Historic Detroit

Cadillac Square Building

The Cadillac Square Building was one of Louis Kamper’s lesser known designs - but arguably his most beautiful.

The Gothic Revival-style building was designed in 1918 and opened the following year as the Real Estate Exchange Building. The building was located near the Barlum Hotel Tower, or Cadillac Tower as it is called today. As its name implied, the building housed mostly property-related businesses, such as the Detroit Mortgage Corp., which was on the tower’s third floor.

Between 1922 and 1940, the name changed from the Real Estate Exchange Building to Cadillac Square Building.

In comparison, the 20-story Cadillac Square Building appears to be a smaller version of the Cadillac Tower, but with more gothic detail, though they were designed by different architects.

In June 1944, the State of Michigan acquired the building from the Book-Cadillac Corp. in exchange for about 6,500 parcels of land in Wayne and Oakland counties valued at $202,050 (about $2.47 million today). The building was assessed at $377,000 (about $4.6 million) at the time, but jumped in value to $1.5 million by 1953 (about $12 million today) within a couple of years, making it a steal for the state. The state wanted the building to use as a state office building to house 25 to 30 Detroit departments of state agencies. It was referred to as a sub-Capitol, the “Little State Capitol” and the “Detroit Capitol.” The Book-Cadillac Corp. turned around and sold the land in an effort to raise cash.

The state formally took ownership of the Cadillac Square Building on June 20, 1944. The state didn’t need all of the building, and in August of that year, leased 12 floors of the building to the U.S. Army. The Army ran a Veterans Affairs bureau and Veterans Trust Fund and Council of Veterans offices there. Wayne County also had offices inside of it, including the Huron-Clinton Valley Authority.

On June 28, 1945, Republican Gov. Harry Kelly opened new executive offices inside it that took up almost the entire 17th floor of the tower. At the time, the state said Kelly would spend at least one day a week at the office, though the governor’s office had only one full-time employee there, a secretary. There was a spacious conference room for governmental meetings in Detroit. State Attorney General John R. Dethmers had offices on the 19th floor. Even the lieutenant governor had an office in the building.

Such an extravagant luxury ran into trouble almost immediately.

In July 1945, Ecorse Township sued. It was later joined by Birmingham; Taylor, Redford, and Grosse Ile townships, and two Ecorse school districts in a suit over the deal with the Book-Cadillac Corp., alleging fraud and seeking to make the deal null and void. The entities said they were not reimbursed for $553,555 (about $6.8 million today) in back taxes on the land that the state traded, and that the state did not have authority to make such a deal without making provisions with the townships. The lawsuit spanned into Republican Gov. Kim Sigler’s administration, and the state ended up dishing out $225,000 (about $2.1 million today) to settle out of court in 1948.

On Feb. 14, 1947, a minor panic erupted in front of the building when three large pieces of terra cotta cornice tumbled from the ninth floor to the sidewalk below. One of the pieces was 10 inches long and 2 to 4 inches thick. No one was injured, though a Dearborn bus was struck.

Calls started emerging in 1950 for the state to sell the building in order to curb expenses. A bipartisan bill was introduced in the state House in February 1953. The money raised from the sale -– estimated to be as high as $2 million (about $15 million today) –- was to build a new state Supreme Court building and library in Lansing. The state offices in the Cadillac Square Building were to be relocated to the state-owned Boulevard Building. Plans for the sale stretched nearly a decade and it fell into disrepair.

In 1974, the City of Detroit spent nearly $270,000 to buy the building - and two years later, in 1976, the city would spend another $270,000 ($1.09 million today) to demolish it. The land was to be part of a large downtown mall or shopping center, but those plans never materialized. The site of this forgotten landmark of Detroit has been a parking lot ever since.