Historic Detroit

Hotel Detroiter

The story of the Hotel Detroiter is one filled with name changes, a gory gangland murder, cigarette girls falling to their doom, money troubles, hundreds of grandparents and one massive explosion.

The 12-story hotel opened Sept. 15, 1926, as the Savoy Hotel on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Adelaide Street. On the day of its opening, only five floors and 300 rooms were ready to go. The hotel, and the rest of its 800 rooms, was formally opened Oct. 16, 1926. The man in charge was A.B. Riley, managing director and secretary of the Savoy Hotel Co.

The Italian Renaissance-style building was constructed of Bedford stone and pressed brick and terra cotta trim. The price tag: $4 million, the equivalent of $46.5 million today. It was designed by Paul Kamper, the son of architect Louis Kamper. The elder Kamper is responsible for some of Detroit’s landmark buildings, such as the Book-Cadillac Hotel, the Book Tower and the David Broderick Tower.

When it opened, its 800 rooms made the Savoy one of the largest hotels in the state. It also had 18 corner suites and what was billed as a two-story, studio-bungalow that was at first inhabited by Paul Kamper and his wife. Kamper served as the treasurer of the hotel company for the first few years that the building was opened.

The Detroiter stood north of what was Detroit’s main entertainment district of the time, Grand Circus Park and what some now call Foxtown. The Savoy stood across from the Donovan Building and was close to a pair of Louis Kamper’s hotels, the Eddystone and the Park Avenue. It was renowned for its 44-foot bar and was a celebrated hangout for gangsters during the Prohibition era.

Shortly after opening, the Savoy’s name was changed to the Hotel La Salle, around 1928 or 1929. The Adelaide Realty Co., which owned the property, had the hotel renovated, sacrificing nearly 100 rooms in order to improve amenities. By 1930, the La Salle had 707 rooms, making it one of the largest hotels in Michigan, and it also boasted the biggest single ballroom in the city.

But the improvements would be for naught, because that’s when the hotel would get some bad publicity.

A notorious unsolved murder

Jerry Buckley was an enormously popular Detroit radio show host considered to be a champion of the common man, and he often crusaded on air against organized crime. He had his studio on the mezzanine of the hotel. On July 23, 1930, Buckley was gunned down in the lobby of the La Salle. The murder came on the same day that voters opted to recall Mayor Charles Bowles on the grounds that he had done so little in fighting organized crime. Buckley was a vocal critic of Bowles on the air.

The bullets flew shortly after Buckley had finished a broadcast. He walked down the stairs from the mezzanine and was reading a newspaper in a lobby chair when three men entered the hotel. One stood by the door; the other two walked over to Buckley. Witnesses at the time said Buckley seemed to rise in recognition when the two men unloaded 12 shots. Only one bullet missed.

Many thought the killing was the work of a gang upset by his radio attacks calling for a crackdown on mobsters. Other theories said the killing was politically motivated or the result of his rumored shady dealings in the Detroit underworld. It has since become accepted that Buckley had links to mob bosses and was killed because he was planning on going to the police. About 150,000 people attended his funeral. His murder was never solved, and the hotel carried the stigma of being a violent and shady place overrun by gangsters.

Buckley was not the only person to meet a gruesome end at the hotel around that time. A cigarette girl either jumped or was thrown from the roof of the La Salle, and only one week before Buckley was killed, two drug peddlers were gunned down out front. In August 1929, John McLeod sued the hotel for $225,000, declaring the hotel negligent for allowing the elevators to run without the doors closed. The reason? On March 24 of that year, someone threw his daughter Elizabeth McLeod through the open door of an elevator as it was moving, killing her.

The Free Press reported that on the night that Buckley became the 12th man to die that month of gangster violence in metro Detroit, a journalist ripped out an ad of the La Salle from one of the newspapers. He then posted it on a bulletin board and, beneath the La Salle’s advertising slogan of “Five Minutes from Anywhere,” he penciled in “… including Hell.”

