Historic Detroit

Free Press Building

The Detroit Free Press has had 14 homes since being founded in 1831, and moved into No. 13, this Albert Kahn gem on Lafayette between Washington and Cass, in 1925.

The six-story building — with a 14-story tower — was commissioned by Free Press owner E.D. Stair and cost $6 million (about $72 million in today’s dollars) to build. The construction firm of Spencer, White & Prentice was entrusted to erect Kahn’s limestone masterpiece. The Lafayette Hotel was among the buildings razed to make way for the paper’s new home.

The 288,517 square-foot building has limestone carvings by New York sculptor Ulysses Ricci, including two imposing statues of the goddesses of Commerce and Communication who guard the front doors. An arch with owls, snakes and, oddly, pelicans and seahorses is above them.

Ricci also carved eight reliefs: Benjamin Franklin, for his work with the printing press; Gov. and Sen. Lewis Cass; Gov. Austin Blair; Monroe, Mich., native Gen. George Custer; former University of Michigan President James Angell; and journalists Horace Greeley, Charles Dana and George Goodale. There also are sculptures of transportation: a plane, a ship, a train and a truck.

The building’s facade is made of limestone quarried and hauled from Bedford, Ind.

Stair had his own barbershop on the sixth floor of the building. His office was on the 13th.

The Free Press Building is joined to the Detroit Club by a walkway over the alley on the third floor, allowing for easy access. Stair was a member of the exclusive club, though a vast majority of the paper’s employees - especially women and minorities - were not allowed to be among its ranks.

The paper moved into this building because it had outgrown its old location at 131 W. Lafayette, the now-demolished Transportation Building.

Everything that went into creating the paper was carried out under its roof, from the mailers being stuffed into papers to ads being sold to the gigantic printing presses that were housed in the building’s basement. The presses rumbled under its walls until new ones were installed in a building on the Detroit riverfront in 1979. That building was demolished in the summer of 2008. The paper is now printed in the suburb of Sterling Heights.

The demands of daily newspapering wasn’t the only reason Stair had such an imposing building erected. He had Kahn design it with extra floors to help him make some extra cash as a landlord, leasing office space to other news agencies, as well as businesses like a flower shop and even a restaurant.

But, like many buildings downtown, the Free Press Building struggled to hang on to clients. And, as the costs for publishing the paper grew and its number of employees shrank with new technological advances, the Free Press’ headquarters became too expensive and too big to maintain. The building also was in need of repairs, including a leaky roof. The paper had entered a joint-operating agreement with The Detroit News, so the papers’ editors decided to consolidate the JOA’s operations under one roof: The Free Press would share space with its rival in The Detroit News Building, also designed by Kahn.

In June 1998, the Free Press left its home of nearly 75 years - where much of the city’s best journalism had been created and many of its ink-stained heavyweights had toiled.

The building was sold to FP Loft LLC, a partnership that included the Southfield-based Farbman Group, in October 2001 and has sat vacant since. Fortunately, the building has largely been spared damage from vandals and scavengers but is suffering from neglect.

There was talk of converting it into lofts. In 2003, the building was mentioned as a possible replacement for the Detroit Police Department headquarters on Beaubien, also a Kahn. That plan never came to fruition.

In December 2008, FP Lofts sold the Free Press Building to Emre Uralli and his Florida-based Luke Investments for an undisclosed sum. Work crews in gas masks were seen cleaning out the inside of it in early January 2009.

On June 16, 2010, financing for a $70-million plan to turn the building into apartments and office and retail space was approved by the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority. Leo Phillips, a real estate investor who helped redevelop the Fort Shelby Hotel is the local project manager, giving the plan someone with experience, credibility and a past record of success. Work was expected to begin in early 2011 and take about a year.

However, work never started, and Luke Investments shareholders couldn’t agree on what to do with the building, so the landmark hit the auction block. A three-day online auction was held that ended Nov. 7, 2012. Bidding started at $1.5 million, and to sweeten the deal, the tax credits were transferable. The winning bid was for $4.15 million, though Luke Investments’ reserve price was not met, so the deal wasn’t finalized. A spokesman for the auction firm, Friedman Integrated Real Estate Solutions, said Luke Investments was trying to work out a deal outside of the auction.

“It’s technically not sold yet, however we’re in the post-close process, negotiating with a number of buyers,” broker Ryan Snoek told the Detroit Free Press. “Odds are we’re going to get a deal done.”