Historic Detroit

Mackenzie Hall

Mackenzie Hall began its life as the city’s top “stag hotel” and ended it as a hangout for co-eds.

At the turn of the century, most young single men in cities lived in boarding or rooming houses or rented a room in another family’s home. “A wag remarked that a few years of such living would either drive a man to suicide or matrimony,” its architect, H. Augustus O’Dell, cracked in an advertising special section in the Detroit Times. Transient hotels were another option, but were pricey for permanent or long-term renting, as were bachelor hotels, or “stag hotels,” as they were also known. Detroit’s manufacturing boom had led it to become a city of 1.3 million people, the fourth-largest city in the country. And many of those factories were luring in single men to work in the city. The time was right, O’Dell surmised, for what was essentially an apartment building for young, single men in Detroit. Peter A. Miller, president and principal stockholder of the Cass Putnam Hotel Co., rose to fill that need. The building at Cass Avenue and Putnam opened as the 800-room Webster Hall hotel. It was designed by O’Dell of the firm Halpin & Jewell.

What is now known as the city’s Cultural Center was a booming part of town in the mid-1920s. The city opened its main branch of the Detroit Public Library on the northeast corner of Cass and Putnam in 1925, and the Detroit Institute of Arts was under construction. It was close to General Motors’ headquarters, as well as plants for the Burroughs, Packard, Dodge, Standard Plumbing, Studebaker, Fisher Body and McCord Manufacturing. It also was on the Cass Avenue bus line and the Woodward Avenue streetcar line. The John R and Forest and Warren avenue streetcar lines were within walking distance. The investor’s brochure for the Webster said the “location selected for Webster Hall could not be improved upon for the purpose. … A careful survey by the mortgagor has shown that these plants alone employ more single men than could be accommodated in Webster Hall.” Noted the Detroit Times: The combination of “a large population of prosperous single men and a pressing hotel shortage” was a “splendid opportunity for a bachelor hotel such as the Webster Hall. … Men, young and old, who make Webster Hall their home will have on one side of them a great avenue (Woodward), where they may take busses (sic) to any part of the city, and on the other the smooth green lawns and marble buildings of the art center.”

The grand opening celebration of “America’s finest club residence” was a two-day affair beginning Jan. 21, 1925. Ten-course dinners were served while a pair of orchestras performed, one in the dining room, the other in the ballroom. Formal dancing began at 9 p.m. and lasted “until far into the ‘wee sma’ hours,’” the Detroit Times reported. The dining hall held only 600 people, so the Webster’s owners held a second formal opening the next night to accommodate all of the hotel’s residents and their friends. The festivities went on until 2 a.m.

Putting the Webster in Webster Hall

The hotel was named after Judge Clyde I. Webster. The story of how such a building came to be named after a judge is an unusual one. In the summer of 1917, Miller, a University of Michigan law school graduate, came to Detroit from Ann Arbor seeking a job. Attorney Clyde Webster gave Miller a chance to prove himself by working without pay. Four months later, when Webster was appointed by Gov. Albert Sleeper to replace a Circuit Court judge who had died, Webster turned his clientele over to Miller. Since Miller had only four months experience, Webster lent him his advice. The judge was also a stockholder in the Cass Putnam Hotel Co.

“He could have done no more for his own son than he did for me,” Miller told the Detroit Times at the time of the opening. “To give to this magnificent new club residence for men the name of Clyde I. Webster is but a small token of my gratitude.” It “will stand throughout years to come as a monument to the man whose name it bears — a man who has performed generous, unselfish favors for many young men on the thresholds of their business careers.”

A five-star stag hotel

The 12-story concrete-and-steel building had 800 rooms, two coffee shops, a Shapero drugstore and conference rooms. It was a residential hotel for men and women. In the 1930s, the hotel operated in bankruptcy. An ad for Albert Pick & Co., which outfitted the Webster, boasted of the hotel’s offering of “the comfort of home with the convenience of a hotel” and called the Webster “Detroit’s great new club residence. Every care has been taken to insure (sic) the comfort and enjoyment of its guests.” It cost $10-$12 a week for a room in 1925, a whopping $125-$150 a week today, when adjusted for inflation. The Webster was a place of luxury, to be certain.