Under new management

With business struggling and its reputation a mess, Adelaide turned to one of the largest hotel management companies in the country. On Nov. 3, 1930, Adelaide turned management and most all business decisions of the La Salle over to the Knott Hotel Corp. of New York, though Adelaide continued to own it. Knott was a 38-year-old chain that had 36 hotels nationwide at the time, mostly in New York state, so it was no stranger to the business. The following year, Knott announced that the building would change names again and become the Hotel Detroiter. The move was likely an attempt to not only reinvent the hotel, but also help people forget about the bloodshed and its gangster notoriety. Unfortunately for the hotel, the name change did not help people forget about its troubled finances.

From mobster troubles to tax troubles

On Dec. 28, 1931, City Treasurer Charles L. Williams seized the furnishings and equipment of the Detroiter to satisfy a $19,745 bill (about $232,000 today) for delinquent taxes that stretched back to 1927. The city threatened to sell the items to satisfy the hotel’s debt; either arrangements were made or the taxes were paid. In January 1933, a lawsuit was filed over unpaid rent on the property the hotel sat on. The defendants in the suit said they had given a 99-year lease on the land to Ray Spitzley and architect Paul L. Kamper of the Savoy Hotel Co. on Aug. 1, 1925, at a monthly rent of $31,000 (about $364,000 today).

In April 1929, the defendants say they were informed the hotel could not meet the rent and got only $1,000 (about $12,000 today). A deal was cut to give the hotel six months free rent and a chance to repay its arrears from rent, more unpaid taxes and mortgages. A clause in the deal gave the lessees the right to seize the hotel after three months of default. The lessees demanded the surrender of the hotel Dec. 26 and took possession Jan. 6, sparking the hotel’s management to take the matter to court. The judge cited a 90-day grace period in the agreement and said if the hotel could pay its $241,710 in arrears (about $2.9 million today) in that time frame, the hotel company could stay in control of the building. The hotel company either paid up or worked out another deal and maintained control.

In late 1933 and early 1934, Woodward Avenue was widened, a $12 million (about $190 million today) project. Perhaps in a gesture of goodwill after all of its problems, hotel officials announced in January 1934 that it would be taking a do-it-yourself approach and set a crew to work demolishing the one-story portion of the hotel that was in the way. It took a little more than a month to finish the demo work. In April 1936, the city’s Common Council ordered $101,870 (about $1.5 million today) be repaid to the hotel for the demolition, though the entire amount was applied to $165,000 (about $2.5 million now) the Detroiter owed in back taxes.

Knott’s strategies started to work, and the hotel managed to stay afloat for a couple of decades. That’s when the creation of the national highway system and the growth of Detroit’s suburbs put hotels in the city out of business in the late 1940s and early ’50s. In January 1949, Agree announced that a Chicago syndicate had acquired control of the Detroiter.

If you don’t succeed, renovate, renovate again

Like many hotels, the Detroiter’s new management tried a remodeling to reverse the decline in business. Ads were taken out in newspapers proclaiming in capital letters “a complete change in ownership” and that a “$300,000 improvement program is under way.” “The lobby, convention and banquet rooms and all other public rooms have been, or are in the process of being completely redecorated and renewed. Completely new plumbing fixtures and equipment have already been installed in public rooms and some of the hotel rooms.” The ads ended saying visitors were “cordially invited to come in and see for yourself the evidences of our sincere desire to provide a superior service and fine homelike atmosphere to Hotel Detroiter patrons.”

But the patrons didn’t come as expected. On April 19, 1953, the hotel’s managing director, Kenneth A. White, announced another complete remodeling of its 750 rooms and the interior. It was expected to be wrapped up the following summer and cost more than $250,000 (about $1.9 million today). All public rooms, including the restaurants, corridors and elevators were changed. The new rooms got large, walk-in lighted closets. It also was announced at this time that the hotel would be available for transient as well as permanent guests. In October 1954, Max Dresdner, a well-known Chicago hotelier, bought a huge stake in the Detroiter, and it was announced that the Detroiter’s penthouse – which had been occupied by the Furniture Club of Detroit for five years – would get a complete overhaul. White said $35,000 (about $270,000 now) would be spent on the penthouse to give the Detroiter “one of the most beautiful hotel suites in the world,” he told the Detroit Times.

