Historic Detroit

Hotel Wolverine

The hotel was named after a vicious animal yet boasted a courteous staff and was regarded as the friendly home of both a tropical paradise and Tigers alike.

Jerome S. and Marcus L. Freud were running the Hotel Addison at Charlotte and Woodward, one of the largest apartment hotels in the city when it was built in 1905. Detroit was on its way to becoming an industrial powerhouse, but there would soon be a major shortage of hotel rooms. That’s because it was announced that the city’s most celebrated hotel, the Hotel Pontchartrain, would be closed on Jan. 31, 1920, and razed. Its closure meant a loss of 400 rooms in the city.

The Freuds stepped in to fill the void. When the Wolverine was announced in December 1919, it was front-page news in the Detroit Free Press. The George A. Fuller Co. began excavation and foundation work that month. The Sterling Construction Co. began erecting the structural steelwork -– fabricated by the Russel Wheel & Foundry Co. –- on Feb. 2, 1920.

Because of the Pontchartrain’s closure, there was a rush to get the Wolverine’s doors open. The same month the Pontch closed, the Freuds announced that builders would start working their forces around the clock, 24 hours a day, to get the Wolverine ready by July 1. That didn’t happen.

When it was announced, the hotel was to cost $2 million (about $26 million today, when adjusted for inflation) and have its formal opening in August 1920. But delays and cost overruns pushed back the opening by nearly a year and pushed the price tag up to $2.75 million ($35.75 million today), then again to $3 million ($37.8 million today). The Wolverine finally opened March 19, 1921.

The 17-story hotel was sheathed in red brick and stood about 236 feet tall. Architect L.P. Rowe, of the Chicago firm G.H. Gottschalk & Co., chose a Beaux Arts- and Italian Renaissance-influenced design that utilized a U-shape in order to get the most number of rooms with windows and natural light. The design was fairly restrained with light terra cotta ornamentation in the middle and at the top of the towers. Fridstein & Co. served as engineers.

The hotel catered initially to transient guests. Each of its 500 rooms had a tub and shower. The lobby was 55 feet by 51 feet and hand an attached lounge and a writing room on the mezzanine. There also was a large parlor on the main floor. The businessman’s lunch cost 75 cents –- about $9.50 today.

Marcus Freud wrote a letter to Clarence M. Burton, a Detroit historian and businessman, in July 1921 “extending to you personally the hospitality of Hotel Wolverine, Detroit’s newest and finest hotel.” In the letter, Freud tells the well-to-do Burton that the Wolverine’s lobby “has already become the meeting place for men of affairs.”

Tiger den

Among the music legends who stayed at the Wolverine were Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton and Horace Heidt.

“It was the place in the 1920s,” Arthur Arduin, president of the Wolverine Hotel Co., told the Detroit News in 1968. “It was the place for celebrities and the well-to-do.”

And the Wolverine was also home to several of the greatest athletes to ever wear the Olde English D.

“When I first got to Detroit, I stayed at the Wolverine Hotel for eight bucks a week. They gave you a room with a bed, but no closet. We just hung our clothes on the curtain rod in our bathroom. Since we took most of our showers at the ballpark, our bathrooms in the hotel became our closets,” Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg is quoted as saying in “The Detroit Tigers Encyclopedia.”

In an interview with Detroit News sports writer Joe Falls, Tigers Hall of Famer outfielder Al Kaline described when he first arrived in the pros in 1953: “All of a sudden I’m in the major leagues, and we’re traveling from town to town. I see the other players dressing different every day. I’ve got only one suit, and I keep wearing it over and over. I’m really embarrassed. I don’t even want to leave my hotel room. I lived at the Wolverine Hotel in Detroit. I didn’t know what to do with my time. We didn’t play many night games –- 14 or so –- and so I was off almost every night. I’d go to the movies a lot and just walk around the streets looking in the store windows. It’s 10, or even or 12, o’clock, and I’ve got nothing to do, and I’m just wandering around the feeling pretty lonely.”

Maybe that was because the man known as Mr. Tiger never ventured to the tropical paradise downstairs.

A tropical paradise

Adjoined to the Wolverine was The Tropics, “Michigan’s most unusual night spot and cocktail lounge,” as a postcard called it. A huge sign on top of the red brick building blazed “Tropics Room.” Inside, bamboo fixtures, fake trees and papier mache animals transported Detroiters to the South Pacific.

The club was made up of the Native Village and the Cocktail Lounge. The former was a replica of a South Pacific island village that “skillfully captured all the beauty and charm of far-off tropic lands. A romantic atmosphere is added by the exotic music of a fine dance orchestra atop America’s only traveling band stand,” a postcard boasted.

