The Gotham is one of the most legendary sites of black history in Detroit.
The building stood at 111 Orchestra Place at John R, and saw a who’s-who list of visitors over its two decades as one of the country’s leading black hotels: Jackie Robinson, Langston Hughes, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr. and Billie Holiday.
The building started its life as just another simple structure catering to the city’s white majority, the Hotel Martinique. It was built for Albert B. Hartz by A.W. Kutsche & Co. and designed in the Italian Renaissance style by architect Percival R. Pereira. Construction started April 1, 1924. The total investment was about $800,000 (about $11 million today, when adjusted for inflation).
But this was segregated Detroit, and African-Americans were unfairly not allowed to stay in downtown hotels. With more and more African-Americans moving to the city for the good-paying factory jobs, Detroit was in need of not just more hotels, but fancier ones. Indeed, as the city entered the 1940s, there were only seven or eight hotels in Detroit — if you could even call them that. Some were nothing more than a flophouse.
Black Detroiters were deserving of something better, and the Gotham would soon embark on its most glorious years.
In 1943, John White, Walter Norwood and Irving Roane bought the nine-story, 200-room hotel for $250,000 from Louis Hertz. The deal was more than two months in the making. The businessmen’s plan? Change it into a hotel catering to black guests to fill that need. The purchase came about four months after the 1943 Detroit race riot.
The Michigan Chronicle said at the time that the deal gave “Detroit the finest hotel in the country owned and operated by colored.”
Norwood had past experience operating hotels and doubled as the Gotham’s manager.
Ads in black publications deemed the Gotham “a monument to our race” and noting its location in a “refined neighborhood.” It was testament that African-Americans were making progress in Detroit. And the hotel’s location certainly was as advertised, in the heart of today’s Midtown neighborhood and within walking distance of movie theaters, shopping centers, the Graystone Ballroom and other clubs. Each hotel room had an attached bath, almost unheard of in most black hotels of the era.
The Gotham was a far cry from the flophouses African-Americans were forced to deal with before.
“The Gotham had class and sass and 24-karat clients,” Betty DeRamus wrote in the Detroit News in 1993. “Murals brightened the lobby, the dining tables were covered with cloths, and solid mahogany furniture filled the bedrooms. Meals like fried squash under glass were served in the Ebony dining room by bow tie-wearing waiters. People also came to the Gotham to make financial deals and get funding for political campaigns.”
Detroiters often flocked to the Gotham to see their idols, whether the Harlem Globetrotters or Duke Ellington, check in. The hotel also offered innovative features, such as sight-seeing trips for out-of-town guests.
But as Detroit changed for the better, things would actually get worse for the Gotham.
As the civil rights movement saw black people finally allowed in white establishments, the Gotham began losing business to the previously out-of-bounds hotels like the Statler, Fort Shelby and Book-Cadillac downtown. Unable to compete in the suddenly integrated hotel market, the Gotham closed in 1962.
But the Gotham was not out of business quite yet.
That is, until a massive police raid in November 1962 saw 112 officers from the Detroit Police, the IRS and the Michigan State Police descend on the hotel.
It turns out that the Gotham was not only known as one of the finest hotels that served African-Americans, but as the “fortress of the numbers racket in Detroit,” according to the Detroit Free Press. The authorities said that the Mafia was involved in the scheme, and that Gotham owner John White had ties to Mafia bosses Anthony Giacalone and Pete Licavoli.
Authorities said there was a numbers office on each floor of the eight-story hotel and that the hotel’s switchboard operator pulled double duty in alerting the folks upstairs of any incoming police officers. If officers were detected, an alarm system rang on every floor and in the penthouse.
White was among the 41 people arrested in the raid. The search netted 160,000 bet slips, $60,000 in cash (the equivalent of $473,000 today, when adjusted for inflation), 33 adding machines, marked playing cards and loaded dice.
The Free Press wrote in October 1963: “Computations based on tapes and account books of the houses operating in the Gotham indicaed a gross business of over $21 million a year” — the equivalent of an incredible $166 million today.
The storied building fell to the wrecking ball the following year, part of “urban renewal” in the area, and John White, who once brought elegance and sense of equality to so many, died while awaiting trials on federal gambling charges.
The site of the Gotham has been a surface parking lot ever since, and much like the hotel, the street Orchestra Place no longer exists.
More on this fallen landmark coming soon.