The Broderick Tower went from being “a beauty by day—a jewel by night” to the third-tallest abandoned building in the United States — and has become a towering symbol of Detroit’s rebirth.
One of the city’s most recognizable buildings, the skyscraper opened in 1927 as the Eaton Tower, named for what was then one of Detroit’s most recognizable families. Theodore H. Eaton came to Detroit in 1838 and invested his savings in a run-down drug store that had folded in the Panic of 1837. At the time, Detroit was just an out-of-the-way frontier town of about eight thousand, but the 23-year-old Eaton had pioneering in his blood: He was a direct descendant of Thomas Eaton, who helped settle the New World in 1660.
Eaton bought the Riley and Ackerly drug store in the American Hotel block, located at Jefferson and Randolph near where the city’s landmark Renaissance Center is today. A few years later, the building housing his store burned down. He moved into new quarters only to lose that one to fire, too. But Eaton would not be deterred and erected himself a warehouse at Woodward and Atwater — and this time he built it fireproof.
The building served as his company’s headquarters until 1927, when booming business forced it to move into bigger quarters at Franklin and Riopelle, near Chene Park. Eaton’s bet on Detroit paid off. He stockpiled paints, soaps and other supplies for the ships that came sailing into Detroit, often staying open late into the night as to not miss a ship coming in, the Detroit Free Press noted in 1953.
Eaton adapted his firm to Detroit’s changing business climate. As wool mills opened in the city, Eaton started selling them chemicals, dyes and machinery. He taught his son, Theodore H. Eaton Jr., the family trade and how to be a traveling salesman. The company would grow into a major manufacturer and distributor. The senior Eaton was among the city’s elites, “an imposing figure, riding home from work evenings on a white horse,” the Free Press wrote. He even helped organize the city’s first gas company and stayed in the business for 50 years. His son ran things for 51 more and oversaw the company’s switch to selling dry-cleaning supplies and heavy chemicals for the city’s booming auto industry. But it was Berrien C. Eaton, the grandson of the company’s founder, who would build a lasting monument to his family’s legacy.
Building a behemoth
Berrien Eaton took over the company in 1920 and also was a trustee of the Eaton estate. His father had bought the site of the Broderick on May 25, 1904, then home to the Gladwin Building, a six-story structure built in 1896. The parcel is located on the southeastern corner of Grand Circus Park and Woodward Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare. Before the Gladwin — originally a three-story structure called the Cullen Brown Building — the land had been home to everything from the Grand Circus Hotel to Turkish baths.
On July 10, 1926, Berrien Eaton announced that the Eaton estate would raze the Gladwin and build a 34-story, classically inspired shaft with elaborate Baroque-style ornamentation at the top. The family tapped architect Louis Kamper, the man behind the Book-Cadillac Hotel, Book Tower and other Detroit landmarks, for the job. His son Paul L. Kamper served as associate architect. The tab for the building came in at about $1.75 million (about $21.5 million today, when adjusted for inflation).
“The site of Eaton Tower has passed through all the various stages that have marked Detroit’s phenomenal growth,” the Detroit News wrote in December 1926. “No less than three hotels, a Turkish bath establishment and several office buildings have stood on this spot, and now Eaton Tower marks the latest step in the historic evolution of the property.”
Work started on the 370-foot behemoth of Indiana limestone on Sept. 1, 1926, and was considered the first step in developing the eastern Grand Circus Park area as a shopping and office building district. The building “will be a landmark worthy of Detroit and the street on which it stands,” the Detroit News wrote in December 1926.
“With its 34 stories of steel and stone, Eaton Tower, Detroit’s newest downtown office structure, will soon be outlined against the sky, standing guard like a sentinel over lower Woodward avenue,” the Detroit Times wrote in November 1926. “No effort or expense has been spared to make Eaton Tower one of the finest of modern office buildings.”
