It was the “Mother of Motors” and the forefather of luxury hotels in the city.
The Hotel Pontchartrain’s name is legendary in Detroit, as were the events that took place within its walls. It was erected on the site of a storied Detroit institution, only to become one itself. Seven presidents are said to have strode down its halls, along with the likes of vaudeville stars, actors and actresses, not to mention thousands of out-of-towners and honeymooners. But above all, the Pontchartrain is most important for its role as the cradle of the auto industry. It was a hotel that literally changed the world. Yet despite the Pontchartrain’s rich history, this storied landmark would stand for only 13 years.
“The Pontch,” as it was known, was built in 1907 on the southeast corner of Cadillac Square and Woodward Avenue. But it was not the first structure to rise on this corner of old Detroit. Dr. William Brown arrived in Detroit in 1798, and for many years, he tended to the ill and ailing in a quaint little yellow frame house enclosed by a cedar picket fence. He treated the Native Americans around town free of charge and was a town trustee. The corner was also home to a schoolhouse, where an Irishman named Brady taught the town’s children. It was said you could hear his booming heavy brogue from the sidewalk. Eventually, this all would make way for progress.
There wasn’t much to Detroit when S.K. Harring opened the National Hotel on Dec. 1, 1836, on the site of the schoolhouse and Doc Brown’s place. The city was a sleepy hamlet of only about 9,000 people, and nothing that stood downtown then stands today. The old hotel would go through a string of owners, each growing and remodeling parts of it, until 1857, when William Hale bought the property. He, too, spiffed the place up, but it was his tenant who would change Detroit’s history. The hotel was leased to W.H. Russell, who reopened it as the Russell House on Sept. 28, 1857. The Russell would be the city’s leading hotel for nearly half a century, and it was the center of Detroit’s social scene. “It is first class … [with] comfortable elegance everywhere abounding,” the Detroit Free Press wrote at the time of the Russell’s opening. “In all respects, the house is [a credit] to its projector, to the city and the West.” The Russell continued to morph over the years, with sections being torn down and rebuilt and additions being tacked on in attempt to keep up with Detroit’s growing population.
Detroiters gathered in front of the Russell to listen to the latest reports from the battlefields of the Civil War. Even the Prince of Wales, who later would be crowned King Edward VII, passed through the Russell’s doors on a visit in 1860, as did the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia in 1870, Lady Jane Franklin and a number of other luminaries of the era.
But as the 20th century rolled around, the country was ushering in a new era of industrial expansion — and the Russell was woefully behind the times. When it opened, Detroit had about 40,000 people, and its streets were filled with the sounds of horseshoes clomping on hard-packed dirt. But by 1905, automobiles had started to take over those streets, and Detroit’s population had mushroomed to about 370,000 people — an 825 percent increase during the Russell’s 48 years in business. It was time for the old-timer to step down and turn the room keys over to the next generation of Detroit hotel.
On May 19, 1905, the front page of the Free Press screamed in all-caps: “DETROIT WILL HAVE A MAGNIFICENT NEW HOTEL.” The newspaper trumpeted how the city would soon be home to a new million-dollar hotel, the equivalent of about $25 million today. This new hotel would “rank with the very best in the country [and] do an enormous amount of good to Detroit as a city and … serve as a monument to the pubic spirit and the enterprise of the men behind it,” the paper wrote.
When the Russell House closed on Nov. 19, 1905, Detroiters threw it a heck of a going-away party. “The hotel was turned practically upside-down,” the Free Press recalled. “Tablecloths were wrapped up with all the supper appurtenances inside them and carried away by guests” and “patrons had to wade out through broken bottles and glasses.” The last guests to check out were Mr. and Mrs. John Baker.
“Among the Old Timers of our town, there is unquestionably more genuine regret over the passing of the Russell House than of any other of the dear landmarks of the older and the gentler days,” George W. Stark recalled in the Detroit News in 1941. While Detroiters gave the Russell a heartfelt goodbye, it was a short one. Demolition began on Dec. 15, 1905, and work on its successor started on Jan. 15. Its foundation, made of stone from a quarry near Rockwood, Mich., was in place by the end of August.
