It was Detroit preservationists’ Alamo.
The Madison-Lenox Hotel was one of downtown Detroit’s last remaining turn-of-the-century residential buildings — but it may be best remembered for being one of the city’s most controversial demolitions in decades.
In 1898, William W. Hannan set out to build an apartment hotel and bought land at Grand River Avenue and Madison Street, then a two-way thoroughfare with wide setbacks near Harmonie Park. The site was originally part of 220 acres that had been given nearly 200 years earlier to the founder of Detroit, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac.
The once-stately hotel was actually two eight-story hotels, designed by different architects and two years apart. The Madison rose first, designed in the late Renaissance Revival style by F.C. Pollmar in 1900 as the Madison Apartment Hotel. The red-brick building with a stone base cost about $100,000 to build (about $2.55 million today). The Lenox came two years later and was designed in a Beaux Arts style by A.C. Varney, one of the top Detroit architects in the late 1890s. The separate hotels would later combine into one, becoming known as the Hotels Madison-Lenox.
A small restaurant opened next to the Madison in 1900, and was absorbed into the hotel complex when the Lenox was built. The walls of the two-story dining cafe were knocked out, connecting the two hotels. The dining area would become known as the Madison-Lenox Cafe.
The hotel on Harmonie Park
The hotel appeared in the Polk city directories in 1901 as the Madison Apartment Hotel; was the Madison Apartments from 1902-1904; the Madison Apartment House from 1905-1908; the Madison Apartment Hotel from 1909-1913; finally became the Madison-Lenox Apartment Hotel in 1914. In 1947, the name was switched around to the Hotel Madison-Lenox.
The hotel was billed as a high-class home for businessmen and professionals and was located in a prime neighborhood, across the street from the Detroit Athletic Club. “Hotels Madison and Lenox enjoy a location extraordinary, fronting as they do on broad Madison Avenue with its parkway, its trees and green grass,” a 1927 advertising brochure said. At one side was Harmonie Park, “verdant with shrubs and flowering plants.” It also was within walking distance of beautiful Grand Circus Park and the surrounding theater district, with such movie palaces as the Capitol (now the Detroit Opera House), Fox, Adams and United Artists theaters. Madison Avenue was a well-landscaped boulevard with lush green grass and lined with trees. The Madison-Lenox also abutted the Harmonie Park neighborhood and was close to the central shopping district and stores like Hudson’s, Grinnell Brothers Music House, the jewelry shops in the Metropolitan Building or Fyfe Shoes, at one time the largest shoe store in the world.
“Detroit is a city of surprises. A city of a million charms,” the ad brochure said. “In the center of every pastime, every natural attraction, Detroit offers sights everywhere to thrill you. … You will like its buoyancy, its zeal, its hum of purposeful activity, its helpfulness to the uninitiated. You will feel welcome. And you are.”
In the 1927 brochure, the hotel’s rates were listed as $2 for a single bed with a detached bath, the equivalent of $25 today). A double with a private bathroom was $3.50 to $4 a night ($44 to $50 today). The Madison-Lenox also had two-room suites with bathrooms and ranged from $5 to $7 a night ($63-$88). Guests could stay as long or as short as they wanted, as the hotel offered daily, weekly and monthly rates. Breakfasts in the cafe were 35 cents to 75 cents. “Here” at the Madison-Lenox, “you will find a responsive appreciation of your wishes,” the brochure said. “Our employees are as courteous and eager to please as though they were in your own employ.”
One of the things that made the building so architecturally significant was the side-by-side juxtaposition of how building techniques changed at the turn of the century, said William M. Worden, retired director of the Detroit Historic Commission. The Madison featured load-bearing masonry with wooden floor platforms; the Lenox — built only two years later — featured steel and concrete.
A modernized Madison
The hotel continued to boom through the Roaring Twenties until the suburbs — and Detroit’s own sprawling — started to steal business away from downtown hotels. In an effort to stay relevant and to match the 1950s modern hotels, the Madison-Lenox underwent a major renovation in 1954. “When the Madison and Lenox Hotels were built at the beginning of the century, they were Detroit’s most fashionable residential hotels, and elegance was laid on with a heavy hand,” the Detroit Free Press Roto Magazine wrote in January 1955. “But yesterday’s glamour looks somber, stuffy and cluttered to modern eyes,” a testament to the attitude in the city at the time, when vintage landmarks like Old City Hall and the Majestic Building were leveled.
