The Book-Cadillac glistens above Washington Boulevard, a towering symbol of Detroit’s latest attempts at a renaissance. For decades, it was the city’s most opulent hotel and - after nearly 25 years of abandonment and blight - has reclaimed its throne.
The building’s history, like much of the city’s historic architecture, begins in the 1920s. The Book brothers were seeking to make Washington Boulevard the most opulent, most successful retail destination in Detroit. By 1923, the siblings had built the Washington Boulevard Building and the Book Building and had already cornered much of the real estate on the boulevard. But the Statler Hotel, which opened Feb. 6, 1915, anchored their boulevard on the north and was drawing their tourists. The brothers decided they needed a hotel of their own.
A Cadillac dies so another may rise
On the south end of the boulevard, bound by Michigan Avenue, stood the venerable Cadillac Hotel. The Book brothers –- Herbert, Frank and J. Burgess Book Jr. — were born within its walls and played along the landscaped mall that stood outside it, historian William Hawkins Ferry wrote. The Cadillac Hotel’s origins went back to 1885, when Daniel Scotten built a four-story business block between Washington and Shelby that was rented to a grocery company that soon failed. He then converted it into the Cadillac Hotel in 1888; bought and razed the Antisdel House next to it; and built an addition to the hotel. By 1891, the Cadillac Hotel covered the entire block fronting on Michigan between Washington and Shelby.
It became one of the finest hotels in the city. Presidents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft all stayed there. But entering the 20th Century, it had become outdated and was struggling to compete with the Statler and Pontchartrain hotels.
The Book brothers bought their birthplace in 1917 - and had it razed six years later. They had bigger plans.
The Book’s favorite architect
They selected a man who was no stranger to working with the Books, Louis Kamper. The architect would design what would become the most extravagant hotel in the city -– and the tallest hotel in the world at the time — the 33-story Book-Cadillac Hotel. Ground broke in 1923, and the landmark opened Dec. 8, 1924.
The Neo-Renaissance hotel would incorporate a variety of architectural elements from Europe. The elaborately designed and ornate Italian Garden and Venetian Ballroom were two such rooms. The hotel was huge, with more than 1,200 rooms for guests (each with its own bathroom, a luxury at the time), three ballrooms, restaurants, lounges and a series of shops.
The hotel catered to Detroit’s more affluent visitors and quickly became the city’s top destination for out-of-towners and conventions. Its success helped to put venerable, though outdated, hotels out of business. Business was booming for the first years of its life, but the Book brothers would lose the hotel in the early 1930s because of the Great Depression.
A place of history
In 1939, the hotel would become immortalized in baseball lore. It was on May 2 of that year that New York Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig collapsed on the Book-Cadillac’s grand staircase. Gehrig told his manager while sitting in one of the hotel’s bars that he was taking himself out of the starting lineup against the Detroit Tigers, breaking his string of 2,130 consecutive games played. He would later be diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The hotel, which has been renovated into a part-hotel, part-condo development, spent part of its life in a similar arrangement, the Cadillac Apartments. Around this time, the Book-Cadillac made its motion picture debut in Frank Capra’s 1947 movie “State of the Union,” starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. They would not be the first celebrities to stay at the hotel, nor the last. It also saw such notable guests as the Beatles and Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. (who, the story goes, met at the Book-Cadillac). Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan and Herbert Hoover checked in over the years. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed at the hotel when he was in Detroit to give a speech shortly before he was slain. During the racial tensions of the 1960s, King is reported to have called the Book-Cadillac “a pearl in a sea of turmoil.” Visiting baseball teams often stayed there, so Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and a host of other sluggers slept within its walls.
The Sheraton era
Star power alone cannot save a hotel. As chains such as Pick and Hilton bought up hotels, the Book-Cadillac was sold to the Sheraton chain in 1951 for $6 million ($47.4 million today) and renamed the Sheraton Cadillac, stripping the Book brothers’ name off their masterpiece. The sale would prove tragic, as the stately hotel went through a number of modernizations, from furniture to paint schemes to the grand marble staircase being ripped out, cemented over and replaced with an escalator. Only the ballrooms were spared. Many of the exquisite lounges and sitting rooms were turned into convention and meeting spaces.
