Historic Detroit

Old Wayne County Building

It is a masterpiece of marble, mahogany and mosaics, bas reliefs, sculptures and columns. It is a stately building that looks as old as the city itself, one of the few survivors of the years before Detroit became the auto capital of the world.

This beauty of Beaux Arts Classicism was built as the Wayne County Courthouse at a cost of $1.6 million (about $39 million today, when adjusted for inflation). With its pink granite base, ornamental 247-foot tower and classic bronze sculptures, the Old Wayne County Building is one of the last survivors of pre-Depression Detroit. Work started in October 1897 and was completed in 1902, but the battle to build it began long before.

The old Old Wayne County Building

From the time that Michigan became a state in 1836 until 1845, there wasn’t a county building in Wayne County. Up until 1844, the Wayne Circuit Court and other county offices were based in Old City Hall. They spent a year in the Williams Building at Jefferson Avenue and Bates Street before moving July 9, 1845, into the first Wayne County Building, a simple, two-story brick structure on Griswold and Congress streets.

The building would quickly become cramped as the city’s population grew from 9,102 in 1840 to 21,019 in just 10 years. Another problem was that the building was a piece of junk. About 9 p.m. on June 9, 1859, the south wall of the building collapsed, taking the Register of Deeds and probate judge offices with it. The problem was caused by the excavation on the lot to the building’s south, where a cellar was being excavated for a block of stores. The first county building “has long been an eyesore, besides being an inconvenient and unsuitable building for the purposes for which it was designed,” the Free Press wrote at the time. “The city offices are all entirely too small and are dark, dingy places more suitable for cattle stalls than public offices. …

“We hope there will be no attempt to patch up the old concern, but let a commendable spirit be displayed and a new building erected that can accommodate the large and increasing business of the county and be an ornament to the city.”

The old building was repaired, anyway, but the county’s growing population would force change. By 1870, there were 79,577 Detroiters – and the county was booming, too. The county stayed in its tired, cramped confines until May 31, 1871, when all county offices and courts moved back into Old City Hall. For $12,000 a year, about $212,000 today, the county got plenty of room for more than two decades. But Detroit’s still-booming population would force a move to even comfier confines.

From 1870 to 1890, the number of residents in the city nearly tripled, to 205,876 – and would grow another 80,000 by the year 1900. Officials looked at adding another floor onto Old City Hall or putting an addition on the Woodward Avenue side, the front of the building. There was even talk of tearing down the building for a new, larger complex. But all of these plans were eventually discarded, and negotiations started to take shape on building the county a cozy new home of its own.

Controversy from the beginning

Wayne County bought the site for a new county building – a tract of land bounded by Brush, Congress, Fort and Randolph streets - for $550,000 in 1895, about $14 million today. Originally, only half the block was purchased, but as plans for the building unfolded, the rest of the block was purchased. Ground was broken in September 1896, and the excavation was done by the following spring.

The building was fraught with controversy from the beginning. There was disagreement over the plans. Wayne County was blasted for overpaying for the land by about $50,000, about $1.27 million today. The land deal “aroused grave suspicion,” the Detroit News wrote in September 1897. Then some 96,000 pounds of steel and iron went missing. There were allegations that the county’s auditors were not auditing or keeping financial tabs on the project. None of the steelwork was done in Detroit, when hometown labor was to be used. Copies of the plans and specifications were not made public. The contractor, M.J. Griffin, was accused of double-charging the county and using four-cut granite instead of the six-cut that the county paid for. There was a grand jury investigation, and a supervisor accused of soliciting bribes was prosecuted, though not convicted.

“There seems to be no abatement of the confusion which attended the county courthouse project since its very inception,” the News wrote in September 1897. Such scandals “bewildered the taxpayers, awakened their apprehensions, filled their minds with unpleasant doubts concerning pretty nearly everybody connected with the affair and rendered them prone to find fault on the slightest provocation.”

Court is in session

The cornerstone was laid Oct. 20, 1897, in a ceremony that the Detroit Free Press called at the time “simple but impressive.” Under a headline in capital letters proclaiming, “It is laid!”, the Free Press wrote that it had rained all morning the day of the ceremony, but just at 2 p.m., as officials were gathering at Old City Hall, the sun broke and the clouds parted. A band led the procession down Cadillac Square to a platform decked out in American flags in front of the county building, where Judge Edgar O. Durfee had the honor of laying the cornerstone. Judge Robert E. Frazer gave what the Free Press called a “stirring address,” and Mayor William C. Maybury also participated.