Roto Magazine said that the “emphasis was on freshness and light, the serenity of simple lines and rich materials handled without ostentation.”
In describing the plain white wool drapes that had gone on the windows, the magazine noted that “their simple richness achieves far more elegance –- to modern eyes -– than the ornate fabrics of an earlier date.”
The cornice was chopped off the building. Pillars were covered in tiny mirrored tiles. Ornate wooden doors were replaced with aluminum ones. The lounge was converted into a TV room with black and white linen drapes and “a luminous ceiling that sheds three degrees of light: low, medium or bright: and “heroic table lamps” for reading in “chairs cushioned in foam rubber” that “have covers that zip off for cleaning,” Roto marveled. “Out went the heavy ‘practical’ colors! … Out went the crystal chandeliers in the lounge!” Roto wrote. Some of that walls that were painted white over burlap were then lightly striped with a whisk broom dipped in black paint and splattered with gold. The look “reflects quiet elegance to 1955 ideas,” the magazine said.
In 1958, the Madison-Lenox had 275 residents — three-quarters of whom were permanent residents — and 52 employees. The residents could have their rooms repainted if they wanted and rooms arranged to their liking.
But despite the renovations, the Madison-Lenox still struggled to attract high-end visitors, and most of its business came from low-income transient guests. The hotel continued to decline through the 1960s and ’70s and soon lost most of its opulence or semblance of being upscale.
By the 1980s, the Madison-Lenox was a home to mostly low- and fixed-income elderly residents. Half of its residents were receiving general assistance from the state - until the state ended the program in the early 1990s, which forced half of the hotel’s guests to move out.
In November 1987, it was announced that the Madison-Lenox would undergo a $15.6 million renovation, which “would be the beginning of a really grand plan for redevelopment of the entire Harmonie Park area,” Wayne Smith, manager of the hotel, told the Free Press that December. He said he hoped the renovation would encourage city agencies and local businesses to bring new shopping, restaurants and offices to the area. The renovation of the hotel, which had more than 200 residents at the time, would have converted it into 109 two-room suites and 19 three-room suites aimed at business clientele. The plan relied on a $3.6 million low-interest federal loan. Whether the loan was denied or the plan just fell through, the renovation didn’t happen.
In 1989, the hotel was bought by the SVM Madison Lenox Corp., which announced in 1992 that the hotel would undergo a $6 million to $8 million transformation into a luxury hotel and residence. It was to be part of a larger Harmonie Park rehabilitation. And to make way for Madison-Lenox’s renovation, all 70 or so tenants were given $700 to $2,300 and kicked out. Its owners said they had to close because they could no longer afford to maintain the building. The hotel closed its doors for good on Nov. 25, 1992 — but two residents dug in. “I refuse to leave,” Ronald Wilson, then 43 years old, told the Detroit News at the time. “I didn’t feel that the people have been treated with dignity and due process.” The two stayed even after the heat and water had been shut off. Wilson dared city officials to evict him and demanded that the residents be reimbursed for their relocation expenses.
But, as with many redevelopments in Detroit, the deal was delayed over and over until it finally collapsed because the finances didn’t work out. Billionaire Mike Ilitch — who owns the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers, Little Caesars Pizza and Olympia Entertainment, as well as co-owns a casino with his wife — bought the building in 1997.
Disharmony in Harmonie Park
The building continued its downward slide into disrepair, and in June 2001, the Detroit Historic District Commission put the building under a demolition by neglect watch. Preservationists accused the building’s owner, Ilitch Holdings — a division of Ilitch’s entertainment and pizza empire — of being a slumlord, having let the hotel deteriorate after nearly five years of ownership. Robert E. Carr, Olympia Development’s vice president and general counsel, wrote in an op-ed in the Detroit News on May 29, 2005, that the Madison-Lenox was “unoccupied and in utter disrepair” at the time Ilitch bought it. Few people disputed that assertion, but three years of neglect paled in comparison to the eight years of neglect under Ilitch’s ownership by the time the building would be bulldozed.
In November 2002, the Free Press reported that architect Jon Carlson of Arizona made a last-ditch pitch to persuade Ilitch to save the building. He had done historic restorations and told the paper, “We definitely think it’s doable.” But Denise Ilitch, daughter of the pizza baron and president of Ilitch Holdings at the time, told the paper that restoring the Madison-Lenox would cost too much and that “the greatest need and greatest use for that property is to satisfy the parking demands.”
