Historic Detroit

Madison Theatre Building

The Madison Theatre was a key link between the small Detroit theaters of the turn of the century and the extravagant movie palaces that would rise in the 1920s.

Like many of the city’s theaters, it was designed by renowned architect C. Howard Crane. It cost $500,000 to build (about $8.5 million today, when adjusted for inflation). The 1,806-seat theater opened on eastern Grand Circus Park on March 7, 1917, with Mary Pickford in “Poor Little Rich Girl.” Also part of the bill on opening night: a Pathe-Hearst newsreel and the Madison Famous Orchestra and Organ, and performances by a tenor and a soprano.

“The fanfare surrounding the opening of this theater was unprecedented in the city, but was to be matched often through the succeeding decade as one Kunsky palace after another opened,” Andrew Craig Morrison wrote in his book on Detroit theaters, “Opera House, Nickel Show and Palace.”

The Madison was part of magnate John Kunsky’s theater empire and the first on what was to be known as Kunksy Circle because of the park’s circular shape and the number of Kunsky-owned theaters along it. Kunsky is credited with opening the first motion picture house in MIchigan, the Casino on Monroe Street, in 1905. His chain of theaters dominated the city’s entertainment business until 1929, when he sold the company to Paramount Pictures Publix Division.

Up until that point, theaters in the city had been mostly simple, low-key affairs devoid of any grandiose splendor. With Crane’s Madison, “the grand style had almost arrived,” Morrison wrote. In that sense, the Madison gave a taste of things to come, and featured elaborate plasterwork and decor, though nothing like on the scale of the Fox or United Artists theaters. Its lobby was long and narrow with the auditorium entrance on the left and stairs to the loge and balcony on the right. It featured an organ installed by Hilgreen Lane Co., and was the largest theatrical instrument outside of New York at the time, according to Michael Hauser’s “Detroit’s Downtown Movie Palaces.” Its screen was 18 by 21 feet; the stage spanned 63 feet across and was 25 feet deep. Shows ran daily from noon to 11 p.m.

The Madison was the first theater in Michigan to screen a full-length talking picture, “The Jazz Singer,” which opened on Dec. 25, 1927, as was seen by more than half a million people in a three-month run.

The Madison featured a marquee atop the office tower that towered 60 feet high and was 35 feet wide, letting those riding the streetcars where the action was. By the late 1920s, Grand Circus Park became the center of Detroit’s shopping and entertainment districts, and the Madison’s business boomed because of it.

Like many of downtown’s theaters, the Madison closed as the city’s population dwindled and cineplexes opened in the suburbs. The theater portion of the building was razed for a surface-level parking lot in the early 2000s.

As with most Detroit movie theaters, the Madison was built with an office building attached. Today, the office tower portion is home to Angelina Italian Bistro, Stub Hub and a number of tech firms, including Twitter. In November 2010, Crain’s Detroit Business reported that the mortgage giant had agreed to buy the Madison Building, and the deal was closed the following January.

The Madison marked the first of nine buildings Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and his partners purchased in a year-and-a-half span. Sticking with his high-tech “Woodward 2.0” theme, Gilbert renamed the structure The M@dison Building.

By June 2012, the M@dison was at 100 percent occupancy, with 27 tenants spread out across five stories and 50,000 square feet. That’s an almost unheard of occupancy rate in metro Detroit.

“The building has gotten a lot of notoriety, not only in metro Detroit but also all around the country,” Bruce Schwartz, Detroit relocation ambassador at Bedrock Real Estate Services LLC, one of the Quicken Loans family of companies, told The Detroit News. Businesses “want to be in this cool, urban environment with the collaborative workspace.”