Historic Detroit

Tuller Hotel

She was once the Grand Dame of Grand Circus Park - but she wound up a bag lady.

The Hotel Tuller was ridiculed at the time it was built but would become one of Detroit’s most successful hotels in the early 20th century and would give rise to one of the city’s most successful hoteliers.

Lew Tuller was born in Jonesville, Mich., on Jan. 4, 1869, and was the son of architect and builder Hiram Whiting Tuller. In 1832, when he was 17 years old, his parents moved to Michigan from New York. Lew Tuller moved to Detroit after school and followed in his father’s footsteps in the building trade. U.S. Sen. Thomas W. Palmer — one of the most significant figures in Detroit history and the man who gave the city the land for Palmer Park – loaned Tuller money to get his contracting business started in 1894. Tuller would build three apartment buildings: the Saragossa (on Woodward), the Valencia (Woodward and Lothrop) and the Witherell (Jefferson and McDougall). And then, opportunity came knocking once again.

An offer he couldn’t refuse

At the turn of the 20th century, “all Detroit felt the city was sorely in need of added hotel accommodations,” Pipp’s Magazine wrote in March 1926, and Tuller “could see the future of Detroit, had faith in its development and felt sure there would be plenty of business for a new hotel, but every dollar he had was tied up in his apartments and he owed some on them besides.”

Palmer also knew William J. Gray, who later became president of First National Bank — and owned a piece of land on Grand Circus Park bounded by Adams, Park and Bagley avenues. Gray loaned Tuller the lot and money to build the hotel.

“I did not have to put a dollar of my own money into it until a year after it was finished, when I could make a turn on some of my apartments besides getting some of the income from the hotel,” Tuller told Pipp’s.

It was a risk, as the area was a rather swampy, undesirable location up until that point. It was far away from the 1906 Detroit business district, and ridiculed his move. Tuller got the last laugh. “Within years, more and more Detroiters who wanted to live modern got out of their Fords and jogged to the Tuller for a big night on the town,” the Free Press wrote in January 1959. Tuller’s hotel would become known as “the Grand Dame of Grand Circus Park” and the property would become the heart of the hotel district. Out-of-towners boasted that they had stayed at the Tuller during trips to Detroit, and it was said that mail from distant parts that was addressed to residents at the Hotel Tuller without any city indicated would still reach guests.

“People told me I was crazy to consider building a hotel so far out of the center of things, but I felt the offer was so liberal that a young man could afford to take the chance,” Tuller would later say.

At nine stories, the Tuller Hotel was said to be the tallest concrete building in the nation at the time. When Tuller couldn’t find a hotelier to lease his new hotel, he opened it and ran it himself. The European-plan hotel was advertised as being fireproof and “a delightful home in the summer” in the “center of business.” Another ad boasted “Detroit’s new half-million dollar” hotel with “a few furnished suites to rent. Strictly first class. Café service a la carte. Good music. Special after-theater parties and banquets.” It offered rates of $1.50 per day and up for a single room with a bathroom and $2.50 for a double room with a bath. The Tuller Prescription Pharmacy was on the ground floor. In its first decade, the Tuller’s main rivals were the much larger Hotel Pontchartrain on Campus Martius and the Hotel Ste. Claire on Monroe and Randolph.

As the first hotel and biggest structure built on Grand Circus Park to that point, the Tuller helped to usher in tremendous development in the area. The Statler Hotel would open across Bagley from the Tuller in 1915. The S.S. Kresge Co. would built its headquarters, now known as the Kales Building, across Adams from the Tuller in 1914. The David Whitney Building went up in 1915. R.H. Fyfe Shoes would build what was then the world’s tallest shoe store along the western half of the park in 1919.

A bigger Tuller

As Detroit grew, so did the Tuller, as it was expanded several times to meet demand starting in 1910, when Lew Tuller added five stories to the original building. Four years later, the automobile business was thriving and the city with it. In 1913, he bought the Church of Our Father — a Universalist church built in 1881 — next door and planned to level it for an addition. Objections were raised, citing deed restrictions that said the land could be used for only a church, but Tuller got his way, and built a 14-story annex of 350 rooms on the site. By 1923, Detroit had doubled in population, and demand for rooms so great, Tuller added another addition, pushing the hotel’s occupancy to 800 rooms — each with a private bath, a novelty at the time.

“We all stayed put while they built the top stories over our heads, and we did the same when they built the rear wing,” Charles H. Meyers, who lived in the hotel from 1910 on, told the Free Press in 1959. He was 70 years old at the time and still a traveling salesman for a furniture company.

The 1914 addition gave the Tuller a rather mismatched look to the front — some said it looked something like a half-ironed pair of pants — with the original building having curved window bays, and the southern addition having a boxier appearance. Unfortunately, none of the original plans have survived for the original building or the 1910 and 1914 additions, so the architects of these projects cannot be confirmed. The building permits for the Tuller’s two main buildings list Lew Tuller as requesting them, but those alone do not guarantee he designed them. A 1915 advertisement for a building supplier in Domestic Engineering lists Tuller as the architect, and a statement from Tuller’s attorneys in 1928 also says that the Tuller Hotel “was larger than anything he had contemplated in the building line and after careful consideration he drew plans and erected what was then one of the finest hotels in the country.” The Library of Congress’ Historic American Building Survey also notes that it is possible that he designed the hotel because he had built the three earlier apartment buildings. This Web site gives Tuller credit for the 1906 and 1914 buildings, but with an asterisk. William H. Adams, a Detroit architect/engineer, was the architect of the 1923 addition.

Both buildings were 13 stories tall and made of red brick. The Tuller’s lobby was outfitted with marble, fine furnishings and crystal chandeliers. The indoor Tuller Roof Garden offered “a delightful place to dine on a summer’s eve” and hosted concerts, such as Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra. Male patrons could dine from the buffet in the Crystal Grille, which advertisements proclaimed had “a menu to please the most fastidious” and was “the best-appointed, coziest, quietest and most luxurious dining place for gentlemen in the city.” In 1909, a “Business Men’s Luncheon” cost 35 cents and was served daily from noon to 2 p.m. Others could sip tea in the Cascade Room while taking in a waterfall fountain, visit the oyster bar or attend banquets in the Arabian Room, the city’s largest ballrooms with room for 600 people. Duke Ellington played the wood-paneled, Moroccan-style Arabian. The ground-floor rooms were adjoined to the Peacock Alley, a wood-paneled space named after a space in the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Like the city’s other hotels, the Tuller offered conference rooms for businessmen. Off the lobby was a writing room “decorated in blues and creams where visitors to Detroit could write postcards and letters home,” Patricia Ibbotson wrote in “Detroit’s Historic Hotels and Restaurants.”

“When I first got here, the old Griswold Hotel (on Capitol Park) was the place to go for food and drink,” Meyer told the Free Press. “When the Tuller became fashionable, many of the Griswold’s permanent guests moved here. When they finished the top stories, the Tuller Roof Garden became the most sought-after place in town. Every Saturday night was like New Year’s Eve, and this kept up after Prohibition. People would bring in their flasks and the hotel would furnish the set-ups.”

Lew Tuller loses it all

The Tuller Hotel’s success brought visions of a hotel empire on Park Avenue in Detroit like that on Park Avenue in New York. Lew Tuller gambled again. He hired architect Louis Kamper to design three large residential hotels north of Grand Circus Park, all 13 stories: the 156-room Eddystone at Park Avenue and Sproat, which opened in December 1924; the 250-room Park Avenue, which opened in 1925 next door to the Eddystone; and the 180-room Royal Palms at Park and Montcalm, which also opened in 1925. The three hotels cost Tuller between $6 million and $8 million, $76.5 million to $102 million today, when adjusted for inflation. They were all built within a year and gave Lew Tuller more than 1,375 rooms in the city. Combined, the four hotels were worth $12 million in 1926, more than $144 million today. In 20 years, Tuller estimated that the land on which the Tuller Hotel sat had increased in value 30 times what he paid.

“I could see a great big, prosperous, growing Detroit plainer in the last six months than ever before,” Tuller told Pipp’s Magazine in March 1926. “You cannot help but feel that Detroit is going to hum.”

But Detroit was humming too much: the city added more than 20 hotels between 1923 and 1926. Like many Detroiters enjoying the boom times, Tuller had overreached himself. The steep rise in competition led Tuller’s three new hotels to struggle, and, combined with a series of unsuccessful real estate speculation in Florida and the onset of the Depression, Tuller went broke. The Tuller Hotel remained successful for a time and supported his other hotels, but he lost them one by one. Foreclosure proceedings began in March 1928 on the Eddystone and the Royal Palms.

Plans were announced on March 21, 1928, that the Tuller would be leveled to make way for a 35-story hotel built by New York and Chicago banking interests. The Italian Renaissance-style Detroit-Biltmore, designed by the J.F. Hughes Co., was to have a 14-story parking garage and an 18-story office building next door. The total price tag was $20 million ($248.2 million today). It was to have three wings with an arcade and to be outfitted with marble and bronze. The basement would have had a cafeteria and a barbershop; the ballroom was to have a 20-foot-wide balcony all the way around; and the 14th floor was to feature a 16,000-square-foot convention hall. The lobby was to have been done in the Spanish design with Travertine stone walls and columns, a pipe organ in the lobby would pump music through speakers throughout a speaker system in the hotel. The main dining room would have been on the second floor. The Tuller was to come down in early 1929, and the Detroit-Biltmore was to open that Aug. 1. But the 1,500-room behemoth was shelved by the Great Depression, and the Tuller would live on.