It’s unclear whether all of these latest improvements were completed because, with the hotel still limping along, the Detroiter was put on the market. In 1955, the former mobster haven would find an unlikely savior.

From gangsters to seniors

Detroit’s archbishop, Edward Cardinal Mooney, had spoken about a great need for a large home to serve the growing older age groups in the city and said he felt the residents would prefer to stay downtown, in the midst of activity. A May 1955 Free Press article even called it “a longtime dream” of Mooney. This dream would lead to one of the more unusual real estate transactions in Detroit history.

The Chicago group decided to make an even trade, announcing in late March 1955 that it would turn the Detroiter over to another hotel company in exchange for the 480-room Belden-Straford Hotel in Chicago (still standing today). The Detroiter’s new owners would then sell the hotel to the Archdiocese of Detroit for about $1 million (about $7.7 million today). The deal was confirmed March 31, 1955, and it was announced the building would become a home for the aged by June 1. On April 14, 1955, notices were given to all but four of the Detroiter’s retail tenants (the drug and cigar stores and beauty and barber shops) that they had to be out by April 30. Its permanent guests were given until May 31 to move. Conventions that were booked through December 1957 at the Detroiter were relocated to the Statler, Tuller, Park Shelton and Detroit-Leland hotels.

The residence was operated by about two dozen Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm of Germantown, N.Y. The Detroiter was now known as Carmel Hall, “a modern residence for several hundred senior citizens that was open to all, regardless of race, creed or financial means.” A Mooney spokesman said Carmel Hall would eventually house 650 seniors and, thanks to an additional $4 million loan, would boast a chapel, medical and rehabilitation departments and an arts and crafts center. Also announced: Diabetic kitchens and medical dispensaries on each floor.

“Housing comes first,” the Rev. Wilbur Suedkamp, acting secretary for Catholic Charities in Detroit, told the Free Press in April 1955. “That means a place where old folks can live decently in dignity and with independence. The building will be renovated floor by floor to provide attractive living quarters.

“The beauty shop, newspaper and cigar stand and bar will be retained. The penthouse probably will become a library and pavilion for those who want to enjoy the sun and flowers of the roof garden.”

It was ideally located. It was three blocks from the Fox Theatre, where patrons could go see matinees. Grand Circus Park was only five blocks away, as was the Masonic Temple, where operas and symphonies were performed in the auditorium. Streetcars and buses ran by, and it was one block from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. The library and Detroit Institute of Arts were a short distance up Woodward.

At $5 million (about $38 million today), it was the most ambitious project ever undertaken in metro Detroit to assist the aging, and was modeled after similar, though smaller, ventures operated by the Catholic Church in New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Some assailed the church for spending so much money on such a venture.

But “this splendid hostelry … could never be duplicated for the $5 million it cost,” Robert Peterson wrote in the Detroit Free Press on Sept. 23, 1962.

On June 1, 1955, the first day seniors could move in, 70 elderly people arrived and unpacked their bags.

Just like the good old days, minus the bullets

The sisters ran Carmel Hall on a self-sustaining basis and hoped to pay the loan off in 40 years. Where gangsters had sat around drinking illegal booze and plotting how to bump off their rivals, elderly women now sat around watching daytime television.

James S. Pooler, a Free Press columnist, was another defender of the deal. “Sizing up the lobby it looked just as the lobby did when you were a young reporter dashing up to the hotel when a blond had been thrown from the penthouse on the roof,” he wrote in October 1959. But “you began to sense how a great change had come to what once was a riotous hotel. … “It not only is the self-contained hospital that fascinates you. It is the social program. There older folks who want to escape from a rocking-chair existence have dances, a dramatic club, a choral group going. All over Carmel Hall they are engaged – copper work, enameling, ceramics, leather-craft, painting. TVs are going, even rock ‘n’ roll comes over the innumerable radios.”