The Native Village offered nightly dancing in air-conditioned comfort. The Cocktail Lounge was authentic right down to the pitter-patter of rain on the roofs of the Rainfall Bars. A waterfall tumbled down behind the bar. Orchestras lured couples out onto a large dance floor that was lighted up in colors.

The downward slide

In the late 1940s, in an effort to bring new business to a struggling hotel, owner John Mack commissioned Robert Dorr Jr. of Kenilworth, Ill., to give the Wolverine a complete modernization and refurnish the hotel.

On June 12, 1950, the Wolverine returned to local ownership, when the hotel and The Tropics were sold by Scott Products and the United Guyon Corp. for an undisclosed price to the Detroit firm Seyburn and Berry and investor Allen Kramer. Seyburn and Berry also would buy the Fisher Building in 1962.

Much of downtown Detroit went downhill fast after the 1967 riot bled the city of much of its population. But the truth is, the city’s decline started about a decade before, thanks in large part to the U.S. highway system of the mid-1950s. The Wolverine is a case in point, having started its descent into hard times long before the riot. In 1966, the hotel took in indigents as an emergency shelter operated by the Detroit Department of Public Welfare.

By 1968, the Wolverine was already “near the fringes of poverty areas,” the Detroit News wrote that August. The bands had been silenced. The Tigers had moved out. The Wolverine called it quits.

It was announced that the Wolverine would be turned into a federally subsidized senior-housing complex. On Aug. 15, 1968, all of the Wolverine’s residents were evicted -– a mere 25 of them in a 450-room hotel. With the aid of federal money, the Wolverine’s owners turned the hotel into a turnkey project. The Wolverine’s developer spent $2.75 million (about $17.8 million today) to renovate the Wolverine into 235 units. The City of Detroit would then take over the building. In 1979, it was bestowed with the honor of the city’s “most-improved building.”

But in 1985, the city closed it, evicting hundreds of senior citizens, just like it would do 12 years later when it closed the Lee Plaza, another once-grand hotel that had been turned into senior housing. The results were about the same. The Wolverine stood empty, unsecured and open to trespass. Like many buildings left to vandals and the homeless, the building was stripped and desecrated. The city simply kicked people out, locked the door and left it for the vultures to pick away at. It was a textbook example of demolition by neglect on behalf of the city.

This should come as little surprise as the city’s public housing program was deemed at the time to be the nation’s worst by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city tried for nearly a decade to tear down the venerable old hotel, but HUD deemed that a better, less-wasteful use of tax dollars would be to renovate it. More to the point, HUD accused the city of exaggerating the cost of renovating so that the cost of erecting new public housing would look more reasonable.

Sharlan Douglas, a director of Cityscape Detroit, a nonprofit organization devoted to the preservation of historic buildings, told the Free Press: “Have you driven by the Wolverine lately? All the windows are open. That means snow and rain are blowing right in, hastening the deterioration of the building. … The City of Detroit wants to be able to justify its assertion that the building is beyond repair.”

Killing a Wolverine

Finally, in October 1995, it was announced that billionaire Mike Ilitch and the City of Detroit had agreed to build a new baseball stadium for his Detroit Tigers. The team would be leaving legendary Tiger Stadium, an 87-year-old ballpark at Michigan Avenue and Trumbull Street. To afford sports fans a room with a skyscraper view, it was decided to raze a number of historic buildings across from the Ilitch-owned Fox Theatre. Ilitch already owned much of the property in the area, so locating the ballpark at Woodward and I-75 allowed for him to capture more money from fans with his surface-level parking lots. The Wolverine, the YMCA, the YWCA and the Detroit College of Law were among the buildings that developers decided had to go. The Wolverine, rundown and abandoned for a decade, was the first of those buildings to be demolished. Engineered Demolition Inc. was awarded a contract worth $625,000 to implode the erase the Wolverine from the skyline with one fell swoop of the plunger.

Wreckers took out large swaths of the building to weaken the structure and help it fall where the demolition crews intended. On March 22, 1997, the Wolverine was imploded, reduced to a giant mound of dust and twisted steel. Crowds gathered along Woodward Avenue to watch. Loud cheers rose up to greet the giant plume of dust. The execution would be immortalized: The blast was filmed for a special on the Learning Channel.

The hotel stood next to the historic Gem Theatre, which was saved by businessman Chuck Forbes and physically moved. There was only 15 feet separating the landmarks, and the implosion was pulled off without damaging the Gem. To see video of the Wolverine being imploded, click here. Many of the bricks were saved for reuse, and the steel was melted down for scrap. It took two weeks to prepare for the implosion, and the debris was removed and the basement filled in within 24 days.

For more than six decades, the Wolverine catered to Detroit’s swingers, musicians, athletes, travelers and senior citizens. Today, the site of the Wolverine is a large surface-level parking lot owned by Ilitch’s Olympia Entertainment. Sports nuts fork over up to $40 per car to park on its grave.