But not all Detroiters were sorry to see the Russell go. Judge Robert E. Frazer was among those who celebrated its passing as a sacrifice for the sake of progress, writing in the News: “The ever-expanding pulsating city has outgrown it. We no longer need it, tear it down! Let loose the pick and ax and crowbar; attack it at the top; let every blow contribute to its destruction. Tear it down! … Like all other things that stand in the way of progress it is doomed—tear it down!…What do we care for the past? It is nothing to us. We have only the present and the future. These old memories live only in sentiment. Sentiment is dead. …Tear it down!”
A legend is born
The announcement of a grand hotel coming to Campus Martius, the city center, was the talk of the town. For starters, it would be the biggest and most opulent hotel Detroit had ever seen. It also was the largest construction project ever undertaken in the city up to that point, the Free Press wrote, and only the Old Wayne County Building was more expensive. More than 4 million pounds of steel went into erecting the building’s skeleton.
More than $300,000 — $6.9 million today — was spent on furnishings alone. Even the ice scoops were made of silver. The building was a whopping ten stories tall, extended 40 feet underground and ate up an entire city block. The basement would house a switchboard for nearly four hundred telephones—more than many towns could boast at the time. It also was said that every breath of air and every drop of water that flowed into the hotel would be purified with filters. Its laundry facility was “large enough to do a small city’s work.” The Free Press wrote in 1907 that “no expense should be spared to make it the very best hotel in the country, and none has been.” This was an unrivaled palace of hospitality in a dusty, still-growing city. Even the building’s name was inherited from royalty: Pontchartrain.
The name dates to the city’s founding in 1701. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, a businessman and trader, traveled to Paris to petition King Louis XIV for permission to explore the Great Lakes. Cadillac went to the French minister of marine affairs, Jérôme Phélypeaux, aka Count Pontchartrain, and told him that if the French didn’t secure the region, the British would. That’s all Count Pontchartrain needed to know, and he gave Cadillac the thumbs up. Cadillac and his band of merry hommes established an outpost on the straits of what is now the Detroit River. In an impressive feat of brown-nosing, Cadillac called the outpost Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit: Fort Pontchartrain of the Strait.
The syndicate behind the Pontch was the Detroit Hotel Company, led by the estates of the late U.S. Senator James McMillan — one of Detroit’s early powerbrokers during its industrial and economic surge — and Dr. E.M. Clark, who owned the property. Two sets of plans were submitted by New York architects, but the Pontchartrain’s owners went local, tapping architect George D. Mason, who designed the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and Detroit’s Masonic Temple. The renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White was brought in to consult on the plans. The firm was considered by many to be top in the country and was responsible for projects such as Madison Square Garden and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. The contractor on the project was Westinghouse, Church, Kerr & Co. of New York.
“From the moment the work of tearing down the old Russell House began, the citizens of Detroit … have watched the building of this new hostelry,” the Detroit Times wrote. “Curious eyes have followed the army of workers as they swung the huge steel beams into place and made them fast with red-hot bolts, swarming over the rising structure like a horde of industrious ants. … Occasional glimpses through the windows and doorways gave promise of something out of the ordinary.”
As the opening drew near, Detroiters craned their necks to get a peek inside. Others huddled in front of the display windows of the Newcomb-Endicott Co. department store to “ooh” and “ahh” over the exquisite furniture and finishings being prepared for the massive hotel. The Pontch would be outfitted with Tiffany light fixtures, lace curtains from Ireland, Oriental rugs from the Far East and elegant satin damask furniture.
When opening day came on Oct. 29, 1907, the city went nuts. Crowds swarmed the Pontch. “Of all the festivity inside, the throng without was seeing what it might,” the Free Press wrote. A squad of police officers was needed to prevent the throngs filling the streets from blocking the entrances. Doris McMillan, granddaughter of the late senator, was among the first guests to arrive and was the first to sign the hotel’s register.
Admission to the opening dinner was the hottest meal ticket in town. Dinner was at 7 p.m., and featured cream of chicken princesse, filet of striped bass, haunch of wild boar and other delicacies. “The sight was as brilliant and impressive as any banquet might be,” the Free Press reported. “The colors of walls and ceilings, the pale tints of hundreds of lights, mingling with the soft colors of flowers; the sparkle of silver and glass, the beauty of women and gowns, soft strains of music, well-trained waiters moving here and there, the glow and bubble and sparkle of wine, soft laughter, a hum of conversation and an atmosphere of pleasure — this was the opening dinner.”
Finally, at 8 p.m., the doors were thrown open to one and all.
Flowers were crammed in every nook and cranny of the place, “mostly chrysanthemums of pink, yellow and white” that had been sent by the basket and bouquet from well-wishers, businessmen, friends of management and hoteliers from around the country. The Detroit Saturday Night newspaper noted, perhaps with just a touch of exaggeration, that “nothing has transpired in Detroit for many years that has been of greater significance or more important in the city’s development than the opening of the Hotel Pontchartrain. It can now be said in all truth that Detroit has a hostelry as beautiful in its appointments, as modern and complete in its equipment, as any in the United States.”
At the time of its opening, single rooms without bath were $2 to $2.50 a day, $46 to $58 today. A room for two with bath would set you back $5 to $8, $115 to $184 today.
A palace of wonders
Initially, the hotel had 298 rooms, and because each was an outside room with a window — “There is not a single dark room in the house,” the Free Press noted in 1907 — only 178 of the rooms had their own bathrooms. The rest of the guests shared one down the hall. The rooms were huge for hotel rooms of their day, with the News noting that “there has not been a hotel built in this country in the last five years that has rooms of equal average size with those in this hotel.” To top it off, each was outfitted in mahogany furniture and had its own telephone — quite the extravagance.
The hotel’s décor was simple yet dignified. Tiffany & Co. of New York was behind much of the refined and quiet elegance, with the Pontch being the first hotel in the country dressed by its Tiffany Studios. “So many institutions of the sort are prone to lavish tinsel and gilt and mirrors and a spectrum of color upon their adornment,” the Detroit Saturday Night wrote. “Not so with the Pontchartrain, it is as rich and tasteful and beautifully refined as art can make it.” The Detroit News Tribune echoed: “Anybody who goes into the Pontchartrain and expects to be dazzled with shining things and glittering things and glaring things, anybody who expects that everything he sees will shout, ‘Money,’ at him, is doomed to disappointment. The hotel was not built and furnished on that plan. Everywhere one goes in the hotel he finds evidences of good taste and artistic repression. The hotel was decorated to meet the taste of people who know what is beautiful.”
The long, narrow lobby was covered in mottled black-and-white Italian marble, from the pillars and pilasters to the grand staircase to the wainscoting that lined the walls. The wood in the lobby was in tones of yellowish gray and traced with silver. A series of chandeliers dangled above, and the lights on the walls had shades of Tiffany glass. Intricate stenciling filled the ceiling. The clerk’s desk, made of marble, was on the northern end of the room. On one side, nearest Woodward Avenue, was the ladies’ parlor, “one of the coziest ladies retiring rooms ever conceived,” the Times noted. At the far eastern end of the corridor, on the Cadillac Square side, was a ladies’ dining room finished in cream, buff and gold. “It is precisely the kind of place a woman who is fond of what is dainty and delicate would like to take a quiet breakfast in,” the News wrote. It also was the site of many a dance.
Decades later, Sid Corbett recalled in the Free Press how the orchestra would play as they “danced to the strains of ‘Poor Butterfly,’ ‘Bendigo,’ ‘Too Much Mustard’ and gazed goggle-eyed at the great stars of the day who dropped in for a snack between their afternoon and evening shows.” Between dances, couples would sip on tea and munch on toasted English muffins and jam or maybe ladle some Claret Cup out of an iced punch bowl. It went down well with the crusty French bread and sweet cream butter. The Pontch’s French onion soup also was the stuff of local culinary legend—and every bit as good as the stuff in Paris, Corbett asserted.
Another old-timer, John Manning, remembered the dances a bit differently, recalling in the Free Press in 1952 how he and his teenage pals “tried to duck taking girls to the Pontchartrain tea dances. It cost more dough than escorting a nice girl to a Temple (Theatre vaudeville) matinee and then pushing her across Woodward Avenue to Sanders for a sandwich and sundae. We men-about-town got by for a little while. But as the dancing craze became more and more important, we had to succumb to the Pontch.” It might set a gent back five bucks — big coin in the day, but money well spent when “they branded you as Beau Brummels and cosmopolitan fellows,” Manning said.
Adjoining the ladies’ café was the hotel’s main restaurant, one of its most stunning rooms. Keeping with the times, it was considered the men’s café. A mezzanine looking down on both cafés provided a spot for an orchestra to dazzle both dining rooms. The men’s café had walls finished in English oak, “so cleverly executed that one would have to touch it to realize it was not stone.” The Gothic ceiling was split into panels by oak beams and filled with Tiffany stained glass. When the light poured through these mostly red-and-yellow panels, the room had the vibe “of an ancient baronial hall,” the Architectural Review wrote in 1913. The publication the Boiler Maker chimed in: “The impression one gets of the room is that of the dining hall of some old feudal castle whose heavy oaken beams have held the ceiling for centuries.”
Between the dining room and the lobby was the Flamingo Room, a lounge awash in red hues. The walls were lined with Circassian walnut, with one of the large panels featuring a floor-to-ceiling painting of the brilliant pink birds set against a golden sky. Columns set into the walls were topped with gold capitals. The fixtures here also were decked out in Tiffany glass, “their mother of pearl shades blending with the walls and ceilings,” the Free Press wrote. This was where the boys went for a smoke and to chat.
The hotel’s hallways were veritable forests of potted palms. The lobby was littered with furniture — “great pieces of upholsterers’ art, magnificent in their dignified massiveness,” the News wrote. Count Pontchartrain’s crest was embossed on the back of each leather chair. The crest also was woven into the linen, fashioned onto the silver service, etched into the drinking glasses and frescoed onto the walls. As customers enjoyed their meals, they’d slowly uncover a portrait of the count himself, staring back at them from under their mound of mashed potatoes.
The bar that put the world on wheels
Politicians like Mayor Oscar B. Marx walked across the street from Old City Hall to hammer out the city’s future in the Pontch’s bar, which was located in the hotel’s southwest corner and fronted Woodward Avenue. In fact, many people referred to the place as the “City Hall Annex.” The bar itself was a sight to see, 32 feet of thirst-quenching mahogany atop light green mottled marble. It was high backed and made of paneled mahogany and surmounted by a large clock. The whole place had “an appearance of solidity and massiveness,” the News wrote. Whiskey was 15 cents a glass; a beer would set you back a dime. Next to the bar was a cigar shop stocking more than 300,000 top-shelf smokes. But the bar was for men only — no girls allowed.
It was this bar that secured the Pontch’s legacy in the annals of Detroit history because this is where the town’s auto barons conducted business over a few rounds of libations. After all, the Pontch and the auto industry grew up in Detroit together. And when the industry was just getting off the ground, its leaders needed a place to go to exchange ideas, brainstorm and make business contacts. The bar was the unofficial headquarters and laboratory for the city’s industrial powerbrokers. Put simply, the News recalled in 1970, “the Pontch was the meeting place for the men who made motors hum—magnates and financiers, crackpots and geniuses, salesmen and go-getters.” Horace and John Dodge, William Durant of General Motors, Louis Chevrolet and the Lelands of Cadillac were among those who rested their elbows on the bar. Henry Ford visited, too, though he didn’t drink. He was there to network.
“The Pontchartrain was where motor car gossip was heard first,” longtime GM executive Alfred P. Sloan wrote. “Even on ordinary days, when the crowd thinned out of the dining room, the tables would be covered with sketches: crankshafts, chassis, details of motors, wheels and all sorts of mechanism. Partnerships were made and ended there. New projects were launched.”
This is where all sorts of tinkerers and businessmen demonstrated brakes and valves and other gadgetry and doodads for the auto industry hot shots. The bar “breathed an atmosphere of derring-do,” the News wrote. If you were looking to talk to someone about cars, chances are you could find them knocking back a cold one. Albert Champion came to the Pontch to pitch the porcelain spark plug that made him a fortune. “It wasn’t a sign you had had one too many if you saw four or five men trundle a heavy piece of machinery into the bar, put it on a table and set it in motion — not in the Pontchartrain.”
The excitement in that bar must have been electric. Legendary Detroit newspaperman Malcolm Bingay wrote in his memoir, “Detroit is My Own Hometown,” that “the tables in the Pontchartrain barroom were occupied with men so intent on studying blueprints spread out before them that they paid little heed to the drinks at their elbows. It was the only place they had to gather. They had little ready cash then. But the nod of a head or a sharp ‘yes’ or ‘no’ meant millions of capital yet unborn.”
And overseeing all of this moving and shaking was the count himself. In a nod to the past, the Pontchartrain’s manager, William J. Chittenden Jr., was the son of a Russell House icon. William J. Chittenden Sr. began as a clerk at the Russell in April 1858 and became a co-owner in 1864. Junior had practically been raised in the Russell, so a group of old friends, including noted art collector Charles Lang Freer, wanted to get him a little something special. They gave him a portrait of Count Pontchartrain done in oils by artist Kenneth Newell Avery. Former Mayor William Cotter Maybury gave a small speech during the presentation. The count hung out on the south wall of the bar, and from this perch he would oversee the clinking of glasses and the shaking of hands on many of the deals that would put Detroit on the map.
The big hotel gets bigger
Everyone loved the Pontch, but you couldn’t ignore the fact that the building’s exterior was a tad bland. In “The Buildings of Detroit,” historian William Hawkins Ferry wrote that “the main mass of the building was too severely plain to suit the prevailing taste.” It was a similar opinion voiced by the Free Press only two days before the hotel opened. While calling the hotel “a marvel of convenience,” the newspaper wrote that the Pontch was “severely plain, and to many disappointingly so, on the exterior.”
By 1909, Detroit was booming, and the timing seemed right to expand. Starting early that fall, a five-story addition was tacked onto the top. The three-story mansard roof and dormers gave the building a bit of Second Empire flare. Mason handled this job, too, as his original plan for the hotel called for it to be fourteen stories, though the job was scaled down in case the hotel wasn’t a success. Newspaper articles of the Pontch’s opening wrote how “some day, the Pontchartrain expects to put on four more stories and have a bigger hall up toward the sky somewhere.”
The addition included a two-story convention hall on the 11th floor — a massive room with a 20-foot ceiling that ate up a third of the space and could hold about 1,000 people for a convention or 500 at a banquet — as well as four private dining rooms and another 150 rooms. Including furnishings, the add-on cost was about $400,000 (about $9.6 million today).
“I wish we had the extra space right now,” Chittenden, the general manager, told the Free Press as work was getting under way in June 1909. “We could use it easily. Last night we …were obliged to turn some away.”
While Mason’s original plan envisioned a 14-story Pontch, “the demands of the traveling and convention-going public have made it imperative to increase it to 15 stories,” the Free Press wrote. A.A. Albrecht Co., the contractor for the addition, had work wrapped up in time for the spring 1910 convention season.
In writing about the erection of “a skyscraper on a skyscraper,” the Free Press noted in October 1909 that there was “no noise, no confusion. … On the floor below [the roof] not a sound of the hammering is to be heard. Down on the street, more than 100 feet below, pedestrians pass without the slightest concern, not knowing what is going on above. … Some morning, Detroit will awaken to the fact that under its eyes — or, rather, to be exact, above its eyes — a new skyscraper has sprung into existence if by magic.”
There was no doubt that the Pontchartrain was a glorious place. But glory is fleeting.
End of a dynasty
Henry B. Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, complained in January 1913 that “the only place these men in the automobile industry have to meet is the Pontchartrain Hotel bar. Let us organize a club to get them out of the saloons of Woodward Avenue.” Two years later, the Detroit Athletic Club opened on Grand Circus Park, and the automotive movers and shakers moved out. This was a crushing blow to the hotel’s business. What’s worse, the auto barons’ success brought new competition to town that didn’t make the going any easier for the Pontch.
In many ways, the Pontch was a victim of poor timing, as a number of new innovations in hotels would render it obsolete almost as soon as it opened. “The history of the Hotel Pontchartrain, although brilliant, was destined to be brief,” Ferry wrote. “Its erectors built well,” the Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record wrote, “but not wisely … Detroit had grown around and then ahead of it.”
The times had changed too quickly for the Pontch. Detroit was still growing at a feverish pitch. The city’s population had exploded by 150 percent in the thirteen years since the hotel opened in 1907. Now that Detroit was on the path to becoming the Motor City, nearly 1 million people called the city home. It also had become home to some incredibly modern and fancy hotels. All of the old-style stately opulence that had made the Pontch the place to be for its first few years quickly made it the place to avoid by 1917.
When the Statler Hotel opened on Grand Circus Park in 1915, it boasted that every room had its own bathroom. It also was bigger than the Pontch, clocking in at 18 stories and 800 rooms. The Pontch had fewer than 400 guest rooms, and only half of them had baths. And in an era where skyscrapers were still new on the scene, bigger was most certainly considered better. Hotels were also now being fitted with a primitive form of air-conditioning, supplied by running ice water through pipes. Guests were on their own dealing with a muggy Michigan summer if they had booked a room at the Pontch. After the Statler’s opening, “a new standard of excellence for hotels was established in Detroit, hastening the decline of the old Pontchartrain,” Ferry concluded.
Despite its location and the addition only a couple years earlier, the Pontch was unable to reclaim its crown as Detroit’s top hotel. Experts said there was simply no way to make the Pontch profitable — even if it were extensively remodeled. No matter its grandeur, the hotel was doomed. Its location on Campus Martius, which had helped make the hotel such a success in its early days, would end up costing it in the end. Because of the industry that the Pontchartrain had helped foster, the land under the hotel was worth far more than any fortune that could be made from the hotel. “Its rooms are too large, its corridors too broad, its lobby too spacious to meet modern needs,” the Free Press wrote in 1919. “In no way as it is now laid out can it be made a moneymaker.”
The First and Old Detroit National Bank was looking to expand its operations and wanted a prominent location. And it just so happened that the Pontch’s owners were looking to cut their losses. It was announced on March 25, 1919, that the bank had bought the Pontch in a deal that was “one of the largest and also one of the most epochal in Detroit’s history,” the Free Press wrote at the time. While the purchase price was not disclosed, the transaction was said to have been between $4 million and $5 million ($43 million to $54 million today). Not a bad profit for a losing business that cost a quarter of that to build. Originally, the bank planned to whittle the hotel down to its steel framework and have legendary Detroit architect Albert Kahn design a new 15-story structure to go over the Pontch’s bones. But it was soon determined that re-skinning the Pontch just wasn’t feasible and that the whole thing would have to go to make way for a 25-story office tower, also to be designed by Kahn.
So why couldn’t the bank just renovate the Pontch? After all, it was only 13 years old. In short, the hotel was built like a tank, built to last centuries. Gutting the building and converting the floors from a hotel to an office building would have proved extremely costly, if not practically impossible. The Michigan Manufacturer wrote in March 1920 that, “as pressing as the demands for hotel accommodations are, the need of office room is even more so, and Hotel Pontchartrain will soon be replaced by a structure more necessary to Detroit’s financial and commercial growth.” And as proof of the demand in downtown office space, half of the office space in the new building was rented before demolition had even begun on the hotel.
The Pontch’s execution was delayed at least twice, allowing time for other hotels to be built in order to meet the city’s need for lodging. But the hotel couldn’t dodge demolition forever, and the storied hotel’s doors closed for good at midnight on Jan. 31, 1920. The only souls left in the building were a few employees and a couple of guests who, as a special favor, were allowed to stay until Sunday morning. But workers started picking the building apart at 3 p.m. that afternoon, stripping the lobby of its furnishings, hat racks, desks and clocks. An hour earlier, the coat check girls had begun tearing up unused claim slips. Guests in the Flamingo Room were told they had to go. A chain barred access to the restaurant. The last guest was vaudeville performer Lew Dockstader, and cashier Ann Breck filled out the last receipt for him.
Much like the Russell House before it, the Pontch was sent out in style. Bingay, the newspaperman, recalled the Pontch’s final night in his memoir: “The old gang gathered on the last night. A banquet was held in the great ballroom, which, by some alchemy of the night, seemed to stretch all the way down the winding marble stairs to the bar itself. The gray dawn of the day that was to usher in the reign of the rumrunners, the gangsters and the speak-easies [of Prohibition], was contesting with the brilliance of the blazing chandeliers as the festivities drew to a close. Someone suggested that the proper way to top off the affair was to start a bonfire. This seemed to everybody, including the waiters and the rest of the help, the logical thing to do. Chairs and tables were smashed up and piled in the center of the room. They danced around the fire until it was only smoldering ashes.
“In the dying embers of that farewell blaze there passed away old Detroit.”
What wasn’t toasted was auctioned off. Everything from furniture to china was sold to the highest bidder, and Detroiters carted off memories by the hundreds. The bar was sliced into three pieces and sold under the hammer. The bar would later be auctioned again, in August 1931, and bought by Dorothy Dow, who planned to put it in her kitchen in a home she was building in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Going price this time around for a piece of bona fide Detroit history? Twenty-five bucks, the equivalent of $377 today.
Death of the Pontch
The American House Wrecking Co. of Chicago began demolishing the building in March 1920, starting with the windows, casings, doors and moldings, and then moved on to the marble and stone trimmings on the interior. The wreckers started bringing the walls down on the 15th floor, cutting a four- by four-foot shaft down the center of the building. As workers gutted the Pontch, they shoveled its brick and mortar into the chute, and workers scurried below to remove the debris one load at a time.
While it took a year and a half and an army of men to build the Pontch, it would take only about 90 days and a couple hundred men armed with sledgehammers and acetylene torches to bring it down. According to news reports at the time, the Pontchartrain was one of the largest demolitions in United States history. “As the passerby views this destruction, he sees sputtering flame eating its way through steel, the dust of falling debris and the ceaseless swing of hammer,” the Michigan Manufacturer wrote. Wreckers were like “human ‘torch bearers,’ climbing like flies among the huge steel beams” to bring the building down. The hotel was gone by that June.
In a surprisingly eco-friendly twist by 1920 standards, 95 percent of the steel in the building was salvaged, as was much of the brick. As soon as the sale was done, demolition companies lined up to buy the building for the scrap. The wreckers methodically ripped apart the Pontch, “as if somewhere within the fabric was a treasure or perhaps a secret for which 200 men were searching,” the Michigan Manufacturer wrote.
“Built to withstand the wear and tear of a hundred years, Hotel Pontchartrain, Detroit, today is a shapeless ruin,” the publication wrote. “Reared by constructive man to be an adornment to the city as well as a temple to hospitality, this magnificent creation of steel and stone has fallen victim to destructive man.”
The First National Building ushered out an era when it opened in 1922. Today, it is itself the oldest structure ringing Campus Martius and one of its few links to its past.
Though the grand old hotel that made Detroit famous no longer stands, its memory echoes still. As Detroit’s newest hotel neared completion on Jefferson Avenue in 1965, a contest to name the hotel was held. Entrants wrote essays to back up their choices. The Plaza, Riverview and Civic Center Hotel were all popular suggestions. Others proposed Caroline, after late President John F. Kennedy’s daughter, and the names of past Detroit mayors, like Cobo, Jeffries and Van Antwerp.
But the winner proved to be a popular one, a name suggested by several hundred people. Out of those, the essay of Mrs. Margaret Martin, a piano teacher, made her the winner, and she took home a 1963 Buick Skylark convertible and $1,000 for her effort.
“I had the strongest feeling when I sent in my entry that I had the right name, and what I wrote was straight from the heart,” she told the News. “It was the only thought I had.”
Her nomination, of course, was a name as proud and storied as the city itself: the Pontchartrain.