It went from a towering symbol of wealth to a towering symbol of Detroit’s decay.
Built for the city’s rich and powerful, the Lee Plaza still stands today, ravaged by the city’s poor and destitute. Like the Michigan Central Station, it is a gut-wrenching reminder of how far the city has fallen from its preposterously prosperous past. The Art Deco landmark also is the site of one of the city’s most notorious architectural heists.
Fifth Avenue comes to the Boulevard
Ralph T. Lee made a fortune in real estate in the city, rising from making $1.50 a day in a furniture store to having a fortune worth more than $6 million before the Depression, a whopping $75 million today, when adjusted for inflation. In October 1919, Lee left his job as an engraver with the J.B. VanAlstyne Engraving Co. and his $50-a-week salary to enter the real estate business and start building Detroit apartment houses. Lee was a natural and quickly became one of Detroit’s best-known builders. He dazzled clients in his fifth-floor office in the General Motors Building (today known as Cadillac Place) that was decorated with “thick rugs, hung tapestries and furnished with tall, baronial chairs,” and he sat behind a mahogany “desk whose area rivals that of a billiard table,” the Detroit News wrote in February 1927.
In 1940, the Detroit Free Press called him “Detroit’s most spectacular real estate operator” during the 1920s. By making more than $1 million in 10 years ($15.5 million today), the Detroit News wrote in February 1927 that “in the building and real estate journals, the rise of Ralph T. Lee is spoken of as ‘meteroic.’ The adjective is not misused.”
By 1935, Lee had built more than 30 hotels and apartment buildings. Among his roster: the Lee Crest; the Wager Terrace; the Orpha Mae Apartments — named after his wife — on West Chicago Boulevard; the Bohr Apartments in Highland Park; the Lee Manor; and the Margaret Lee, Elmhurst, Glen, Doherty, Burlingame and Tanton apartments. Hundreds upon hundreds of Detroiters were living in Lee’s buildings.
“I always know that I should be constantly building more buildings and better buildings,” Lee told the Free Press in November 1927.
And build better he did. His crowning achievement began in 1927, when he set out to bring a piece of Manhattan to the Motor City. When Lee “made his first trip to New York, he saw many things of wonder — but the thing that stuck in his mind most prominently was the mass of the great apartment houses which line up Fifth avenue, above Fifty-ninth street,” the Detroit News wrote in an April 17, 1927, article. “He conceived the idea that ‘someday’ he would like to build and own such an apartment in his home town — Detroit.”
On May 1, ground was broken on the Art Deco masterpiece that would rise above the stately elms of West Grand Boulevard at Lawton Avenue. Lee tapped architect Charles Noble, who would design the Kean Apartments on the east side a few years later, to come up with his 17-story modern marvel. The price tag would be $2.5 million — a whopping $31 million today. The Lee opened on Dec. 1, 1927.
A life of luxury
The I-shaped, steel-and-reinforced-concrete building is one of the more dazzling Art Deco buildings in the city. The first two floors of the exterior are faced with stone, and it’s orange-glazed brick the rest of the way up. The Lee features Mediterranean flourishes and originally had a French chateau-esque roof of red Spanish tile and ornamental lightning rods. The tile was later replaced with a green copper roof. Among the elaborate ornamentation on the exterior: large urns and the sides were dotted with ornately carved lion heads.
The idea of residential hotels was a popular one at the time, offering “complete home life with all the detailed service of a great hotel added,” a 1931 brochure for the Lee said. In the era when real estate and housing was in demand in the city, many Detroiters lived in hotels like the Tuller and others. In residential hotels, well-off residents could live in luxurious apartments that had many of the features of hotels, such as room service and concierges. The Lee opened with 220 luxury-class apartments ranging from one to four rooms. The one- and two-room apartments came furnished; the three- and four-room option did not. The basement had a beauty parlor, a game room with driving nets for golfers and billiards; a white-walled playroom for children at the front of the building with a specially trained supervisor; and a meat market and grocer for the tenants so they didn’t have to leave the Lee’s comfy confines. There also was a circulating library, a flower shop, a cigar stand and a beauty parlor. Among the other luxuries: Each apartment had a Servidor, allowing for dry cleaning to be put out or packages delivered without being disturbed; a rooftop radio receiver that let each apartment “instantly connect your loud speaker with the leading stations of the country,” the brochure said; and an adjacent parking garage with 24-hour valet service. “Quiet, luxurious and with a service that is essential to your perfect enjoyment of an apartment home,” a newspaper ad for the Lee boasted. “Located so close to downtown activities yet removed from the city’s noises and with an unmistaken atmosphere of refinement and taste … in fact — every minor details is attended to for a superior mode of living.”