A private room and bath cost $200 a month ($1,500 today). A room in the medical section only $10 a day ($76 today). The hall also was home to nearly 200 welfare patients, for whom the city paid $120 a month ($920 today). Carmel Hall got more applications for residence than it had rooms, and some came from as far away as California.

At 12 stories, the building was the largest nonprofit nursing home and home for the aged in the state and the second largest institution of its kind in the country. A 1963 article in the Free Press noted that there were 490 residents in the facility at the time. Their median age was 76, and women outnumbered men 4-to-1.

Just a few blocks away from Carmel Hall was another old hotel converted into housing, the Hotel Park Avenue. The Park was bought in 1960 by the local Salvation Army for $600,000 (about $4.16 million now) with a loan from the national organization. Another $500,000 ($3.46 million) was spent converting the 200-room hotel into low-come housing called the Eventide Home.

These two historic pieces of Detroit’s past had been spared from becoming flophouses or leveled for parking lots while providing nonprofit places for seniors sorely in need of low-cost housing, at least for a while. Despite the praise in the press, Carmel Hall never stopped being a money-losing venture for the church.

The trouble begins

By 1971, Carmel Hall was losing more than $200,000 a year (about $1 million today, a problem it chalked up to inadequate state aid at a time of rising health and nursing costs. Mayor Roman Gribbs declared Oct. 13, 1971, to be Carmel Hall Day in the city in an effort to draw attention to the financial problems of the home and other nonprofits like it in the state.

But the help never came, and the nuns started shopping the home to prospective buyers. Real estate entrepreneur Michael Higgins, who bought dozens of skyscrapers and landmarks in Detroit, took over the property in 1979, and the name was changed to the Detroiter Residence. Almost immediately Higgins ran into money problems on the property, facing foreclosure and the shutoff of heat for a lack of payments.

About a year later, the state notified Higgins that he stood to lose both of the Detroiter’s licenses — one as a nursing home and the other as a retirement home — because of unclean conditions, a lack of equipment and inadequate care of patients. In 1981, state auditors said $17,000 (about $38,000 now) was unaccounted for from patients’ trust funds. The building continued to operate for nearly three years after the warning.

That August, a state licensing official charged that $168,000 (about $378,000 today) belonging to elderly residents and patients had been mixed into nursing home money – to meet the payroll – and that as much as $150,000 ($338,000 now) appeared to be missing. Under state regulation, nursing homes were to keep such patient money in separate, bonded accounts to prevent the money from being used for nursing home business.

Higgins told the Free Press that he hired a new administrator and spent almost $100,000 (about $197,000 today) to bring the building up to state code. He also said the problem with patients’ money would be quickly resolved.

The body at the bottom of the stairs

The state Health Department inspected the home in February 1984, and the findings were damning: dirty water dripping through the ceiling of the kitchen; cockroaches and mouse droppings in patients’ rooms and in two kitchens; peeling paint and cracked plaster; empty fire extinguishers; medicine not given as prescribed by doctors; patients in wet or soiled beds; and nursing records missing for patients. The last straw for the state came when the body of a resident who had been missing for seven weeks was found at the bottom of a rear stairwell in the home on April 6, 1984. Five days later, the state ordered that the Detroiter not take in any new patients and said it intended to revoke its licenses.

In late April 1984, the Detroiter filed for reorganization under federal bankruptcy laws, seeking protection from creditors under Chapter 11. Lutheran Social Services of Michigan was appointed the trustee and receiver of the home on April 19, and the group reported to Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Robert Holmes Bell that the Detroiter had heavy debts and said the costs to bring the building up to state and federal standards would be astronomical. On May 1, Bell revoked the Detroiter’s licenses and ordered the residents out by June 30.