On March 3, 1927, Berrien Eaton drove the final rivet into the skyscraper bearing his family’s name. Paul Kamper handed Eaton the red hot metal during a ceremony around a column splice on the 33rd floor. When it opened about a year after it was announced, it was the second tallest building in the city, behind the Book Tower. Detroit was enjoying a skyscraper boom at the time, with dozens of towering buildings rising on the skyline within a few years. Businesses were invited to take to the skies, after all, “everybody enjoys the quiet and cleanliness of an office far above the city’s busiest streets.”
Starting in mid-May 1927, the top of the tower “blazed forth” with powerful floodlights illuminating the top four floors of its crown, the Detroit Free Press wrote at the time. “The lights throw into relief the column-like form of the building and bring out details not otherwise visible from the street, 371 feet below.” The lights were visible from miles around, and advertisements for its office space declared it “a beauty by day –- a jewel by night.”
It had retail stores and shops on the first five floors. The rest was for small businesses and professional offices. Tenants included lawyers, accountants, a dozen barbershops and dozens more medical offices, such as the Tower Dental Laboratory. “At one time, there were so many doctor’s offices that it was practically a medical center,” the Free Press recalled in January 1970. Radio station WJLB was housed in the tower.
The building was full of marble wainscoting. Its lobby featured black marble with white streaks. The lobby’s slender but ornate and barreled ceiling led clients to the five elevators that would zip them above the bustling streets below. The elevator doors were made of bronze and featured reliefs of Zeus riding in a chariot wielding fists full of lightning bolts. An interesting side note: The tower is actually in a shape resembling a parallelogram to fit the odd-shaped lot.
The prime location and soaring height enabled the building to do well through the decades. On July 1, 1944, the tower was sold for an undisclosed price to Intertown Corp., headed by insurance broker David F. Broderick. Broderick moved his business offices into the building and renamed the Eaton after himself. He converted the thirty-third floor into a suite with which to entertain his friends and business associates. The entrance had a little peek hole and a brass knocker engraved “Sky Top Club.” Broderick died in 1957, but “until his death he was rather fond of the place, and with good reason,” Free Press columnist Louis Cook wrote in April 1969. In the early 1950s, the ground level of the Broderick became the home of the Flaming Embers restaurant, a Woodward Avenue institution for more than four decades where patrons could watch chefs flip steaks like flapjacks and pound down potatoes.
In September 1966, the Broderick family sold the building for an undisclosed sum to an investment company, Eldan Properties. The property was assessed at $1 million ($6.72 million). But by this point the building was starting to show its age, and Eldan quickly turned around and sold it in April 1969 to George Fleischer and Bernard Glieberman for more than $1 million (about $6 million today). “We bought a slum building in a good area,” Fleischer told the Free Press in January 1970. Most downtown office buildings still boasted 90% occupancy rates, but the Broderick was at about 70% at the time. They set out to reinvent the building “and the very first thing we did was raise the rents,” Fleischer told the Free Press in 1970. They also embarked on a remodeling project, installing drop ceilings, air conditioning and fluorescent lighting, and replacing the building’s plumbing and roof. “We don’t subscribe to the theory that downtown Detroit is dying,” Fleischer said. But he couldn’t have been any more wrong.
Businessman Michael Higgins and a group of investors acquired the building in 1976 and has owned it ever since. In the early 1980s, as the city continued to bleed commercial tenants, the building struggled to hold onto business. Most of its doctors had moved their offices to the suburbs, leaving cubicle after cubicle of examining rooms behind. The exodus became like a cancer; whereas the practitioners had all benefited from the one-stop-medical shopping, once many had left, the rest followed.
In the mid-’70s, Higgins was investing in several major downtown buildings while others were abandoning the city. “You might say in retrospect that he was making the wrong bets and they were making the right ones,” said Fred J. Beal, president of JC Beal Construction, which is working to redevelop the Broderick.
