In the decades before it sat silently decaying, the Wurlitzer Building was filled with music, home to one of the largest music stores in the world – and helped thrill thousands of theater-going Detroiters.
Founding the mighty Wurlitzer
Rudolph Wurlitzer emigrated to the United States in 1853 and settled in Cincinnati. He founded the Rudolph Wurlitzer Co. in 1856, though his family had started dealing in musical instruments in 1659 in Europe. His company would quickly become the biggest supplier of instruments in the country and soon started manufacturing pianos sold through a chain of retail stores. Its musical instruments were widely regarded as being high quality and were popular stateside as well as in Europe.
“It is quite a feat, when one stops to think about it, that cultural Europe turns to the United States to furnish the best of its organs and other musical instruments,” Rudolph Wurlitzer once crowed to reporters.
With the rise of silent films in the early 1900s, Wurlitzer began pumping out huge theater organs that provided the movie soundtracks, as well as entertained the patrons before the show. The organs could produce a variety of sounds, from banjos to harps to orchestra bells to train whistles and galloping horses. Wurlitzer became renowned for these organs, providing them for the Fox, Fisher, Michigan and State (now the Fillmore) theaters in Detroit. The Capitol Theatre, now the Detroit Opera House, also had a Wurlitzer, as did certain churches, such as Sts. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church.
“There isn’t an old movie fan alive who doesn’t remember when that ‘mighty Wurlitzer organ’ wasn’t as important to the bill as the featured picture,” the Free Press wrote in September 1963. “You couldn’t build a movie palace – in those days called ‘cathedrals of the cinema’ – without boasting of a bigger and better pipe organ than any theater ever had.”
When the Wurlitzer was installed in the Fox Theatre in 1928, its owners boasted that the organ was so powerful, it had to be muted to keep from cracking the marble columns, the Free Press reported in September 1963.
The organs had such “brilliancy and life-like power as literally to transport the listener into fields of imagery, hold vast audiences spellbound, and make people who never sing when alone, join in chorus with others,” the Detroit Times wrote in December 1926 Rudolph Wurlitzer died on Jan. 14, 1914, in Cincinnati, leaving the business to his three sons. Under their sons, the Wurlitzer company got into the jukebox business in the 1930s, dominating the market. It also was under their leadership that the company expanded its presence in cities like Detroit and Los Angeles, building towers to house administrative operations and sales. They were billed as “the world’s largest music house.”
Detroit’s music house
The Wurlitzer store in Detroit was founded in a modest location that carried a small line of pianos and musical instruments. As the company gained steam and the city grew into a thriving metropolis, Wurlitzer built a skyscraper just south of Grand Circus Park to house its thriving business. The Detroit Times praised the Wurlitzer Building in December 1926 as “a structure complete in every detail and entirely worthy of the art to which it will be devoted.”
Designed in Renaissance Revival style and opened in December 1926, the 14-story building once housed the famous Wurlitzer Co., which made pianos, organs, jukeboxes, radios and instruments. The building, at 1509 Broadway, was designed by Detroit architect Robert Finn and built by the Otto Misch Co. The steel-framed structure is of reinforced-concrete construction. It stands tall, narrow and abandoned at Broadway and John R Street, just like its next-door neighbor, the Metropolitan Building.
The Wurlitzer has a gorgeous terra cotta face, granite piers and trim and an intricate façade accented with ornamental detail. The detail changes at the fourth floor with heavy terra cotta ornaments over the windows. The words “Wurlitzer Building” were built into the sides of the building at the top with black terra cotta blocks.
“The handsome building justifies in every respect the large capital investment which has been made in the structure and furnishings,” the Times wrote. The building’s “sheer beauty, scarcely can be excelled.”
Several stories were devoted to instrument display rooms and studios. The Wurlitzer competed with the nearby Grinnell Brothers Music House on Woodward.
In October 1940, the building was turned into the Wurlitzer Music Center at a cost of about $40,000 (about $585,000 today when adjusted for inflation). The Wurlitzer company occupied the bottom nine floors of the tower. The complete remodeling stripped the building of much of its original interior, giving it a “modern” entrance with “simply designed, functional display windows,” the Detroit News reported at the time. Also lost in the changes was the handsome marquee and wrought iron designs that extended along the front. The bronze entrance door, finished in antique verde, was swapped out for something more plain and modern.
The renovation added display space, salesroom and instructional areas. It also had Detroit’s most complete repair shop for musical instruments. The main floor had the sheet music department, band instruments and records. There also were soundproofed audition booths. A series of piano salons showed off the company’s finest grand pianos and consoles. Another floor was devoted entirely to radios and turntables shown in living room-like settings. There also was a 400-seat theater auditorium for concerts and recitals by student groups.
The Wurlitzer company left the building sometime before the 1970s. A varied group of tenants moved in, though the building was only about 40% occupied in the late ’70s. Among them were the Travelers Aid Society, Interstate Brief & Record Co., two furriers, a photographer, a religious supply firm and the Detroit Police Lieutenants and Sergeants Association. But like many skyscrapers downtown, the Wurlitzer ran into trouble, and the rent wasn’t able to cover the utilities. In January 1980, the building was sold to Gerald Tobin of Annapolis, Md., but he wouldn’t own it for long.
The music stops
After Tobin bought the building, the few tenants the Wurlitzer had soon moved out, saying they had no choice after suffering long enough through the winter without heat or running water. Tobin said that the heat wasn’t shut off until the end of February, but he said that “things happened that probably shouldn’t have happened,” he told the Free Press in April 1982. “It’s a matter of cash. I’ve been strapped for a year and a half.”
