The Hotel Pontchartrain is a legendary Detroit hotel, the cradle of Detroit’s auto industry and ushered in luxury hotels in the city.
The Pontch, as it was known, was built on the site of another landmark hotel, the Russell House. The Russell had opened Sept. 28, 1857, and was the center of Detroit’s social scene for decades. “It is first class … (with) comfortable elegance everywhere abounding,” the Free Press wrote at the time of the Russell’s opening. “In all respects the house is creditable to its projector, to the city and the West.” But as the 20th century rolled around, the Russell was woefully antiquated. It closed Nov. 19, 1905.
Work on the Pontchartrain began Jan. 15, 1906. It was designed by architect George D. Mason, who is best known for the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and Detroit’s current Masonic Temple. The hotel opened Oct. 27, 1907. The contractor was Westinghouse, Church & Kerr.
Seven presidents stayed there. Auto barons met in its bar. Other well-heeled Detroiters would pony up to the famous solid mahogany bar to hammer out the city’s future in the Pontch’s bar.
The bar was in the hotel’s southwest corner and fronted Woodward Avenue. The bar itself was a sight to see, thirty-two 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. Whiskey was fifteen 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.
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.
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.”
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 ended up taking the Pontch to 15 stories.
The addition included a two-story convention hall on the eleventh 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.”
A.A. Albrecht Co., the contractor for the addition, had work wrapped up in time for the spring 1910 convention season.
Out of style
But the hotel was built at the wrong time as a number of new innovations would render it obsolete almost immediately. When the Statler Hotel opened on Grand Circus Park in 1915, it boasted that every room had its own bathroom. Others had a primitive form of air-conditioning, supplied by ice water running through pipes. All of the old-style opulence that had made it the place to be for its first few years quickly made it the place to avoid by 1917.
The hotel was sold to First and Old Detroit National Bank in March 1919, and it was announced the then-12-year-old behemoth would be leveled and replaced by an Albert Kahn-designed office tower.
The Pontch closed its doors for good Jan. 31, 1920, and demolition began almost immediately and was wrapped up by that June.
Learn more about this lost landmark of Detroit in Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit.