Old City Hall
For nearly 100 years, Old City Hall was the center of life in Detroit. Today, it’s merely another piece of its forgotten past. Put simply, Detroit has suffered no greater loss architecturally or of its history — and its story proves that no other building in that history has been so loved yet so reviled.
The old Old City Hall
Detroit was still a small but growing city of only 12.75 square miles in the late 1850s when plans were made to build a majestic landmark where the future of a booming, sprawling metropolis would be born. The city’s government was operating out of a small structure on the east side of Campus Martius then. What would become the city’s old Old City Hall was built in 1835 in the middle of what was then called Michigan Grand Avenue at a cost of $14,747 (about $610,000 today). It was tiny: only 50 feet by 100 feet – and originally served double duty as a market (the lower part had stalls for selling meat until 1856). The building was sold for $1,025 and torn down Nov. 22, 1872, a year and a half after its successor would open.
It was inside Old City Hall’s walls that the city’s Common Council bought Belle Isle for $180,000. Its greatest mayors, like Hazen S. Pingree and John C. Lodge, would lead from it, as would some of its worst. From its halls, land would be annexed to turn the city from a small settlement on the banks of the Detroit River into a sprawling city of 139 square miles. Cobo Hall was conceived inside of it, as was the City-County Building – the building that would spell City Hall’s doom.
Building a temple for government
Old City Hall was built on a site that saw much turnover. First serving as part of a military reservation, then as the home of the Association for the Promotion of Female Education, which was turned into a state armory, then a state office building. It was then handed over to the University of Michigan in May 1842 on a 999-year lease, back when the school was based in Detroit. The school then deeded it to the state in April 1844, and the city bought it back for $18,816 (about $628,000 today) in January 1856. In 1859, buildings were razed and preparations made.
Architect James Anderson had plans ready to go in 1861, but construction was delayed because of restrictions on materials during the Civil War and by lawsuits from landowners and others who wanted the hall built on Grand Circus Park. In 1867, the contract for the building went to N. Osborn & Co. of Rochester, N.Y., for $379,578 (about $8.24 million today). The building’s foundation was finally laid on Campus Martius in 1867 at an expense of about $64,000 (about $1.39 million today); the laying of the cornerstone came Aug. 6, 1868. Osborn’s contract stipulated that the building was to be finished by July 1, 1871, and the firm finished with two months to spare.
The building was designed in the Italian Renaissance and French Second Empire styles and stood three stories high. In the middle was the building’s clock tower, which loomed 180 feet above the street. The building was 200 feet long by 90 wide and constructed of cream-colored Amherst sandstone quarried from near Cleveland. In 1869, while construction was under way, city aldermen voted to add a Mansard roof to the building for an extra $35,000 (about $798,000 today), giving it more of a French look, which was trendy at the time. This addition would grow to be universally panned as a bad idea, even by those who fought to save it. (In 1935, Common Council President John C. Lodge would call it the landmark’s only flaw.) The building predated the city’s first skyscraper by nearly two decades, so it literally towered over everything around it for years.
A clock to tick off the centuries
One of the nation’s top clockmakers, W.A. Hendrie of Chicago, created the clock especially for Detroit and regarded it as his masterpiece. Its four dials – each 8 feet 3 inches in diameter and made in Glasgow, Scotland – were illuminated at night so citizens all over downtown could see the time. (Remember, the clock tower was the highest point in the city then.) When its 125-pound pendulum first swung into action at the building’s formal dedication on July 4, 1871, it was the largest clock in the United States. But such a title came with a price: $2,850 (about $70,000 today). Taxpayers angrily decried that it was a waste of money. The clock tower’s bell weighed in at 7,670 pounds (3.8 tons) and cost another $2,782 (about $68,000 today).