“It’s tragic that it’s come to this, that the owners let it get to the point where a judge has to order it to be closed,” Chuck Chomet of the Detroit-based Citizens for Better Care nursing home monitor told the Free Press in May 1984.

Higgins did not return repeated calls for comment on the Detroiter from HistoricDetroit.org.

Ann Whiter, then a 72-year-old resident of the home, told the Free Press in 1984 that May 1 was “the day of the sad news.” She said she had some complaints about the home, but not enough to make her want to move. “I’m hopefully thinking the place won’t close,” she told the Free Press. “I am not moving. I am fighting for my home.”

Higgins fought hard to save the Detroiter, even holding a save-the-Detroiter rally at the Leland Hotel on May 16 that drew about 180 people, the Free Press reported. About two weeks after Bell yanked the Detroiter’s licenses, Higgins said he had found a group of Detroit doctors to buy the home for $250,000 ($493,000 today) and fix it up. He said he presented the deal to Bell, but the judge wouldn’t accept it. The U.S. Housing and Urban Development took title of the Detroiter in a foreclosure sale on May 24, 1984.

The Detroiter had 304 residents at the time – 100 were in the home for the aged, the rest were nursing patients. People started leaving in droves, and by late May, only 160 seniors remained. The agency determined that another month of operation would of cost it a $285,000 (about $560,000 now) loss and moved up the court-ordered closing date from June 30 to June 1. The Detroiter’s doors closed for good June 1, 1984, as scheduled.

One last death at Woodward and Adelaide

The Detroiter sat vacant on Woodward for more than a decade, a windowless, rotting eyesore just north of downtown. It fell into the city’s hands for back taxes and was left to rot, exposed to the elements. Vandals broke in. Thieves stripped it. It looked much like the abandoned Hotel Eddystone and Hotel Park Avenue north of I-75 on Woodward look today. In short, it attracted trouble, and the proximity to Grand Circus Park that had made it ideal for seniors living in the 1950s made it a threat to the redeveloped Fox Theatre and the future Comerica Park, which was announced in October 1995.

The City of Detroit announced it was paying $300,000 (about $400,000 now) to demolish the Detroiter to make way for the Crosswinds Communities condo complex, part of a redevelopment program for Brush Park. Adamo Demolition of Detroit and Engineered Demolition Inc. of Minneapolis got the contract.

On March 3, 1996, onlookers gathered along Woodward and lined the tops of buildings and parking ramps in freezing weather; the 22-degree weather felt 4-below-zero with the wind chill. The implosion was pushed back several times as shifting winds forced charges to be relocated.

Around 4:15 p.m., the charges were ignited, setting off 400 pounds of dynamite strategically placed on the Detroiter’s steel support beams. The explosions on the first and third floors packed the force of 4 million pounds of thrust, splitting the beams. The building began to totter, then the roof gave way. In less than 10 seconds, the Detroiter buckled and folded upon itself like a deck of cards, and more than 70 years of history was reduced to a giant, three-story pile of rubble, sending a dust cloud some 100 feet into the air. The scrap metal was sold for about $140 a ton; Adamo estimated there were about 1,000 tons in the building.

“While it was grand, the hallways were way too narrow to pass wheelchairs,” Mary, one of the former Carmelite sisters said. “The nurses’ stations were antiquated, as was everything else. The nursing home was too large to handle all the people. Eventually, Carmel Hall became infested with rodents and cockroaches. It became a terrible place to live, and I myself, encouraged families to place their relatives elsewhere.

“As early as 1972, the area outside was unfit for the elderly to walk around. Adelaide and Woodward were crime-ridden and everyone could see it coming. The elderly were attacked while walking outside and I discouraged my family from visiting me from New York. I was neither surprised nor sorry to see Carmel Hall torn down.”

The condo complex was finished and today lines Woodward just north of Comerica Park. While some of the buildings in Brush Park were restored, many more were torn down, and the promised redevelopment of Detroit’s oldest neighborhood has been on hold ever since.