Work on the grand, 15-story Statler Hotel began in 1913 on land once owned by Gen. Alexander Macomb. Former Gov. John Judson Bagley acquired the site in 1863 and built his home, which remained in the family until it was sold to Arthur H. Fleming in 1907. It was Fleming who sold the property to Ellsworth M. Statler’s chain of hotels.
Mayor Oscar B. Marx was said to be beaming as he seized a shovel during the groundbreaking on July 2, 1913. After all, it was a monumental moment for Detroit: Grand Circus Park was about to embark on a revolutionary facelift, going from a park in a residential area to a park ringed by hotels and skyscrapers: “Only a short time before, low, rambling buildings, some of them of ancient frame construction, had been fringing the green carpet of the old park, now brick, steel and stone were beginning to pierce the higher levels, lending new features to a skyline which had persisted in earlier years in hugging our river shore,” George W. Stark wrote in the Free Press in 1913. Construction of the Statler would take only 18 months.
A grand hotel on Grand Circus
The hotel — designed by George B. Post in the Italian and Renaissance Revival styles — cost $3.5 million to build ($70.9 million today), making it Detroit’s most expensive and luxurious hotel at the time. It also was the largest hotel in the Midwest when it opened on Feb. 6, 1915. More than 3,000 people in gowns and suits dined in the hotel during the night before, filling its halls and lobby and dancing in the ballroom. The lobby and mezzanine floor were packed with flowers. Each guest received a souvenir menu with an autograph and message from E.M. Statler on the cover wishing all a good time. The Statlers’ two children were the first to sign the register; their father followed suit.
“Under the soft lights, evening gowns, set off by the black and white of the conventional masculine attire, flashed in a bright yet dignified fashion,” the Free Press reported the day after. “The chatter of many voices, the laughter and smiles of a happy throng were on every side. Through the midst of this gathering, there flitted the silent, swift attaches, attending to the smallest wants of the guests and going about their duties as if bred for their particular places.”
The guests were treated to a “dainty meal” in the main dining room on the first floor and in the grill room. An orchestra furnished music during the meal in the dining room. It was two stories in height with heavy arches and was “frescoed in dainty colors, its glittering glass chandeliers and its heavy carpers was the center of the gaiety. … It was a fairyland,” the Free Press reported.
The royal treatment didn’t end after the grand opening was over. The Statler’s first manager was Frederick B. Bergman, a man who was said to be “the last word in appropriateness.” Those dining in the Statler’s confines ate under huge crystal chandeliers in high-ceilinged rooms while an orchestra played Tschaikovsky, Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff. Adolph Demmer, a maitre d’ for 18 years at the Statler, told the Free Press in 1937: “During the war and after, we had everybody. All the famous generals were here. … Then there were stage and screen stars and opera singers.”
The 800-room Detroit Statler’s exterior looked similar to Post’s other Statler hotels, but this one was unique. The hotel had private baths (a first for a Detroit hotel), in-room telephones and cold running water in every room. It also was the first hotel in the nation with air-conditioning in all public areas. Such features were nearly unheard of at the time it was built. The Statler also had a complete medical department on the top floor. Such revolutionary amenities helped to put older Detroit hotels, such as the Pontchartrain, Ste. Claire and Burns, out of business.
A hotel fit for the stars
The hotel also afforded great views overlooking Grand Circus Park and was along the trendy shopping district of Washington Boulevard. In fact, the hotel proved so popular that a year after opening, an extension was built to create a total of 1,000 rooms and a whopping 515,000 square feet of hotel. The Statler also provided a ritzier option to its neighbor and competitor, the Hotel Tuller. Its location — a block from Woodward Avenue and a couple more from the Kern’s, Hudson’s and Crowley’s department stores — helped. It also was near the famous Michigan Palace Supper Club and the glamorous United Artists and Michigan theaters, so many of the stars who performed there stayed at the Statler.
Harry Houdini was staying at the Statler in October 1926 when he collapsed on stage at the Garrick Theatre. He was taken to Grace Hospital, where he died. The hotel also saw such luminaries as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
A room with a shower and one bed cost $3 (about $37 today) a night in 1923; a second bed was an extra 50 cents. Rooms with twin beds and a shower were $5.50 a night (about $68 today). Parlor suites could be had starting at $13 (about $163 today).
The Statler remained a popular hotel in Detroit throughout the boom times of the 1920s and weathered the Great Depression and it more than held its own against the Book-Cadillac Hotel. Perhaps part of its success was because of how tightly run it was: In the 1930s, the bus boys in the restaurant were trained how to most safely pick up a plate from a table to avoid dropping or breaking it.
