building. Lee and Jacob J. Shubert, who ran dozens of playhouses across the country, and Stair were the masterminds of the transformation. They tapped Krapp for the job, as the Shuberts were familiar with his work: He had designed more than 40 theaters for the family at that point. He also had designed several respected Broadway theaters.

For its trouble, Stair gave the board free space in the newspaper’s offices across the street during the renovation, and the group also had access to the auditorium when a production wasn’t using the stage.

The curtain rises

The Cass was the first theater built specifically for legitimate productions in the city since the dawn of the century. All others had been built before 1900 or were built for purposes other than handling touring theater productions. Moreover, the Detroit News wrote in September 1926, “the new theater serves to emphasize the increasing importance of Lafayette (Boulevard) as a center of business, amusement and culture.”

The Cass opened Sept. 12, 1926, with a production of Sigmund Romberg’s “Princess Flavia,” starring Howard Marsh and Evelyn Herbert and was an operetta based on Anthony Hope’s novel “The Prisoner of Zenda.” Writing the day after the theater’s opening, the Free Press called the Cass “Detroit’s newest and most pretentious theater devoted to first class dramatic and musical productions” and said it was “commodious beyond what its exterior would suggest.”

Its golden era was the 1920s to 1940s, with the theater hopping for 48 weeks in 1943-44. Throughout the years, the Cass proved to be an elegant showcase for the greats of the world of stage. Everyone from Ethel Barrymore to Boris Karloff to Bette Davis to W.C. Fields played at the Cass.

One of the more impressive aspects of the renovation is that few structural changes were made to the building other than the floors added to the top of it. The walls were mostly left intact and the marble stairways untouched. The original Board of Commerce entrance on Washington Boulevard became the main entrance to the theater; the office building had a separate entrance.

Changes

On April 22, 1945, the theater’s 40-foot, 1.5-ton sign that had hung on the building for nearly 20 years was removed after the city had condemned it as dangerous. A 70-foot erector crane mounted on a truck dismantled it and hauled it away to join the scrap-metal pile as part of the war effort during World War II.

Despite the theater’s booming run during the 1940s, as Detroit started to bleed population in the 1950s and ’60s, the building - like most downtown structures - went downhill fast. Tastes changed even faster, with movies having long since supplanted stage in the U.S. Touring stage attractions, in general, began to decline in the 1950s. The Cass hung on, even though its marquee was dark more than lighted during this time; it was dark for all but seven weeks in 1958, for example. Likewise, the Board of Commerce Building was losing tenants seeking newer, more modern accommodations, either in the city or in the growing suburbs.

In October 1962, it was announced that the Cass would be converted into a Cinerama theater and redubbed the Summit Theatre, though work didn’t start for a couple of years. Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Beacon Enterprises, which was operating the Cinerama at Music Hall and 11 theaters in other states at the time, leased the theater. Despite the struggles of other downtown theaters, Beacon’s president, Sheldon Smerling, told the Free Press that October that “We have great faith in Detroit’s urban renewal program, particularly in the Cobo Hall area. … We feel if we present the right attractions in luxurious surroundings it will be in keeping with the city’s redevelopment.”

Architect Drew Eberson was put in charge of the renovation, which cost about $175,000 (about $1.2 million today, when adjusted for inflation). Eberson was the son of noted theater architect John Eberson, who designed the since-razed Grand Riveria Theatre in Detroit. The theater’s capacity shrunk from 1,500 to about 1,050 under the renovation. In January 1965, construction workers removed the last rows of the original seats in the theater as part of the overhaul.

The Board of Commerce Building got a $150,000 (about $1 million today) face-lift of its own in August 1966, a year after the changes to the Cass/Summit. The Free Press said the move was “to make sure the entire building is as attractive as the remodeled Summit Theater.” The architect on the project was T. Rogvoy Associates, which had redesigned/modernized more than 40 buildings in downtown Detroit. The move gave the building a restyled exterior of face brick with new arches starting at the ground level up to the second floor. The windows on the second floor were concealed behind anodized aluminum screens in a bronze tone.

The end

But the theater still struggled to compete with newer movie theaters in the suburbs and outer reaches of the city limits. Cinerama ran out of product to show, and times continued to be rough for Detroit’s entertainment business. The theater switched to pornographic movies shortly before closing in March 1971. Such fare was becoming increasingly common downtown. The porn theater’s proximity across the street from the Detroit Free Press Building and being near the Book-Cadillac Hotel did not help its reputation. The theater briefly reopened as the Pandora and screen the occasional ethnic film, but closed for good around 1975.

The offices in the building, like many in downtown Detroit, were being vacated by companies either fleeing Detroit’s declining reputation or seeking more modern facilities in the suburbs. In late October 1977, the Cass and the Board of Commerce Building were demolished to make way for a giant surface parking lot that is still in use today.

“The world changes, as it must,” Cook wrote in the Free Press’ obit story about the theater’s demolition, “but it is hard on the elderly when the old landmarks go down.”