In October 1927, Lew Tuller’s most prized possession would enter receivership, too. The only problem was that Tuller was in hiding. The Free Press reported at the time that “constables never have been able to reach Tuller, and he endeavored to have the action quashed on the grounds that he never has been properly served.” Eventually, the courts had enough of his games, however, and took the hotel anyway.

One of the hotel’s first receivers was John Gillespie, a party boss and Detroit police commissioner. There were tales of a decline in standards, shady accounting and nighttime escapades where some of the Tuller’s expensive carpets were lowered out windows into waiting trucks. He also lavishly entertained his political pals. “When the bills were hauled out, Gillespie is said to have become furious. He thought everything was on the house — the Tuller house. The courts didn’t agree,” the Detroit Times recalled in October 1959. In a hearing on his accounting, it came out that Gillespie had a “free list” of politicians who stayed there free, including leaders of Frank Murphy’s mayoral campaign. Gillespie’s receivership lasted eight months. Murphy, incidentally, would win and go on to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

As the Roaring Twenties roared on, the quirky-looking Tuller, with its mismatched façade, had a hard time competing with luxury hotels like the Book-Cadillac and the Statler.

In 1940, the city contemplated taking the Tuller for back taxes, as hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and county taxes had not been paid since 1936. Albert Cobo, the city treasurer and future mayor, said the city could run the Tuller, sell it at auction or use it for housing city offices and for storage. Cobo suggested that Civil Service classifications might be required to cover maids and bellhops. The idea of a city-run hotel died.

In October 1944, the Tuller was acquired by Morris D. Logan, Saul Plast and Meyer W. Rosin. In November 1949, they unveiled “the new Tuller,” having spent $300,000 (about $3.7 million today, when adjusted for inflation) on giving the lobby and shops “an ultra-modern look.” The hotel rooms, dining rooms, shops and bars were spruced up, the bellhops got new uniforms, the ballrooms were redecorated, and the Arabian Room got a face-lift. The Tap Room and barbershop got makeovers, too, the latter “provides all the services that go to make neat male grooming,” an advertising special section in the Free Press wrote at the time. The Cocktail Room was modernized. The lobby was redesigned by the architectural firm C. Howard Crane & Associates. Cut stone and marble replaced much of the carved wood. Work started in June 1948 and wrapped up in August 1949. The owners wanted to start the remodeling project right away, but were prevented from doing so because of World War II.

Suzanne St. Clair performed in the Cocktail Room around this time. The piano-playing songstress earned the nickname “the Mink Lady” because of the furs she always wore. Guilian’s Gift Shop peddled antiques and mementos. The Klemm Cigar Store sold tobacco and magazines and boasted a refrigerated candy counter. Dave Roberts clothiers had three departments and two floors. Jay’s Cancellation Shoes outfitted businessmen and tourists. The Frances Flower Shop was run by Frances “Cookie” Cook, who was 71 when the Tuller was renovated and had lived there for more than 40 years. There also was a coffee shop with air-conditioning and the Tuller Barber Shop.

Lew Tuller died Jan. 5, 1957, at age 88 at St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital in Pontiac, Mich. His body was cremated. “If the panic hadn’t come, he would have been one of the greatest hotel men in the country,” Tuller’s attorney, Edward N. Barnard, told the Free Press at the time of his death.

Tuller was “a public-spirited citizen, charitable and kindly, and in all matters that pertain to the public welfare he gives his earnest support and endorsement,” Burton wrote. “His life illustrates what can be accomplished through individual effort.”

On a side note, Tuller became a Christian Scientist after being in poor health for many years “and all efforts to regain his normal condition failed through the ordinary channels,” Clarence M. Burton wrote in his definitive “The City of Detroit, Michigan.” “Having heard much concerning the good that had been done through Christian Science, he took up its teachings and it seems that a miracle has come to pass in that he has steadily improved in health until he is today in excellent physical condition.”

The boxer and the fire

The Tuller also was the site of several tragedies. On April 18, 1940, boxer Norman Selby, known professionally as Kid McCoy, was found dead of an apparent suicide in his hotel room in the Tuller. He had made a fortune in the boxing ring at the turn of the century and also had a variety of roles in movies.

On Jan. 17, 1959, a snowy, blustery day, a fire broke out at 10:44 a.m., ripping through the Tuller, killing three employees, injuring 14 people and gutting large sections of the hotel. The three men — an assistant manager, a chief electrician and a hotel engineer — were “trapped in an elevator which stopped only inches from the lobby floor,” United Press International reported at the time. A fire extinguisher was found near their bodies, just out of reach. The fire broke out in a box of garbage in the hat shop located off the lobby and raced through the first floor “in a matter of minutes as clerks and other employes (sic) dashed from floor to floor to alert the guests,” UPI wrote. The Tuller had 225 residents, 355 guests and 75 employees at the time.

