Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Recreation Building

It was the ultimate bachelor's pad, a place to go to shoot pool, to bowl -- and later, to go to court.

Detroit's first bowling alley was said to have opened at 241 E. Jefferson Avenue in 1861. By 1900, the city directory listed six alleys. It was around this time that the sport exploded in popularity in Detroit. The Detroit Bowling Association (now the Greater Detroit Bowling Association) was founded in 1912. As the city grew and greater incomes allowed for greater leisure, some entrepreneurs decided to build a giant recreational center for the city. The Huston brothers were young entrepreneurs who had a successful billiard parlor in Ann Arbor, Mich. Looking to expand their entertainment business into the city, they teamed up with a Mr. Sweeney to form the Sweeney-Huston Co. In 1917, the Hammond family leased a plot of land on the northwest corner of Lafayette Boulevard and Shelby Street to Sweeney-Huston, so that it could build a monument to amusement.

Let the good times roll

The Recreation Building opened Oct. 1, 1917, and was designed by the noted Detroit architectural firm of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, known today as the SmithGroup. It cost $750,000 (about $12.8 million today, when adjusted for inflation) to build, and Sweeney-Huston dropped another $350,000 (about $6 million today) on outfitting the building. "This amount was invested," the owners told The Detroiter in January 1919, "in response to the demand for a recreation center of the strictest moral tone and environment."

The structure was erected by Porter Brothers Co. and was billed as "the largest building in the world devoted exclusively to billiard rooms and bowling alleys," the Detroit Evening News noted in September 1917. The Detroit Chamber of Commerce hailed it as "the greatest recreational temple in the world."

The seven-story Italian Renaissance-style building had four floors of bowling alleys with 22 lanes per floor -- 88 in all -- and a total of 103 billiards tables spread over two floors. The Detroiter noted in January 1919 that the tables were "the greatest number ever gathered in one building" and that the number of alleys formed "the largest department of this kind in the world." This was an era where bowling was considered an upscale sport, when men wore ties and white shirts with sleeve garters. Pin boys set up the pins by hand as Detroiter after Detroiter rolled.

"Detroit owes a great debt of gratitude to those enterprising men who founded that Recreation Building," businessman A.A. Higginson told The Detroiter in January 1919. "It is a great civic asset. It's the recreational center of Detroit."

The ground floor hosted a number of shops, including a shoe shine, drugstore, laundry, lunch counter and a hat shop. The building was littered with cigar stands and barber's chairs, and patrons could cozy up to one of its many soda fountains for a Boston cooler or an ice-cold Vernors ginger ale. The Detroiter noted that the building's motto was "Eat-Smoke-Shave-Rest and Play."

Before the Recreation Building opened, bowling was considered a man's game, but within a few months of its opening, a floor of alleys was set aside for women, and the Detroit Women's Bowling Association was formed in 1918.

"Like many of the other great private institutions of Detroit directly serving the public, the Recreation building, in spite of the fact that it ranks as the greatest of its kind in the world, is taken for granted in Detroit, because that is Detroit's way," the Detroiter concluded.

The courthouse years

When the Federal Building across the street was razed in 1931 to make way for what is now the Theodore J. Levin U.S. Courthouse, the U.S. District Court was left homeless. Because the courthouse would not be ready until 1934, the court needed a temporary home. It had to look no farther than across the street, a bonus that made the relocation of court files and furniture a tad easier.

The District Court turned the Recreation Building's fourth floor into the courtrooms and chambers for its four judges, jury room and offices for prosecutors and the Master in Chancery. Court historian David G. Chardavoyne noted in a February 2003 article for The Court Legacy that "the open architecture of the billiard halls were easy to convert into courtrooms and offices." The court clerk set up shop on the third floor. Meanwhile, the recreating continued on other floors in the building, a place where Justice may have been blind, but blindness would certainly hurt your bowling score.

The court stenographers and U.S. District Attorney Gregory H. Frederick and his staff rented space during this period in the Lafayette Building, which was across Shelby from the Recreation Building.

But "within a year of moving, an embarrassing string of acquittals in important cases raised an alarm among judges and prosecutors about jury integrity in the court's temporary home," Chardavoyne said, including in a couple of cases where federal authorities said they had rock-solid evidence and cases. That's because, the Detroit News reported in January 1932, federal officials were having a hard time keeping people from talking to jurors and trying to influence their opinions.