City Hall’s clock tower was the centerpiece of the city. “If the clock is off by a minute, then we start getting irate calls,” building Superintendent Martin Schoenborn told the Detroit News in 1953. “Thousands of Detroiters set their watches by it. Many of them must live by it.” And it kept nearly perfect time. Except for rare instances when the power failed or the mechanical timer that set off the bell’s resounding boom every hour got out of whack, it faithfully ticked off the seconds for nearly a century. A sundial and nautical almanac were used to set the clock in 1871 when it was installed. The clock was switched from mechanical machinery to electrical in 1884. Before, the clock had to be wound on a treadmill-like device with a shaft that ran from the basement to the top; a city staffer had to take 1,512 steps to raise the time weight to the top.
The clock tower also was the site of a beloved tradition carried on until the building’s demise. No one knows when or how the tradition started, but almost every year since 1871, the magic of its booming bell on New Year’s Eve summoned hundreds of couples to City Hall, where they would kiss at the stroke of midnight.
No expense was spared in the building’s construction. After all, this was Detroit’s showpiece. The building’s interiors were outfitted with black walnut and oak furnishings relieved by woods of lighter color. The courtrooms and offices were filled with natural light pouring in through 15 large windows on each floor. “There is not a single room or hall that needs to be artificially lighted from sunrise to sunset,” Harper’s Weekly noted in an article on Oct. 28, 1871. The building was said to be fireproof, with beams made of iron and the black and white marble floors laid upon brick arches. Its grand staircase was cast of iron. Two iron fountains stood out front, as did cannons captured in the War of 1812 by Cmdr. Oliver Hazard Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie on Sept. 10, 1813 – a battle that sealed American victory. The building once had a low stone fence and a spacious green space in front where flowers spelled out the words, “Welcome, Thrice Welcome.” It also included a dungeon in its depths, which served as the town lock-up back in the early days.
And the city’s founders made sure their pride and joy was loaded with sculptures.
The clock tower featured four, 14-foot sandstone maidens at the base of the cupola that peered down on Campus Martius from 110 feet up. The quartet represented the civic virtues of Art, Commerce, Industry and Justice. Commerce held a mercurial staff, Justice the scales and Industry tools and gears of the trade. The maidens, weighing 10 tons each, were sculpted by Julius Theodore Melchers, the city’s foremost sculptor and father of noted artist Gari Melchers. One of the elder Melchers’ more famous pupils was Albert Kahn.
After construction wrapped up, the building’s four corners on the east and west sides had empty niches until 1884, when Bela Hubbard, a lumber baron, real estate mogul and historian, suggested throwing some more statues into them. Hubbard commissioned Julius Melchers to carve “larger than life” sandstone statues of four Detroit French pioneers: city founder Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac, Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette, explorer Robert Cavalier Sieur de LaSalle, and Father Gabriel Richard, co-founder of the University of Michigan and the luminary who gave the city its motto, “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.” Architect John M. Donaldson did a model for Marquette; Melchers did the other three.
A masterpiece is unveiled
The building’s dedication ceremony was held July 4, 1871, and overseen by Mayor William W. Wheaton. It was a rainy affair that began at 7 a.m. with the ringing of the bell under the direction of bell ringer George Doty. The day was punctuated with speeches, a gun salute and rockets and Roman candles set off from the building’s clock tower. There was a grand procession of citizens led by the U.S. 1st Infantry Band and soldiers along Woodward, which was decorated from Grand Circus Park to the Detroit River. Church bells rang throughout the city. The Declaration of Independence was read from its front steps. Prayers were cited by Bishop McCoskey and the Rev. George E. Peters. Citizens were invited to explore their new City Hall and climb the iron staircase of the tower. In the evening, fireworks were taken in from the front lawn.
In all, the building took 10 years from inception and – when you factor in the furnishings, ornamentation of the grounds, interest on bonds and other costs – cost $602,130 to build, about $14.8 million today.
The city was still small at this point, with a population of about only 80,000 when the building opened, so where the city ran out of employees, Wayne County officers filled its halls.