The Lee was decked out in extravagance by sculptor Corrado Parducci. The first floor was filled with marble, expensive woods and elaborate plasterwork; its ornamental ceilings craned necks. Upon entering the magnificent Italian-style lobby, guests were immediately surrounded by jaw-dropping frescos and Italian marble. Wrought iron fixtures added more opulence. “Like a great entrance hall in an old country chateau, the lobby of Lee Plaza bids you an appealing welcome and makes you glow with its warmth of beauty as you pause for exchange of greetings,” a 1931 promotional brochure for the Lee read.
Continuing on, you would enter the Peacock Alley, an 88-foot corridor leading from the lobby to the back of the building that had a hand-painted barrel ceiling and mirrored walls. Large comfy chairs and elegant tables and lamps lined the walls, making the alley a comfortable place to kick back and relax with a book. Ralph Lee’s wife, Orpha Mae, was largely responsible for the color schemes and furniture in the interior decorating. The Lees went to New York City to scope out other apartment hotels and to buy pricey furniture, such as $1,000 chairs and $2,000 tables ($12,000 and $24,500, respectively, today).
On the immediate left of Peacock Alley were the bronze elevator doors. On the right were the dining room and kitchens; on the left were the ballroom and wood-paneled lounges. The American walnut-paneled dining room with the high ceiling was said to be among the most elegant in Detroit and was big enough for 125 people and had private rooms for family parties. Mrs. Lee also picked out green crystal salad service, green enamel dinner plates and green glassware to match the green leather chairs in the dining room.
Across from the dining room was the ballroom, “a stimulating setting for life’s gayer moments,” the Lee brochure said. There was room for 100 couples to dance the night away under the vaulted ceiling and four crystal chandeliers. The large room was made to look even larger thanks to tall mirrors set in panels along the wall. At one end of the room was a balcony with wrought iron railing that overlooked the blue-and-gold-painted room. Orchestras often filled this balcony, where they were out of the way but not out of earshot. Tenants could use the room for balls or parties whenever they liked, and concerts were sometimes held there. It also was used for badminton matches and to show a movie one night a week for residents and their guests.
The Lee was the tallest building on the boulevard when it was built, as the Fisher Building hadn’t been completed yet, so a beacon was installed on its roof. At sunset, an engineer would flip a switch in the Lee Plaza’s basement that would illuminate a 9 million candlepower light that could be seen for miles and guide pilots flying over Detroit. It was a beacon of Detroit’s wealth.
But with the onset of the Great Depression, the Lee Plaza was plagued by problems almost from the start because of Ralph Lee’s lavish spending. The Lee Plaza would help bring down one of Detroit’s biggest real estate barons.
Major legal woes
Ralph Lee had sold the hotel shortly after it opened to the Detroit Investment Co., but by December 1930, the company was delinquent on its payments on a $1.1 million ($13.53 million today) bond issue floated in 1927. The Metropolitan Trust Co. was appointed the receiver, but quickly went into receivership itself. In 1931, the Equitable Trust Co. took over, and appointed Ralph Lee an adviser.
Equitable had Ralph Lee running the hotel as the building’s manager. For at least four years, Equitable paid Lee $450 a month (about $7,000 today); let him take food from the hotel’s storeroom to his summer home; and gave him unlimited room and maid service, nurses for his children, and five apartments on the 16th floor — rent-free. But the Circuit Court didn’t sign off on such extraordinary compensation, and in June 1935, the bondholders took Equitable to court, saying they had not received a cent on their investment since 1930 and that the management was lax and wasteful. The bondholders asked the court to make Ralph Lee repay the compensation he had received without court approval; he countered that faulty accounting was to blame for the bondholders’ lack of payment and said that he was still owed a large amount of money on top of what he had been paid.
