It’s never been easy for the Seward Hotel.
Work on the Seward started in 1923 on Seward and Woodward, between New Center and the residential neighborhood of Virginia Park. This was before the Fisher Building was constructed and just after General Motors built its world headquarters on West Grand Boulevard.
But the 11-story Seward would not open until 1926, standing as an empty, unfinished shell for nearly three years. As the Detroit Free Press wrote in May 1926, announcing the building’s completion: “The great shell … seemingly abandoned, awaiting the touch of artisans to complete it, has taken life at last.”
It was designed by Louis Kamper, with his son Paul Kamper serving as associate. The structure opened as a residential hotel, and boasted 600 rooms, including 306 apartments.
Reportedly, Detroit Tigers great Hank Greenberg and boxing legend Joe Louis were among the visitors to the Seward.
The Seward was turned into apartments more than half a century ago, but the building’s luck continued to be a struggle.
In the 1950s, the building was known as the New Center Apartments and owned by Ruben Kowall.
On April 19, 1963, the Seward — then called the New Centre Apartment Hotel — was auctioned by order of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division.
During the ’60s, the Seward was also home to the Tavern in the Town bar, which offered nightly entertainment, including folk singer Chick Roberts.
By the 1980s, two-bedroom apartments were going for just $200 a month. In the fall of 1989, the building was revamped by the Historic Realty Co. and rebranded as a luxury apartment called Wellington Place, though the development never succeeded. An ad announcing the Wellington boasted with hyperbole that September: “This massive high rise will feature fitness center, off the street parking, Detroit’s most elegant lobby, and rare views of Downtown, the General Motors and Fisher Buildings.”
Another ad, this one from November 1989, called the Wellington “a new showplace of distinction with one of the City’s most beautiful lobbies. Here’s your opportunity to enjoy elegant, apartment living at the heart of Detroit’s cultural community. … Wellington Place offers a novel approach to downtown living. A new type of city lifestyle … exciting, visionary and culturally attuned.”
In 2009, electricity was shut off over unpaid bills, and the building was closed. It did not take long for vandals and scrappers to rip the building apart, leaving it a window-less shell. The Seward fell into foreclosure for unpaid taxes in 2011, and was sold in the Wayne County Treasurer’s foreclosure auction for $63,100 to a corporation controlled by Kara Makino, daughter of Detroit developer Kathy Makino-Leipsitz.
Now, Detroit-based Shelborne Development, of which Makino-Leipsitz is a principal, is planning on spending $32 million to renovate the Seward into 91 rental units of subsidized housing for senior citizens and about 20 market-rate apartments. Shelborne, which has already rehabbed nearly 30 apartments in the city, plans to name the development Wellington Square.
The project is heavily dependent on federal tax credits available for lower-income housing projects and could not be built without them, Makino-Leipsitz told the Detroit Free Press.
Makino-Leipsitz also plans to rehab a vacant building next door to the Seward, at 69 Seward, into 22 new apartments.