Historic Detroit

Hammond Building

It was Detroit’s first skyscraper, a building the likes — and heights — of which Michiganders had never seen. It was the cradle of Detroit law — and a monument to a guy who slaughtered cattle.

The Hammond Building’s role in ushering Detroit into the age of the skyscraper cannot be understated. The state had never seen anything like it. At 10 stories, it towered over everything else around it for years. Gawkers literally came from all over Michigan to see this architectural wonder. It was proof that Detroit was a city destined for bigger things — and bigger buildings.

The Hammond would be built on land that had belonged to former Postmaster and Judge James Abbott II, on which he had a brick Greek Revival mansion. Abbott said he hoped this land “was forever outside of and beyond the reach of business wants or business property” and “in future years there he and his children and his children’s children could have a quiet country home,” Clarence M. Burton wrote in his definitive history “City of Detroit and Michigan.”

That country land is now in the heart of downtown and the city’s business district, bounded by Woodward Avenue and Fort, Congress and Griswold streets.

In 1877, Abbott’s land was divvied up and sold to Gov. John J. Bagley, Levi Barbour, a prominent Detroiter who helped the city buy Belle Isle, and Eliza Jane Chandler. Despite its location across Fort Street from Old City Hall, the land was said to be unproductive until Bagley and Barbour built a row of one-story buildings around the entire property - leaving the Abbott mansion in the midst. But the land would soon be cleared of its small frame buildings and white picket fencing for a building like Detroiters had never seen.

The butcher

The story of Detroit’s first skyscraper starts with an enterprising Detroit meat-packer named George H. Hammond. A New Englander by birth, Hammond moved to Detroit in 1854 and started a mattress factory. It burned down two years later, so he decided to try his hand with a cleaver, opening a butcher shop at Third and Howard. As the city grew, so did Hammond’s fortunes, and he got involved in the wholesale and retail meat trades. His biggest success, however, came by pioneering refrigerated railcars to haul fresh meat, and he even received a patent for a refrigerator car design in 1868. He built a packing plant in Hohman, Ind., near the Illinois state line, and formed the George H. Hammond Co. in 1873. Business was booming, and by 1885, the plant was processing 3,000 head of cattle a week. The town was even renamed Hammond, Ind., though Hammond the man remained a loyal Detroiter. “By the time of his death in 1886, Hammond ranked with Swift, Armour, and Morris as one of the ‘big four’ in American meat packing,” according to “The History of Foreign Investment in the United States to 1914.”

When architect George Edbrooke of Chicago read about the wealthy meat-packer’s plans to build an office building, he went to Detroit, served up the lowest bid and landed the job. Hammond died at age 48 in 1886, just as work was getting started and putting a crimp in the plans. In 1889, his estate - in the control of his widow, Ellen Barry Hammond - bought the Chandler portion of the site for $100,000 and the Bagley and Barbour slice for $250,000. It was Ellen Hammond who oversaw the completion of the landmark, a proud memorial to her husband. It should be noted that some histories, including William Hawkins Ferry’s “The Buildings of Detroit” say Hammond sold his slaughterhouse and then decided to build the skyscraper. However, Hammond died in 1886, and it was Ellen Hammond who sold the facility to an English syndicate in 1889, three years after his death. (He is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.)

“Staid Detroiters were astonished when the picket fence came down,” George W. Stark recalled in the Detroit Free Press in August 1938. “They were more astonished when workmen began to dig a huge hole in the ground. Up to that time there had never been such an excavation in all of Detroit.”

The red giant

The red-bricked Hammond was one of the largest masonry buildings ever built in the United States. It featured heavy masonry of stone and brick on its lower floors, borrowing heavily from the school of Richardsonian Romanesque, as seen in other Detroit landmarks such as the Grand Army of the Republic Building. The front of the building, from the ground to the top of the first floor, was built with rock-faced brownstone. From the second floor to the cornice, “the finest pressed brick have been used for the front, relieved by trimmings of rock-faced and tool-finished brownstone, and the eighth story is surmounted by carved capitals of brownstone,” the Free Press wrote Nov. 3, 1889. It was “fire proof and of the best character in design, material and workmanship, and especially suitable for banking and office purposes.”

Edbrooke utilized many of the familiar motifs and devices of smaller commercial buildings of the time - he just built this one taller. The words “- 1889 - Hammond Building” were written in bold, large capital letters that were split across the front on three floors, separated by windows. The date - “1889” - was between the seventh and eighth floor; “Hammond” was between the sixth and seventh; and “Building” was between the fifth and sixth.

Like most buildings of the time, opulence was everywhere in the Hammond. The main hall on the first floor featured Georgia marble wainscoting. The building was finished in oak, and the interior walls on the ground floor were of brick with iron columns supporting iron girders. The grand staircase from the first to second floors was made of iron with marble treads; the stairways the rest of the way up were of carved oak. Each suite boasted such luxuries as a Georgia marble sink and a fireproof vault with an iron door and combination lock. “On every floor two separate groups of closets will be provided with Georgia marble floors, wainscoting and partitions,” the Free Press wrote in 1889. “Special attention has been given in arranging wide and spacious corridors above, so as to furnish ample light and air and make all the offices very desirable.”

Soundproofing in such office buildings - with their cavernous halls and marble floors - was far from a refined art at the time, and plaster and lathe did a poor job of insulating noise. But with the Hammond, “construction of the floors and partitions will be such as to prevent any nuisance of this character,” the Free Press wrote in 1889. To sum it up, the paper wrote, “The building, in its fireproof qualities and all other respects, including light, heat, ventilation and perfect arrangement for the comfort of occupants, will be far superior to any building of the kind yet erected in the west.”

The Hammond had two entrances: One on the southeast corner of Griswold and Fort streets and the other from Campus Martius. A corridor ran through the building from entrance to entrance and led to three hydraulic elevators that moved at 400 feet per minute. Another extravagance was the steam heat that ran throughout the building. Fireplaces alone wouldn’t cut it in a building of this size, plus smoke, ash and the risk of fire were deterrents. When it was built, four large steel boilers in the basement pumped heat all the way to the 10th floor - another impressive feat for the era - and, like the elevators, “no expense has been spared to obtain the best regulated warming apparatus that modern skill has produced,” the Free Press wrote in 1889.

In the era of horse-drawn fire engines, deadly blazes were a huge concern, especially in such a large building. Edbrooke had that covered: “All exposed ironwork was encased by fireproof material, and the wood floor joists were covered with fireproof tile below and concrete mortar above,” Ferry wrote. That made “the structure absolutely fireproof,” the Free Press boasted in 1889.

It is widely accepted that the first true skyscraper was Chicago’s 10-story steel-framed Home Insurance Building, which predated the Hammond by only five years, so the technology was still very much new at the time. However, it was still an unperfected art, as the Free Press reported Jan. 25, 1890, that the building was settling and the Department of Safety was called in to investigate.

An awestruck city

The exact opening date of the Hammond is tough to nail down, as some tenants moved in before interior work was done. A Nov. 3, 1889, Free Press article reported that the Hammond Building was “rapidly approaching completion,” and an Aug. 31, 1890, article in the paper said the building was expected to be “entirely completed in about a month.” Nearly eight months later, an April 20, 1890, article in the paper said the “structure is finished but for work on exterior ornamental detail.” One thing is certain, however: When the Hammond did open, “Detroit was astir with excitement over the completion of its first skyscraper,” Ferry wrote. To celebrate, tightrope walker Tommy Davenport was hired to walk across Fort Street, a dizzying 10 stories up.

“I remember when the Hammond Building was the eighth wonder of the world as a skyscraper and a tight-rope walker walked from the City Hall tower to the new Hammond Building. Our tonsils were sunburnt for days after,” Detroit News editor Malcolm W. Bingay wrote in 1935.

On Aug. 31, 1890, the Free Press reported that every window of the Hammond was illuminated, creating a “pillar of light” and a “splendid sight” for throngs of onlookers, both common Detroiters and visitors to that year’s Detroit International Exposition. “The 246 offices and the stores on the ground floor have been brightly lighted up with Edison incandescent lights and gas every night during the past week to give exposition visitors an opportunity of viewing the magnitude of the building after dark,” the Free Press wrote. The building was open during the day and evening to allow Expo visitors to climb to the top for “a splendid bird’s-eye view of the city.”

Detroiters “clamored for an opportunity to climb to the roof and look over the sprawling city,” the Free Press wrote in 1938. “Up-state communities, arranging for excursions to this metropolis, began to advertise the unprecedented opportunities for a bird’s-eye view of Detroit from the roof of the Hammond Building.” Such excitement, festivities and awe made the Hammond a beloved landmark to Detroiters for decades.

The Hammond’s height led to it becoming the headquarters of the local weather bureau. Captains of freighters headed up the Detroit River would look to the Hammond’s roof, where flags during the day and oil lanterns by night signaled storm conditions on the Great Lakes. The building’s main floor was used for stores and bank offices, and the rest was office space, which housed some of Detroit’s most influential movers and shakers, from the Joys to the Newberrys to the McMillans. The Detroit Tigers had an office in the Hammond, and fans would look up to its roof to see whether a white flag with a blue circle was flying: That was the signal that the Tigers were playing that day at Bennett Park, which was located on the site of Tiger Stadium before the beloved ballpark was constructed.

“Even when the Majestic Building soared to 14 stories in 1896 the Hammond tenants suffered no inferiority complex,” however, the Detroit Times wrote in March 1955.

The cradle of Detroit law

Affording rent in such a place of prestige would not come cheap. The first tenant to move into Detroit’s first high-rise was S.S. Babcock, an attorney and man of considerable wealth thanks to his sizable share of the Detroit, Belle Isle & Windsor Ferry Co. He moved into the ninth floor on the building’s south side so he could keep an eye on his ferries puffing up and down the Detroit River. Since he was the first to move in, Babcock had to accept some minor inconveniences. Among them: He had to climb the last two floors by ladder because the grand stairway extended to only the seventh floor and the elevators had not been installed yet, the Free Press noted in 1938.

Babcock started a trend, for as he set up his law offices in the buildings, many attorneys followed. The Free Press estimated in 1938 that the Hammond was about 90% law offices in the early 1900s - and about 90% four decades later. And many of these attorneys and judges spent decades in the Hammond. One of them, Eugene L. Mistersky, spent more than 40 years in the Hammond -and stayed in Room 825 for all them. Detroit’s long-time dean of the bar, Thomas A.E. Weadock, was still practicing law into his 90s in the late 1930s and was still “as strong and stable as the ancient building in which he sits enthroned,” the Free Press wrote in 1938. Judge James Phelan, a man who championed the labor movement in an era before Detroit’s strong unions, started his legal career in the Hammond. The Free Press called him “the most picturesque of all the picturesque jurists the town has ever seen.”

But it wasn’t just lawyers who roamed the building’s halls. During its formative months in 1903, the Detroit Board of Commerce occupied two rooms in the Hammond until moving into the Detroit Savings Bank Building on Capitol Park that November. The Hammond also was home to a branch of the State Savings Bank for most of its life. Other tenants included the Wabash Railroad; Carmichael Bros. Cigars; Van Husan & Co. real estate, loans, and insurance; National Life Insurance; the Prudential Life Insurance Co.; and C.B. Hutchins & Sons freight car roofing. In its later years, there was John Vassil’s shoe store on the ground floor, John Wiese’s popular Quickie Donut and the English Tavern, which started pouring in the Hammond after Prohibition ended in 1933.

The Hammond also was home for decades to Sharpe’s Restaurant, “an oasis of grace and charm,” where politicians would come from City Hall and “hatched many a vote-catching nuance in its secluded back booths,” the Detroit News recalled in a June 17, 1970, article. It was known as “the Corned Beef Cave” after its signature dish and location in Detroit’s massive masonry behemoth.

Hell-bent on the modern

The Hammond family refused to give up the landmark for years, despite several offers as Detroit grew and the value of the land at the heart of downtown escalated. The family regarded it as more than just a building, but a memorial to George Hammond. “Although there have been many handsome offers for it,” the Free Press wrote in 1938, “the Hammond Estate always insisted that the property should never become disassociated from the name Hammond, which has come to be one of the proud possessions of the town.”

But Detroit was a city on a developmental tear. Where the Hammond once towered over Campus Martius, luring tourists and thrill-seekers from around the state, it was now dwarfed by the Guardian Building, Penobscot Building and others.

While much had changed in the city, the prime location that made it the perfect place to showcase Detroit’s first skyscraper was still a hot piece of real estate more than 65 years later. It was announced in March 1955 that the Hammond Building was bought by the National Bank of Detroit and would be razed to make way for a $12 million headquarters. NBD said it did not have room in its leased quarters in the First National Bank Building and wanted to consolidate all of its operations under one roof. At the time of the announcement, it leased 10 floors in the National Bank Building, two floors in the Buhl Building and two floors in the Cadillac Square Building. The bank’s new 14-story building marked the first major commercial construction in downtown Detroit in 25 years. Today, it is called the Chase Tower, but is often referred to by Detroiters as “the Cheese Grater.” In 1995, NBD merged with the First National Bank of Chicago, which in turn merged three years later with Bank One - which in turn was bought by JP Morgan Chase & Co. in 2004.