George W. Stark, the official city historian in 1955, wrote in the Detroit News that year that “nothing like it will ever come again. Every architect in Old Detroit submitted plans for it. … And when it finally emerged, all were delighted. Parents drove down with the children, hitched their rigs in front and went up in the tower to look at the town and glory in the prospect. For there were then no modern skyscrapers to hem it in and it was very beautiful when seen by moonlight or against a twilight sky.”
Historian Silas Farmer said the view from the top was magnificent: “The usually clean streets look still cleaner in the distance. The grove of shade trees, the elegant residences, the river and its shipping, the Canadian shore and Belle Isle, all unite to form a panorama not often excelled.”
Farmer wrote in his “History of Detroit and Michigan” (published in 1884) that “the new City Hall has probably no superior among the municipal halls of the country; both the building and its site command universal admiration and are in every way well adapted for the convenience of the people and the officials.”
The building many loved to hate
Despite such praise, City Hall was the target of many demolition attempts over its 90-year life. Time and again, the veritable landmark found several saviors, most often in Common Council President (and later as mayor) John C. Lodge. One of the first opponents of Old City Hall was Pingree, revered by many as the city’s best mayor. He was mayor from 1890-97 and is honored by a statue in Grand Circus Park. He wrote the Common Council three times in 1894 and 1895 proposing a new building, even though Old City Hall was quite young at the time, only 23 years old. It was well-constructed “but not architecturally in keeping with the progress of the day, nor laid out to proper advantage interiorally, and its removal is the only feasible plan to meet the city’s wants,” he wrote.
Starting about 1926, proposals were floated to build a new seat of city and county government. The city had grown to about 1.5 million by this point, thus outgrowing Old City Hall. Under Lodge’s plan, a home for all city and county departmental offices would be built at the foot of Woodward in a six-block area bounded by Jefferson Avenue, Bates and Griswold streets and the Detroit River. While Lodge was the originator of this plan, he wanted to keep City Hall as the seat of Detroit’s government.
When asked his opinion of keeping Old City Hall, Lodge told the Detroit News in January 1927: “That has been my idea from the first. … The old City Hall, with its stately architectural lines and its historic significance, should remain where it is. … It should be employed as the old City Hall in New York is, as the seat of government, housing offices of the Council and mayor.”
The plan languished in council until January 1929, when the council overrode then-Mayor Lodge’s veto and instructed the commissioner of public works to include in his budget an item for a new municipal building on the site of Old City Hall. This time, Old City Hall’s savior came in the form of the Depression; there was no money to build a new one.
The plan for a new City Hall was locked up in debate for nearly a decade, but the sides still remained bitterly divided, filling newspapers with columns and letters to the editor passionately stating their case for their side in the debate.
“What would the people of Boston say to a proposal to raze Faneuil Hall? What would Philadelphians say to the destruction of Independence Hall?” implored Orla B. Taylor, president of the Detroit Historical Society.
In 1935, Lodge, once again a councilman, said he vowed to fight the would-be demolitionists to the end. “People go to Europe and look with awe on old buildings that are not half as beautiful as the City Hall,” Lodge said. He added that the landmark was, to many old Detroiters, one of the last connecting links with the beautiful city of a generation earlier. His reasoning had the backing of both the Detroit News and Free Press editorial boards and a majority of the citizens, though the majority of the Common Council and Mayor James Couzens disagreed.
The degree of bitterness from those in favor of demolition is exemplified in a column by Malcolm W. Bingay, an editor at the News: “I think that city hall should have been torn down the day it was finished 70 odd years ago. It is an architectural monstrosity. It belongs back in the twilight zone of American development. … It belongs to the era of the whatnot and the putty vase and the ship carved in a bottle. It is not Colonial, it is not Gothic, it is not Byzantine. It just ain’t nuthin’. It’s been standing there these 70 years or more, a lumpy, gloomy, ugly pile of curlicued stone. No artist has ever painted a picture of it. No artist would. No lover of beauty has ever found a single line of grace or dignity in it.”
