Historic Detroit

Metropolitan Building

The Metropolitan Building arises like a medieval castle nestled near Grand Circus Park. Once home to the city’s jewelers and watchmakers, today it sits empty and decaying, an unpolished gem where time has stood still for nearly 30 years.

Between 1910 and 1920, Detroit’s population more than doubled, from 465,766 to 993,678, thanks largely in part to the rise of the automobile. And with the rise of the automobile came a rise in the city’s fortunes — and with those fortunes came more places to spend them. By the end of the 1910s, the city was starting to sprawl north up Woodward. Storefronts began to fill the area between Campus Martius and Grand Circus Park.

In 1919, George P. Yost, vice president of the Central Detroit Realty Co., came up with the idea to centralize multiple facets of a single trade into one building. He wanted to erect a building “at once beautiful, accessible and practical,” the Detroit Free Press wrote in May 1925.

In early 1924, several structures, including the former home of the Detroit Times, were razed to make way for the Metropolitan Building. It was “an old and unsightly group of buildings,” the Free Press said, tucked between Woodward Avenue and Broadway on John R Street. Excavation for the 15-story Metropolitan began July 5, 1924. The Walbridge-Aldinger Co. handled the construction. The building was to be ready by January or February 1925, but it was not ready until May 25.

The Detroit architectural firm Weston & Ellington designed the wedge-shaped Gothic Revival-Neo Gothic Metropolitan, “a strikingly impressive building,” the Detroit Saturday Night wrote in July 1924. The building is adorned with escutcheons and pieces of armor to accent its Gothic look.

While William C. Weston and Harold S. Ellington’s partnership lasted less than 10 years, their firm was responsible for such buildings as the Wardell Apartments (now known as the Park Shelton) and the Hotel Fort Wayne (also known as the American Hotel). Following Weston’s death in 1932, Ellington went on to join a firm that would become Harley, Ellis and Devereaux, now one of the most prestigious firms in metro Detroit.

One massive jewelry store

Unlike most buildings downtown, the Metropolitan was not an office building. From the beginning, the Metropolitan was leased to jewelers and related businesses, thus it often was informally known as the Jewelers Building. The first three floors and basement were designed to house retail shops, while the rest was leased to beauty and dress shops, millineries and wholesale jewelry dealers and manufacturers. The fifth through 10th floors were almost all jewelers and was known as the Jewelers Courts. Diamond cutters, goldsmiths and silver workers all took up quarters. There was a compressed-air plant in the basement that supplied air to all workbenches for all tenants, as well as a refrigerating plant and gas for forges. The 11th and 12th floors were given to ad men, commercial artists and insurance and real estate agents. There were 25 to 40 establishments on the first four floors with about 150 others on the other eight floors.

It was “a modern, fireproof retail and commercial building in the heart of Detroit,” the Free Press wrote in May 1925. “Aside from being a perfect example of Gothic architecture,” the Metropolitan “probably is one of the most unique shopping and merchandising centers ever built in America.” A visitor would enter the white-marble-floored lobby, “the ‘show lobby of Detroit,’ and immediately is impressed with the air of quiet elegance afforded by the marble walls topped by the heavily beamed, medieval ceiling,” the Free Press wrote. To the left of the lobby were display windows that “present the appearance of a street of high-class shops by virtue of the variety of fine goods place therein.”

Recessed doorways made for exceptional displays and led to several large stores on the ground floor. Four elevators with Gothic design (originally designed by the A.B. See Elevator Co., but modernized by the Westinghouse Corp. in the 1940s) were near the center of the building so that all the shops could be equally accessible. To the right was the grand staircase flanked by a balustrade of marble and ornamental bronze grillwork. The tower housed the elevator penthouse and water tank, so there was no need for an unsightly water tower that marred other buildings. In August 1927, Central Detroit Realty installed a mezzanine balcony and a penthouse roof garden for meals or recreation.

Central Detroit Realty hung onto the building until June 1946, when it was sold to the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Co. It changed hands again, in July 1957, when it was sold to three businessmen, Jerome M. Keywell, Kopel E. Kahn and J. Phillip Levant. They continued to run the Metropolitan, but the city’s fortunes started to decline dramatically in the 1960s and ’70s as the city’s residents fled to suburbia — and many of Detroit’s retailers went with them.

A gem goes unpolished

The rise of the shopping mall did the city’s commercial business no favors. One by one, Detroit’s retailers and mammoth department stores folded. Kern’s, Crowley-Milner and Hudson’s all folded up shop by 1984. Without such stores drawing shoppers downtown, buildings like the Metropolitan stood little chance of survival. In May 1977, the businessmen ditched the Metropolitan on Nor-Am Comm. Inc., which then lost it in a tax foreclosure to the City of Detroit in court in November 1978. The city then shuttered the Metropolitan the following year, and it has been empty ever since.

The usual damage and destruction caused to an abandoned building would befall the Metropolitan. Metal pipes would be stolen from its walls, harvested by scrappers. A deteriorated roof allowed water to infiltrate the building and destroy wood and plaster. Vandals broke windows. It’s a story that has played out in countless buildings in the city. But the Metropolitan had an unusual twist: Turn of the century jewelry making relied on toxic chemicals, such as the radioactive substance radium 266, which was used to illuminate watch dials. Radium’s radioactivity lasts for decades, making the Metropolitan a 15-story tower of nasty.

Several redevelopment plans have been floated since the building closed, but they’ve never gone anywhere, either because of the economy, the building’s location being off the main drag, or lingering concerns over contamination left over from the Metropolitan’s jewelry manufacturing days.