In 2004, one of Ilitch’s firms submitted requests for the building’s demolition to the historic commission. These requests were denied several times, and Ilitch allowed the building to further deteriorate, refusing to spend any money on securing or stabilizing the structure since he was determined to flatten it. By this time, the hotel’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways were in sight of Comerica Park and Ford Field, in addition to the Detroit Opera House and Detroit Athletic Club.
Parking versus preservation
Ilitch had a heavyweight ally on his side in his quest to level the Madison-Lenox, then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The mayor and Ilitch said they wanted the building gone in time for Super Bowl XL, which the city hosted on Feb. 5, 2006. The billionaire was able to get the City of Detroit and Kilpatrick — who has since become a convicted felon and been indicted on charges of channeling city business to his friends and family — to give Olympia a $700,000 interest-free loan to do it. Preservationists attacked the loan deal, citing Ilitch’s personal fortune, valued at more than $1.5 billion by Forbes as of September 2010. It also should be noted that the family had the option to use that $700,000 loan to stabilize the Madison-Lenox instead.
“You have to look at these deals as straight business transactions and make a decision on that,” Linda Blade, a Detroit Development Authority board member told the Free Press at the time. “It’s never easy, and sometimes it’s not what you’d want to see, but it’s what the reality is at the given time.”
Preservationists charged that the Ilitches refused to consider offers to buy the Madison-Lenox and argued that if Ilitch wanted to add to his parking lot empire, he should not have bought a historic building to get it. “Our concern is that we’re all going to wake up the day after the Super Bowl to a massive hangover and discover that everything is a surface parking lot,” Steve Haag of Hamtramck, chairman of the preservation group the Friends of the Book-Cadillac, told the Free Press. Adding more surface-level parking lots creates a “very desolate” landscape that is empty most of the time and “certainly not lending itself to a vision of vitality or excitement.”
But to destroy the Madison-Lenox, the Ilitches had to get the approval of the Detroit Historic District Commission because the building was in the Madison-Harmonie Historic District. On Jan. 14, 2004, the Detroit Historic District Commission –- a seven-member body appointed by the mayor - shockingly voted to deny giving permission for the building to be razed, saying the Ilitches failed to provide information about why the building had to go. It was a stunning move because the city had rarely, if ever, stood in the family’s way of doing business in Detroit, and the mayor’s administration had supported the demolition.
Amru Meah, director of the city’s Buildings & Safety Engineering Department, vowed to the Free Press after the commission’s vote that “We will fight this issue as far as we can to make sure this building is demolished.”
It was war. The Madison-Lenox had quickly gone from one of the city’s many forgotten landmarks to one of the most contentious preservation battles in decades, and certainly the biggest fight since the Hudson’s Department Store was imploded in 1998. It would be that watershed moment when the public stood up to the erasure of their city’s history and a battle that illustrated the fact that you can’t save all of the derelict buildings if you’re going to save the city.
The historic commission, despite pressure from Kilpatrick, held its ground and denied the Ilitches again on Feb. 11, 2004, saying the family had not presented any new evidence, so there was no need to reconsider their request.
However, in May 2004, the commission did approve the demolition of the even more historic Statler Hotel on Grand Circus Park, which also was brought down in the rush to tidy up downtown ahead of the Super Bowl. That same month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the Madison-Lenox to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Richard Moe, president of the National Trust, told the Free Press: “What the Motor City needs is more preservation, not another parking lot.” Since the trust’s first list in 1988, only one building added to it had been demolished, a hotel in Reno, Nev. The Madison-Lenox was the first Detroit landmark added to the list since 1992, when Tiger Stadium made the cut. The City of Detroit tore Tiger Stadium down in 2008-2009 after the baseball team moved out in 1999.
In December 2004, the construction engineering firm Robert Darvas Associates, did an inspection of the Madison-Lenox. While the report found that the “building is getting close to the point of no-return, if it is not there already,” the engineers did not find that the building was unsound. But it was clear that any rehabilitation would be a pricey venture.
At least one offer was made, in February 2005, to buy the Madison-Lenox, but Carr wrote in the News op-ed that “the offer was substantially low market value for the property.” If Ilitch would let the building be saved, he would have to be paid handsomely for it. At 85 spaces and $25 a car, Ilitch pulls in more than $2,000 a day during the Tigers home games. Multiply that by 81 home games, and the family makes about $170,000 a year gross on the Madison-Lenox site. And since the city was fronting the demolition cost, the billionaire’s family had a demo deal that was apparently too sweet to pass up. A 1996 study by Zachary & Associates showed that the parking lot could have brought in more than $200,000 a year — and that a successful renovation of the hotel would generate $5 million.
