Historic Detroit

Detroit Times Building

As the People Mover noisily meanders through downtown, it passes a stop with a famous name and a fading memory: Times Square, the onetime home of the Detroit Times newspaper.

The Times was first published on Oct. 1, 1900, as Detroit Today under publisher James Schermerhorn. It was sold Oct. 6, 1921, at a receiver’s sale to newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who folded the paper into his growing nationwide empire. When Hearst bought the Times, it had a daily circulation of only 26,000. A year later, it had exploded to 150,000, reaching a peak of about 440,000 daily in 1950. In mid-July 1922, Hearst added a Sunday edition of the paper, which reached a peak circulation of 625,000 people in March 1949.

Such growth demanded a bigger building, so Hearst commissioned renowned architect Albert Kahn to design his newspaper a palace, much like other owners had for the Detroit News (built in 1917) and the Detroit Free Press (1912 and a successor in 1925). And Kahn would not disappoint. The stunning Art Deco home of the Detroit Times arose at Cass Avenue and Times Square, and was dedicated to much fanfare on Dec. 6, 1929. Among those giving speeches were owner William Randolph Hearst and Gov. Fred W. Green. Some of the attendees included Kahn, Henry and Edsel Ford, local poet Edgar Guest, General Motors President Alfred P. Sloan and members of other prominent Detroit families, such as Briggs, Booth, Crowley, Fisher, Joy, Himelhoch and Scripps.

It was from this building that hundreds of thousands of Detroiters would get their news, from that day in December 1929 until the paper was silenced in November 1960.

Walking through the front doors under the tower, visitors would enter a several-story atrium outfitted in marble and granite. A bank of walnut-paneled elevators to the entrance’s right would whisk reporters up to the sixth-floor city room. A grand staircase in the back of the lobby offered a more leisurely ascension when not on deadline. The lobby was decorated with lovely veined stone and elegant bronze castings.

While the lobby offered jaw-dropping opulence, the newsroom was far more utilitarian. There were black baseboards, one of the six kinds of marble Kahn had specified for use in the building, but this was the newsroom’s command post, not a resort. Six-sided rewrite desks had telephone mouthpieces hanging from pipes over the typewriters. Bland office partitions mixed with windowed offices in the middle of the room. The light fixtures were big schoolhouse globes. Cigarette smoke stained the ceiling. The floor was pockmarked by chairs that had been pushed back thousands of times in the hurried pursuit of a story.

This was an old-time newsroom, where reporters chain-smoked as they banged out stories on typewriters and sipped Bourbon from flasks to soothe their nerves on deadline. This was the paper that reported hometown news for the man on the assembly line.

“It was a great place,” remembers Zachare Ball, who spent time in the building as a child. Her father, Don Ball, covered City Hall for the Times. She went to work at the Free Press as a copy aide at age 18 in 1973 and stayed on as a reporter until 1994. The Times was “always bustling, a lot of crazy people running around like their heads were cut off. It was just a different place. There wasn’t anything like it. … “‘His Girl Friday,’ that’s what it was like.”

And the paper was full of characters, the type that would bring the occasional stripper –- or horse -– into the newsroom.

“Some reporter had been off drinking his lunch and on the way back there was a mounted policeman outside the Times,” says Norman Prady, a Times reporter from 1955 to 1960 who wasn’t there for the horse but heard about it later. “Apparently, this reporter convinced the cop to lend him his horse, and he led the horse in through the loading dock on the east end, where drums of ink and rolls of newsprint came in. He took the horse up the freight elevator and led the horse across the city room. As I was told later, he walked up behind a rewrite man, I believe it was Ted Peck, taking notes from a reporter. And the story goes that he says to the reporter, ‘You’ll have to speak louder, there’s a horse standing behind me.’ Times people tended to be eccentric and off the wall, like that wouldn’t shock people, it’d be an inconvenience.”