In October 1987, nearly 10 years after the Metropolitan closed, James Nicita set out to redevelop the building at a cost of $4.5 million and turn it into lofts. But the administration of Mayor Coleman A. Young turned him down, choosing in 1988 to go with D&L Development Corp., run by Diane and Larry Mongo. What would ensue would be a court battle lasting more than seven years, and one of the longest preservation legal battles in city history.

The battle for the Metropolitan

Nicita filed a Freedom of Information Act request the following year to find out why. Young’s office refused to comply with the request. Nicita sued. While Nicita got some of the records he had sought, he didn’t get them all. In 1992, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in Nicita’s favor, and Young’s administration appealed to the state Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.

Nicita got some of the documents, which showed that he was actually recommended to get the building and would have put up more money than the Mongos. But the city picked the Mongos, who were friends of Young’s administration. “It seems apparent why the Young administration wouldn’t want Nicita getting his hands on these documents,” MetroTimes wrote in September 1997. It should be noted that if the mayor’s office was indeed playing favorites, it does not mean the Mongos did anything wrong.

When Mayor Dennis Archer succeeded Young in 1994, his office continued to fight Nicita’s attempts to get the records. Archer, a highly respected former state Supreme Court justice, “did not turn to the state’s highest court merely to prevent one man from getting his hands on city records,” MetroTimes wrote. “Archer hoped to reverse the legal precedent Nicita’s case set for others seeking information about how decisions are made in the city’s bureaucracy.” The Court of Appeals again affirmed Nicita’s rights to the files again in 1996, and the state Supreme Court again refused to take the case.

“That was a very drawn out fight,” Nicita told HistoricDetroit.org, “But the one positive byproduct to come out of this was better public access to public records.”

While Nicita won in court, he didn’t win the right to redevelop the Metropolitan; those rights remained with the Mongos. Nicita would go on to get the Park Avenue Historic District designated and fought to try to save the downtown Hudson’s store. He left Detroit in 2001, became a lawyer and is now on the planning commission in Oregon City, Ore.

“It wasn’t the economy that chased me out,” Nicita said. “It was the horrible decision making” by the city.

Hope

In 1997, the city and state cleaned up the contamination, clearing a major hurdle to any redevelopment of the Metropolitan. The interior retains little of its original luster. Walls have been scraped bare leaving nothing more than a concrete skeleton on many floors. This is likely due in part to the contamination cleanup. Still, this makes the Metropolitan a sort of blank canvass for some developer with a dream and a big pocketbook to revive one of the city’s most beautiful, though often unheralded, landmarks.

While the building has been closed since 1979, the building remains on the radars of both the city and architectural firms. Unlike many other buildings that have been empty for decades, the Metropolitan’s façade and structure are mostly stable, several metro Detroit architects say. And, despite 2009’s losses of the Lafayette Building and Tiger Stadium, the city says it’s not looking to tear down everything.

“If our goal was just go out and tear down buildings,” the Metropolitan “would have been gone,” Waymon Guillebeaux, executive vice president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., told the Free Press in July 2009.

The city’s planned actions appear to back that up. As of January 2010, the Downtown Development Authority is working with the firm McIntosh & Poris to stabilize the Metropolitan’s façade and install lights to illuminate its magnificent crown and bring the building up to code. That news alone would hint that the building is in no immediate danger of meeting the wrecking ball.

“Structurally, it’s fine, but there’s brick falling away at the top,” architect Michael Poris told HistoricDetroit.org, adding that a major study will be “looking over every inch of it. … We don’t want it torn down, so we’re going to do what we can to save it.”

Larry Mongo, a Detroit entrepreneur who owns the popular watering hole D’Mongo’s Speakeasy, still has the development rights on the building. And while he admits that “I had no plans on hanging onto it this long, trust me,” he remains optimistic that the building still has a future.

“There’s a lot of problems out there in the financial world,” he told HistoricDetroit.org. “But we feel in the next six months, the economy will lift up and with the excitement of the Financial District being made historic and with the plans for the rail line up Woodward … the area is going to take off and give us great momentum. … Once that rail line goes in, I don’t think we’ll have any problems” finding developers.

As for the more than a decade of waiting, Mongo said it just seemed like “when one thing goes right, something else goes wrong,” and he compared some building owners in Detroit to “old gold miners who can’t give up on finding gold and just keep hanging on” to their properties hoping for things to turn around.

But Mongo is a dedicated Detroiter and vowed that “I’d fight them tooth and nail” if the city ever tried to bring down the Metropolitan. The building will live again, he said, “it’s going to happen with me or without me.”

The odds

While there have been plans looking at making the Metropolitan market rate housing or condos, any such plan would rely heavily on tax credits and incentives. But getting such credits is never certain. And with the ailing state of Detroit and Michigan’s economies — plus other residential buildings that have come online in recent years, such as the Book-Cadillac Hotel, Merchants Row and the Fort Shelby Hotel — a tough situation isn’t made any easier.

The current plan appears to be mothballing and stabilizing the Metropolitan until the economy turns around and to prevent further damage from befalling it.

“There are a whole host of reasons over the past 10 years that nothing has happened with that building,” said Eric Larson, president and CEO of the Larson Realty Group, which has been working with Mongo on the building for 11 years.

Larson, whose list of successful projects include the Argonaut Building, the Broadway District, Comerica Tower and others, said they’re looking at turning the Metropolitan into 75 to 80 units of 600 to 1,200 square feet each. Despite the building’s unusual triangular shape, the “floor plans are workable, it’d be a perfect building, though it has challenges,” Larson said. “One, its condition. Two, the lack of parking. Three, we’ve run the numbers as a hotel, market-rate housing, office space, and the only formula that works in today’s market is affordable housing. … We still think there’s a way to make it work, but the city is skeptical of increasing affordable housing while trying to show it’s worth more than that.”