On Feb. 9, 2005 –- more than a year after first shooting down the Ilitches’ plan — the historic commission voted once again, 4-2, to deny the leveling of the Madison-Lenox, and this time, it ordered the family’s Olympia Development to stabilize the building or sell it. The family appealed to the state Historic Preservation Review Board. The mayor’s office continued to hound for the building’s destruction, claiming that the structure was in danger of collapse.
Even though the historic commission had denied the demolition, wrecking crews showed up unannounced May 18, 2005, and started hacking away at the landmark, anyway. The demolition started without public notice and was in violation of a city ordinance and state law. The wreckers tore into the small cafe area between the Madison and Lenox and then quickly turned on the stone entrance of the Madison. Wayne County Circuit Judge Cynthia Stephens issued a temporary restraining order and halted the demolition pending a hearing on May 19. A bystander ran into the path of the excavator and tried to stop them, saying a court injunction had been served. He challenged the crew to call the police. They did — and then resumed demolition on the Madison, anyway. Meah, the head of the city’s Buildings & Safety Department who earlier vowed to tear the building down, denied that the mayor ordered him to proceed and violate the law. He told the Free Press that an inspection the previous month showed the building was “in imminent danger of collapse and its removal was justified as an emergency.” The paperwork of any such inspection was “not available” and was not presented to the historic commission. Furthermore, because of the sneakiness involved, asbestos remediation had not been completed -– also a violation of the law –- so the state Department of Environmental Quality had to be sent in.
Jim Turner, a board member of the historic commission, tore into Kilpatrick, saying it was “poor leadership at the helm that allows the lack of ordinance enforcement to filter through the ranks” of the mayor’s regime.
The demolition company that broke the law, Adamo, is no stranger to controversy; it has since come under attack for its risky razing of the ,Lafayette Building, during which its crews caused a sinkhole to engulf half of Lafayette Boulevard and also sent giant plumes of toxic dust into the air and floor upon floor of steel and stone cascading to the ground below. It has been awarded contracts for many of the demolitions in the past five to 10 years in the city of Detroit.
The next day, after a three-hour meeting, Wayne County Circuit Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens ruled that nonprofit groups, such as Preservation Wayne and Friends of the Book-Cadillac Hotel, lacked legal standing to intervene in the dispute. Legal standing is usually reserved for owners of a property, neighbors or others with a direct financial interest. Further, John Adamo Jr. -– CEO of the demolition company -– said that his crew’s illegal activity had weakened the structure, making it dangerous. John Nader, an attorney for the historic commission, agreed that the damage had been done, and the rest of the Madison-Lenox came down in about a week.
The Ilitch family, under a firestorm of criticism over the demolition, almost immediately went on the defensive, disavowing any responsibility for the illegal razing of the Madison-Lenox. “Olympia was not consulted prior to the city’s action” to raze the building, but “nevertheless, demolition was the proper course of action,” Carr wrote in an op-ed to the Detroit News shortly after the building had been erased from the landscape.
No one was charged regarding the illegal demolition.
Reginald Turner, an attorney for the Ilitch family, accused preservationists of “callousness and (a) cavalier attitude” for not recognizing how dangerous the vacant building had become. The family’s spokespeople routinely pointed to its $12 million renovation of the Fox Theatre 15 years earlier as proof that the family was preservation-minded. Preservationists argued that one renovation didn’t give the Ilitches carte blanche to level anything else they wanted. Since the Fox, the family’s only other major renovation has been the Hughes and Hatcher Building, which it turned into the Hockeytown Cafe. Buildings that have fallen at the Ilitches’ hands include the Adams Theatre and Fine Arts Building, the Chin Tiki — both of which were torn down at taxpayer expense - and the demolition by neglect of the once grand United Artists Theatre. That is not taking into account the historic buildings that were flattened for Ilitch’s Comerica Park, such as the YMCA, YWCA, Detroit College of Law and Hotel Wolverine, though at least something was done with that land. Nothing has replaced any of the other buildings, including the Madison-Lenox, that Ilitch has had razed other than surface-level parking lots, create an asphalt desert around his entertainment empire.
Reactions to the razing
Moe, head of the National Trust, called it “a large tragedy and another sad moment for downtown Detroit.”