Gov. Hazen S. Pingree was to have laid the stone but was out of town. Among the documents sealed in the cornerstone and wrapped in an American flag were an 1897 city directory, reports of all city commissions, a copy of Wayne County laws, an 1897 Michigan manual, Detroit daily papers from Oct. 20, 1897, a souvenir of Labor Day 1897, and city and county maps. Also inserted were items relating to the Order of the Mystic Shrine and Knights Templar, because so many leading officials belonged to those types of groups. The huge piece of granite was then lowered into place as a band played “America.”

Durfee then strode to the front of the platform and said, “Mr. Mayor, I have nothing to say further than to express the hope that the people’s representatives who occupy this building will ever perform their duties with zeal, honesty and mercy.”

Frazer spoke next, giving a lengthy speech. Included in his words: “We have assembled here today for the purpose of laying the cornerstone of this magnificent structure, which is to be a credit to this beautiful city. … This great structure, which is dedicated here today, is dedicated to the cause of justice and municipal government. It matters not what form of government a people may live under, how wisely the Constitution may have been framed, or how just may be the laws the legislatures have enacted, nor how broad and beneficent in their scope – this all goes for nothing if these laws are badly administered. … This great temple, erected from the hard-earned money of the taxpayers, should be enduring, as it will be a pride and honor to those who have erected it. It should be indeed a temple where justice is administered alike to the rich and to the poor, where favoritism has no place, and where the only question that could be raised as to how the law should be administered should be as to the justice of a man’s cause, without consideration of his rank or station or political power.”

It was then Maybury’s turn, and his remarks were brief. “The duty of that stone is now begun, and may I express the hope that those who occupy the building to fulfill public trusts will be as faithful to their duty as this stone.”

Nearly five years to the day, a parade was held starting at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 11, 1902, from Old City Hall to the new county building. Several hundred guests gathered first in old Courtroom No. 1 at City Hall to say farewell to their old surroundings. Old-timers reminisced about the early bench. The crowd then marched to the new building’s Room No. 6. There, the building dedication ceremony was held by the Detroit Bar Association, and all sorts of court dignitaries from the state and many federal judges from all over the country came to speak. An invocation was given by the Right Rev. Thomas F. Davies of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan. Gov. Aaron Bliss and Mayor Maybury were among those who gave speeches, and architect John Scott was on hand to present the building. The Rev. George Elliott closed the proceedings with a dedicatory prayer, and the group then took a tour of the building.

The first case tried in the building was that of William G. Bradburn v. Wabash and Pere Marquette railroads. He was injured while working on the railroads and got a judgment in the case. The plaintiff was represented by Raymond E. Van Syckle, the railroads by Alfred Russell. Ten years after the case, the jury held a banquet to mark the anniversary of the building’s first trial.

Famous criminal attorney Clarence Darrow – best known for defending John Scopes in the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial – was among those who tried cases in the building, defending a play charged with obscenity. In 1906, Henry Ford reported to work in the building as a roads commissioner.

A palace for government

The building covers 44,625 square feet and has 18 courtrooms and 145 other rooms. It occupies an entire block, extending 255 feet along the front and back and 175 feet on the sides.

The lower story of the building’s exterior is made of Eastern, or grey Vermont, granite. The upper floors are done in Berea sandstone. Above the main entrance on Randolph is a bas relief showing Gen. Anthony Wayne, after whom the county is named. At each entrance are figures symbolizing knowledge and power.

In the center of the building is a 247-foot tower with a colonnade of the Corinthian style decorated with figures symbolizing agriculture, commerce, law and mechanics/technology. The figures are made of sheet copper, hammered, soldered and riveted over iron framework. It is the same way the Statue of Liberty was made.

The interior is decked out in mahogany, oak, birch, maple and sycamore. The halls are lined with a variety of marbles, including Sienna, English vein, white Italian, Alps green, Verona, red any yellow Numidian and others. The columns throughout the building are imitation marbles representing Siennas and Numidians, among others.

There are entrances on all four sides, meant not only to improve access but to also show the openness of government. The entrance on the Randolph Street side is under the main flight of steps, much like at the state Capitol Building. Walking through the door, visitors are surrounded by beautiful mosaics on a vaulted ceiling. Those who enter through the Congress and Fort street entrances walk through vestibules with walls of pressed Roman brick with Tennessee marble cornices and marble doorways spanned by barrel vaults of marble mosaic with a design of trellises and vines. The Brush Street side leads into a hall with paneled plaster walls and ceiling a molded cornice.