In May 1981 the state seized the Broderick — then called the Woodward Tower — for unpaid taxes. Tenants complained that heat, water, security and other services were uncertain at best. In January 1983, on the state’s watch, tenants found water pouring down through the building from pipes that had frozen from a lack of heat in the building. While the building had been going downhill, several of the Broderick’s tenants defended Higgins. Dale Otto, who ran Crispy Corn candy company in the building for more than three decades, told the Free Press in January 1983 that “the building has been going downhill for years. Michael doesn’t have a ton of money to put into it, but he’s doing a better job than the previous owners.”
Some time in the mid-1980s, Higgins reclaimed the Broderick, making good on the taxes, but the building was limping along at about the break-even point with 40% to 50% vacancy. Higgins was approached by an investor who bought the building on a land contract and planned to convert the building from office space into residential spaces. The new owner encouraged the remaining office tenants to leave while planning their project, which never came to fruition, and the building reverted to the Higgins group under the terms of the land contract. But because of letting the tenants leave, the building was empty other than the first-floor restaurant space -– and has remained vacant ever since 1985.
On Oct. 11, 1991, the Witherell Corp., of which Higgins was vice president, filed for Chapter 11 reorganization, owing $75,000 in unpaid utilities among other debts. After the bankruptcy, Higgins retained ownership of the building and continued to seek a plan to renovate the Broderick.
The Flaming Embers closed in September 1993 after 41 years, citing a dispute with city health inspectors over the restaurant’s exhaust system. “I’m heartbroken,” founder Florence Singer, then living in New York, told the Free Press at the time. “Forty-one years of my life is going down the drain. We have employees who have been there 17, 18 years. This is a gross injustice.” The once hopping hot spot had become a victim of downtown Detroit’s decline itself, turning into something of a poor man’s Ponderosa, featuring $3.99 all-you-can-eat steak dinners. Higgins bought the name and liquor license and reopened it the following March, though it didn’t stay open for long.
Tower of decay – and possibilities
For years, the building sat empty and vandalized, with senseless graffiti dotting the marble along its corridors and plaster walls relieved of their plumbing. On many of the Broderick’s 34 floors, time had stood still: a dentist chair covered in paint chips; drawers full of fake smiles from a dental supply company; a Graphotype machine coated in dust on a desk; bottles of liquid lining shelves, their labels too faded to make out their contents.
But compared with many other abandoned landmarks downtown, the Broderick was in surprisingly good shape. Despite its many windows left ajar, making it the world’s largest pigeon coop, the Broderick had been better secured than many of its forlorn brethren. The building’s skinny lobby with a barreled-ceiling remained in great shape. While water damage destroyed much of the opulence in the Book-Cadillac before it was renovated in 2008, for example, the Broderick was mostly just cluttered with junk.
The building’s four loggias have balconies that provide dramatic views of the city below. The Detroit River and blinking orb atop the Penobscot Building are to the south; fireworks at Comerica Park after Tigers games explode below; Michigan Central Station sits quietly to the west. It is near one of these balconies that David Broderick had a bar installed so he could entertain and dazzle guests with the sights of a then-thriving metropolis.
Artist Robert Wyland, who grew up in nearby Madison Heights, Mich., painted a 108-foot mural of humpback whales on the Broderick’s windowless eastern wall. The piece, titled “Whale Tower,” took three and a half days to complete, was dedicated Oct. 13, 1997, and became something of an icon downtown. Wyland, who has painted dozens of whale murals around the world, called the piece on the Broderick a gift to the city designed to draw attention to the plight of saving humpback whales.
If at third you don’t succeed …
In 1995, the Detroit Tigers announced they would build a new baseball stadium near the Broderick northeast of Grand Circus Park. Real estate deals started happening left and right and Higgins said he planned to dust off the Broderick and turn it into a hundred lofts and a three-story nightclub and remodel the restaurant space. “A lot of younger, single people will be wanting to live downtown, and lofts are an idea I think they would like,” Higgins told the Free Press in March 1997. “Putting in that number of units, we need to have a market there, and there definitely will be a big market at that point.” The work was to be finished by summer 1999 but never materialized.