“Nobody wanted to see the century-old hotel, vacant since the early 1990s, stand there forever as a forlorn wreck,” Free Press architecture critic John Gallagher wrote as the building was coming down in May 2005. “Nor was the battle fought over the structure’s historical significance or its architectural splendor. The Madison-Lenox was a modest structure on both counts, a quiet little residential hotel and rooming house nearly all its life. But there is a category of buildings - really an entire universe of buildings like the Madison-Lenox - that are worth saving not because of what they meant in the past, but because of what they could do for us in the future. …
“A cleaned-up Madison-Lenox would have fit perfectly into its corner of Harmonie Park, showing just that touch of human scale and approachability that makes for good street life. … It would have taken money to renovate the Madison-Lenox - but not all that much money, in the scheme of urban redevelopment today. The Book-Cadillac and the Michigan Central Depot both bear renovation price tags approaching $150 million. That’s why it’s taking so long even to begin to stitch together deals to fix them up. … Buildings like the Madison-Lenox are worth saving, among other reasons, just because they’re easier to do. They deliver the preservation goods much more easily and cheaply than the truly big victories like the Book-Cadillac would represent, and certainly much cheaper than a new office tower would cost to build.”
The issue not only dominated the headlines, it filled up the opinion pages of the city’s daily newspapers.
“Detroit has done a fabulous job of destroying its own history,” Hamtramck Historical Commission Greg Kowalski wrote in a letter to the editor in the Free Press the month after the demolition. “How sad for a city that has such a glorious past.”
“Demolition to make way for new development is one thing, but replacing viable high-density buildings with low-density parking lots makes no fiscal sense,” Detroiter Claire Nelson wrote in another letter to the editor in the Free Press. “We all want to see Detroit thrive, and we all want others to regard it as a world-class metropolis. But world-class cities don’t demolish landmarks for parking lots.”
Michael Egren, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., lobbed this slam in a letter in the Free Press: “Intelligent leadership would know why people travel to and spend money in places like Prague, Boston, Washington, Paris, London or Berlin. It is not to see the equivalent of the suburban strip malls that have recently been built on Woodward and Jefferson. It is to see charming places that result from historic sites, old buildings and great museums.”
Others, such as Robert Collarini of Brighton, about an hour and a half west of Detroit, disagreed, writing in the Free Press: “I applaud the efforts of those working to preserve history. However, I strongly disagree with the noble efforts of those working to save the Madison-Lenox. These folks have not grasped the fact that while some buildings are old and filled with history and significance, other buildings are just old. Worse, the buildings had become a symbol of Detroit’s decay and blight. Everyone walking to Comerica Park had to pass these eyesores, and that certainly didn’t help the city’s image. A city needs both a proper respect for historic structures, and the cold honesty to let them go when their time has passed.”
Carr, Olympia Development’s vice president, went on the counter-offensive, writing a heated op-ed column in the Detroit News on May 29, 2005, that the preservationists were ill-informed and slinging mud for the sake of badmouthing a billionaire. He wrote that Olympia explored the feasibility of renovating the hotel, looking at six feasibility studies dating back to 1985, and determined they would be “financially imprudent.” Further, he said, “some members of the (Detroit Historic Commission) have repeatedly and incorrectly stated that the buildings could have been rehabilitated. What they refuse to acknowledge is that the cost to rehabilitate far exceeds any realistic economic return, even with public funding and tax credits.”
So, per Carr’s statements, the billionaire’s decision came down to money. If charging $25 a car made the billionaire more money than preserving an important link to the city’s past, the building would fall.
“Regardless of whether the Madison-Lenox should have been saved, the hasty bulldozing and the court fight that briefly interrupted it did Detroit little credit,” Gallagher wrote in the Free Press in July 2005. “Lots of people at the municipal, corporate and nonprofit leadership levels are using the Madison-Lenox as a catalyst to talk about a more rational preservation policy. … The Madison-Lenox fiasco did Detroit little credit. It’s time we all got together on a policy of renewal that makes the best use of Detroit’s historic assets. “
To that end, the battle over the Madison-Lenox helped spawn the formation of the Greater Detroit Preservation Coalition, an ad hoc body of Detroit-focused preservation, professional and civic groups. The Coalition, which is facilitated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, says its goal is to coordinate between organizations and create a unified voice for preservation in Detroit.
But five years later, it remains to be seen whether things have changed in Detroit, given the protested demolitions of such historic structures as Tiger Stadium, the Lafayette Building” and old Cass Tech High School.
Here is a video HD pal Brandon Walley did of the Madison-Lenox demolition: