Historic Detroit

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WJBK-TV Studios Building

In the shadow of the Fisher Building stands the former home of pioneering Detroit television station WJBK-TV and the one-time home of Detroit Public Television – and the former haunt of one Sir Graves Ghastly.

This building on the southwest corner of Second Avenue and Bethune Street was constructed in 1956 for the Storer Broadcasting Co.’s WJBK. It also is the only Detroit design by John L. Volk, a celebrated architect known for helping to shape the look of Palm Beach, Fla. When it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2016, among the reasons for its inclusion was the fact that it is the only intact example of a 1950s television studio still standing in Detroit.

The Storer story

The first TV station to take to the air in Michigan was WWJ-TV, Channel 4, on March 4, 1947. It was owned by the Evening News Association, the parent company of The Detroit News. It was followed Oct. 9, 1948, by WXYZ-TV, owned by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

WJBK became the third, first broadcasting Oct. 24, 1948. The station had begun on AM radio in Detroit, and was owned by Storer Broadcasting, an affiliate of the DuMont Network and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS).

George B. Storer began his business career in the steel and gas industries, having inherited his father's job as president of the Standard Steel and Tube Co. in Toledo, Ohio. He later got into the gasoline business when he founded the Fort Industry Oil Co. In 1927, he got into broadcasting, when he bought Toledo’s WTOL-AM radio station for $3,500 (about $XX today, when adjusted for inflation) using profits from his gas stations. It turns out that, if you own a radio station, you can run as many free ads as you want for your other businesses.

Storer soon expanded into Detroit’s radio markets, buying WGHP-AM and CKLW-AM in the 1920s and 1930s, though he sold CKLW after only one year. He also had stations in the Ohio cities of Lima, Zanesville and Fairmont. Not restricting himself to the Midwest, he also bought radio stations in Wheeling, W.Va. and Miami. In 1947, Storer bought WJBK-TV's license from businessmen James F. Hopkins and Richard A. Connell for $550,000, as well as TV licenses in Miami and Toledo. By 1961, Storer Broadcasting was the sixth-largest network in the country, owning 11 TV and nine radio station. This reach helped him become chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters in the 1950s and ’60s, when he was instrumental in developing the Television Code. Incidentally, Storer also bought Northeast Airlines from famed aviator Howard Hughes in 1965.

In the early 1970s, Storer’s sons, George B. Storer Jr. and Peter Storer, took the helm of their father’s broadcast empire. George B. Storer Sr. died in 1975, and his boys soon began selling off the family’s radio stations so they could expand the company’s cable TV holdings. Storer Broadcasting had unloaded all of its radio assets by 1980, and was reorganized as Storer Communications in 1983. At that point, the company held franchises to provide cable television to more than 500 communities in 18 states and had more than 4,800 employees. In 1987, Storer Communications was dissolved following a hostile leveraged buyout, and its television assets were sold to Comcast Corp.

New digs in New Center

In the 1950s, WJBK was operating out of Detroit’s Masonic Temple, when George Storer Sr. decided to reach out to one of his Floridian pals to design an impressive new studio. Storer was a long-time client of Volk's, having hired the architect for his home and guest house in Miami in 1947, a home in Saratoga, Wyo., in 1953, and, later, Lyford Cay in the Bahamas (1971 and 1974). Volk’s other work for Storer included Old Baldy, a golf and vacation club in Saratoga, Wyo., and several office buildings for Storer Enterprises. Volk also designed TV studios for Storer stations in Miami and New York, and got the nod to design the Arthur F. Adams Research Building for the Miami Heart Institute, thanks largely to Storer being the organization’s board chairman.

WJBK’s new building replaced a surface parking lot for the Fisher Building. Volk designed WJBK-TV’s new New Center home in the Georgian Revival style as a two-story, red-bricked number with limestone flourishes. Its main entrance opens to a two-story open, curving staircase at the center of the office building. The stairs and treads are finished in travertine marble. The staircase lobby is paneled in bookmatched three-quarter-inch gum plywood. The staircase, paneling and decorative wrought-iron balustrade are all original, as is the six-sided brass light fixture that hangs above the center of the staircase’s curve. Likewise, a conference room and an executive suite on the second floor retain their original book-matched clear cypress wood paneled walls. The side entrance on the Bethune Street side allows for access directly into the large studio. There are two large studio spaces and a control room in the building's studio portion. An article in TV Guide in 1956 touted that "one of the television studios will be so large that passenger cars and trucks can enter one side of the building, drive into the studio and leave by the Bethune side of the building." There was also a viewing room for special clients that overlooked the director's control rooms and both Studios A and B. One of the studios had room for an audience of 150 people. The building’s basement housed a film laboratory.

Volk’s renderings showed a third story that was never built. The initial plan also called for connecting the WJBK Studios via an underground passageway already connecting the Fisher, Albert Kahn and General Motors buildings. That connection was never made.

WJBK moved into its new home in 1956. It was from this new home in New Center that WJBK beamed out its No. 1 news broadcasts in the Detroit market. Among WJBK’s innovations was hiring "intellectuals" to join the journalists in its news department. Meteorologist Dr. Everett Phelps worked at the station from 1951 to 1958, and political analyst Dr. John Dempsey joined the ranks in 1956, overseeing the news department until 1962. Another innovation was Storer hiring research consultant McHugh & Hoffman Inc. to help gauge audience’s tastes and guide the direction of the station. McHugh & Hoffman recommended a formula of presenting the news in a palatable way that was easy to comprehend, trustworthy, in a relaxed manner, unbiased, and that made folks feel a part of the community. After adopting this approach, WJBK moved to the top of the Detroit market. Among WJBK’s other feats was that the studio on Second Avenue housed the first color TV transmitting equipment in Detroit.

Sir Graves Ghastly and Billy Bob Buttons

In addition to the news, two locally popular shows – the children's weekday morning show “Sagebush Shorty” and “Sir Graves Ghastly” – were produced in the building’s studios.

Ventriloquist Sagebrush Shorty (Ted Lloyd) and his dummy sidekick Billy Bob Buttons came to Detroit in 1957 from Storer's station in San Antonio, Texas. In addition to cartoons, the show featured live bits and magic acts before a live studio audience. It aired until about 1963, coming to an end after Lloyd's wife was bitten by a chimpanzee on the set and sued.

Sir Graves Ghastly (Lawson Deming) was a Saturday horror movie program that ran on WJBK from 1967 until 1982. But for many, it was Sir Graves Ghastly, not the movies, that were the star of the show, and WJBK edited down many of the movies to squeeze in more of Deming's vampire antics and special effects. In fact, it was said, "No other Detroit TV show utilized as many special effects as Sir Graves Ghastly presents," according to Gordon Castelnero’s book “TV Land Detroit.”

In another story relayed in Castelnero’s book, "When WJBK was still on Second Avenue in Detroit, across the street on Second Avenue and Bethune was Momo' s Bar. There was a brief period when the show first started when we ran it on Friday nights. After Lawson did the opening, there was about 20 minutes of downtime. He came into the bar in full costume ... and the guy who owned the bar would never acknowledge him either. He would sit at the end of the bar, and we’d hear people saying, 'Get a load of the guy at the end of the bar,’ as they were pretending not to look. And, of course, Lawson picked up on what was going on. So, when he walked toward the door to exit, he’d let the Sir Graves laugh go and then leave."

Turn off the lights – and the TV

By 1971, WJBK had outgrown the 41,000-square-foot New Center studio and, like many businesses and residents following the unrest of July 1967, left Detroit for the suburbs. Storer Broadcasting moved both its Detroit TV and radio stations to the Storer Place studio on Nine Mile Road between Greenfield and Southfield roads, not far from the Northland Mall. Today, WJBK-TV is better known to Detroiters as Fox 2, and still broadcasts from the same location.

