Historic Detroit

Fort Shelby Hotel

The Fort Shelby Hotel rose and fell with the city of Detroit — and it has risen again.

With Detroit a booming town for both industry and tourism, the Shelby was erected to meet the demand. When the city’s fortunes fell, it closed. Decades later, the hotel reopened, instilling hope that another Detroit turnaround is around the corner.

The Shelby went up in two phases. The first was in 1916, when a 10-story building went up at Lafayette Boulevard and First Street, near the city’s old Masonic Temple. The building was the only structure in Detroit done by Chicago architects Schmidt, Garden and Martin. As the city kept growing, the hotel grew with it, adding a 21-story, 450-room tower in 1927 that was designed by renowned architect Albert Kahn.

In 1951, the hotel was bought by the Albert Pick Hotels Co. and renamed the Pick Fort Shelby. In January 1967, as the Shelby’s business was struggling, a plan to convert a portion of the hotel into apartments was considered. Pick finally closed the doors in December 1973 and sold the hotel to three children of Herman Ross. The kids were all in the early 20s and had zero experience running a business. They dropped $3 million (about $14 million today) on renovating the building and redubbed it simply The Shelby Hotel. It would cater to Detroit’s younger, hip set. Counterculture icon John Sinclair would book shows out of the Rainbow Room club in the hotel, bringing in acts like Sun Ra. People would smoke weed in the lobby. Fights broke out. People wouldn’t pay their tabs.

The reborn hotel had opened Feb. 25, 1974. It quickly closed.

The hotel closed in 1974 and sat empty, scrapped and vandalized for more than three decades, despite joining the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

On June 26, 2007, it was announced that the building would be renovated and reopened as a Doubletree Guest Suites hotel. The $90-million renovation was one of the largest such projects in the city’s history and was taking place as another historic, abandoned downtown hotel, the Book-Cadillac, also was being brought back to life. The reborn Shelby has 203 suites, and the tower was turned into 56 apartments. While most of the hotel was gutted because of decades of neglect and decay, much of the hotel’s original marble and the plasterwork in the Crystal Ballroom were saved.

The hotel reopened Dec. 15, 2008, as the Doubletree Guest Suites Fort Shelby/Detroit Downtown.

More to come on this building of Detroit.