Tucked into a corner on a side street off Woodward sits an old hotel, reclaimed from the scrappers and turned into new luxury homes in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
The Carlton was designed by Detroit architect Louis Kamper, whose most famous works include the Broderick and Book towers. The building is an important piece of Detroit’s architectural history because it served as a proving ground for Kamper to evolve his style in hotel design. The Carlton was Kamper’s 12th major commission, and his firm’s first documented hotel project. On his blueprints for the structure, Kamper has the name spelled Carleton, with an E. When it opened on May 31, 1924, however, it was dubbed the Carlton Plaza Hotel.
Its façade design is a combination of Beaux Arts and the Chicago School. Its appearance has unique visual characteristics and balancing elements; elements that are not found on other Kamper projects. The layout of the hotel itself was done in a “U” shape, which Kamper went on to use for his Book-Cadillac Hotel. This shape allowed every guest room to have an outside view, which was not yet a common feature in hotel design. The hotel’s guest rooms also came equipped with individual baths, again another feature that was uncommon at the time.
The Carlton is constructed of steel-reinforced, poured-in-place concrete columns and beams. However, instead of concrete floor slabs, it uses 8-by-8-inch square masonry blocks. These blocks are joined by steel-reinforced concrete between the rows as a structural mortar that joins them together. In addition to these blocks, a thin set of poured concrete was also set on top of the 4-inch-thick block slabs to increase the floors’ thickness to 6 inches and to add strength and stability to the floors while keeping initial construction costs down.
A storied past
The Carlton also had an important social significance during the Jazz Age. In a segregated city, wealthy and affluent blacks during the 1920s and ’30s came to the Carlton Plaza to listen to some of the biggest names in jazz. By 1960, the Carlton had become the most popular hotel for upper-middle-class blacks who were still denied accommodations at white-only hotels downtown. In May 1960, Jet Magazine declared that “the Carlton Plaza of Detroit, MI was the premier destination for the discriminating negro.”
Because of the reputation for catering to its black clientele, the Carlton received a tremendous amount of business from the music industry professionals that visited Detroit on a regular basis in the 1950s and ’60s. It was for this reason that one name in Motown history got her start.
Singer and actress Della Reese, a graduate of Cass Tech High School who grew up in the city’s Black Bottom neighborhood, was working as a telephone operator at the Carlton when a business associate of Berry Gordy Jr., who was staying at the hotel, heard her voice. It is reported that he told the Motown founder “you’ve got to hear the operator’s voice who works at the Carlton.” Reese sung in her church choir, but it wasn’t until she was approached by Gordy that she thought about singing professionally.
By the 1970s the Carlton had significant financial problems, partly because of increasing energy costs and its aging infrastructure. After changing hands several times by the early 1980s, the building had lost all of its charm and prominence. During the crack-fueled drug wars of the mid-1980s, the Carlton had become a junkie and gang haven in the once-affluent district of Brush Park. During the drug counter offensive mounted by Detroit police in the early 1990s, these tenants were forced out, and the building came under city control.
The building sat for more than a decade before the city sold it to a real estate developer. During that decade of abandonment, the Carlton Plaza was stripped and vandalized. However, despite all this damage, it was granted a reprieve from the wrecking ball in 2003 and became a symbol of rebirth for Brush Park.
In 2005, with a group of open-minded, forward-thinking investors made up of Detroit Urban Living, the Cornerstone Group and Carlton Properties, the Carlton Plaza became the newest loft-style condominium development in Detroit’s Midtown district during the loft craze in the city at that time. The Garrison Co., which had worked with Cornerstone to rehabilitate the nearby Carola and Lamar buildings, spearheaded the redevelopment of the Carlton into 55 “loftominiums.”
Many of the damaged or stolen façade details thought to have been lost were copied and replaced, the most notable being the original grotesque keystone above the front entrance. The keystone had been stolen during the 10 years that the building was empty, however, once word got out that the building was being restored, a “collector” surfaced that offered to sell the piece back to the building’s owners. In the end, buying back the keystone was less expensive the re-creating it.
The Carlton’s revival is another example of how Detroit continues to rise from the ashes.
Lucas McGrail is a contributor to HistoricDetroit.org and is an Associate AIA, LEED® AP