Historic Detroit

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Mt. Royal Hotel

Today, the Mt. Royal Hotel is just one of countless forgotten buildings in the city of Detroit. But back in the 1950s and '60s, it was a Black-owned hotel offering a place to stay or call home to those often-denied rooms in other establishments during an era of rampant discrimination.

The hotel stood at 8841-8845 Woodward Ave., just south of Hazelwood and next door to the Temple Beth El, which had opened two years earlier.

The 60-room hotel opened Aug. 26, 1924, with Paul Shapiro as its manager. Its erection did not receive any news coverage, and its architect is unknown. An ad in The Detroit News the day of the opening called it "an establishment of unique distinction, a place for families desiring all the advantages of hotel service and the privacy and exclusiveness of home life at the same time. An ultra-modern stopping place for transients at moderate rates; each room beautifully furnished. The policy of this hotel is to provide its guests with a complete and yet unobtrusive service in keeping with a home-like spirit." Another ad the following month called it "luxuriously furnished. Ideally situated in the finest North Woodward residential section” with “beautiful, homelike rooms." The Mt. Royal also offered "complete hotel service."

But just a few months later, in December 1924, the Mt. Royal's restaurant and coffee shop went out of business. It’s unclear whether the hotel was struggling, the restaurant was poorly run, or both.

In 1927, the Detroit Educational Service was operating out of a ground-floor space. Two years later, the building was home to the offices of the National Home for Jewish Children, likely tied to the Temple Beth El next door.

Ads in 1932 listed the Mt. Royal’s rates as $1.50 a day and up or $6 a week ($29 a night or $117 a week, when adjusted for inflation). Just a year later, the ongoing Great Depression drove those rates down to $4 a week (about $86 in 2021), while ads urged folks to get “away from the noise and smoke of downtown” by laying their heads further up Woodward.

On Dec. 16, 1946, Thomas Byrne, 49, either jumped or fell from this third-floor room at the hotel. He had apparently been ill.

Mr. Leslie H. Willson, the hotel's manager for 17 years, died Aug. 11, 1951.

The following year, ads boasted the hotel had been newly decorated. Rooms were $12 to $20 a week ($126 to $210 a week, in 2021 dollars).

A home of Black entrepreneurship

The hotel was not listed in the 1955 Negro Traveler’s Green Book. However, it was certainly renting rooms to African Americans two years later, when the hotel held an open house March 27-31, 1957, to celebrate its new ownership under Della Walker, a Black woman who was not only the Mt. Royal’s proprietor, but also its manager.

"The apartment hotel is under new ownership and is already capturing the fancy of the public, as well as tenants and patrons of many years who are delighted with the charming atmosphere," the Michigan Chronicle wrote April 20, 1957.

The Mt. Royal’s 150 rooms – each with a telephone, a TV and a radio – were rented for $10 to $15 a week ($104 to $158, when adjusted for inflation). Day rates were $2.75 (about $28 in 2021) and up. It also offered dining rooms for dinner, banquets and parties.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 3, 1959, Detroit police raided a "basement playroom" at the Mt. Royal, leading to 22 arrests. Police were cracking down on blind pigs, the unlicensed businesses that frequently offered after-hours drinking and illegal gambling. But the Mt. Royal also continued to hold club meetings, bridge tournaments and the like. The Arodnap Club met in the "beautiful dining room of the Mt. Royal hotel" later that month, for instance, the Michigan Chronicle reported. Other wholesome-sounding groups to utilize the Mt. Royal included the Entertainers Club, the Just Us Girls Club, the Westside Good Neighbors Club and others.

On Oct. 31, 1959, the Michigan Chronicle touted the Mt. Royal as a place for African Americans to visit for its "spacious rooms" and "dinners and banquets." Ms. Walker was still the proprietor, but Charles F. Long had taken over as manager around a year earlier. By 1961, he had become a part-owner, as well.

In 1963, recording artist Ty Hunter lived at the Mt. Royal. He was a solo artist recording for Chess Records at the time, but he later was a member of the group Glass House for Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Invictus record label, and he joined the Motown group The Originals in 1971.

That same year, The Retort nightclub, downstairs at the Mt. Royal, began offering an atmosphere that was “medieval for moderns,” with “murals enlarged from a centuries-old bestiary. The mood suggests the coffee-houses of San Francisco and New York’s Greenwich Village.” The liquorless club opened Jan. 25, 1963, with proprietor Peter Canteni at the helm. In addition to folk music, the club also offered “offbeat films” as entertainment. The first act to perform was young Canadian singer Bonnie Dobson. On Sept. 20, 1963, Buffy Sainte-Marie, "a young Algonquin Indian girl ... described by critics as one of the most promising talents on the folk music scene," played at The Retort.

In 1965, the Michigan Chronicle called the building “Mrs. Walker’s Mount Royal Hotel.” In a Jan. 2, 1965, ad in the Michigan Chronicle said the hotel had been "newly decorated," and its manager was Jas. Walker Jr., likely related to proprietor Della Walker.

Starting in February 1966, the dining room hosted Sunday services by the Rev. Elroy Hardy of the First Garden of the Circumcised Heart.

By 1967, Long had parted ways with the Mt. Royal and become "one of a rare breed of Negro thoroughbred owners," the Michigan Chronicle wrote in a Nov. 25, 1967, profile. Della Walker continued to be the hotel’s owner, but she soon ran into trouble.

In February 1970, she pleaded guilty to three counts of income tax evasion, underpaying Uncle Sam some $15,500 dating back to 1962, the equivalent of about $114,000 in 2021 dollars. She faced up to five years in prison and fines of up to $10,000 (about $74,000 now). That May, legendary Detroit Judge Damon J. Keith sentenced Walker to two years’ probation on one count and dismissed the two remaining, with the understanding she would pay her back taxes. The Internal Revenue Service proposed additional taxes and penalties of $46,661.11 for the years 1962 to 1964 – a hefty $343,000 in 2021 dollars.