Planning a new City Hall
It seemed nearly every week, a story appeared in one of Detroit’s daily newspapers about a new plan to replace Old City Hall. Among them in 1935-36:
Building an eight-story City Hall and office building on the then-current site at a cost of $3 million ($47.4 million). This was the plan suggested by a committee formed by Mayor Couzens.
Erecting a building on Cadillac Square facing Woodward at a cost of $4 million ($63.2 million today). The plan called for a nine-story building with a 25-story tower with a 1,000-car underground parking garage.
Albert Kahn Inc. proposed building a 20-story behemoth that would include a new City Hall, a convention hall and a railroad depot on the site of the Union Depot at Third and Fort streets. Such a complex would have cost $8 million, a whopping $126.5 million today). This plan was abandoned because the sites were deemed too isolated from downtown.
The Detroit Public Works department suggested a City Administration Building just west of Police Headquarters on Gratiot Avenue bounded by Beaubien, Macomb and Randolph streets with Brush Street bridged over. To accommodate the project, Gratiot would have had to be widened. The price tag: $4.2 million ($66.4 million today), including $700,000 to buy land ($11 million today). It was rejected because it, too, was too far removed from downtown.
Another option was a 15-story building on Brush Street between Fort and Congress, directly across from the rear of the Old Wayne County Building. The two buildings would have been linked by tunnel and bridge. Cost: $4 million ($63.2 million today).
Later that year, with First National Bank in receivership, a proposal was made that the city buy the First National Bank Building to use as a city-county building. The plan was estimated to cost $25 million (a staggering $386.77 million today) when the $5.74 million cost of the building ($88.8 million today) was added to 5% interest for 25 years and the loss of the building from the city’s tax rolls. “Five million seven is quite a lot of money,” then-Treasurer Albert Cobo said. “And Detroit is quite a city,” replied George Engel, the city’s auditor general. This plan died because of the cost.
Lastly, many proponents of a new City Hall floated building at the foot of Woodward on the Detroit River, the present-day site of Hart Plaza. While popular, no concrete plans ever materialized for this option. All of these plans were offered within a two-year period; all were rejected. Still, the efforts to replace City Hall would not die. In fact, the landmark continued to be a whipping boy of sorts for many in the city.
It was often decried as a giant pigeon roost, its nooks and crannies providing a perfect place to perch. Further complicating matters were charges of its structural soundness. In 1939, a 1,000-pound section of the balcony railing on the third floor broke off and fell to the ground on the Woodward side. No one was injured. Then the leisurely pace of its elevators, which were installed in 1884, fell under attack for being too slow. They were powered by hydraulic columns drilled deep into the earth. Water was pumped in and out to operate the system.
But the biggest fight would last nearly two decades and led to the building being condemned by Building Commissioner Joseph P. Wolff in 1940.
A mustard-yellow municipal death trap
The problem was brought by new ordinances and fire safety regulations. Having been built more than half a century earlier, City Hall did not meet fire escape or emergency exit requirements and its open shafts and stairwells could become dangerous flues for smoke. In what became an annual tradition, the Department of Buildings and Safety Engineering would send the city a violation notice.
“It’s a definite fire hazard. There is no question about it,” Wolff said. “I wouldn’t want to be in the third-floor council chamber if a good size fire started down below. There’s only one inside stairway to use. … How can we expect people to comply with the regulations on safety when the city fathers won’t do it themselves?”
Budget issues led to the city putting off changes and to a showdown with Wolff, who implored in 1943 that “nobody above the first floor is safe.” Finally, after the 13th annual notice of the same three major violations, Mayor Albert Cobo recommended that the council approve $72,000 in funding (about $632,000 today) to bring the building up to code; improvements finally came in 1953 when the stairs and elevator shafts were enclosed in steel and glass.