One of the cases came during Prohibition and involved a man named Alois Albers, who had been taken into custody after agents found 10 barrels of beer in a house. Despite the overwhelming evidence -- namely the 10 barrels of beer -- it took the 12-member jury only 40 minutes to find Albers not guilty of possession of alcohol and and keeping a public nuisance. Judge Charles C. Simons admonished the jurors, "I am amazed that you should have reached this verdict. The evidence against the defendant was undisputed, and I don't see how you could have found him not guilty."

There also were rumors that two deputy U.S. marshals and three other federal court employees shepherded jurors across the Detroit River to be "entertained on liquor parties in Canada by professional bondsmen." The jurors denied being wined and dined in Canada and said Albers was acquitted because the government didn't prove Albers had control over the house where the beer was found.

### A different kind of recreational activity

Detroit was also a huge illegal gambling town during the 1930s. It was reported that there were 253 of them in the city at tthe time. One in the Recreation Building was operated by Frank “Buff” Ryan and "Chink" McNamara.

“The entrance on the corner was a plain door with a peephole,” the Free Press recalled in its May 5, 1957, edition. “A knock would bring a flunky. If he knew you, he’d admit you to a large room complete with the day’s ‘rundown,’ scratch sheets and several blackjack tables."

On April 12, 1940, five men were arrested in the barroom of the Recreation Building, accused of illegal gambling. The arrests followed a raid on a card game, and $36.80 (about $575 today) was seized from the table. The barroom's operators also faced charges of violating state liquor laws, which at the time prohibited gambling in a place where booze was sold. The charges against the men were dropped later that month after police could not determine whether the $36.80 was actually being used for gambling.

In those days, such joints were protected by authorities. This was to be proved in court through the Ferguson-O’Hara grand jury investigation in 1939-40, which found that gambling rings paid off law enforcement each month - from the superintendent down to beat patrolmen - “for the privilege of operating with little interference," the Free Press continued in the May 5, 1957, article. "When things got ‘hot,’ the handbook operators hired a few bums to take a ride to police headquarters for the going rate of $5 a head.

“Of course, a police tipster would notify the ‘bookie’ well in advance that they would have to pull off a raid to make things look right. Later, a shyster attorney would appear on behalf of the bums and pay their usual $5 fines. That way, the police looked good; the ‘bookie’ wasn’t hurt; and the bums had whisky money.”

On Aug. 7, 1940, 156 people were indicted in a $30 million handbook racket in the city. Among those arraigned were Ryan, Lt. John P. McCarthy – head of the Racket Squad – and Prosecutor Duncan C. McCrea, and Assistant Prosecutor Ralph Garber. The graft scheme was brought down because of a suicide letter from a woman who took her own life and, even more tragically, that of her 11-year-old daughter, on Aug. 5, 1939, after her relationship with William McBride, the contact man between the gambling ring at Ryan’s and police officers on the take. Her suicide note outed McBride and McCarthy. (When McBride was taken into custody, he had a $500 bill on him - the equivalent of a staggering $11,000 in 2024 valuation).

After the gig was up, Ryan and McNamara went on to run the Club Royale nightclub at Gratiot and Eight Mile until it shut down in 1945.

Game over

By 1941, the city had 89 bowling alleys, with more than 70,000 Detroiters rolling the rock in 1942, according to figures by the American Bowling Congress. An article in the winter issue of DTC Quarterly called Detroit the "bowling capital of the world." The article claimed 250,000 people, one in seven metro Detroiters, bowled. "Detroit has more alleys and bowlers per capita than any city in the world," the article said. But bowling's increase in popularity led to more competition for the Recreation Building and a decline in business.

By the 1950s, fewer people were coming downtown to bowl, choosing to roll their games in either the neighborhood alleys with large parking lots or in the suburbs. The Recreation Building continued to suffer declining business and closed in 1963. Its shops -- including the Federal Bar, Silver's office supplies and Summer's Good Food either closed or moved, and the building was marked for demolition for a parking lot.

On Dec. 28, 1963, 26-year-old Sharon Ann Kupetz of Warren, Mich., "narrowly escaped death" when a section of the crane being used to raze the Recreation Building buckled and fell, crushing her car. The crane's operator, John C. Beatty of Auto City Wrecking Co., told police the third section of the large crane crumpled as he was raising it to attack the wall of the building.

"The sound of the wrecking ball rings loud in downtown Detroit as the old gives way to progress," the Detroit Free Press wrote Jan. 7, 1964. "Memories crumble in the dust of their collapse, but as the dust settles, hope rises for the future."

That "future" would be a giant surface parking lot.