Historic Detroit

Hotel Norton

The Hotel Norton was part of a family tradition in hotel ownership that stretched back to the post-Civil War days.

The name Norton was well-regarded in the Detroit hotel industry. Milton Norton opened the Triangle Hotel in Brighton, Mich., in 1880 along a plank road on which farmers transported their milk to Detroit, a trip that often involved a detour to the Triangle. Two of Norton’s sons would follow in his footsteps. One of them, Henry Norton, operated a hotel in Holly, Mich. The other, Charles W. Norton, initially took up farming and butchering, acquiring “large muscles to power a lusty handshake,” the Detroit Free Press wrote in February 1959. Charles Norton would later get bitten by the hotel bug himself and set up shop downtown, opening the first Detroit Hotel Norton in 1900 on the northwest corner of Jefferson Avenue and Griswold. It was a four-story, simple building offering affordable rooms, a cheaper option than fancier hotels like the Pontchartrain and Cadillac hotels. At first, the Norton was a stag hotel, serving only men, and had 30 rooms. It was later enlarged to about 100 rooms. Among its amenities: hot and cold water and telephones in each room. Rates in the European plan hotel ranged from 75 cents to $1.50.

The new Norton

As Detroit took off and hotels were opening in the city left and right, Norton bought the land across the street to build himself a beast. The 14-story, 250-room hotel on the northeast corner of Griswold and Jefferson Avenue opened across from the old location on June 19, 1918, when the hotel offered live music and “flowers for the ladies” from 8-11 p.m. At the time, Allied forces were beating back Germans in Italy during World War II. An ad for the hotel boasted that the hotel had “a wonderful view of the Detroit River, the Canadian frontier and the city” and boasted “popular prices.”

It had a restaurant that sat 200, and its rooms offered views overlooking the Detroit River that were unmatched at the time it was built. For a few short years, the only modern hotel of its size, caliber and amenities was the Statler Hotel on Grand Circus Park. Many of the hotel’s customers were permanent guests who called the Norton home. The old Norton was initially turned into an annex, or overflow, for the bigger hotel. It was later closed and demolished.

Charles Norton, or Charlie, as his friends called him, was “a robust, 200-pounder who was friendly, gregarious and colorful with hues left over,” the Free Press recalled in February 1959. He intended for his new hotel “to be a comfortable sanctuary for the traveling businessman … a spot where the traveler could relax in the warmth of Charlie Norton’s goodness.” The Free Press wrote that “year after year, certain travelers would say, ‘I’ll be staying at Charlie Norton’s.’ That was identity enough.”

A sister across the pond

Charles Norton would expand his small hotel empire, partnering with Perry C. Palmer to open a location across the river in Windsor, Ontario, on Dec. 17, 1927. The Hotel Norton-Palmer was a 12-story hotel at the northwest corner of Park and Pelissier, and was Windsor’s tallest building when it opened. It started off with 200 rooms, but about three years later, another 50-100 rooms were added (reports differ on the exact number). Just shy of 11 years after the Windsor hotel opened, Charles Norton died, on Oct. 12, 1938, at age 74. Palmer held the land option on the property, but the Norton family continued to run it. Charles Norton’s son Preston lived there while he ran both the Windsor and Detroit hotels. The Windsor hotel also was the birthplace of the International Hockey League, which was founded during a three-hour meeting there Dec. 5, 1945. The landmark was leveled in the late 1970s.

Death of the Detroit Norton

During the construction of Cobo Center in the 1950s, the Norton family banked on the new convention traffic boosting their hotel’s occupancy and outfitted more than 150 rooms with new fixtures and furniture. But this era was a rough one for Detroit’s historical architecture, as there was a big push to erase the city’s past and build modern structures. The city’s first skyscraper, the Hammond Building, was razed in 1956; Old City Hall was struck down in 1961, and the Majestic Building fell the following year. Buildings — such as the David Whitney Building on Grand Circus Park — had their classical details stripped and their cornices chopped.

It was during this flurry of demolition that noted architect Minoru Yamasaki, who went on to design the World Trade Center in New York, would come up with what is now known as One Woodward. The gas company giant Michigan Consolidated Gas Co., or MichCon as the firm was later known, wanted to erect a $20 million ($145.6 million today) modern skyscraper in the heart of downtown with views of the river — a spot like the site of the Norton. With landmarks falling left and right, the Norton found little support from the city, and the preservation movement was more or less nonexistent during the 1950s. By this point, the hotel’s patrons were mostly permanent residents - and were hardly well-to-do. The hotel had 68 permanent tenants and 140 transient guests. The hotel had started to show its age, and with old and stately being out and fluorescent lighting and faux wood paneling being in, a modernization would have been costly. Charles Norton II — who was the Detroit hotel’s manager and the grandson of the hotel’s founder — said his family was left with no choice: Either have the Norton condemned and flattened by the city, or they could sell out to MichCon.

Preston Norton, the Detroit hotel’s president and father of Charles II, rationalized with “civic understanding that Detroit will benefit immensely” from MichCon’s new building, the Detroit Free Press wrote in February 1959. That month, it was announced that the Norton would make way to progress, and “it does no good to fight progress,” Preston Norton told the Free Press. His staff quickly went about “putting its affairs in order with grand stoicism and restrained sadness,” the Free Press wrote. “It is with heavy heart that Preston D. Norton, hotel president, awaits the onslaught of wrecking machines which will demolish all but cherished memories.”

Cherished memories

“I knew it was coming for 18 months,” Charles Norton II told the Detroit News at the time. “But it’s fallen kind of hard on some of the help and residents here.”

He told the paper about Jim Devlin, the hotel’s longest resident. For many years, Devlin was the federal beat reporter for the News. “Devlin lived in Norton hotels for 41 years,” Norton said. “He moved across the street, baggage in hand, from the old Norton when this place opened.”

The guests checked out for the final time at 4 p.m. Feb. 26, 1959, and its staff held a wake that day. Charles Norton hosted a “Demolition Party” with “a chrome-plated sledge hammer with which to break up some of the furniture” that had not been sold, he told the Detroit News at the time. He also turned some of the hotel key fobs into souvenirs: “Dec. 13th, 1917 — GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN — I was the Last Guest — Feb. 26, 1959,” it read.

“We’ll pass them out to our invited guests, but the joke’s on them,” Charles Norton told the News at the time. “The room number on them is 13, and there is no such room in any hotel. A key for a room that doesn’t exist, in a hotel that doesn’t exist. I’m laughing now, but when all those rooms are empty Friday, and I’m here alone, and …”

Necks crane high

The restaurants and cocktail lounge stayed open another month or two after the hotel closed. Demolition got started in the summer of 1959 and provided quite the sight for Detroiters plodding along Griswold and Congress. Arrow Wrecking Co. was given until Sept. 21 to finish the job. A 5-ton crane was hoisted onto the 13th floor of the hotel to aid in the demolition.

“The first thing we had to do was get a baby bulldozer up there to serve as an anchor and pull the crane in,” Robert Madary, the superintendent of the job for Arrow, told the Detroit News that August.

A 65-ton crane with a 160-foot boom — known by the Arrow crew as “Big Brother” — then hoisted the crane up while the bulldozer pulled. The whole process took about 12 hours. The Arrow boys dubbed the 5-ton crane “Baby Brother,” and it joyfully ate its way down floor by floor, swinging away with its 2,500-pound iron wrecking ball while the bulldozer cleared away the rubble.

“People are the lifeblood of a hotel,” reporter Allan Blanchard wrote in the News in February 1959. “When they leave and the rooms are empty that which is left should be buried.”