Historic Detroit

Lafayette Building

Beautiful. Ugly. Artist canvas. Magnet for graffiti.

The Lafayette Building began its life as just another skyscraper in a skyline littered with them. It ended that life at the center of a heated preservation battle that made headlines. Many praised its architectural details; many called it a rundown old eyesore. Its windows were covered in street art, making it a target of both spray-paint-toting trespassers and critics alike.

Construction of the Lafayette Building began in 1923 on a triangular hunk of land bounded by Lafayette Boulevard, Michigan Avenue and Shelby Street. The distinguished high-rise office building would open in 1924.

One of a kind in the skyline

The 14-story tower was designed by noted theater architect C. Howard Crane, who also did the Fox, United Artists and the State/Palms/Fillmore theaters downtown. The 234,000-square-foot building is constructed out of brick, terra cotta and limestone in the neo-classical style. Once one of Detroit’s premier office buildings, it was said to have cost $2 million to $3 million to build (about $24.1 million to $36.2 million today).

The Italian Renaissance skyscraper’s V-shaped design allowed for more offices to have windows and natural sunlight, the unusual layout is the only one like it in Detroit, making it a unique fixture in the city’s urban fabric. It shares more than a passing resemblance with Atlanta’s Hurt Building, built in 1913 by architect John Hurt.

A masterpiece is created

The site was once home to the Bressler Block, property owned by Charles Bressler and made up of small buildings, including the Detroit Book Exchange and bars and restaurants. The property was acquired by the Edsel Ford family in 1910 and leased it until 1917. Shortly thereafter, plans to build a skyscraper on the land began to take shape. The building was erected by a syndicate headed by George G. Epstean and Julius Herman, who vowed to erect “Michigan’s finest office building in the heart of Detroit.” This part of Detroit was seeing a tremendous amount of growth at the time, as the opulent Book-Cadillac Hotel went up at the same time as the Lafayette, and the stately Detroit Free Press Building across the street was built in 1925.

For its part, the Lafayette was outfitted with marble drinking fountains, marble wainscotting and bronze and American walnut trimmings. The ground floor has an arcade between the Michigan and Lafayette street level entries. The arcade is outfitted with marble and bronze, also in the Italian Renaissance style. Its roofline features a gorgeous ridge of terra cotta featuring hundreds of intricate fleur de lis.

Money woes

In 1931, the Bohn Aluminum & Brass Co. acquired a 99-year lease on what was then known as the Michigan Lafayette Building and made the structure its home. Soon, it would own the entire thing.

The building encountered financial troubles soon after opening, as the Michigan Lafayette Building Co. defaulted on a $50,000 tax payment (about $750,000 today) in 1932. The problem was that the company had already issued $1.8 million in bonds ($27.09 million today) and sold $250,000 (about $3.76 million) in stock to build the building. Two of the shareholders sued trying to force a forfeiture. By the following October, Charles B. Bohn, the president of Bohn Aluminum, solved the problem by acquiring all of the stock in the Michigan & Shelby Land Co. — which owned the land on which the building sits — and bought the Lafayette outright from E.L. Ford, Hetty B. Speck, Nell Ford Torrey and Stella F. Schlotman for an undisclosed amount. The Detroit Free Press reported at the time that the transaction was believed to be one of the largest in Detroit real estate history at the time, and real estate records showed it was assessed in 1933 at $1.95 million (about $30.95 million today).

Besides Bohn Corp., the Lafayette also once housed the Michigan Supreme Court, the state Tax Tribunal and railroad companies. The venerable downtown retailer Henry the Hatter once operated out of its walls. Its bottom three floors were dedicated for shops; its ground floor had an arcade layout. The high-rise served as an office building throughout its life, especially court and court recorder offices because of its location across from the Theodore Levin Federal Courthouse.

Bohn died in 1953, and ownership of the building was handed to the Charles B. Bohn Estate, which was managed by three trustees. Bohn’s death set the stage for the Lafayette Building to change hands at a dizzying pace.

On April 14, 1961, the building was sold for an undisclosed price by Charles B. Bohn Corp. to the Tenney Realty Corp. of New York. Tenney operated a slew of office buildings, hotels and factories in the United States and Canada at the time, and was one of the five largest real estate investment companies in the country. At the time, Tenney said it was impressed with the accessibility of downtown Detroit, the amount of parking and the modernization of buildings downtown. Bohn would maintain its offices in the building.

Tenney turned around four months later and sold the building for $646,500 (about $4.5 million) to the Lafayette Realty Co., a New York syndicate of 200 investors that was managed by Tenney. But Bohn Corp. said the building was poorly run, and “absentee ownership” and the failure of the New York group to operate the building “first class” led the company to buy the Lafayette back for an undisclosed price in October 1965, just four years after the company sold it in the first place. George M. Endicott, president of Bohn Corp., told the Free Press at the time that the New York firm had not put any money into the building during its ownership.

