Patrons knocking back cold ones at the Park Bar can often be overheard gossiping about one of the city’s abandoned eyesores across the street.
But this empty eyesore just so happens to be one of the city’s oldest surviving hotels.
Built in 1905 and designed by William S. Joy, the Charlevoix was intended to be an office building. Instead, it was a hotel at first but only for about 10 years. It spent a short time as an apartment building before being turned into a commercial building for various companies and unions in 1922. It was owned by the Grinnell Realty Co.
The hotel was never one of Detroit’s glamorous spots, offering a cheaper alternative to the top hotels of Grand Circus Park: The Hotel Tuller and the Hotel Statler.
The building closed in the mid-to-late 1980s. The current owner, Ralph Sachs, has owned the building since 1981.
Since the building’s closing, it has sat neglected. Its main staircase has been removed, making access to the higher floors difficult.
Patrons of the Park Bar look directly out at the crumbling Charlevoix. In late summer 2009, wooden paneling with art on it went up along the Charlevoix’s ground floor. A fence also was erected around it, signaling either its end or merely an attempt to finally keep out trespassers.
In March 2012, several bricks from the front facade fell off the Charlevoix, hitting a car below.
On June 13, 2012, the City Historic District Commission held a hearing on the proposed demolition of the Charlevoix. Because the building is in the Park Avenue Historic District, the commission would need to approve the demolition. Sachs was not at the hearing, but his representatives urged the commission to allow for the building to come down, citing the falling bricks; the fact that the building is a frequent target of squatters and urban explorers; the building lacks any historical details; and that Sachs had been unable to find a developer or buyer for the building. They also said that Sachs didn’t have the financial means to rehab, secure or demolish the building himself.
Jerry Belanger, owner of The Park Bar across the street, complained that the city doesn’t enforce code violations and blasted Sachs. He said the building would cost millions to fix - and that just isn’t going to happen. He also said Sachs will never fix it. He said, as a preservationist, it grieves him to say it, but the building should come down. But he also made it clear that it’s Sachs’ fault and that Sachs hides behind the widespread abuse of landlords in the city.
Sachs’ attorney replied that no matter what you think of Sachs, the building is a serious hazard.
The commission didn’t disagree, but said the criteria for approving the demolition of a historic structure were not met.
William M. Worden, retired director of Historic Designation for the City of Detroit, explained: “The law says that the owner cannot claim financial hardship due to the condition of the building if the owner has been responsible for the bad condition. It would appear that the owner of the Charlevoix has neglected it into the state it’s now in. This provision is necessary to prevent owners from neglecting a historic structure for years and then claiming that its condition is so bad it has to be torn down.”
On those grounds and because Sachs’ representatives had proved neither that he couldn’t afford to pay for demolition or mothballing the building nor that the building was in imminent danger of collapse, the HDC denied the permission to demolish the building. Sachs was given 15 days to submit a plan to mothball the structure. It’s unclear what happens if Sachs doesn’t comply, but the fiasco over falling bricks at the Wurlitzer Building - during which a judge threatened to throw its owner in jail if he didn’t shore up his building - could hint at what may lay in store for Sachs if he doesn’t comply.
On Jan. 9, 2013, a judge ruled that Sachs had to demolish the building before someone gets clobbered by falling debris. “That comes about a half year after the Detroit Historic Commission denied the owner’s request to tear down the building in the Park Avenue Historic District because it had not met criteria for removal,” the Motor City Muckraker reported.
On Feb. 19, 2013, WXYZ-TV reported that demolition was to begin within 45 days, citing the head of the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental department, and it will be at Sachs’ expense.
“Oh my gosh, it’s coming down. I never thought it was going to happen, really,” Mike Rollo, who manages the building that houses the Bucharest Grill, Park Bar and Cliff Bells across from the Charlevoix, told WXYZ.
Sean Harrington, who owns the Park Avenue House and redeveloped the Iodent Building near the Charlevoix, told WXYZ: “It’s a shame it couldn’t have been salvaged, I mean, there’s that side of it.
“These old buildings are majestic and they’re beautiful, but getting a building that is in that condition and that state of sadness, you need to just get ‘em down,” he added.
Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus caught up with Art Dore Sr., whose Dore and Associates Contracting Inc. landed the contract for tearing the Charlevoix down.
“That steel was made by Andrew Carnegie back in the day. 1904,” Dore told McCarus.
How did he know?
“His name is on it.”
About 7:30 a.m. June 23, 2013, workers took the forlorn Charlevoix down in one fell swoop. After cutting the steel I-beams supporting the old hotel, cables were used to bring the building down upon itself. In seconds, the old 1905 hotel was nothing but a pile of bricks.
The sidewalks around Park Avenue were coated with dust, dotted with footprints of metro Detroiters scurrying off past the heavy equipment to a Tigers game. The excavator went about its business, yanking on the steel, extracting it from its foundation like teeth.
“It was there when I left the game last night, and now it’s just gone,” said a Comerica Park worker who asked to not have her name used. “I’m going to kind of miss it.”
There was no realistic hope for the Charlevoix, but you can’t help but feel a little sting at another piece of Detroit’s history being erased by one good tug.