’We loved to kick ass’

The Times was an evening paper, so it went head-to-head with the Detroit News in the afternoon market. The Free Press was a morning paper. With three newspapers vying for readers, Detroit enjoyed a level of journalism unparalleled in the city since. Each paper’s reporters drove their competitors -– and often their compatriots -– to succeed and uncover the biggest scoop.

“Reporters at the News, Free Press and Times were friends, we drank together, but we loved to kick ass,” says Mitch Kehetian, who started out as a copy boy at the Times in 1953 and worked as a general assignment reporter there until the day the paper was closed in 1960.

“We had lived through what was the period from World War II on into the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, what was clearly the golden age of newspapering in Detroit,” says Prady, now 75 years old and living in Berkley. “It was a time of great, great talent and sprinkled with a lot of characters.” But a newspaper is nothing without its newsroom. And a newsroom is nothing without its journalists, and the Times had two of the best and most respected newspapermen that Detroit has ever seen.

Trainor and Girardin

Jim Trainor was a legendary, cigar-chomping city editor at the Times who commanded great fear and greater respect from the paper’s staff. The hard-nosed Trainor could bring a reporter to his knees, “rebuke you until you could hardly stand up,” ex-Times staffer Tom Kleene told the Free Press in 1975, but he had a great heart and considered his staff an extension of his family. Trainor went on to become Jerome Cavanagh’s press secretary when Cavanagh became mayor.

Ray Girardin was known as the best cops reporter in town, an authority on Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang and the paper’s standout journalist from 1929 until the paper closed. “He was the Dick Tracy of the newsroom,” Kehetian says. Girardin, the first president of the Detroit Press Club, became Cavanagh’s police commissioner, the equivalent of police chief today, and led the department during the 1967 riot.

Such journalists toiled out of the sixth floor to put out the paper put together on the composing room on the fifth. That’s where the typesetting and stereoplates were made for the presses. There was a spiral staircase between the newsroom and the composing room on which staffers would run up and down checking pages. The business offices from which advertisements were sold were on the fourth, which also was where employees would pick up their paychecks. The towering presses in the basement that shook the building funneled up to the third-floor mailing rooms. Conveyors took everything out to the trucks, and the trucks delivered the papers to newsstands and paper boxes.

Money woes

But ever since 1955, when it was closed for six weeks by a printers’ strike, the Times had been weakened by four more walkouts and constant strike threats. Adding to its struggles was the fact that the paper didn’t have much of a presence in the suburbs. “The paper died at the city limits,” Kehetian says. “The headlines were geared toward street sales downtown.”

The Times tried to reinvent itself to reverse its fortunes, bringing in Phil De Beaubien from Look magazine in the mid-1950s to suggest changes to the paper. The problem was “he was catering to the older audience,” Kehetian said. The Times went with a larger print to make it easier to read, but that meant shorter, less in-depth stories. He also tried to bump up early-morning street sales for people coming downtown to work instead of the suburbs. The Times’ circulation continued to slide.

“De Beaubien’s tactics were the kiss of death,” Prady says. In 1956, the Times had bought 28 Goss press units capable of running eight color pages on each press -– and capable of making the struggling paper more enticing to prospective buyers.

’One out in Detroit’

Sixty years after its presses first rolled, the final edition of the Times was printed on Nov. 7, 1960. The Times, its building, its presses, all physical assets and distribution rights were sold to the Detroit News. The Free Press reported at the time that only one person at the Times, General Manager William H. Mills, knew of the imminence of the sale. Many of the Times’ 1,500 employees found out in telegrams, most of them arriving after 3 a.m. Nov. 8.

“It is with deep regret that the management of the Detroit Times must inform you of termination of your services as of the opening of business on Nov. 7, 1960,” the terse telegram began. “It is not necessary for you to report for further duty. Your paycheck will be available on your usual payday in the Detroit Times lobby. The chief accountant has been instructed to mail you a check as soon as possible for any monies that may be due you under the collective bargaining agreement between the Detroit Times and the Guild.” It was signed by Mills.

Kehetian said “nobody could stand him.” Especially after that night.

“If there was a living, breathing scrooge, it was him,” added Prady, a features reporter. He was “a cheap, miserable son of a bitch.”

Mills told the Free Press at the time, in his defense, that he had no idea why the paper’s end was handled in such a cold, curt fashion.

“I’ve just had my horse shot out from under me,” Mills said.

While some reporters found out from the chilly words of the telegram, others found out in person.

“I had gone out for an early breakfast in Greektown with John Nehman of the Detroit News in Greektown,” remembers Kehetian, now 78 years old and living in Allen Park. “It was 3:30 in the morning. I drove back to the building, and the guards told me I couldn’t go in. I said, ‘I work here,” and they said, ‘Not anymore you don’t.’ And that was it.”

Mills had carried the message into the Times newsroom at 3:14 a.m. and told those banging away at the typewriters to stop. The night crew already had the first edition mostly finished. “Mills told the men to throw it all away and the Times died with its boots on, in the full heat of battle,” Free Press columnist Louis Cook wrote the next day. Many reporters stood around for a while before quietly leaving for home.

“For verve and loyalty the Times people never had superiors,” Cook wrote. “When the end came there was no morbid curiosity or tearful hysteria. The gay men and women who worked on Times Square showed their usual class.” The Times went out as it lived –- with dignity.

“There were rumors on the wire that the Detroit Times was up for sale and that the Chicago Sun-Times was going to buy it,” Kehetian says. “It was a surprise at the time, even though the Hearst empire was on shaky ground. William Hearst Jr. had said the Times was the last paper we’d sell and that it was his dad’s favorite. We were a big competition for the News, so it caught us all by surprise.”

Prady recalls that De Beaubien also had sought to dispel such rumors: “De Beaubien said, ‘There’s a rumor that the Detroit Times is for sale. The rumors are true. The Detroit Times is for sale every day at newsstands across the city.’” Under the headline “One Out in Detroit,” Newsweek reported that the Times, Hearst’s “limping” paper in Detroit, was sold to its “well-heeled competitor” for about $10 million, about $71.7 million today. Newsweek reported that the Times had lost that same amount in the last five years. The deal was negotiated by Hearst Newspapers General Manager H.G. Kern.

Hearst executives expressed “regret at leaving Detroit” after nearly 40 years, but, much like the current troubling era for print journalism, “the Times has been beset by the same basic problems confronting so many other metropolitan newspapers.”

’It was like going to a wake’

When still-stunned Times employees went to the building Monday to get more information and to pick up their belongings, they found the elevators blocked by private security. They were allowed to go to their upstairs offices and clean out their desks only if accompanied by a private police escort.

“It was something that day,” Prady said. “We all went down to get our checks, and the place was swarming with pinkertons. Going up to the city room” to get your belongings “meant going up one or two at a time with one of these pinkertons. … It was like going to a wake.

“I got as far as the main lobby and said, ‘F*** it,” Kehetian says.

Despite the security, the photo department still got ransacked, Prady said, with thousands of dollars in equipment snuck away.

The presses keep rolling

While the Times was dead, its heart would keep rumbling for another 15 years.

On Nov. 11, 1960, the News started printing papers at the Times building –- renamed the Detroit News Times Square Plant -– to handle its jump in circulation. Before the News bought the Times, its daily circulation was around 525,000 and 740,000 on Sunday. After the sale, the News was printing 900,000 copies daily and 1.2 million on Sundays. (The first such Sunday run, on Nov. 13, 1960, broke the record for largest print run in the history of Detroit.) About 300,000 of the 900,000 daily copies and 200,000 of the Sunday copies were printed on the Times’ presses. One of the problems was that the size of the Times’ printed pages was smaller than the News’. The pages had to be made at the News building on Lafayette and rushed to the Times Square facility to be put on the presses.