Then, in July 1935, Ralph Lee admitted in court that he, his wife and a third person operated a hardware company for almost the sole purpose of selling supplies to the Lee Plaza and his other buildings at retail prices instead of at wholesale.
The following month, Circuit Judge Harry R. Keidan found Equitable and Ralph Lee in contempt of court and ordered them to pay the bondholders $30,000 in cash ($466,000 today). The judge also booted Lee and his family out of the Plaza.
But the trouble wasn’t over for Ralph Lee. Two weeks later, bondholders went after him in court over some of his other properties. The Public Trust Commission accused him of “milking” the Lee Crest, for which he was a co-receiver. The mortgage was in default, but Lee was taking money coming in for his own salary instead of paying off the debts on the property. He also admitted that when he moved into the Lee Plaza in 1931, he sold the carpets in his Chicago boulevard home to the hotel so he could keep them.
By fall 1935, the Lee Plaza was bankrupt — and so was its namesake. In September 1935, Ralph Lee was in federal bankruptcy court, trying to explain why he suspiciously transferred the hardware business and interest in his buildings to his wife. Saying, “I don’t recall now” why he made the transactions and, “I have forgotten that, too,” when asked why the transfers weren’t recorded. He was finished. About 1937, he moved to Florida and attempted a comeback by re-entering the real estate business. But in early March 1940, he became ill and returned to Detroit for an operation at Harper Hospital. Lee died at age 49 on March 28, 1940, and was buried in Britton, Mich., near the Ohio border.
The Lee Plaza would be tied up in court for the next eight years. Charles A. Owen, a Detroit real estate dealer who owned a third of the outstanding bonds on the building, had tried to wrestle control of it away from the other bondholders. The bonds issued to pay for the construction of the Lee, $1.5 million ($18.4 million today) worth, were still outstanding, but by May 1939, the building was worth less than half that amount, $806,000 for the structure, land and personal property. After nearly a decade of courtroom showdowns, the other bondholders finally gave up and sold the Lee Plaza to Owen for $475,585 (about $5.86 million today) on Aug. 26, 1943.
But as the Lee Plaza was tied up in legal battles, metro Detroit had been growing — and with it the number of homes. Residential hotels had fallen out of favor, and the uncertainty of the building’s fate didn’t help retain the clientele. As the Lee continued to bleed residents, the hotel started renting rooms to transient guests. The building went bust yet again, and another receiver was appointed.
On Nov. 20, 1943, the Lee Plaza Co., which was formed to take the building over, acquired the building for more than $600,000 (about $7.4 million today) from the Wayne Circuit Court receiver and trustee. The Lee would continue to barely keep its head above the water until it was sold in the 1960s to a turnkey developer who spruced it up and sold the building to the city in January 1969. The Art Deco giant built for the wealthy would now be used for housing low-income senior citizens.
This final transformation would be the last in the Lee’s turbulent life. The developer gave the Lee new kitchens and modern elevators and spruced up the community rooms. The City of Detroit put the Lee in control of the Housing Commission, and seniors 62 years and older started moving in, paying $35 ($203 today) to $55 ($319) a month plus utilities for rooms.
The Lee was not the only building the city did this with as the city continued to lose residents and the number of empty or financially troubled apartment buildings and hotels grew. In the summer of 1969, the city also turned the Hotel Wolverine near the Fox Theatre into another senior-living facility, as well as the Temple Towers near the Masonic Temple.
The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Nov. 5, 1981. When it joined the ranks of the country’s architectural treasures, it was noted that “the structure is notable for its excellent state of preservation and it has never been redecorated or remodeled, unlike the majority of the city’s luxury hotels.” William Worden, retired director of historic designation for the City of Detroit, led the effort to get the Lee on the register. “Not much had changed” from the time it opened, he told HistoricDetroit.org. “The building was basically intact. … The residents wanted it listed and were very proud of it.”
But pride alone could not shield the Lee from the problems gripping the city. An 84-year-old resident was found murdered in her room in February 1987, suffocated with a pillow. The Lee continued to lose residents and head down hill. At the same time, the city’s coffers were running dry and budget cutbacks would hit hard. There wasn’t any discussion that Worden can remember between the Housing Commission and other city offices when it was decided the Lee would close in 1997. Its entrances and ground-floor windows were barricaded with cinder blocks, but they couldn’t keep the scavengers at bay. Once the walls were breached, nothing could spare the landmark from trespass and from that point on, few buildings in Detroit have been more ravaged than the Lee.
