“I envy the chap who is lucky enough to call it home.” - an unidentified woman quoted in a 1920s advertising brochure
Not much information exists about the Hotel Fairbairn, though it is notable as one of the first hotels downtown that catered to African-American guests. The Fairbairn was announced in July 1923, and work to clear the site started at the end of that month. The eight-story building cost $1.25 million (about $16.5 million today, when adjusted for inflation) to build, and opened in 1924 on Columbia Street, just east of John R Street. Architect Percival R. Periera designed the Italian Renaissance-style structure featured an Indiana limestone and red-brick exterior. The firm Bryant & Detwiler served as general contractors.
No girls allowed
The hotel opened with the tag line: “A home away from home for bachelors,” as its 450 long-term and short-term rooms were open to only men. You see, the Fairbairn was one of the first of Detroit’s many “stag hotels,” or bachelor club-hotels. These establishments were where young male Detroiters lived before getting hitched and were also a popular option for those who left their families behind to work in the many factories dotting the city’s landscape. “The Fairbairn is a club-home, to bring together the young men who are thinking ahead - who will some day have Detroit’s future in hand,” an advertising brochure said. The advertising brochure went on to proclaim that the Fairbairn was “the realization of an ideal home for men of refinement.” It is “a hotel operated like a home, affording conveniences of the modern hotel or club minus excessive costs.”
A 1920s advertising brochure boasted of many features we take for granted today: It was fireproof; it had circulating ice water to cool rooms; and the beds were all equipped with box springs. Among its other selling points were its downtown location (in the “center of activity”); elevator and valet service; reading and billiard and game rooms; community showers; ventilators in the doors; and spacious wardrobes. The basement boasted a cafeteria, barbershop, laundry and a tailor.
Weekly rates in its early days were as follows: Single rooms without a bath went for $9 to $12 ($118 to $157 today, when adjusted for inflation); single rooms with a bath were $18 ($237 today); double rooms without a bath were $15 ($197 today); double rooms with a bath were $18 ($237); twin bedrooms without a bath were $16 to $18 ($211 to $237 today); and twin bedrooms with a bath were $20 to $22 ($264 to $290 today).
Early on, it was owned and operated by the Fairbairn Hotel Co. Its president was Oscar Webber; its manager was P.R. Bierer. Other men connected with the venture were Frank Kuhn, Arthur G. Kloetzel, M.L. Brown, A.W. Wallace, L.H. Cheesman and Raymond J. Hutton. The hotel’s phone number was Cherry 7020 and W03-7020 later on.
There goes the rest of the neighborhood
The Hotel Wolverine had just gone up a couple of blocks away two years earlier. With the YMCA, YWCA, Detroit Athletic Club, Madison-Lenox Hotel and Detroit College of Law already eating up most of the rest of the neighborhood, the Fairbairn cleared out almost all the rest of old brick homes that had stood in the area for decades.
Within a few years, Detroit’s entertainment district would explode two blocks away from the Fairbairn, with the State and Fox theaters opening across Woodward. More skyscrapers would pop up around Grand Circus Park. The Fairbairn picked the right part of town.
All is Fairbairn in hotels and war
But the stag hotel concept proved too popular, and the Fairbairn became dwarfed in size and amenities by larger, fancier places, such as the Webster Hotel. The Fairbairn’s business declined — and fast. In 1939, rooms started at $5 a week, the equivalent of $80 today — a far cry from the hotel’s rates when it first opened.
In 1945, a one-sentence article summed up why the Fairbairn has been largely forgotten. As sad as it is today, when taken into context of the racially tense times of 1940s Detroit, the article hints that the Fairbairn had gone downhill and, compared with the ritzy gems that sprouted up in other parts of town, had become a slum hotel. Under the headline, “Hotel Is Leased For Negro Tenants,” the Detroit Free Press wrote only 29 words: “The Fairbairn Hotel, 250 E. Columbia, has been leased for future Negro occupancy to the Smith Walker Co., according to Irving Golden, president of the Fairbairn Hotel Co., owners.” This took place only two years after the city’s race riot of 1943.
The disappearing Fairbairn
The Fairbairn managed to stay afloat for nearly 15 years. But after that, its history gets a bit murky.
Polk city directories have the address listed as the Fairbairn through the 1958 edition; the building also housed a newstand, laundry, Jessie’s Dining Room restaurant and, interestingly, the Holy Light Spiritual Temple of Love. At that point, the listing switched in 1959 for one year to the St. James Clinical Lab and Dr. Robert Sillery. In 1960, 250 E. Columbia was listed as the site of the Columbia Medical Hospital and the lab. It can be assumed that the hotel was shuttered; then the lab set up shop; then the hospital-nursing home moved into the hotel space and teamed up with the lab. This could have worked out well for business because the nearby Wolverine was converted into a towering senior housing complex in 1968.
The building was listed as the Columbia Medical Hospital and Nursing Home up until 1980. The address is no longer listed in the 1981 directory. The Fairbairn disappears. Therefore, it is HistoricDetroit.org’s best guess that the hospital closed in 1980 and was torn down that year. Sanborn fire maps from the late 1980s show the site empty, most likely used for surface-level parking.
Today, the site is home to rows of seats along the third base line of Comerica Park. Most everything else in the neighborhood also was flattened for the ballpark, including the Wolverine, the YMCA, YWCA and the Detroit College of Law. All gone. Even the intersection of Columbia and John R no longer exists, having been swallowed up by the baseball stadium’s footprint.
The Fairbairn is one of dozens of Detroit hotels born in the Roaring ’20s that died with few people even noticing — and even fewer remembering it ever existed.