Historic Detroit

Ford Building

In a city with an embarrassment of architectural riches, sometimes a jewel can get overlooked or taken for granted.

The Ford Building is one such jewel.

Detroit’s second-oldest skyscraper was designed by a renowned American master, once held the title of tallest building in the city, helped save downtown’s central business district and is a lovingly restored link to an era before the Motor City was the Motor City.

The magnificent Ford Building

The 18-story Ford Building opened on the northwestern corner of Griswold and Congress streets in 1908. When it opened, the Detroit Free Press trumpeted it as “the beginning of a new era in the building of Detroit Beautiful” and said “probably no building project in the history of Detroit has been so noteworthy.” While Detroit had several skyscrapers at the time, the Ford not only soared over them all (in 1908, the Free Press called it the city’s “first real skyscraper”), it also revitalized Griswold Street –- which many thought had become rundown, antiquated and dead -– and kept the city’s business center from moving elsewhere in the city.

“There had been a resignation to the feeling that to other streets would go the business and professional men. … Below Congress the street was not very lively at any time and early in the evening it was almost as quiet as a deserted village,” the Free Press wrote. “The Ford building woke people up, set their minds at work and tongues in action” on turning things around.

“With the Ford building came a leading force whose influence, direct and indirect, has brought about great changes and is to bring greater.”

Despite being part of the Motor City skyline, the Ford Building has nothing to do with the automaker’s empire. It was built as the headquarters for the Edward Ford Plate Glass Co. The company, incorporated on Nov. 11, 1899, had a factory on the east bank of the Maumee River in Rossford, Ohio. It was one of the three leading glass-making firms by the following year. Despite building the plant near Toledo and being an Ohioan, Ford chose to build in Detroit.

“Detroit, its population, its industries, its general business, its natural advantages, its past progress and its future prospects, probably the extent of its bank and office accommodations and approximate returns on such investments in the city had been sized up by Mr. Ford,” the Detroit Free Press wrote in 1907.

Designed by a legend

The Ford was the second building in Detroit designed by renowned architect Daniel H. Burnham, his first being the Majestic Building of 1896. Burnham is perhaps best known for his Flatiron Building in New York City and for being the director of works for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Besides being a notable architect, Burnham is one of the earliest modern city planners and responsible for the Chicago Plan of 1909 that rebuilt the city. President William Howard Taft named him the chairman of the Committee on the Fine Arts. At the time of his death in 1912, Burnham’s architectural firm was the largest in the world.

“During this period some of the most important commissions in Detroit fell” to Burnham, William Hawkins Ferry wrote in his “The Buildings of Detroit.” Although Albert “Kahn was the acknowledged authority in the field of industrial architecture, Burnham’s prestige as a designer of skyscrapers was difficult to challenge.”

Making room

Long before the Ford was built, the area of Griswold and Congress was a military reserve used until 1826. At that point, the land was given by the federal government to the city, which sold it to developers. John Mullett planned a subdivision on the site, building two-story stone, brick and frame houses on the land in 1827. The area slowly developed into a commercial center in the city, picking up after the completion of Old City Hall on the northeast corner of Griswold and Fort streets.

In 1906, Ford forked over $100,000 (about $2.2 million today when adjusted for inflation) for the “rickety and dingy row of little one-story shops and older-than-the-hills one-time office buildings” on the site that were filled with “all sorts of nondescript business,” the Free Press wrote two years later. Among them was the Hoban Block, a well-known, simple structure once used by the federal government (it even had a cement vault where important papers were held). The three-story Hoban also was where the Wayne County Savings Bank got its start in September 1871, and it was home to the Congress Lunch Room, which relocated to the Campau Building and became better known as Brennan’s Restaurant.

On July 5, 1906, John Schaefer of the Vinton Co. and “a score of men bearing pickaxes, crowbars and shovels” went to work on “the Hoban block and other ancient structures,” the Detroit Tribune wrote on July 15, 1906. Since the “wrecking began … the wrecker and his crew have been busy every minute of the 10 long hours which compose each working day.” It took about 10 days of “tearing, prying and pulling from morning until night” to clear the site.

Interestingly, Schaefer and his men didn’t just toss the wreckage in the trash. Pieces such as decorative arches and the like were saved to be used in other buildings. And “some of the lumber is pretty good,” Schaefer told the Detroit Tribune. “The poor get everything that isn’t of value. Lots of them come here every day to carry off wood to cook with.” The paper referred to those lining up for the wood as “dirty little urchins.”

Excavation work began almost immediately, though the building itself didn’t start coming together until 1907.

Making Detroiters proud

The Ford stands about 250 feet high and 19 stories tall and is covered with more than 35,000 cubic feet of white terra cotta. Burnham accented his latest marvel with some Neo-Classical details and elements at its base, but he mostly followed the Chicago School tradition.

It took more than 4,000 tons of steel and almost 10 million pounds of cement to build Burnham’s latest marvel. A mind-blowing 2.95 million bricks were used. “Placed end to end, they would form a footpath 384 miles long, reaching from Detroit far into the distant outskirts of Chicago suburbs,” the Free Press wrote in 1908. There was 50,000 feet of plate glass (about 3,900 panes –- 60.5 tons -– of the stuff), and 5 tons of putty was used to secure it in place, the Free Press wrote in 1908.

The interior was finished throughout in mahogany and white marble, some of it still surviving today. More than 75,000 feet of white marble wainscoting was used in the hallways and stairways and 42,750 square feet of marble flooring. It took more than 92,000 yards of plaster to cover the walls, and under that there was 323 carloads of fire proofing material that made the building “practically unburnable,” the Free Press boasted. There was more than 14 miles of steel conduit for electric lighting.

“With the material used in the Ford building it would be possible to erect complete a whole avenue of beautiful homes,” the Free Press wrote in 1908. “To be exact, 92 8-room brick houses of solid mahogany interior finish and solid brick walls, all equipped with plate glass windows and wired for electric lights and laid with marble floors could be constructed from the material used in this one great office building, the pride of the city of Detroit.”

Every office had hot and cold running water, and every floor had two marble drinking fountains “supplying sterilized water cooled by an ice machine the basement,” the Free Press pointed out in 1908. Fresh air was supplied throughout the building by fans and exhaust vents. It also had a vacuum cleaning system “so that flying dust in the office suites will be an unknown quality,” the Free Press said.

By May 28, 1907, more than half of the Ford’s steel skeleton was erected. A March 22, 1908, article in the Free Press touted the Ford Building as “Detroit’s greatest achievement in construction work … the highest structure in the city and one of the most complete and elaborate office buildings in the world. … To say that Detroiters are proud of this magnificent building, and that it has been more talked about than any other structure ever erected in the city is no exaggeration.”

Some tenants had moved in a month earlier, but the building wasn’t quite finished by that March.

Everybody wins

Detroit companies profited from the development, too. The Newcomb-Endicott & Co., the state’s first department store, outfitted the Ford Building from the shades to the furniture. “This big Detroit firm … puts the tints or papers on the walls, the leaded glass in the fancy windows, the carpets on the floors and the draperies in the windows,” the Free Press wrote in 1908.

J.C. Goss Co. furnished the canvas awnings for the building, the Melvin Sign Co. on East Jefferson got the contract for the signage, and the Chamberlin Metal Weather Strip Co. installed the devices on every window in the Ford.

Tenants lined up to rent space in the tower. Of its 522 offices, the Free Press reported that leases were “being closed so rapidly that the interior decorators will have hardly gotten clear of the structure when it will be filled with tenants.” More than 2,200 people came to work at the building every day, and it was estimated that 15,000 more would visit it daily.

But the building was more than just another pretty face on the skyline. The Ford Building helped revitalize an aging section of Griswold Street, “the financial center of the city, the Wall Street of Detroit,” the Free Press said. The building also gave the area “a new lease of life, and the district has become established as the office building center of the city, a distinction which threatened for a time to be transferred to another” part of the growing, sprawling metropolis.

Success and failures

With the Ford Building an immediate success, Edward Ford had Burnham design him another landmark right away. The Dime Building started rising across Fort Street soon after and opened in 1912. Today, the two buildings are still united by an underground passageway.

Ford’s company also was growing at the time, and he added a second plant in 1913. Edward Ford died in 1920. During the Great Depression, Ford Plate Glass merged with the Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Co. and became the Libbey-Owens-Ford Co. in 1930. The merger helped to make Toledo “the Glass City.”

The building has remained a home for small law firms, banks and assorted downtown tenants throughout its life. While the city flourished, so did the Ford Building, enjoying high occupancy rates and prestigious tenants. Lawyer Clarence Darrow had an office in the Ford during the time he defended Dr. Ossian Sweet in 1925, an African-American doctor who faced discrimination and bogus murder charges in one of the most storied trials in the city’s history. In 1939, the Ford was remodeled, and some of its offices’ original splendor was lost.

The Ford and Dime buildings remained in Ford’s family until July 1963, when they were sold to three Detroit businessmen in their early 30s for around $8 million (about $53.6 million today). One of the men, Donald H. Parsons, took over the Ford and Dime (at this point known as the Commonwealth Building) through his Parsons Investment Co. He and his colleagues had controlling stock interest in more than a dozen banks, and he was the chairman of the Bank of the Commonwealth – which was the major tenant of both the Ford and Dime – bringing charges of conflicting interest. In 1970, Parsons’ empire started to collapse, and he was forced to resign from Commonwealth and started liquidating his empire. A partnership called Comfort Investment Co. of Southfield, Mich., bought the pair of Burnham-designed skyscrapers.

