On Detroit’s east side stands - for now - the Hannan YMCA, a building that served countless Detroit men and youth, and is a monument to one of the city’s great families of benefactors.
Before it was fun to stay at the YMCA
The Detroit Young Men’s Christian Association’s origins go back to 1851, when efforts began in the interest of bettering “the spiritual and mental condition of young men” led to the organization’s founding here. Detroit was a city of just 27,000 souls at the time, and things didn’t really take off. Following the Civil War, however, the YMCA saw a boost nationally, and Detroit was no exception. The Detroit YMCA was re-established in 1867, and set out to expand. At the time, the pre-motor Motor City had just shy of 80,000 residents.
But the automobile changed everything, and would lead to an ever-surging demand for places for the workers flocking into the city for employment to stay.
By the time 1909 rolled around, the YMCA had a total membership of more than 446,000 nationally, an increase of 9,000 members from a year earlier, and had 1,939 buildings - 84 of which were built in 1908 alone. There was a new ‘Y’ opening almost every week somewhere in the U.S. On Jan. 1, 1909, Detroit informally opened what was then the largest YMCA in the world downtown on Grand Circus Park with living quarters to accommodate 160 men. It cost $400,000 to build, or about $13.4 million in 2023 dollars, when adjusted for inflation.
Following the national trend, membership in the Detroit YMCA jumped from around 4,000 men in 1910 to some 14,000 in 1930. The Downtown main branch was simply not going to be enough. In 1925, a $5 million expansion fund was announced by the YMCA, which sought to build seven new branches in areas across the city. To serve the city’s lower east side, it was announced April 16, 1927, that this YMCA - the fourth of a then-announced seven - would be erected on the northeastern corner of Jefferson and Garland avenues, in the city’s East Village neighborhood. There would eventually be nine YMCAs sprinkled across the city and Hamtramck from 1925 to 1931.
The Hannans lend a hand
The Hannan Memorial YMCA was named after William W. Hannan, a prominent Detroit real estate investor and a founder of the National Association of Real Estate Boards, and the Hannan Real Estate Exchange. Hannan died Dec. 24, 1917, leaving his estate to his wife, Luella Hannan, to “be bequeathed to such charities for the people of Detroit as she should appoint.”
Initially, Luella Hannan planned to build Detroit a music hall, but with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra opening its new home in 1919, that plan was shelved. Instead, she would choose to funnel that money into building the Hannan Memorial YMCA.
Incidentally, Hannan’s fortune continues to improve the lives of those in Detroit and beyond. Luella Hannan incorporated the Luella Hannan Memorial Home (later changed to the Hannan Foundation) on Sept. 12, 1925, with the goal to “found, build, and maintain a home for aged or infirm persons of the City of Detroit who have been accustomed to enjoying the comforts of life, but who through change of fortune, have come to reduced circumstances.” Now known as the Hannan Center, its mission is “to preserve the dignity and enhance the quality of life of seniors in Michigan.”
The Hannan Y
Ground was broken for the five-story building on May 17, 1917, with the cornerstone placed July 25, 1927. The English Georgian structure was dedicated May 20, 1928.
The new southeast branch was designed by architect Robert O. Derrick. The builder was Talbot & Meier, and its cost was estimated to be around $700,000 - about $12.3 million in 2023 dollars, when adjusted for inflation.
“The building … was planned with the definite policy of maintaining a residential atmosphere both on the exterior and interior,” the Detroit Free Press wrote April 17, 1927. “To keep the proportion and the character of a private residence in a building as large as this, the architect turned to the early American dormitories which constituted the residences of the students of the New England and southern colleges and universities.”
The Hannan YMCA had two entrances, one for men along East Jefferson and another along Garland for the boys. The first floor - paneled in wood with rough oak beams finished in plaster - was where the billiards room, social rooms, a hobby room, swimming pool and a gymnasium were located. The men and boys each had their own gyms on the second floor, which also had two handball courts, banquet rooms, private dining rooms and clubrooms for members.
The third, fourth and fifth floors were where the 147 dorm rooms were located; they were said to accommodate 177 people - even more than the downtown main branch originally held.
The Hannan Y would serve Detroit’s east side for more than half a century. In 1959, the building was designated as a mass polio immunization center, where Detroiters could get a dose for $1.
However, changing times saw fewer men living at YMCAs. As Ys began to close around the country, the Hannan YMCA was sold in 1974 to the U.S. Department of Labor in 1974. It became the U.S. Job Corps Center, which offered training in the skilled trades. That outfit left the Hannan in 1999, and the Hannan became vacant a few years later, then was opened to trespassers like vandals and scrappers who were undeterred about breaking into federal property.
Why the Y will likely be demolished
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave the Women's Justice Center the vacant Hannan for free through a quitclaim deed in 2005. As part of the deal, the nonprofit – which was founded in 1975 and says its mission is to help women and children dealing with family violence – was to renovate the building and reopen it as a health services center within three years. That never happened.
That isn’t particularly surprising given that tax filings show the nonprofit reported just $15,600 in annual revenue in 2020, and doesn’t have a single employee. As the Hannan continued to sit empty for almost two decades and continued to be picked apart by scrappers and vandals, the cost to renovate the building soared to what the City estimated would be $20 million. Nevertheless, the nonprofit was allowed to continue owning the building.
Finally, the City of Detroit sued in 2020, claiming that the Hannan posed a danger to the public. It didn’t help that the Hannan was on Mayor Mike Duggan’s daily commute from the Manoogian Mansion to the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. As Duggan continued to wage a war on blight, it wasn’t surprising that the Hannan would become a target. The City got a court order in July 2021 forcing the Women’s Justice Center to fix up the building, but given the nonprofit’s limited resources, it was little surprise that more than two years later, the nonprofit had done nothing to address the court order. The City also criticized the federal government for leaving an eyesore in the hands of an organization that clearly lacked the finances to pull off its end of the deal struck 15 years earlier.
In July 2022, the City moved to take the deed to the property, arguing that the Women’s Justice Center had forfeited its rights to the building after sitting on the property for 15 years, not paying any taxes on it because of its nonprofit status, and failing to follow the court order to remediate the danger. The City said it plans to demolish the Hannan for around $850,000 and then market the vacant property for redevelopment.
Donald Rencher, Duggan’s group executive for Housing, Planning and Development, told Crain’s Detroit Business at the time that "the administration investigated the cost to pursue adaptive reuse for the building. After the assessments were made, mostly because the configuration of the interior space, adaptive reuse ... was determined to be cost prohibitive for developers."