Historic Detroit

Hotel Ste. Claire

Looking like something out of Europe, the Hotel Ste. Claire’s “register bore the names of most of the distinguished visitors to Detroit,” the Detroit Times once wrote.

The Ste. Claire opened June 8, 1893, on the northeast corner of Randolph and Monroe streets. It was built by the prominent Brush estate, and it quickly became the city’s finest and most popular hotel and the center of the growing city’s social life. It also was the first fireproof hotel erected in Detroit, according to “The City of Detroit” by Clarence Monroe Burton.

It was built on the site of the Hotel Henry, built by John Henry in 1866. The Ste. Claire was one of Detroit’s swankier hotels at the time and boasted 140 rooms. It was a smaller - and cheaper - alternative to the more lavish Russell House and original Pontchartrain, which were down the road on Campus Martius. Built in the Dutch/Flemish Renaissance Revival style, the Ste. Claire looked like something out of old Europe. It was a tall and narrow building, standing eight stories. The Detroit News wrote in 1934 that the Ste. Claire was the architectural rage of its day. The firm Donaldson & Meier designed the hotel, calling for several thousand feet of the finest birds eye maple in its doors and frames of the parlors and the bridal suite. Its halls were lined with marble wainscoting. Out-of-town travelers would stand on its iron-railed balconies, taking in the bustling city below. The hotel did not have a ballroom.

One of the hotel’s main selling points was its location. Guests on the higher floors were afforded views of Old City Hall, and it was a frequent stay of choice for patrons and out-of-town performers at the nearby Detroit Opera House. Richard Mansfield, Thomas Q. Seabrooke, Jessie Bartless Davis and other famous stars of the comic opera stage stayed there. Julia Arthur and the members of her company did, too. There were plenty of restaurants on Monroe and Randolph, and there were theaters like the Wonderland and Family nearby. It also was close to the Ferry Seed Co., so it also got plenty of business travelers.

It was perhaps best known for its bar, where much of Detroit’s political history was hammered out. In fact, the Detroit Times said the Ste. Claire’s bar was “nationally famous and the meeting place of sporting bloods and gallants.” It also was the place to go and sort out proposals before the City Council, and its location a couple of blocks north of the Old Wayne County Building — then a courthouse — made it a popular haunt for judges. It also was a popular place for Sunday dinners. “In the old days, all the dinners and banquets worth while were given at the Ste. Claire,” the Detroit News wrote in 1934.

The hotel proved so popular that an annex was built behind it on Monroe Avenue and a connecting sky bridge three stories high joined the two above the second-story level. The Ste. Claire was located on the outskirts of present-day Greektown, and even back at the turn of the century, this part of Detroit was home to Greek immigrants and known as Little Greece. The annex was home to the Greek Tribune and the Athens Café on the ground floor.

James D. Burns, who acquired the Detroit Tigers franchise in 1901 and ran the team for two years, selling the club so he could run for Wayne County sheriff, a position he won by a large majority and held for four years. After leaving office, he built the Burns Hotel on Cadillac Square, later selling his share of the hotel to his partner in 1915 in order to run the Ste. Claire, a far more popular — and profitable — hotel.

It was a ritzy place until the roaring ’20s came and its business went. Prohibition from 1920 to 1933 meant the end of its popularity as a political and business center. And newer hotels like the Book-Cadillac and Statler opened, offering more glamour and more amenities, such as ballrooms and individual bathrooms. The Ste. Claire became a residential hotel but still struggled.

While the management of the Ste. Claire changed over the years, the property itself stayed in the family of Thompson, the mayor who built the hotel. As the hotel’s business went down, the Randolph Realty Co. — the firm that was leasing the site — struggled to pay rent to Thompson’s daughter and then-property owner, Elizabeth Frelinghuysen of New York City. Her mother was a member of the Brush family, and it was on the old Brush estate that the Ste. Claire had been built.

Frelinghuysen got a judgment against the realty company — which had a 99-year lease on the hotel — for $76,130 (about $1.1 million today) in unpaid rent and taxes and took back possession of the hotel. On Nov. 16, 1933, a constable nailed a writ of restitution to the hotel’s front door and had the Ste. Claire’s 35 guests evicted by order of the court. The Detroit Times reported at the time that many of the hotel’s residents had lived there for years. The Ste. Claire’s contents were sold at a sheriff’s sale to the Wayne County Storage & Towing Co.

R.Y. Cutler, who managed Frelinghuysen’s properties, told the Free Press at the time that if the building was not leased, it would be torn down after Jan. 1, 1934. Frelinghuysen was true to her word: Demolition began Jan. 3. The next day, the Free Press ran a headline blaring, “Picturesque Hotel Ste. Claire Is Under Wreckers’ Sledge.”

If the hotel were in Nuremberg or Brussels, the article said, “Detroiters abroad would be mailing picture-postcards of it back home to their friends. Instead, Wednesday Detroiters were tearing it down.”

The site has served as a parking lot ever since.