As the city’s fortunes turned in the mid-1960s with the rise of the suburbs and the white flight spurned in part by the 1967 riot, the Ford started to bleed tenants and change hands. A series of renovations were undertaken in an effort to stanch the bleeding. Such moves were not only futile but robbed the building of much of its original opulence. By the late 1980s, the Ford Building was becoming rundown. Tenants started fleeing, and its occupancy rate fell to about 50 percent.

Before long, the Ford simply needed more cash for improvements than owner Jarvis J. Schmidt & Co. of Troy, Mich., could afford. In September 1989, the Ford Building Association -– a partnership led by Schmidt -– lost the office tower to State Mutual Life Assurance Co. of America. The Massachusetts-based insurance company assumed control so interest payments could continue on $5.5 million in bonds sold in 1982 to finance the Ford Building Association’s purchase of the landmark. Schmidt’s son Craig continued managing the building for State Mutual.

In April 1990, the law firm Barnes, Kisselle, Raisch, Choate, Whittemore & Hulbert left the Ford for the Penobscot Building next door. Among the reasons the firm, which had been in the Ford since 1914, gave for its decision were graffiti-marred elevators and other maintenance problems that made a bad impression on clients. The firm was not the only tenant to flee for better-kept spaces: Before long, the building’s occupancy rate fell to about 38 percent.

On April 11, 1991, State Mutual put the Ford Building up for auction. Detroit’s office market and the Ford’s reputation were so battered that the landmark generated little interest — except from Tom Paglia Jr., a real estate lawyer and investor in golf courses.

When Paglia learned about the auction, he told HistoricDetroit.org that he “was so excited about the building, I tried to buy it before the auction, and he wouldn’t sell to me” he said of the agent handling the sale.

The auction was held at the Northfield Hilton, “I was not surprised but took note at how many people were there,” Paglia said. “I raised my hand to be the first bidder, and we were waiting for the second bid. … The assistants were running up and down the aisle trying to get others to bid, but nobody raised their hand. Then the gavel came down three times.”

Paglia had landed himself a Detroit landmark for the opening bid of $1.35 million.

While Paglia exuded optimism and confidence about his purchase, his friends thought he was crazy, and banks wouldn’t finance renovations at the once-proud building. What would follow would be one of the greatest triumphs and turnarounds in recent Detroit real estate history.

A miracle on Griswold Street

Paglia not only was able to buy a historic skyscraper for a pittance, but he was able to cut overhead expenses on insurance and services and trimmed staff. He also introduced popular new features that lured tenants back, adding a conference room and polishing the building back to respectability. He was the first building owner to offer valet parking for guests and tenants in front, a resounding success. He saved tens of thousands by rolling up his sleeves and serving as his own building manager.

Such moves helped the Ford survive the downtown office space slump that has either shuttered neighbors like the Lafayette Building and 1001 Woodward or left others dangerously on the brink, like the David Stott Building. Within three years, Paglia had nearly doubled its occupancy rate. Around 2004, Paglia said the occupancy rate had soared to 97%, though it has dropped since as Michigan’s economy has been battered.

“We were fighting a very poor reputation,” Paglia told HistoricDetroit.org. But “the building had the right things wrong with it. It had an out-of-state owner. It had a bad reputation. Those are all things you can fix.”

But that’s not to say there have been only victories at the Ford.

Perhaps the Ford’s best-known tenant wasn’t a man but an icon. Sanders, a legendary Detroit ice cream and candy company, opened a location in the Ford Building in 1924 or 1925. Even when the confectioner’s business started to slide in the 1960s, much like the city itself, the Ford location hung on, slinging hot fudge sundaes to downtown business people day in and day out. At its peak in the mid-1970s, Sanders had more than 50 stores in metro Detroit and more than 1,500 employees. By 1988, the company was in bankruptcy and was down to 635 workers in 32 stores. Less than five years later, there would be only 13 –- and none in the city of Detroit. That’s because on Jan. 22, 1993, the Ford’s Sanders melted away.

“People have been calling us, giving their condolences like someone died,” co-manager Rose Nelson told the Free Press at the time.

Undeterred, Paglia announced a restaurant would open immediately in the space. Today, after knocking out some walls and erecting others, the space is split between a hair salon, Mr. Pita sandwich shop and other small retailers.

Window into the past

While the interior has been altered many times over the Ford’s first 100 years – as Paglia says, “Every floor has its own character. A lot of internal changes happen over a century” – the Ford Building provides one of the best-preserved links to Detroit at the turn of the 20th century. Other than its cornice, removed more than 50 years ago, the exterior of the building still maintains its lush terra cotta ornamentation.

The top floor of the building, which is not open to the public, maintains an early 1910s charm, with original (or nearly original) offices complete with doorknobs and wooden office dividers.

The basement still has its massive boilers and other machinery, including elevator lifts to the sidewalks above. And perhaps unknown to everyone but the Paglias is a subterranean tunnel linking the Ford Building to the Dime Building.