After abandoning Detroit, WJBK sold its former New Center studio to Detroit's public television station, WTVS (Channel 56) for $750,000 in 1971. Detroit Public Television financed the purchase through a $350,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation and a $400,000 loan from the Ford Foundation. WTVS’ new digs allowed for it to broadcast in color for the first time. The Kresge Foundation, borne from the fortune of the dime store chain that gave rise to Kmart, also gave a $153,000 grant to allow WTVS to buy color cameras and other upgrades.

WTVS first took to the airwaves in October 1955 and was Detroit's first UHF station and only the third educational television station nationally. In the 1990s, WTVS rebranded to DPTV (Detroit Public Television), and, like WJBK, abandoned Detroit for the suburbs. Detroit Public Television opted to move to a newer building in the far-flung Oakland County suburb of Wixom, ironically, a 40-minute drive from the city whose name it bears. DPTV's Riley Broadcast Center opened in Wixom in 2005. The building was originally erected by George Riley’s Clover Technologies, and Riley donated the building to DPTV.

The New Center studio was then sold to the Mosaic Youth Theater, which used it for its youth theater company, as well as the nonprofit’s offices. Mosaic then sold the building in February 2015 to a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based development firm called Yesre Realty LLC, which planned to convert it into apartments. As part of that effort, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 19, 2016, to make it eligible for historic tax credits. However, a series of transactions would leave the building vacant for almost a decade.

Yesre's redevelopment never happened, with the developer choosing to flip it in April 2017 to another developer, Halcor Studio Live LLC, a subsidiary of Halcor Group, a real estate company based in Calgary, Alberta. On June 14, 2017, Halcor Group presented a plan to the Detroit Historic Commission a 150-unit development dubbed Studio Live, which would have converted the historic studio building into apartments and built new housing units, up to seven stories in height, on the 80-space surface parking lot behind it. Detroit-based Kraemer Design Group was the architecture firm on the project.

In December 2019, developers Adam Lutz and Matthew Sosin bought the building for $2.6 million, a significant discount from the $3.5 million Halcor listed it for seven months earlier. Lutz and Sosin were in the process of turning the Albert Kahn Building across the street into 206 upscale apartments with ground-floor retail in a $70 million project. They purchased that office building, designed by its architect namesake, in 2018 from The Platform, a Detroit-based developer that was a co-owner of the Fisher Building.

"We love the idea of adding another asset to the neighborhood because we are so excited about what's going on there,” Lutz, principal of Birmingham Mich.-based Lutz Real Estate Investments, told Crain’s Detroit Business in January 2020. “This building is extremely flexible."

Sosin, president of Northern Equities Group of Farmington Hills, Mich., told Crain’s that they didn’t have any specific plans for the studio, saying, “It remains to be seen what will happen with the building. … The building, the site, the zoning are flexible. You can do office, hotel, apartments.”

In the interim, while they wrapped up the Kahn Building project, Sosin and Lutz planned to lease the WJBK Studio building, but found no takers. The Kahn Building rehab wrapped up in July 2021, but the WJBK building remained empty. So, a year later, Lutz and Sosin did what every other developer who got their hands on the building did: They sold it. But residential units would not be the plan this time around.

James Jacob, CEO of Troy, Mich.-based Ajax Paving Industries Inc., and the immediate past chair of the nonprofit Midnight Golf Program, paid Lutz and Sosin an undisclosed price for the studios through his family foundation in the spring of 2022. He then turned around and donated it that August to the nonprofit, which provides things like life skills training and mentoring to help high schoolers get into college and successfully navigate higher education.

On Sept. 2, 2022, Crain’s Detroit Business reported that the studio building would become the new headquarters for Midnight Golf. The nonprofit said at the time that it would kick off a fund-raising campaign to raise $10 million to $12 million to rehab the former WJBK building. At the time of the sale, there were about 1,500 students in the program, most of whom were first-generation college students. The young adults were identified “not on their grade-point average, but their determination, grit, perseverance and desire and will to go and be successful in college," Jacob told Crain’s.

The nonprofit hoped to finish the renovation and build-out by fall 2023.

Last updated 03/09/2022