But just three months later, on Jan. 13, 1966, Bohn Corp. turned around and flipped the Lafayette again, this time to the Cohn and Pollock families. The price was not revealed. At the time of the sale, Bohn had owned the Lafayette for 33 of its 41 years. The Cohn and Pollock families owned a decent amount of real estate in Detroit at the time, including the Washington Boulevard Building, the Merrill Lynch Building at Shelby and Congress, and the Burroughs International Building at Third and Milwaukee, among other commercial structures.

The 1967 Detroit riot bled the city of much of its population and clientele, and the Lafayette was not immune and began to struggle with empty offices and deteriorating amenities.

Beginning of the end

Somewhere between this time and 1982, Wayne County began renting a decent amount of space in the Lafayette. The federal courts still had offices in the building, and the Michigan Supreme Court retained its offices on the 14th floor, including the office of G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, which he had when he was chief justice until 1987.

In 1985, architects Harley, Ellington, Pierce, Yee and Associates wanted to encase the Lafayette in a sleek new skin, complete with a glass-enclosed atrium. The project would have changed its appearance completely. It never got off the ground, however, as downtown’s financial outlook was suspect. The following year, the 36th District Court moved its landlord-tenant division to the Madison Center.

In the summer of 1988, the Lafayette was sold for $3.3 million by Arthur and David Pollack to J. Wolf Realty of Brooklyn, N.Y., throwing leases of tenants into question. Michigan Chief Justice Dorothy Comstock Riley had been trying to get the Supreme Court to move since January 1987, but she told the Free Press that “it’s a very slow process. The building has to suit statutory requirements and we have to take bids. Then there’s negotiation of the lease.”

The move would finally come in November 1988, when the state Supreme Court and State Court Administrator vacated the Lafayette in favor of the 211 W. Fort Street Building. The building’s fate would be sealed at this point, but it’s slow death is a story of hope, charity and heartbreak.

Years of mismanagement and a declining tenant base, took its toll on the Lafayette, and in late June 1991, tenants were delivered startling news: They had four days’ notice that the building’s electricity would be turned off because of more than $30,000 in delinquent bills. Tenants still in the sparsely populated Lafayette scrambled, even trying lawsuits and filing for restraining orders against Detroit Edison to keep the lights on. J. Wolf Realty, running the building under the name 144 Lafayette Associates, cited declining tenants and more than $98,000 in unpaid rent from tenants for the inability to pay.

“It’s unbelievable,” Carol Tappert of Tappert Court Reporting Services Inc. told the Free Press at the time. “How can we get out of here by Monday? We’ve got 4,000 square feet of space, full of furniture and computers. How can we get out of here and keep doing our business?”

At the time, the Lafayette was home to 30 tenants, including Walter’s Pipe Shop — which had been in the building since the Lafayette opened in 1924. Others included Book Travel, Sero’s Restaurant, the State Bar, Golden Fashions, a unisex beauty shop, small law firms, nonprofit groups and the State Tax Tribunal. Real estate brokers swooped in and tried to lure tenants to other downtown buildings almost immediately after the news, the Free Press reported at the time. Moving vans showed up almost immediately, bleeding the Lafayette of its tenants. Business owners started passing the hat to raise money to pay Edison in an attempt to keep the lights on. By July 9, 1991, the Lafayette had only six tenants of the 30 left.

The remaining tenants won a major battle: Edison agreed in mid-July to work with them and allow the juice to keep flowing. Edison would give the tenants six months to pay $42,000 in past due electrical bills. They had already put up $19,000 — in lieu of paying rent — as down payment on the bills. But that’s when First Nationwide Bank announced that it had started foreclosure action on the Lafayette because Wolf Realty was $3.9 million behind on its mortgage and interest payments. By July, the $35,397.63 monthly mortgage payment had not been paid since April 1, 1990.

“The owners have just turned their back” on the building, Scott Justin, owner of Walter’s Pipe Shop, told the Free Press at the time. “I guess what everybody is hoping for is an angel to come buy the building.”

The angel never came. The building closed for good in 1997 and was boarded up.

A stream of disappointments

Oakland County investor Howard Schwartz bought the property around 1999 and left it to rot. In May 2004, the city’s Downtown Development Authority paid $350,000 to buy out Schwartz’s interest and free it for redevelopment. George Jackson Jr., the president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., told the Detroit News at the time that it was easier to buy out Schwartz than attempt to gain clear title through the courts, saying it could take two years.

Jackson said he wanted to have bids out and work started before the 2006 Super Bowl in Detroit. In June 2005, a Florida development firm announced it would spend $40 million to turn the Lafayette into a 110-unit (and later a 125-unit) luxury condo complex with commercial space. The condos were to start at $400,000. The company, Peebles, said at the time it would take 18 months to wrap up the project, but work never started. The deal officially collapsed in early 2007.

The building was most offered to Quicken Loans as part of a package to build a new headquarters downtown. It is unknown if that would have meant renovating it or razing it. Quicken also was offered the barren, vacant site of the former Statler Hotel and the plot that was once home to the mammoth Hudson’s Department Store.

The battle to save the Lafayette

The Lafayette was in sad shape, with trees and grass growing on its roof and its windows plastered in graffiti or broken. Unlike many crumbling landmarks in the city, the Lafayette’s condition is the fault of the City of Detroit, which owns it and has let it fall into disrepair. In late 2007, a chunk of the building along Shelby Street tumbled to the sidewalk below. While it didn’t hit anybody, it led the city to put up barriers. Then a bigger chunk fell in October 2008, leading the city to erect a fence around the building. That, coupled with the reopening of the Book-Cadillac Hotel — and the million-dollar condos inside it — have led to speculation that the city could raze the building instead of save it. Its graffiti-marred windows and roof trees belie the fact that the Lafayette is not beyond saving and in reasonable shape considering it has been vacant for more than a decade. Its first-floor arcade still has most of its original decorative trim, and it and other floors are not as deteriorated as the ballrooms of the recently saved Book-Cadillac were.

On Dec. 10, 2008, the city sent out RFPs (requests for proposals) to contractors. The “project will consist of environmental consulting services for preperation (sic) of an abatement plan, oversight of asbestos and hazardous materials abatement and general oversight of the demolition of the Lafayette Building,” the document said. The bids were due Jan. 8, 2009.

On March 16, 2009, the Downtown Development Authority put out a request for proposals for “the complete demolition” of the Lafayette Building. The bids were due April 2, 2009. Preservation Wayne and others had fought to get the building historic designation in an effort to save it, urging the cash-strapped city to clean up and secure the Lafayette instead of spending millions to raze it.

On April 2, 2009, Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr., listening to a letter-writing campaign, petition and phone calls, stepped in and halted the demolition of the Lafayette and said he wanted to meet with preservation groups, developers and the like to talk about the building’s future.

The battle is lost

Cockrel lost his re-election bid, and an attempt by Preservation Wayne and others to get the city to grant the building a local historic designation hit a wall: The Detroit City Council voted almost unanimously on June 22, 2009, to deny the designation.

The city would have lost nothing but time, putting a delay on any demolition. It also would have greased the skids for getting the Lafayette on the National Register of Historic Places, a move that would shave 40% off the cost of any redevelopment. What seems like something that should have been a slam dunk in a city starving for development was rejected. The city had said it couldn’t find a developer for the Lafayette and therefore had to tear it down; but the city can’t find a developer because the project is too expensive and needs tax credits to be feasible. To put it another way, if the Lafayette cost $60 million to redevelop, as some developers have estimated, then the tax credits would have brought the cost down to $36 million. Such tax credits are what made the redevelopments of the Fort Shelby and Book-Cadillac hotels feasible.

Still, in a city with no shortage of parking lots and gaping holes where other landmarks were razed decades ago and never redeveloped, time is of the essence.

“How long do you wait?” said Cockrel, who returned to City Council president after his loss in the mayoral race. “You can’t save every historic building. You just can’t.”

Jackson wasted little time. On June 25, 2009, the Downtown Development Authority voted unanimously to demolish the Lafayette and gave a demolition contract to Detroit-based Adamo Demolition Co. of $1,445,888. The DEGC said it will turn the site into a park, not a parking lot.

Shortly after the announcement, Dionysia Properties tried to buy the building and save it, but it was turned down by the city.

Eric Novack, project manager for Dionysia, told the Free Press in August 2009 that the company met with the DEGC and the city’s Planning and Development Department and was told “the same thing, basically, that the building was unsafe and demolition definitely was going to continue,” he told the Free Press. “We’ve exhausted every avenue. Unfortunately, we came in too late to get the ball rolling to do anything with the building.”

On Aug. 13 and 14, 2009, crews blocked off Shelby Street in front of the Lafayette and started erected a demolition fence around the building. Asbestos abatement began around Aug. 17, and by Sept. 2, a large hole had been punched in the front of the building.

Demolition dragged on for months, with heavy machinery nibbling away at the Lafayette to avoid crushing cars and pedestrians on Michigan Avenue and Lafayette Boulevard. At 4:29 a.m. the night of Feb. 6-7, 2010, the northern tower of the building was brought down, pulled south. At 4:30 a.m. the night of Feb. 23, 2010 (early morning of Feb. 24), an excavator pushed the building’s eastern wall inward, creating a giant toxic cloud of dust. It took hours of pushing on the wall to bring it down. On March 6, the last piece of the Lafayette Building, what was left of the eastern elevator bank, fell.