E.M. Statler died in 1928, and his widow, Alice, took over as chairwoman of the board of directors.
In May 1954, stockholders of Hotels Statler Co. Inc. sought to sell the chain. Conrad N. Hilton announced in August 1954 that his company was buying a $37.65 million controlling interest in Statler Hotels Inc., about $292 million today. The deal, which was believed to be the biggest transaction in hotel history, led to Hilton becoming the president of the Statler chain. Statler Inc. had 23 hotels with assets of more than $174 million at the time, about $1.34 billion in today’s dollars.
By October 1954, Hilton had bought the rest of the Statler company — nine Statler hotels and two office buildings — for a total of $111 million (about $860 million today). The Detroit location’s name was changed to the Statler-Hilton in January 1958. At the time, the Detroit Statler employed more than 800 people.
Big changes, both good and bad
In 1957, the hotel’s manager, Ernest Steck, attempted to make the hotel more kid-friendly and turned the roof into a roof garden and playground, complete with tricycles, hobby horses, swings and a canopied sandbox. By the early 1960s, hotel occupancy was declining in Detroit, and as early as 1961, Hilton started exploring the sale of three of the oldest, least profitable Statler hotels — Detroit, Buffalo and Cleveland. In an effort to lure businesswomen and traveling couples, the hotel began the Detroit Lady Hilton program in February 1964. It included a second-floor boutique and beauty salon. Men were not allowed to stay on the floor unless accompanied by their wives.
The early 1960s also was about the time that Hilton decided to modernize the hotel and introduced wood paneling and drop ceilings to the hotel. The first phase was a $250,000 (about $1.73 million today) makeover intended to reproduce “the flavor of international Americana,” general manager Frank Teich said. In June 1962, the Surrey Room, a room where Tudor and contemporary design met and patrons could eat or dance, opened. A new canopied street entrance from Washington Boulevard was installed that opened onto “Peacock Alley,” an entrance way paneled with pine log, Georgia marble, granite and stone. A new piano bar with Lenore Paxton on the keys fronted on Washington Boulevard.
The following year, Teich had the famed old Terrace Room — which dated to a 1937 renovation — converted into the Candlelight and Trophy rooms that, with the Surrey, created a dining complex. The Candlelight sat 116 and had a colonial atmosphere with a whole wall of brick, a fireplace and four big chandeliers. The Trophy Room had a capacity of 66 and had a more masculine atmosphere. Detroiters and organizations were invited to lend trophies for display in cases along a wall. In an attempt to land more banquets and conventions, Teich had the Statler add the largest convention area in Detroit at the time, an L-shaped arrangement of five adjoining banquet halls. The expansion by Idea Associates of Chicago added 10,000 square feet of meeting and convention space on an Italian terrazzo floor on the mezzanine level that spanned the entire lobby and Café Rouge below. The configuration included portable, sound-resistant “air walls” that could be opened into one large hall with a seating capacity for more than 1,000. A large and powerful freight elevator capable of hoisting automobiles was added into the Bagley Avenue side in January 1964.
The renovations did much to strip the hotel of its original opulence but did little to change the hotel’s declining business.
In August 1968, as the Statler’s rival, the Sheraton-Cadillac Hotel, was undergoing a $4 million renovation ($24.8 million today), Hilton Hotels announced it would spend another $2.5 million ($15.5 million) to add a swimming pool, convert the 13th and 14th floors into luxury suites and enlarge and remodel guestrooms, among other changes. One of the first steps in the renovation was the installation of three huge golden chandeliers from the Palmer House in Chicago, then also a Hilton hotel. The chandeliers cost $1,750 each (about $11,000 today) to buy and refurbish in December 1968 and were placed in the ballroom. The ballroom, which had been gold and white, was redone in blue and red. The spacious lobby was reduced to one floor. A more ambitious part of the retooling was taking an old elevator shaft — which once served the ballroom floor but had been walled over years before — and reopening it as a private elevator to serve the luxury suites, dubbed the Hilton Towers. In January 1969, it was announced that a Trader Vic’s Polynesian restaurant would replace the Café Rouge. By this time, the $2.5 million renovation had grown to $3.5 million.
The beginning of the end
In the summer of 1969, a group of 26 investors bought the Statler from Hilton for $7.2 million (about $42 million today). Some of the investors — mostly businessmen with small- and medium-size firms and a handful of lawyers — had never seen the hotel before the purchase, said a lawyer for the group, the Detroit Hilton Limited Partnership. Worse, they admittedly had no idea how to run a hotel, so they had to get Hilton to agree to continue managing the Statler under a long-term contract as part of the deal.
