Historic Detroit

David Whitney Building

She may not look like much on the outside, but the David Whitney Building is one of the most important structures in Detroit.

First, it is one of only three surviving buildings in Detroit by the renowned architectural firm of Daniel H. Burnham & Co. Burnham is considered one of the most important American architects of all time. Second, the building’s atrium lobby is one of the most jaw-dropping in the city, a veritable terra cotta smorgasbord. And lastly, it is one of the increasingly few landmarks ringing Grand Circus Park.

Meet David Whitney

The building is named in honor of David Whitney Jr., one of the men responsible for much of Detroit’s early commercial and industrial development. The lumber baron and shipping magnate was born in 1830 in Massachusetts, coming to Michigan in 1857 to take advantage of the state’s fledgling lumber industry. In addition to his success in the lumber business in Michigan, Oregon and Washington state, Whitney also invested in Great Lakes shipping. In fact, an article in the Detroit Sunday News Tribune from 1895 quoted others in the industry as saying Whitney “is the best prophet of vessel rates on the Lakes.” He also invested in many of Detroit’s banking, industrial and insurance companies, “and his extensive lending of money made him an extremely important figure in the commercial and industrial development of Detroit before the turn of the century,” wrote William M. Worden in his proposal for making the David Whitney Building its own historic district.

By the turn of the century, he was one of Detroit’s wealthiest men and largest landowners. His fortune was estimated at $7 million to $10 million in the 1890s, the equivalent of $167.7 million to $239.5 million today, when adjusted for inflation. His land in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, was estimated to be worth $2 million ($47.9 million today). And not only did he own a lot of the city’s land, he owned many of the best pieces of land. An 1895 newspaper article on Detroit property barons indicated that Whitney’s property “equaled that of any other five men in Detroit.” His home, now a restaurant known as The Whitney, is a 21,000-square-foot mansion on the west side of Woodward Avenue, in what is now known as Midtown.

How a monument was born

The land on which the David Whitney Building sits was acquired by Whitney, though he did not have the structure built.

During Whitney’s lifetime, Grand Circus Park was a residential area with no real retail to speak of. In fact, aviator Charles Lindbergh’s mother, Evangeline Land Lindbergh, was born in 1876 on the site where the Whitney Building stands now. The Church of Our Father was in the neighborhood, home to Detroit luminaries such as John Judson Bagley, a wealthy tobacconist and governor of Michigan. Whitney bought the parcel on the southwest corner of Woodward and Park avenues in 1885 from H.H. LeRoy. Whitney, having an eye for shrewd business moves, saw the Woodward’s business district would be expanding northward as the city grew. In 1887, he built the five-story Grand Circus Building, which was home to five stores. And the little commercial store was sitting there among the homes on the park when its millionaire owner died in 1900.

It was Whitney’s son, David Charles Whitney, who would built a monument to his father. David C. Whitney was a banker and real estate developer. He demolished the Grand Circus Building in early 1914 and hired one of the best in the business: Daniel H. Burnham. The Whitney Realty Co. received building permit No. 317 on Feb. 5, 1914, and began erecting the 18-story David Whitney Building. The cost: $1 million, or about $22.7 million today. Many of the contractors on the job were Detroit companies.

The Whitney Building, billed as “an exclusive shopping center,” opened in January 1915. What made the building stand out was its dramatic, skylight-covered, four-story atrium lobby. The entire room is covered with either decorative terra cotta or marble. All four floors are ringed with storefronts. Among them: Capper & Capper men’s furnishings, G.M. Schettler Drugs, Rogers Shoe Co. and the Watkins Cigar Stores Co. For the Detroiter of 1915, the Whitney Building was a one-stop shop for clothing, tailors, hairdressers and milliners. “The shops of the David Whitney Building have attained reputations as enviable as New York’s smart shops,” a promotional brochure called “When Royalty Shops,” said. “Prices are really moderate.”

From the fifth through 18th floors, the Whitney Building contained office space available for rent. Many of these floors housed many dentists, doctors and lawyers.

The “Mad Men” era

The Whitney Building’s decline mirrors almost every other office structure in Detroit. During the 1950s, thanks to the advent of the freeway system and the rise of the suburbs, the city’s population started moving out - and the doctors, dentists and lawyers went with them. The suburbs offered less congestion, cleaner and quainter streets and neighborhoods, cheaper rents and more modern structures.

The age of fluorescent lighting and faux wood paneling, Americans were turning away from classical architectural styles and opting for the modern aesthetic. Starting in the mid-1950s and through the mid-1960s, the city saw the demolition of its Old City Hall and first skyscraper; the Detroit Symphony Orchestra leave its near-acoustically perfect Orchestra Hall for the modern Ford Auditorium; and countless buildings shave off their cornices and install drop ceilings in what were once soaring lobbies. What some could now call the “Mad Men” era was not kind to Detroit’s historical architecture.

The David Whitney Building was among the casualties. While it was spared the wrecking ball, in 1959, the Whitney family hired the architectural firm of Harley, Ellington & Day to give the structure a modern makeover. The building’s classical exterior was removed in favor of a more modern, bland look. The building’s classical columns were replaced with plain brick. The cornice, parapet and terra cotta details were removed. Fortunately, the building’s ornate interior was spared the mutilation. The surgeon was Bryant & Detwiler & Co.

Tough times

The Whitney family sold the building in 1965. At the time, it was still 95 percent occupied and was home to nearly 300 dentists and doctors. But two years later, the Detroit race riot of 1967 when speed up what had started a decade earlier: the draining of the city’ population.

One office after another was left empty until the 1980s, when the building was really put on the ropes. The building was all but empty in May 1999, when it was announced that new owners planned to turn the landmark into a hotel. This plan never happened, and the building was closed in 2000.

Hope for a rebirth

In January 2011, the city’s Downtown Development Authority approved a mixed-use redevelopment plan and the loan of $1 million to help Whitney Partners buy the tower. The building was sold for $3.3 million.

Whitney Partners includes the Roxbury Group, a Detroit real estate investment group, and Trans Inn Management, a Farmington Hills-based real estate company with investments in more than a dozen states.

David Di Rita, a partner in the Roxbury Group, told the DDA that their plan will restore the Whitney Building’s original classical exterior. The four-story lobby will once again be full of shops, and a hotel and apartments are to fill the rest of the landmark’s 18 floors.

In March 2013, Gov. Rick Snyder cut the ribbon on an $82-million reconstruction project for the building.