One of the centerpieces was its large, richly decorated indoor pool in the basement, “where sons of Neptune will dispart themselves,” a Detroit Times advertising section on the Webster said. “It is said to be one of the finest natatoriums in America.” The 100,000-gallon pool had a gray-green color scheme inset with colored tiles were nautical figures - tridents, mermaids and fish. The ceiling above the the pool was one giant skylight, bathing it in natural light during the day. The pool, which was 10.5-feet deep under its springboard, was renowned for its purification. In what was an impressive piece of technology of its day, the water was purified in three ways: with a sand filter, a violet ray filter and a chlorinating system.

The Webster also offered a catering service to the nearby homes that once surrounded the streets around the Detroit Public Library and Detroit Institute of Arts. Luncheons in the dining room were 85 cents (about $10 today). The table d’hote dinners were $1.10 (about $14). Tipping was not permitted. There also were private dining rooms for banquets and formal lunches and dinners. “Reasonable prices prevail,” an ad for the hotel said. Women couldn’t stay in the hotel, but they could eat there. The hotel even had bridge luncheons and teas for women.

One of the first groups to establish a local headquarters in the Webster was the Gamma Eta Gamma legal fraternity, settling in on the hotel’s second floor. The organization had a chapter at the University of Detroit (now University of Detroit Mercy). All local alumni got full club privileges of the building. Around this time, many groups for it cheaper to rent space in office buildings and hotels than to own their own building. Other groups adjoined rooms.

But for reasons such as the Depression and the building boom in the mid- to late 1920s, the Webster struggled financially. In 1935, a reorganization plan was shot down in which bondholders would have surrendered their bondholders for 87.5% of stock in a new company. The Webster continued to struggle until it found an unlikely suitor: the City of Detroit.

Wayne State takes over

The city’s public school system took title of the building during the week of July 21, 1946 to use it as a dormitory for its growing Wayne University. The sale was for $1.2 million (about $13.5 million today). Until 1956, Wayne University was a municipally run university. At the time, Webster had 571 permanent residents and 50 transient guests, and they fought eviction, even hiring lawyers. More than 125 veterans of World War I and World War II who lived at the Webster formed a separate group. “We’re not going to get out,” Technical Sgt. Thomas Harbola told the Detroit Free Press at the time. “I can get along without lights or water. And if they move me out forcibly, I’ll just be one of our group who will dig a foxhole outside.” The city hesitated to evict the hundreds of residents, but it wanted to start a $500,000 ($5.6 million) renovation before the Webster could be used as a dorm. “City officials express frank and complete puzzlement over means of getting them out painlessly,” the Detroit News wrote at the time.

Webster was renamed the Student Center Building and turned into the school’s first dormitory. The upper floors were used for housing, and the lower ones for a student center. The building was so crowded, students had to eat lunch on the staircases. To live in the Student Center Building, students had to pass health examinations and meet requirements set by the university. Contract nurses and other students attending under special contracts got first dibs. But as housing became more plentiful as people left the city, the demand for dorm space fell. In 1959, less than 2 percent of the student population lived on campus. The building was then used as office space, housing the psychology and economics departments, among others. The university president and his staff moved into the 10th and 11th floors of the building.

WSU’s Board of Governors voted in July 1961 to rename the building Mackenzie Hall, in honor of David Mackenzie, an education pioneer in Detroit and the founder of the university. The building remained the center of student life until WSU built the University Center in 1969. From that point, the building was used mostly for faculty offices.

A landmark erased

Wayne State continued to push a policy of demolition and building of newer structures. When it was decided that WSU would build a new student welcome center, then-university president David Adamany announced Mackenzie Hall would be imploded to make way for a parking garage. At 10:15 a.m. Feb. 17, 1991, Mackenzie Hall was reduced to a 15-foot pile of rubble by the North American Dismantling Corp. In less than 30 seconds, the proud old landmark was reduced to rubble and a massive dust cloud floated over the city. More than 200 pounds of dynamite were drilled into about 1,000 spots in the building’s support columns in the basement and first few floors. Today, the site is home to a parking garage. You can watch video of the implosion here.

More on this lost building of Detroit coming soon.