The hotel was taken over by Ray Walker, who, it is assumed but not confirmed, was related to Della Walker.

And that’s when things got real ugly, real fast.

Not so ‘Royal’

Walker was a “30-year-old big spender, gun connoisseur, cocaine sniffer and hotel owner,” as the Free Press described him April 17, 1973. Walker “once belonged to a coalition of heroin distributors known as the West Side Seven.” He had “invested his illicit earnings in a string of dry-cleaning stores, apartment buildings and the Mt. Royal Hotel. … He was making good money both legally and illegally” -- until he was murdered Oct. 26, 1972.

The Free Press wrote about his death in the same article: “At 4:10 a.m. on Oct. 26 last year, Ray Walker’s answering service beeped his pocket receiver. Someone wanted to talk to him, someone who convinced him that it was urgent enough to drive to an inner city address in the early morning darkness. Walker pulled up in his new Cadillac and rolled down a window. The phone caller stepped up, jerked a gun through the window and splattered three slugs in Walker’s face. Until then, Walker had been one of the most powerful heroin traffickers in Detroit.”

Two weeks before he was murdered, Walker had been picked up in Cincinnati with $150,000 worth of uncut heroin. Police believe someone in his own organization executed him, as “Ray started to get scared that someone was going to blow him away,” an unnamed friend told the Free Press. Sgt. Gil Hill, who later became an actor, Detroit city councilman and mayoral candidate, told the paper that “We even heard that he might be willing to spill everything in return for some protection.”

According to Detroit police, at least 200 drug runners, prostitutes and addicts connected to the heroin trade in Detroit had been murdered in the past two years. The heroin industry was pulling in an estimated $1 million per day in Detroit alone ($6.5 million in 2021 dollars, when adjusted for inflation), and the number of drug users in metro Detroit had quintupled between 1968 and 1973.

After the murder, Jack Crawford, at age 23, inherited what was left of Walker’s operations, including the Mt. Royal, making him one of the richest heroin dealers in the city, the Free Press said. Crawford also owned a number of apartment buildings and drycleaners.

Having drug kingpins running the hotel, which had become a drug den, certainly was good for business, but it was bad for the neighborhood.

On March 21, 1976, 42-year-old James Montgomery was murdered in his room at the Mt. Royal.

As the hotel’s reputation for prostitution and drug use continued to grow, pickets outside of the Mt. Royal became common. At one such protest in August 1976, some of the picketers carried placards reading, "Try your wife, you might like it," and "By the time you find greener pastures, you won't be able to climb the fence."

Detroit police and Wayne County Prosecutor William L. Cahalan filed a lawsuit Dec. 16, 1976, in Wayne Circuit Court to have the Mt. Royal declared a public nuisance and to be closed and padlocked for one year. But a year later, the drugs were still flowing – until police showed up with battering rams.

The Royal raids

There had been 75 drug arrests in 1977 in the immediate vicinity of the hotel. On Nov. 15 of that year, Detroit police set up a secret command post in a building across Woodward to conduct surveillance. They conducted three weeks of undercover drug deals at the hotel, making 25 dope purchases from 18 people in 17 rooms across all four floors. The hotel was picketed around the same time by the NAACP because of its narcotics activity and its proximity to Northern High School. “Police said that although most of the drug trafficking was conducted by addicts and prostitutes, students were also attracted to the hotel,” the Detroit Free Press reported Dec. 2, 1977.

That led more than 100 Detroit police officers to raid the hotel on Dec. 1, 1977. Thirty-three people were arrested on narcotics charges. Police called the hotel “a filthy watering hole for junkies and a refuge for felons,” the Detroit Free Press reported the following morning. Battering rams were used to enter a barbershop next door. Between a half-pound and a pound of heroin and cocaine, guns, and narcotics paraphernalia were confiscated from the hotel. Those arrested were charged with conspiracy, possession and delivery of drugs, and loitering in a place of illegal operation. The manager and desk clerk were charged with conspiracy to violate state narcotics laws.

“Since most of the hotel rooms do not have private bathrooms, police said, the surprised occupants threw their narcotics paraphernalia into the central courtyard below,” the Free Press reported Dec. 2, 1977. “There must have been 600 syringes in the courtyard.”

Detroit police Cmdr. Eljay Bowron told the Free Press that “it was difficult to pinpoint the narcotics activity inside the hotel since dealers moved from room to room.”

The Detroit News reported the day after the raid that police believed the raid “will clean up a festering sore of crime and what they said was a prime distribution point for drugs in the area.”

In the April 2, 1978, edition, the Free Press profiled the Detroit police narcotics unit, and the paper said that during the Dec. 1 raid on the Mt. Royal, “One police officer said the smell was so bad on one floor, he expected to find a dead body. It turned out to be only the mingling of many dope house stenches.” The News added, “The paint is peeling from the walls, the furnishings are worn and dirty and trash is cluttered around the halls.”

Police sought a Circuit Court order after the raid to shut down the hotel.

Inspector William Dwyer told the Detroit News that “the rundown establishment” had “passed through so many hands in recent years that police have yet to determine who the present owner is to notify him of action directed at padlocking the place as a public nuisance.”

But the building was shuttered, and the hotel was demolished shortly thereafter, fading from the Woodward streetscape without making headlines and the papers not writing an epitaph for this one prominent Black-owned hotel and community gathering space. The Mt. Royal was razed by 1981.

Della Walker died in January 1987.