City Hall had never been cleaned in its 75 years and was coated in grime and dirt. When it was sandblasted, it turned the building a pale mustard color that was, the Free Press wrote in 1946, “a very difficult color to wear. … It looks, in fact, as anybody would who was born in 1871 and tried to look youthful in 1946. … A determined-looking lady handed the reporter a dollar bill and told him to start a fund to have the dirt put back on. ‘If those statues ever turn around and look at what they’re fronting for there are going to be a lot of vacant pedestals,’ said a bitter taxpayer.”
And the building still wasn’t up to fire code after the fixes in 1953, requiring another $80,000 in work. Its water and plumbing systems were said to be shot – and then there were those obsolete elevators. The city said it cost $117,500 a year (about $950,000 today) to operate and maintain the building.
“The building itself is as impractical as a buggy whip,” Councilman Edward D. Connor said in 1950. “It’s like an unattractive woman: It costs a fortune to make it look pretty.”
By this point, two groups had been formed to try to stop demolition: The Old City Hall Committee and the Save Old City Hall Committee. Perhaps in an attempt to aid its cause by not appearing to block progress, the OCHC supported the razing of the Majestic Building, Detroit’s third skyscraper, which was built in 1896. First Federal Savings and Loan, the company replacing the Majestic with what is now known as 1001 Woodward, wanted assurances that City Hall would be razed for parking for its employees and customers. If there was enough underground parking nearby, the bank said the building would be a towering 15 to 20 stories. If there was not, it would be only six to eight.
A stay of execution
The City-County Building, now known as the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, would finally doom City Hall. When it was made clear that the city government had outgrown Old City Hall, the city built the skyscraper at a cost of $26 million (about $204.7 million today). The Detroit Common Council held its 4,370th and final weekly formal session in Old City Hall on July 19, 1955. Mayor Cobo led a parade of elected officials from Old City Hall to the new City-County Building on July 21, 1955. The desertions had actually begun that April, with the Department of Public Works being the first to leave.
But even after moving day had come and went, Old City Hall remained the official seat of city government in order to avoid legal complications over the ownership of the land. A part of the Old City Hall site was deeded to the city in the 1860s with a reversionary clause that would return it to its original owners or their heirs if the land were used for any other purpose. Therefore, Old City Hall remained a reception center for visiting dignitaries and housed unpaid city commissions and the housing and parking authorities. The city’s corporation counsel later ruled that the legal restrictions on the site were unmerited following a detailed legal study.
Nevertheless, Cobo said that demolishing Old City Hall would never happen on his watch. He said it should be used as a welcome center, for office space and for the city’s archives. City Hall was seemingly spared – until Cobo died in office of a heart attack on Sept. 12, 1957.
After Cobo died, those who wanted to see City Hall devoured by bulldozers started moving with the force of a steamroller.
As Common Council president, Louis C. Miriani rose to succeed Cobo. Where Mayor Lodge had been Old City Hall’s defender, Mayor Miriani was its executioner. Miriani and other city officials had long held that the building was holding back progress and that it was “old” and “ugly” in light of the modern architecture going up at the time. In 1956, he offered the following insight into why it should go: “The building and its walks and lawn are a mess. They should, of course, be kept spic and span.” He said there were “hunks of concrete falling off; outside steps chipped; patchy and dying grass; a litter of candy wrappers, paper and other debris; and cracked and crumbling sidewalks which endanger pedestrians and could bring lawsuits. … Perhaps if it is going to be an eyesore, the city should tear the place down and move the tenants elsewhere.”
Miriani formed a 28-member committee in December 1957 to recommend life or death for Old City Hall. It took only one meeting for the panel to agree that the upkeep costs for the landmark outweighed preservation of history and architecture.
“A committee of prominent Detroiters seemed pretty well agreed Wednesday that the old-fashioned gal with the quaint cupola and gingerbread adornments is just too senile for this modern town,” the Free Press wrote in October 1959.