On March 26, 1982, the last of the Wurlitzer’s tenants moved out, with the Travelers Aid Society being the last to go. It left for the David Whitney Building. Tobin also chalked up his money problems to long-term leases, some three to five years long, which kept him from upping rent to make up for his financial shortcomings.
“At the beginning of winter, we had a no-heat situation,” John Storm, president of the Lieutenants and Sergeants Association told the Free Press in April 1982. “We moved out because” the building’s ownership “owed Edison tons of bucks. Last year, we had been threatened with having our heat and electricity shut off.”
Despite the lack of heat, many of the Wurlitzer’s tenants weren’t happy to go.
“I like the building, I like the architecture,” Robert Arene, vice president of Interstate Brief & Record Co., told the Free Press in April 1982. “The size of it was personal. Four years ago, it was fantastic.”
Said Lynn Twining, a supervisor with Travelers Aid: “It would be a wonderful building for lofts and artists studios. It has marvelously open and undefined spaces.” In better times, the Wurlitzer “was solvent and well-occupied with a diversity of people who felt at home there.”
Despite being without any tenants, Tobin told the Free Press that he had no specific plans for the building and “I’m not really trying to sell it. I suppose my basic plan is to wait until I can free up some cash and renovate the heating system.”
The building sat empty and deteriorating for more than a decade until Detroit lawyer Paul Curtis acquired the building in 1995 for only $211,021. He has done nothing with it and left it largely open to trespass. Vandals and thieves have destroyed much of the interior and stripped it of valuable metals.
Despite its condition, as recently as 2003, Curtis was trying to sell the skyscraper for more than $2 million. “That price translates into about $43 per square foot,” the Free Press reported in 2003. “By contrast, General Motors Corp. paid just $14 per foot when it bought the Renaissance Center in 1996 for $75 million. … Civic officials call such asking prices outrageous.” On top of that, Curtis owed more than $43,000 in delinquent taxes on the structure as of 2002.
Curtis has promised several times to redevelop it, but city safety inspectors have been documenting unsafe conditions at the building since October 2000. Months later, Curtis told the Buildings and Safety Engineering Department that he would restore the building, the Detroit Free Press reported in February 2004. That never happened. Meanwhile, chunks of the façade have occasionally fallen off the building, threatening the lives of passersby below.
In 2003, building inspectors ticketed Curtis because of tiles falling off the facade and a defective fire escape. Curtis told agency officials once again that he would renovate the Wurlitzer, sending the Buildings and Safety Engineering Department a letter saying, “Let it be known that this owner has not just sat back and watched the property but has been active in seeking a total rehabilitation of the property,” the Free Press reported in February 2004.
Around late October 2005, accent lighting aiming at the Wurlitzer was installed along the nearby Detroit People Mover track, lighting the building and its gorgeous architectural details at night.
Sadly, the Wurlitzer has started to fall apart.
When the wall comes tumbling down
As safety and code violations piled up over a decade, in 2008, Curtis switched ownership of the Wurlitzer over to a limited liability corporation, 1509 Broadway LLC. The move largely shielded him and his wife, Wayne County Circuit Judge Daphne Means Curtis, from any personal liability.
“I sometimes wear a hard hat when I take out the trash, ” Chris Jaszczak, owner of the 1515 Broadway café next door to the Wurlitzer, told the Free Press in July 2011. But Jaszczak wasn’t just in danger when he was at work; he lives in a loft atop the cafe and told the paper that the threat of his next door neighbor often kept him awake at night. That threat was realized on April 12, 2011.
That’s when a 50-pound chunk of terra cotta fell from the top of the Wurlitzer, punching a hole in Jaszczak’s roof, splintering a wooden ceiling beam and shattering his front window. He was not injured.
“The impact was so loud, people living in downtown Detroit called 911 to report an explosion,” the Free Press wrote a month later.
In July 2011, Detroit city inspectors took the LLC to court; the city said the Wurlitzer was a potential killer waiting to crush unsuspecting passersby. Wayne County Circuit Judge Robert Colombo ordered Curtis to take steps to ensure the public’s safety. About a month later, on Aug. 16, workers showed up and removed the dangling fire escape and rusted-out awning. But they didn’t fix the bulging rear facade, where the brick had come loose. The wall posed perhaps the greatest danger.
The roof, which failed decades ago, was allowing water to seep between the infrastructure and the brick, causing erosion. Many harsh Michigan winters allowed that water to freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw, pushing the brick outward and cracking the mortar. The rusty fire escape started giving way, so it was eventually dangling from only a few bolts - and was pulling down on the brick wall.
On Nov. 13, 2011, the inevitable happened: Part of the rear wall collapsed into the alley.
Three days after the collapse, Colombo summoned DTE Energy officials to figure out a way to get electricity to the building to help get needed repairs done. The Curtises’ lawyer insists the couple wants to get the building fixed up and reopened.
While interior demo work began, little was done to secure the rear wall where the first breach had occurred. On Jan. 18, 2012, the wind brought another section of the rear wall cascading down into the alley below.
“It was a crescendo,” Jaszczak told the Free Press. “This was the part of the brick facing that has been bulging out for months and it just came down. Some cornice stone came down, too, and it looks as if there is some metal from the fire escape that was left dangling.”
Stay tuned to HistoricDetroit.org for more developments.