The News also ran many of the Times’ more beloved features, including its Puck Comic section in the Sunday editions and the distribution rights of the popular American Weekly magazine. Starting with the Nov. 8, 1960, paper, the News appeared as “The Detroit News -– Including The Best Features from the Detroit Times.”

Many of the Times’ pressman, stereotypers, paper handlers, machinists, electricians and mailers switched over to printing the News. The News also offered all Times carriers jobs. About 400 of the Times’ Guild members, such as reporters, were sent scrambling for jobs at the other papers. They got full severance pay under the paper’s contract with the union: two weeks’ pay for each year of service with a maximum of 56 weeks’ pay plus vacation pay.

Times staffers weren’t the only ones who took the sale harshly. The News reported that former Times carriers were being “harassed and prevented from entering the former Times circulation stations and picking up copies of the News for distribution to Times customers.” The storied rivalry of the News and Free Press had been taken to new heights.

Many of the Times’ reporters, editors and columnists went to work at the News or Free Press, but, Kehetian says, not all of them. The News and Free Press cherry-picked from the closed paper and went with the reporters with the biggest names. That left many of them out of work, including Kehetian, who eventually hooked on with the Macomb Daily in 1962 and stayed until he retired in 2005.

A Detroit Times reunion was held at the old Detroit Press Club at Howard and Abbott for 25 years. Anyone who was associated with the Times –- from reporters to their widows to copy boys –- attended.

“We used to have a reunion, but it got to be like a wake,” Kehetian says. “When you’ve got a group who brought strippers and horses into the city room and now they’re bringing in walkers, the time is near.”

Girardin, a heavy smoker, died early in the morning on Nov. 28, 1971, at Harper Hospital at age 69. Trainor died of cancer Dec. 29, 1975, at Providence Hospital. He was 76. Ball’s father, who had later gone on to work at the News covering City Hall, passed away in 1987.

The beloved building they called home for decades would soon follow.

The Times stops

With the advances in printing technology, such as the expectation of more color, and the growing number of suburban readers, the Detroit News opened a new high-tech plant in Sterling Heights in 1975. The veritable, though aging, Scott and Goss presses on Times Square were finally idled on Jan. 5, 1975. The rest of the building had been abandoned nearly 15 years earlier and had fallen into disrepair. Water leaked into the city room, long since cleared of its typewriters and chain-smoking journalists. The type-setting machines were gone. The composing room, where the paper had been assembled, was long since empty.

Plans for demolition of the building, unused since 1975, were announced in mid-January 1978 by V. Leonard Hanna, vice president finance and control of the Evening News Association. At the time, he announced the site would be used as a parking lot. Hanna said efforts were made to sell the building but that, unfortunately, it was designed for one purpose -– producing a newspaper.

That month, its former staffers were invited back in to say goodbye. Kehetian was one of those who returned.

“A lot of us were sorry we did it,” he says. “I know I did. It was like a morgue. Old paint was peeling. Empty. … Quite a few years had skipped by and you’re going back. You remembered where the copy desk was and remembered how once in a while Jim Trainor missed the spittoon. It was like going back to a high school reunion and no one looked the same.”

The following month, a demolition crew showed up with a wrecking ball.

Prady recalled that day to the Free Press in 1988. The workers let him back inside for one last visit, and he found one of the old schoolhouse globes tucked in a corner and took it as a souvenir.

“I didn’t turn back to watch, but I heard Albert Kahn’s top floor scream and die,” he wrote. “It sounded like a lot of sand pouring from a huge sack. Either it was Kahn’s Indiana limestone being crushed into cascading dust by the steel ball or it was someone going from book to book, erasing the poetry. Before the end of the day, the building that had housed some of Detroit’s titans of journalism and fed readers’ need for news for nearly 50 years was gone, sent to some urban elephant graveyard filled with beautifully ugly city halls and department stores with corner clocks,” Prady wrote. “Would the city be better off with one less building and one more parking lot? Maybe we just needed to be rid of another reminder of how life in the city used to be, another reminder of where we came from and what we’re made of.”