Three years later, Detroit was experiencing euphoria over the city’s rebirth, with Compuware building its world headquarters downtown, the Detroit Tigers opening a new ballpark and the renovation of Campus Martius park. Another developer approached Higgins about renovating the building into residential space, but the plan hit financial snags like those before it. Likewise, in 2005, there was another plan for 125 loft units and four stories of commercial space that was to be completed in 2008.
On July 30, 2006, a huge vinyl ad was placed over the Wyland mural, causing a considerable public outcry, especially from the artist. The Broderick’s location towering over the right field of Comerica Park made it an attractive spot for Chrysler to pitch its Jeep Compass. It was made clear that the ad would be suspended over the mural and would not damage the art.
“The message it sends is money can override any public artwork,” Wyland told the Free Press that August. “It’s shameful. Shame, shame, shame on Chrysler.” The Broderick’s owners had to appeal the Historic District Commission’s decision to not allow the advertisement. But ultimately, the whale mural was deemed to not be historically appropriate and therefore could be covered. The wall has since been used for various ads, from Verizon Wireless to Jeep. Beal said 100% of the ad revenue has gone toward the building’s redevelopment costs, paying for such things as architectural drawings, environmental studies and tax credit consultation.
Despite the setbacks, Beal and Higgins have kept trying and in May 2010, they said they planned to start work on a $55 million redevelopment project that would feature nearly 130 residential units— including bi-level units— and four floors of offices. What makes Beal confident the current project will be met with success? In addition to the standard historic tax credits, they have received an additional State of Michigan Special Consideration Historic Tax Credit worth $7 million, and “that made the numbers work,” Beal said.
The development’s web site says the tower “exceeds all others as Detroit’s premier location for living, working and entertainment. The first-class residences will set a new standard of modern design and amenities while preserving the historic elegance of one of Detroit’s premier architectural landmarks.”
“The Broderick Tower is a very special building, a symbol of the possibilities for downtown Detroit,” Beal said. “It’s a gateway to the lower Woodward corridor, and from our perspective, its impact will demonstrate such a project is possible.”
In July 2006, John Carlisle wrote on his seminal DetroitBlog that the Broderick is “the Cinderella of abandoned buildings – neglected, ignored, seemingly ragged and tarnished, yet underneath it all, more splendid and engaging and brimming with possibilities than the others. For now though, it sits meekly and quietly, waiting to be transformed back into what it really is.”
Motown Construction Partners announced Dec. 21, 2010, that project financing had been secured and work began shortly after on reviving the 34-story Broderick, which had sat empty and dark since 1988.
The renovation saw the Broderick’s owners, Kraemer Design Group and the construction team working together for more than seven years from initial design until completion. In that time, the entire interior of the tower was gutted save for the lobby, which saw the coffered ceiling and black marble restored. “The residences themselves set a new standard for downtown Detroit apartment living with large energy efficient windows, tiled floors throughout, original restored plaster, and unparalleled views of the city,” the Kraemer Group said.
The Broderick’s exterior was also restored, with all of the original limestone and terra cotta cleaned and repaired. From the second to fourth floors, “three stories of original cast iron detailing surrounding floor-to-ceiling windows was restored by creating original molds of the existing details,” Kraemer notes. “From these molds were cast new infill pieces from a composite polyurethane material for a seamless appearance between new and old,” and “a new canopy was built over the historic Grand Circus Park entrance of the building, and the ground floor storefront was replaced with new, brass-clad glazed doors to compliment the resplendent historic character of this magnificent building.”
The $50-million project wrapped up in October 2012 - only one month after the expected completion time.
The Broderick officially reopened its doors Nov. 3, 2012. Nearly 50 residents moved into the reborn building over its first weekend, and 100% of the apartment units were leased prior to the grand opening. The 125 apartments range from 422-square-foot studios to 2,200-square-foot penthouses.
It is a new life for one of Detroit’s long-neglected treasures.
Kraemer Design Group contributed to the reporting on this history.