Following the 1967 Detroit riot, the city started bleeding tourism, people and businesses. Cheap, generic motels started drawing more and more visitors, and one by one, Detroit’s grand hotels started to fold. The Fort Shelby Hotel, the Statler Hotel and the Hotel Tuller all were shuttered. (The Cadillac would later wind up with some of the Statler Hotel’s grand chandeliers and other pieces.) It was this era of the Book-Cadillac that is seen in the 1974 cult flick “Detroit 9000.”
With no end in sight for the declining business, Sheraton decided in 1975 that it was time to pull out and sold the Book-Cadillac to Herbert Weissberg, who redubbed it yet again, this time to the Detroit-Cadillac. Weissberg attempted to reverse the Cadillac’s fortunes by bringing back the hotel’s glory days and original splendor. He failed and soon lost the landmark to foreclosure and the Radisson chain.
The Radisson era
Radisson oversaw more modernizations, such as zigzagged carpeting, maroon wallpaper, wood paneling and modern light fixtures. These renovations also proved ineffective and the hotel was sold several times before it was announced about 1980 that it would close. With the Republican National Convention coming to Detroit that year, the city decided that it would take it over and try its hand at running the hotel as a mixed-used development called the Book-Cadillac Plaza that would include office space.
But the hotel proved far too large to support even this idea, which never came to fruition.
A closed Book
The storied Book-Cadillac’s doors closed in 1984, 60 years after they had first opened.
The city continued to try to get the Book-Cadillac Plaza off the ground for a couple of years before finally giving up in 1986. Nearly everything of value was sold off at a liquidation sale where the public could buy Book-Cadillac china, beds, linen and other items. Once the sale was over, the hotel was shuttered.
The city paid a security guard to protect the building from thieves, vandals and squatters from 1986 until 1997. Mayor Coleman A. Young wanted to have the landmark razed, but preservationists won out. Aiding their cause was the fact that the city was too cash-strapped to pay for its demolition anyway.
As the city searched for ways to cut costs, it pulled the guard at the Book-Cadillac. The building that had been a monument to Detroit’s majesty and greatness through its best times became another symbol of its bad times; the hotel was quickly robbed of its copper piping and chandeliers. Vandals broke windows and spray-painted over its beautiful plaster. The Grand Ballroom was exposed to the elements and began to rot, its decorative plaster laying in mounds. The once grande dame of Washington Boulevard was reduced to yet another gutted, desecrated mess.
Rising from the ashes
In early 1999, the hotel made headlines as the city fought to gain control of the building and have it redeveloped, leading to years of court proceedings and feasibility studies. In 2003, it was announced that the hotel would reopen as a Marriott Renaissance Hotel. Historic Hospitality Investments, a subsidiary of Kimberly-Clark, would spend $150 million. But in a taste of disappointment to come, the deal fell apart a few months later. Kimberly-Clark cited cost overruns.
The city continued to scout out developers, and on June 27, 2006, Cleveland-based Ferchill Group announced it had closed on a deal to make the landmark a 455-room Westin hotel with 67 condominiums Work began two months later. Everything, even the elements that were salvageable, was gutted, leaving nothing but an empty shell. An addition was added to the north side of the building that features a more modern ballroom and a pool. The final price tag was about $190 million.
A open Book
The building was to reopen Oct. 1, 2008, but work wasn’t quite finished, so the grand opening was delayed to Oct. 6. The hotel features the Motor Bar, in what was the hotel’s original lobby, and the Boulevard Room restaurant, which serves upscale breakfast (such as blueberry-orange granola pancakes) and lunch, on the second floor. Roast — a steakhouse run by the Food Network’s Michael Symon opened Oct. 15. WBC Gourmet Grab & Go, a coffee and sandwich shop on the street level, opened in November. The Spa 19 24 Grille, named to reflect the year the hotel opened, occupies 7,000 square feet of first-floor retail space along Michigan Avenue.
It is hoped that the Book-Cadillac will once again become an anchor of a vibrant Washington Boulevard and spur development of other nearby buildings, such as the David Whitney Building, though the Lafayette Building was doomed by the Book-Cadillac’s success. With the visitors of the hotel looking down at the rundown Lafayette, it is believed that the Ferchill Group deemed it bad for business, and the city tore it down, even though it had drawn interest from developers.