“Blinding smoke billowed through” the halls as “guests groped their way to safety down fire escapes or leaned screaming out of windows until firemen carried them down amid ladders” and into the 15-degree morning air, the Free Press reported at the time. Firefighters rescued 427 people. The carpet had been cleaned with an inflammable fluid, and the wood paneling had been highly waxed, fueling the flames.

The Tuller was doing business again eight hours after the fire, which was said to have caused $1 million in damage.

In September 1963, it was reported that the Tuller would be razed the following spring for a motel. Co-owners Harold Shapero, Christine Stevens, Cecele Birnkrant, Daniel Cohen, Jeanne Greenbaum, Deborah Wilkus and Doris Schmeir denied the reports. The Tuller lived on. Barely.

The Grand Dame dies

As Detroit’s fortunes took a nosedive in the 1960s, the Tuller dove with it. Allen B. Kramer, the president and owner of several hotels in New England, Texas and the Midwest, took control of the Tuller in 1964. Kramer had gotten started in the hotel business as a boy of 15, tending to the ice machine in the basement of the Statler next door. Kramer once again refurbished the Tuller and, under his leadership, the Tuller had the highest transient and permanent guest increase of any hotel in the Midwest, the Free Press wrote in October 1967. But such success would be short-lived.

Like other aging hotels in the city, the Tuller suffered from aging mechanical systems and high utility operating costs and faced changing times and demand for more modern facilities.

When the 1970s arrived, the Tuller’s clientele was mostly transients and senior citizens. By 1975, the hotel had fallen into a haven of drug use and prostitution on one of the city’s largest downtown parks — and worse, its senior residents were frequently targets of muggings and robberies. It was “a shabby haunt for prostitutes, panhandlers and female impersonators,” the Free Press wrote at the time. Its lobby was “fouled by the droppings of the many dogs that lived in the building.” It had been for sale for some time, but there were no takers. In September 1976, under city pressure and falling revenue, the Tuller gave its 350 residents just eight days notice to hit the streets. The hotel was shuttered for good Oct. 5, 1976.

“Like a cave disgorging its bats into the unfamiliar daylight, the once grand Tuller Hotel in downtown Detroit surrendered the last of its woebegone guests,” the Free Press wrote in October 1976.

“Most of these people should be in nursing homes or mental hospitals, they’d be better off,” Henry Schultz, husband of the Tuller’s resident manager, told the Free Press at the time of the hotel’s closure. “This is a snake put. No other hotel in town will put up with this madness.”

In 1978, three Detroit investors announced a plan to spend $10 million to restore the Tuller, turning it into a 250-room hotel and 250 apartments. The investors — attorneys Michael and John Hughes and surgeon Dr. Eugene Horrell — also sought to add seven shops, a jazz bar, a disco-cabaret, a 14-story atrium, a rooftop dining room, and a room named for late Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh. “They envisioned horse-drawn carriages through Grand Circus Park,” the Free Press wrote at the time. But the plan fizzled when increasing interest rates and a $9 million federally backed loan was declined.

The Tuller remained dark, and in December 1988, in anticipation of the auto show the following month, the city set out to clean the place up. Awnings were added, and boards were painted to look like real windows. “The city is trying to spruce it up so reporters from out of town, don’t come in and say, ‘Jeez look at that,’” Patrick Fitzgerald, of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, told the Free Press at the time.

By the 1980s, the Tuller was looking rough, especially the original 1906 half. In the late 1980s, the city approved $2.5 million to raze it, but the Grand Dame hung around. The City of Detroit finally took the hotel down in 1991, 85 years after Lew Tuller took a long shot and bought himself a hunk of land. The last of the debris was cleared by that June.

The Tuller had overseen the installation of the Edison Memorial Fountain, the trees uprooted in Grand Circus Park for an underground parking garage, neighboring skyscrapers go up and shut down, and the city’s rise and fall.

Detroit Free Press architecture writer John Gallagher wrote in June 1991 that “if any building was a candidate for demolition, it was the old Tuller Hotel. … Sing no sad songs for the Tuller. Its time had come.” Still, Gallagher noted, the loss of the Tuller ripped a whole in the urban fabric of Grand Circus Park. Its demolition left “a gap that visually is both unexpected and a bit unsettling,” Gallagher wrote. The site has remained an unpaved parking lot ever since and is currently part of the Olympia Entertainment parking lot empire, owned by pizza billionaire Mike Ilitch.