The Detroit Times reported in March 1955 that “news of the Hammond’s prospective doom struck nostalgic chords throughout Michigan.” Among those old-timers in the Hammond told to hit the road were coal entrepreneur Joseph W. Dykstra, 75, who had been in the Hammond since 1903, and attorney Aldrich Baxter, 80, who moved in back in 1893. Realty developer John Palmer Frazer’s family had held offices in the Hammond since it opened; the 72-year-old’s father was the attorney for George Hammond’s widow and took care of her affairs when she had the skyscraper built. Also out was James A. Hurst, an 81-year-old lawyer who had worked in the Hammond since 1902. “The office still has the old furniture. The rolltop desks, the ancient filing cabinet, the letter press, all the patina of antiquity about them. None of this new chrome stuff,” the Free Press wrote at the time.

“The Russell House was across the street,” Hurst told the Free Press. “I saw it give way to the Pontchartrain, and saw the Pontchartrain replaced by the National Bank. And now the bank is moving across the street and taking this place, too. … Why only the other day, an old employee of office neighbors of 30 years ago came in here and asked if he could just look once more out of my windows.”

Through those windows, the Free Press wrote, Hurst “watched troops march off to and return from two world wars” and saw the city around him grow from a city of about 300,000 people to a metropolis of more than 1.8 million.

The Free Press reported that news of the Hammond’s pending doom caused panic among its tenants. Many had long-term leases and struggled to find suitable space downtown. The deadline for tenants to move out was moved back several times.

The last tenant to move out was W. Gordon Johnstone, president of the real estate firm Johnstone & Johnstone. The former Detroit Real Estate Board president left the building for good on July 14, 1956, relocating to the Lafayette Building.

The Arrow Wrecking Co. of Dearborn, the same company that in 1962 would level the city’s third skyscraper, the Majestic Building, was assigned the task of leveling the city’s first. In a six-year period, the city’s first and third skyscrapers, as well as Old City Hall of 1871, the 1898 Bankers Equitable Building and other turn-of-the-century commercial buildings would be razed. The Detroit Times’ headline on the Aug. 17, 1956, story read in bold letters: “Death Knell for an Era in Building.”

“When work is completed, the block … will ring with the sound of modern-day contractors erecting the 12-story structure, destined to shelter many future generations,” the Times wrote.

The new bank building was to be part of a proposed $50 million “face-lifting” of downtown that was to include a multimillion dollar hotel and a smaller, combined hotel and office building, the Times wrote in August 1956. The leveling of the block also allowed for Woodward to be widened between Fort and Congress.

The giant falls

The Hammond had opened Detroit’s skyscraper age, sunburned throats and awestruck a region for decades. The Detroit Free Press had even implored in November 1889 that “this building … must, in its imposing magnitude, always remain a landmark in Detroit.” But while it had played such an important role in the city’s past, it was deemed worthless to its future. Old, out-of-date and expensive to maintain, the 10 stories that were dizzying more than half a century before were nothing special to most.

“To Detroit newcomers the block that apparently is doomed is a rather dingy, unimpressive sector of downtown Detroit,” the Detroit Times wrote in March 1955. “To oldtimers it is rich in memories of a leisurely, gracious age.”

Arrow Wrecking began tearing down the Hammond on Aug. 17, 1956. “The last hope that the building would be spared died today with the assault of the wrecking crews,” the Times wrote that day. But it didn’t go down without a fight.

Demolition was supposed to take 60 days but took more than 100, newspaper accounts of the time said. The sturdy old Hammond wasn’t fully erased from the skyline until December, and the site wasn’t cleared of rubble until January.

“Maybe the ten-story ‘skyscraper’ didn’t seem so large in recent years, but when it’s gone, it certainly leaves a sizeable void,” the Detroit Free Press wrote in December 1956.

With the Hammond out of the way, Arrow Wrecking started stripping the stores along Woodward between Congress and Fort in mid-December. The Hammond’s neighbor, the Bankers Equitable Building of 1898, once home to the Union Trust Co. until it built the Guardian Building, would start coming down that January. The popular Stouffer’s Restaurant and seven-story Richmond and Backus Building, which also dated to 1898, bit the dust, too. Work on NBD’s cheese grater began in the summer of 1957, and the bank moved into its new headquarters on Sept. 14, 1959.