Historic Detroit

Kales Building

The Kales Building is home to people these days, but it once was home to a retail giant: the forerunner of Kmart.

Sebastian S. Kresge achieved wealth and success almost immediately after opening his first 5- and 10-cent store on Woodward in 1899. His S.S. Kresge Co., today known as Kmart, would blossom to nearly 100 stores in a little more than a decade. Such success meant the company would soon outgrow its cramped headquarters above one of its stores. Such success called for a towering skyscraper designed by one of the best in the business.

Kresge turned to Albert Kahn to design him an 18-story, 115,000-square-foot tower at Park and Adams streets overlooking Grand Circus Park. The white-bricked building, originally dubbed the Kresge Building, opened in 1914. It was done in the Chicago School of Architecture style and had a steel-frame infrastructure and large windows to allow for as much light as possible. Kahn gave the building’s façade clean lines with Renaissance Revival and Neo-Classical touches. At the top of the tower, in the middle, KRESGE was spelled out in capital letters (this was later changed to KALES).

It was one of Detroit’s earliest and tallest skyscrapers when it was built and the tallest structure around Grand Circus Park until the David Whitney Building was finished a year later, in 1915.

The retailer didn’t fill the tower, using about half of its 18 floors, with the rest being rented out to small businesses, but Kresge kept growing across the country and would eventually outgrow its headquarters. In 1927, it was announced the company would move a bit farther up the road, to the S.S. Kresge World Headquarters. This building, also a Kahn design, was done in a bold Art Deco style, a far cry from the humble, simple tower on Grand Circus Park. Kresge changed its name to Kmart Corp. in 1977.

When Kresge moved out of Grand Circus Park, the tower’s name was changed to the Kales Building; the use of a new name that started with K was fortunate as there were many ornamental K’s throughout Kresge’s old stomping grounds. The building would soon become home to mostly doctor and medical offices.

The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Feb. 28, 1983, entering as a part of the Grand Circus Park Historic District. But the building being deemed historic did little to keep the building afloat.

Like many buildings downtown, the Kales’ success took a sharp turn for the worst following the 1967 riot. As Detroit struggled and downtown office occupancy dwindled, the Kales’ tenants started to flee to the suburbs. The building fell into money trouble, its utilities were shut off and the building was finally shuttered in 1986. The building sat empty, stripped and vandalized for decades and fell into the hands of the City of Detroit because of back taxes. As Grand Circus Park continued to bleed tenants and buildings — the Hotel Statler had closed in 1975, and the Hotel Tuller closed the following year and was razed in 1992 — hope looked dim for the Kales.

In the mid-1990s, there was talk of leveling the Kales for parking following the announcement of Comerica Park. The city had tried marketing some of the abandoned skyscrapers on Grand Circus Park, including the Statler and the Kales, going so far as to submit request for proposals in the summer of 1999. While the Statler didn’t have any bites, it was announced that Ferlito Construction and several partners would turn the Kales into high-rise residential. The Greater Downtown Partnership sold the skyscraper to Ferlito for about $100,000. More than $17 million would go into redeveloping the Kales.

The renovation was originally slated to begin in 2000, but financial difficulties put the plan on hold until late 2003. The apartments opened in 2004 with 119 residential units, making it one of the earliest entries in Detroit’s loft and condo boom of the mid-2000s. It also was a hit almost from the start, boasting 90% occupancy shortly after opening. The building features such amenities as hardwood floors, high-speed Internet and a fitness facility. A planned Shield’s Pizza in the ground floor has been an on-again-off-again project.