“We’re not hotel people,” tax attorney Fred Gordon told the Free Press in 1969. “We don’t know anything about the hotel business.”
It would later show.
The group dropped the name Statler from the hotel, renaming it the Detroit Hilton. It was the first time in 54 years that the name Statler was not associated with the landmark.
“The hotel is operating profitably,” “We hope to make it more profitable.” The hotel continued to struggle, and Hilton pulled out of the deal in 1974. The move prompted another name change, this time to the Detroit Heritage Hotel. But things got even worse. By June 1975, the hotel’s occupancy rate was averaging only 20%. Unable to pay its taxes and bills, the hotel tinkered on the edge of closing for several months. Local banks and other organizations tried to pull together nearly $1 million in aid to keep the veritable hotel alive. Not even Mayor Coleman A. Young and the Teamsters could save it. Young had gotten the Teamsters pension fund to pitch in almost $500,000 under the plan the month before, but the deal fell apart. A Pakistani financier, Muhammad Farouk Kahn, announced that he would buy the hotel, but the deal fell through like the others.
The lights go out
The end finally came on Oct. 15, 1975, after the hotel’s utilities were cut off. At the time of its closure, the Heritage had racked up nearly $150,000 in back taxes, which eventually led to foreclosure in June 1979. At this point, the closed hotel became the property of the City of Detroit. Of Detroit’s four main, glamorous hotels, only the Book-Cadillac Hotel remained open. The Statler, Fort Shelby and Tuller were all shuttered.
The hotel stood silently empty overlooking Grand Circus Park for 30 years. Ahead of the 1988 Detroit auto show, decorative awnings were placed over the Statler’s windows to keep riders on the Detroit People Mover from seeing inside and to clean up its appearance. Over the years, those awnings became ragged and torn, making it look even worse.
Several plans were floated to reopen the Statler as either a hotel or as an apartment complex. The proposals included such lofty names as The Atrium Place and Le Gran Atrium. None of the plans came to fruition.
In 1996, the Statler site is looked at as a possible home for one of Detroit’s casinos. Meanwhile, the hotel continued to rot, and its basement continued to fill with contaminated water. But its future looked bright for a little while as it was in store for some major work under the hood.
In 1999, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality received Clean Michigan Initiative funds to prep the building for rehabilitation. More than half a million gallons of PCB-tainted water was pumped out from the Statler’s basements. A couple of years later, between October 2001 and May 2002, the Statler received a little spring cleaning in the form of lead-paint and asbestos removal. But because the roof and windows hadn’t been properly secured, another 320,000 gallons of water had to be pumped out. In August 2002, the DEQ landed federal money to remove old, contaminated equipment from the building (the source of the PCBs), and by December 2003, the Statler was finally clear of hazardous contamination that stood in the way of redevelopment.
Death of a dame
But after spending millions of dollars to clean it up, the city couldn’t find any takers, and in February 2004, the state of Michigan contracted that October with Homrich Inc. of Carleton, Mich., to demolish the building instead.
In May 2004, Arthur F. Mullen, president of CityScape Detroit, was among those protesting plans to raze the Statler, writing to the Detroit Historic District Commission that “the City of Detroit has not actively demonstrated that the Statler Hotel is economically infeasible to redevelop. … In addition, the City has not publicly marketed the Statler Hotel in good faith for over one year. According to Detroit’s own ordinance, both marketing and financial hardship hurdles must be satisfied prior to the issuance of a Demolition Permit. … Preparations for Super Bowl XL should lead us towards a dynamic livable city, not one with more vacant lots!”
Nevertheless, demolition preparations began Dec. 13, 2004, and the grandest hotel on Grand Circus Park started to come down the following April ahead of the Super Bowl and All-Star Game. The hotel was taken down floor by floor. More than 40,000 square feet of fencing and debris netting was erected to protect the nearby People Mover. The last of the hotel was brought down in late October 2005, leaving a two-story high pile of rubble. The site has been nothing but a barren, dirt lot since, leaving another gaping hole in the urban fabric of Grand Circus Park following the loss of the Hotel Tuller in 1993.
The demolition cost about $7 million on top of the clean-up costs that went into it in the years before.
An unclear future for an overgrown lot
Plans to build apartments on the Statler site stretch back about five years and in 2015, the Detroit City Council approved plans for the Statler City Apartments. But work has yet to start nearly two years later. Whether it will happen or not is unclear.
One thing is clear, however, said David DiRita of The Roxbury Group, which redeveloped and restored the David Whitney Building next door.
“If the Statler Hotel was still standing, it would be a redeveloped building right now,” Di Rita told Crain’s Detroit Business in 2016.