Under a Jan. 17, 1960, column bearing the headline “City Hall? Rip it Down!”, Judd Arnett of the Free Press wrote, “Charge into it with bulldozers. Hammer it with heavy steel balls dangling from tall derricks. Pulverize it. Rip it out by the roots.”
Even renowned architect Minoru Yamasaki, who designed Detroit’s One Woodward, the World Trade Center in New York and others landmarks, said: “The old City Hall is a very ugly building.” Yamasaki was tapped to do plans for a park to replace the landmark.
But these voices were not in the majority. A poll by Survey Associated of 2,500 Detroiters across the city found 58% wanted the building saved. While not an overwhelming majority, only 21% wanted it razed. The other 18% were undecided.
Emil Lorch, chairman of the Michigan Historical Society’s Architectural Committee and a former dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Architecture, said at the time that “demolishing Old City Hall seems to me like a piece of public vandalism, the act of some who now see their city great and rich and are a little ashamed of their ancestry.”
There were many plans pitched to save the building, though not all were realistic. The Greater Detroit Board of Commerce suggested in December 1957 that the building itself be relocated, much like Mariners Church had been earlier, to a location on less valuable real estate. Frank A. Gorman, a member of the Board of Education since 1925, said he wanted the building to house the board’s offices. Some preservationists tried to get it saved as a downtown tourist center.
City Planning Director Charles A. Blessing and two of his top aides recommended to the city on Nov. 30, 1960, that “Old City Hall should not be lost to future generations. “I nearly fell out of my chair when I read in the newspaper that the staff thought the building should be saved,” Miriani said. “Blessing and I have been talking about Old City Hall for 18 months and it was my impression that he wanted to see some progress downtown.” Two days after Blessing’s recommendation, he was called into a meeting with Miriani – referred to occasionally as King Miriani by the Free Press in its editorials – and was strong-armed into reversing his decision.
Seven days after Blessing had his mind changed by Miriani, Old City Hall would go on trial for its life.
Eugene I. Van Antwerp, a 71-year-old who had served on the Common Council since 1932 (save for 1948-49 when he was mayor), proposed on Dec. 9, 1960, that Old City Hall be torn down. His resolution made no recommendation on how the site should be used in order to “take first things first.”
The resolution read: “Whereas, the revitalization of our city, and particularly our Downtown area, to insure progress and prosperity is the concern of all public officials and private citizens alike, and “Whereas, changing times have brought demands for bold action on the part of Detroit’s leadership so that our city can move forward in the best interests of all of its citizens, and “Whereas, Detroit’s municipal budget has been burdened by the expenditure of a great many thousands of dollars for the operation and maintenance of Old City Hall and additional large sums are required to repair the building to meet code standards, and “Whereas, the diversion of these funds for more beneficial purposes would redound greatly to the general betterment of our city, “Now, therefore, be it resolved that the Department of Public Works be authorized and instructed to proceed with the demolition of that building known as Old City Hall, lying on that portion of the Campus Martius west of Woodward Avenue between Michigan Avenue and Fort Street, and that the cupola, clock tower and statues of Cadillac, La Salle, Father Marquette and Father Richard be preserved and transferred to a permanent memorial setting on Belle Isle.”
The resolution needed a simple majority of five votes out of nine to be approved. It passed, 5-4, on Jan. 17, 1961. Voting in favor were council members Ed Carey, William T. Patrick Jr., William G. Rogell, Blanche Parent Wise and Van Antwerp. Opposed were Council President Mary Beck, Edward D. Connor, Del A. Smith and Charles N. Youngblood.