The interior is simple but stately, loaded with marble wainscoting, mosaic-tiled floors and ceilings, Tiffany glass windows, ornate column capitals and gorgeous woodwork. In the center of the building is a grand marble staircase 17 feet across that is lined with light pink Tennessee marble in large blocks with beveled edges. Along the top of the staircase are scagliola columns on marble pedestals connected by a Seinna marble balustrade. Littered throughout the interior are striking, carved mahogany doors.

The horsies

One of the building’s most prominent features is the pair of large sculptures flanking its center tower and portico. The copper sculptures are known as quadrigae, a Roman chariot drawn by four horses. The pieces were done by New York sculptor J. Massey Rhind, who intended the quadrigae to symbolize progress. They feature a woman standing in a chariot led by four horses with two smaller figures on either side.

The county approved $8,000 on Nov. 14, 1902, for Rhind’s models, and on March 14, 1904, signed off on a $39,500 contract to W.H. Mullins of Salem, Ohio, for the copper work and to construct and erect the statues. Many in Wayne County opposed the sculptures, saying taxes were high enough without spending money on such extravagances.

In late 2006 or early 2007, the quadrigae were removed from the building for a $570,000, painstaking restoration, handled by Venus Bronze Works on Mt. Elliott in Detroit. The county paid for the work, performed under the guidelines set forth by the state Historic Preservation Office. They returned to their perches in December 2009 – just as the county was moving out.

As a side note, the chariot riders originally carried pennants, but they were severely damaged by a windstorm and never replaced.

In October 1942, the State Salvage Committee wanted to scrap cannon seized from the Vizcaya, a warship during the Spanish-American war, that sat outside the county building. It was captured at the Battle of Santiago on July 3, 1898, and was loaned to the City of Detroit by the U.S. government. The cannon survived, but was moved to Historic Ft. Wayne. Joel Stone, curator of the Detroit Historical Society, told HistoricDetroit.org that the cannon is sitting on the ground just inside the fort entrance, next to the bell from Old City Hall’s clock tower. The Historic Fort Wayne Coalition hopes to mount the cannon down near the Spanish-American War-era guardhouse on the fort’s grounds.

A heck of a place to pay a parking ticket

Over the years, as the county continued to grow - and with it the number of courts and county workers - many alterations were made to the building, and offices were relocated to other locations. In 1928, the county’s Board of Supervisors lent its support to a proposed $20 million combined city hall and county building. The issue went on the ballot that November and was crushed, 222,391-148,583.

In 1947, the county building got its first scrub-down in its 45 years. The year before, 75 years of dirt and grime were sandblasted off Old City Hall. “We hope to emerge from the dust of generations as a three-color job, far prettier than that sickly yellow City Hall,” County Auditor Jacob P. Sumeracki told the Free Press at the time.

The building continued to house the Wayne County Hall of Justice and the county’s seat of government until 1955, when the City-County Building – now known as the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center – opened. The county building was renovated and the first three floors became the home of the Detroit Traffic Court and the Wayne County Friend of the Court. To provide for the traffic court, many of the paneled rooms were destroyed. The light courts flanking the tower had been filled in with offices because of a need for space.

This came during an era when the city tore down its historic Old City Hall, the magnificent Majestic Building and other irreplaceable pieces of its past. The Old Wayne County Building fell into disrepair and was threatened with demolition itself. It was reported that the only thing keeping it from being razed was the cost of tearing it down: It was estimated that razing it would cost more than what it cost to build.

Marj Jackson Levin wrote in the Free Press in 1983 about her experience going to the building over a traffic ticket: “The building is a shabby hodgepodge of chipped marble and cathedral ceilings with the ambience of worn-out elegance. Like any monument slowly going to ruin, it’s sparsely inhabited.”

It was listed on the State Register of Historic Places on Sept. 17, 1974, which made it eligible for tax credits. However, there was a catch: Tax credits work only when you pay taxes, and since the county didn’t pay taxes, it had to find private investors.

Saving a gem

The Old Wayne County Building Partnership, a private partnership led by the Farbman Group - a commercial real estate company based in Southfield, Mich. - agreed to take control of the building, restore it and lease the renovated landmark back to the county. The agreement was signed by then-county executive William Lucas in 1984, and the building transferred hands the following year.

Private investors agreed to restore the building, to a tune of more than $20 million. The Detroit architectural firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls Associates (now the Smith Group) was retained for design and administration services. SHG’s selection was notable because architect H.J. Maxwell Grylls was a partner in John Scott & Co., the original architects of the Old Wayne County Building, and Grylls had likely worked on the building’s design. Quinn Evans/Architects of Ann, Arbor, Mich., was retained as preservation and historic restoration consultants on the renovation. The deal on the project called for the county to enter a lease agreement that would pay a reasonable return to the investors over 30 years. It also included the option for the county to repurchase the building at the end of every 10 years. The county renewed its lease for another 10 years in 1998.

When the $25 million restoration was finished in 1987, the county leased it from the partnership and consolidated most of its operations and offices into the venerable landmark. The interior courtyards were enclosed to created atriums. The building was rededicated at a 4 p.m. ceremony on a cold and blustery Nov. 23, 1987, the first time the building had been seen in its full splendor in years. Workers reported to their new digs Nov. 30.

On Oct. 20, 1997 – 100 years to the day the original cornerstone was laid – then-Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara led a ceremony to seal a new time capsule for the year 2097. The new capsule replaced the original copper box from 1897. Included this time around: a cell phone, Detroit Red Wings memorabilia, a Detroit People Mover token, a CD-ROM of Wayne County’s Web site – and a Beanie Baby. No word on which of the once-popular cuddly stuffed animals is entombed in the cornerstone.

In 2000, scaffolding went up to repair the atrium and tower – and stayed up through 2005 because of arguments over who should pay for the work and how much work should be done. Officials decided that removing the scaffolding and rebuilding it when work was to resume would cost more than leaving it up. “I’m not sure I remember what the building looks like without it,” Wayne County Commissioner John Sullivan, a Democrat, told the Free Press at the time. “It’s something that I think people have joked about for a long time, but it stopped being funny.”

The scaffolding ended up costing $30,000 a month until 2003, when the county got the cost dropped to $20,000 a month. Wayne County wound up paying at least $1 million just to maintain and rent the scaffolding and almost $6 million for repairs on top of it.

Abandoning a landmark

The deal Lucas signed expired in November 2007, but the county renewed it year to year. For 22 years, the county stayed in the building, paying $4.6 million to $6.2 million a year in rent and maintenance charges, totaling more than $100 million in payments since 1984. That cost was cited in 2007, when the Wayne County Commission voted to buy the Guardian Building, another historic downtown landmark, for $14 million and relocate about 500 workers there from the Old Wayne County Building.

The commission also approved – by a single vote - another $39 million for renovations, sparking cries of government overspending in a tough economy and the abandonment of yet another proud Detroit architectural treasure. At the time, the city estimated that it had nearly 50 vacant office buildings downtown. The commission held its final meeting in its chambers, known as the Hall of Supervisors, at 10 a.m. Dec. 3, 2009. The county emptied out the Wayne County building, moved into the Guardian and dedicated its new meeting chambers in the 1929 Art Deco jewel on Feb. 4.

“We’re not competing against Oakland or Macomb” counties, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano told the Free Press in February 2010. “We’re competing against New York, Chicago, and, quite frankly, we’re competing against Beijing, Dubai and the others. … We wanted to make sure that anybody who walked into this building was going to be able to say, ‘I want to do business with Wayne County.’”

Ficano said Wayne County would save at least $2 million a year with the move, and “that’s $2 million less of employees we don’t have to lay off and programs we’ve been able to carry on.”

Ficano turned around and sued the Farbman Group in June 2010 for at least $40 million as a result of alleged overcharges on rent, fraud and failure to pay its debts related to the maintenance of the building. The lawsuit was the culmination of three years of drama, having started during the talks on the renegotiations of the lease and stemmed from a 1997 agreement with the partnership. The county charged in its suit that it had an initial agreement with the Farbman partnership to buy the building.

Farbman issued a statement at the time saying: “The Old Wayne County Building Limited Partnership, which saved and restored the beautiful and historic Old Wayne County Building in downtown Detroit, is surprised and deeply disappointed … that the county intends to bring a suit against it. The partnership has been engaged in regular discussions with the county about the Building, which has been the historic home of the county. The partnership has made a series of good faith offers to retain the county as the building’s tenant. We had hoped for a constructive response - we did not expect a lawsuit. … We do know that most of the issues that have been mentioned by the news media were addressed years ago with the county more than five years past or longer. Those issues were either resolved at the time or the partnership repeatedly demonstrated that they were without merit. The passage of years makes claims that were wrong when first made even less credible today.”

The suit has been tied up in arbitration since. And the Farbman Group has been trying to find new tenants or a buyer for the building ever since. For a couple of years, the only occupants of the graceful giant were toddlers: A day-care center was run out of the second floor. But eventually, it, too, was closed.

Today, the landmark sits, a silent centenarian that, like much of the city, hopes for better things.