Hot (lion) heads
The Lee would become preservationists’ Alamo when more than 50 terra cotta lion heads adorning its exterior were stolen in late 2000 or early 2001. Outrage mushroomed when six of the lions turned up in a new development of $600,000 condos in Chicago at 1218-32 W. Bryn Mawr. Because the stolen lions were smuggled across state lines, the FBI got involved. The lions were bought for less than $1,000 each from a firm called Architectural Artifacts in Chicago. The condos’ builder, Greene & Proppe, said they had no idea the lion heads were stolen, and the owner of the artifacts dealer said he bought six of the lion heads from a dealer at an antiques market in Saline, Mich., in 2000.
“As long as there have been graves, there have been grave robbers, and a lot of people consider Detroit a large, unguarded graveyard,” Katherine Clarkson, the then-executive director of Preservation Wayne, told the Free Press in February 2002.
In September 2002, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois gave the condo developers the Richard Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award for Outstanding New Construction. The move further outraged preservationists. The LPCI issued a statement the following January saying it did not condone the scavenging from historic buildings.
Architectural Artifacts helped the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office track down some of the stolen reliefs. In May 2002, 24 of the lions and three stone griffins from the Lee were recovered, and it was said that they would go to the next owner of the Lee. While the recovery of the lions was a surprising victory — as most architectural theft cases go unsolved — more than $2 million in damage was done to the building and has not been repaired.
Another devastating blow would come in late 2005, when the Lee’s copper roof was somehow stripped, despite it being 17 stories up and Northwestern High School being next door. Its window frames are gone. Its insides smashed to pieces by drug addicts, vandals and thieves.
“Lee Plaza has been reduced to a bricked-up and orphaned ward of the City of Detroit Housing Commission, which has neither the funds nor the initiative to restore the building, leaving it instead to scavengers who literally gouged gaping holes in it while ripping elaborate ornaments from its exterior,” MetroTimes wrote in April 2003.
Delusions of restoring grandeur?
The Lee is still under control of the City Housing Commission, which said in December 2008 that it was looking to work with a developer to bring the building back to life.
“If something were to come of this, it could create a revitalized environment,” Mildred Robbins of the West Grand Boulevard Collaborative told Model D Media. “It can mean jobs, sustainability, more community in terms of businesses, retail and housing. … Because of blight in the area, there is actually some opportunity created by all the vacant property.”
The agency offered to sell the building for $1 if a deal could be made to work, but so far no one with the financial means has taken the commission up on its offer.
But even staunch preservationists doubt the Lee can be saved. Besides the millions that would be required to undo what the city’s negligence had allowed to happen, the Lee is located in an undesirable part of the city surrounded by blight and poverty. On top of that, between the roof being stolen, the gaping holes left in its exterior from the stolen lions and every window in the place being ripped out, the Lee could be structurally unsound. The water that infiltrated through the holes not only expands when it freezes, pulling the brick away from the building, but also destroys the shelf angle that holds the masonry to the steel frame. The shelf angle supports and transfers the dead load of the brick back to the building frame. Without it, the brick could collapse. Replacing the shelf angles would add major, if not project-killing, costs to any restoration of the Lee.
“If the wonderful ground floor public spaces were to be restored, the cost to fix Lee Plaza could only be justified with very high rents,” explained Worden, a dedicated preservationist. “On East Jefferson near Indian Village it might work. On West Grand near Grand River, it won’t.”
But Craig Sasser is going to try.
Hope for the future
Sasser is a Detroit native who returned home after living in California. He has a plan to turn the Lee into luxury, environmentally-friendly housing, telling the Free Press in 2016 that his $51 million plan will “bring it back to being an iconic landmark, with first-class of everything.”
He entered a tentative deal with the Detroit Housing Commission in the fall of 2015 to buy the Lee and two adjoining parcels for $258,000. The deal is scheduled to close June 1, 2016.
“Craig’s interest and commitment has been unwavering throughout this process,” Kelley Lyons, the DHC’s executive director, told the Free Press. The commission “believes he has strong support for this project.”
Time will tell if Detroit’s fortunes have changed enough to where redevelopment of the Lee has gone from insanity to reality.