A fight to the death
The groups fighting the demolition vowed to seek injunctions as soon as the vote was done. A move to circulate a petition in an attempt to get the issue on the ballot also was announced, but were ruled to have been submitted too late. Lawsuits bought more time but could not spare it. Crews of the Union Wrecking Co. had started tearing out interior partitions and fixtures on May 23, 1961, but court battles kept the wrecker’s ball at bay. In July 1961, the U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled against Council President Beck, saying that federal courts had no jurisdiction in the matter. The final straw came Friday, Aug. 11, 1961, when both the Federal Court in Detroit and the state Supreme Court rejected petitions for injunctions to stop demolition. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the case. Wrecking crews would get started on the exterior the following Monday. The cost of doing the deed: $36,000 (about $257,000 today).
So it was that the fate was sealed for the building that hosted eight presidents (Cleveland, McKinley, Taft, Wilson, Hoover, both Roosevelts and Truman). It had honored Civil War veterans and set the table for Detroit to go from a sedated, podunk town to the booming Arsenal of Democracy. It had stood for nearly a century and had ushered in the auto age. But like many other landmarks of Detroit’s past, it would fall victim to the cause of Detroit’s success: Old City Hall would be consumed by Americans’ insatiable appetite for parking for their automobiles.
The demolition begins
On the night of Aug. 14, 1961, Union Wrecking of Farmington began to bring City Hall down – unannounced, perhaps to keep opposition at a minimum. At 7:48 p.m., a 4,800-pound wrecking ball slammed into the historic building, striking the upper left corner of the porch roof section. It took 25 minutes for crane operator Gene Garland of Wayne Township to reduce the entire front porch to rubble. He then trundled off toward Fort and belted the front of the building before crawling back toward Michigan and attacking what had been the Mayor’s Office. In what must have been a horrifying sight for preservationists, the Free Press reported that teenagers in the crowd grabbed stones and started chucking them through the windows. “Old City Hall stood quietly, accepting the indignity,” reporter Ralph Nelson wrote.
From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., a man named Nick Vandelinder hacked away from inside a 140-foot crane. “I’m a builder,” Vandelinder told the Free Press in September 1961. “I build piles of rubble. … There’s more steel in it than I thought there would be, but the ball takes care of it. … You just keep banging away.”
Demolition moved from the north to the south. The clock tower, once the pride of the city and a source of awe, would be the last piece to fall. On Sept. 12, 1961, the bell was returned to earth for the first time in 90 years. In a solemn gesture, Union Wrecking President Henry Mardigan had the bell, suspended from a crane, thwacked twice with a sledgehammer. By Sept. 18, there was nothing left standing but a heap of cracked stone, broken red bricks, splintered wood and twisted iron.
The statues of the four French pioneers were removed in May 1961 (Father Marquette came down first, on May 23) and were exiled to Fort Wayne and later to Wayne State University, where they stand today. The clock tower’s bell is at Fort Wayne. The statues of Art, Commerce, Industry and Justice were brought down in September 1961. Justice and Commerce were removed first, though they started to crumble when first moved and had to be roped together. All four have been laying in pieces at Fort Wayne, exposed to the elements, for decades. They are badly in need of preservation and a place to be displayed. But officials have said they have been unable to find a home for them, partly because they were made to be seen from 100 feet up, making them unsuitable for street-level viewing.
The cannon from the War of 1812 now stand in front of the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle. The clockwork and clock faces are at Historic Ft. Wayne. The stained glass window bearing the city seal in the third-floor council chambers was taken by the Detroit Historical Commission.
The rubble from the once-proud Old City Hall was dumped into a watery grave as fill material at the Jefferson Beach Marina on Lake St. Clair in St. Clair Shores. The debris was dropped into 12 feet of water to form part of a 60-foot-wide pier. It is identifiable only as the stretch of pier between 1,100 feet and 1,700 feet out into the lake.
After the demolition, the site was used as the rather barren Kennedy Square Park, a grassy plaza with the underground parking deck underneath it until the One Kennedy Square building was finally built atop it in 2005-2006.
“It was sad to see it come down,” remembers Norman Prady of Berkley, Mich., a former Detroit Times reporter from 1955 to 1960. “It was beautiful in its ugliness.”