Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Basso Building

The Basso Building was one of Detroit's finer mid-size commercial buildings -- an outstanding example of neo-classical design, the federal Historic American Buildings Survey noted in a 1986 report -- but like so many Detroit architectural gems before it, the Basso was torn down for a vacant lot before the city's comeback could see it repurposed.

The southeast corner of Woodward and Horton Street was home to a large house that had stood on the property since 1885. In 1911, the Gerard Stormfelts Loveley Co. - a real estate company - bought the land and demolished the house about 1913. Automobiles were making properties north of the city's downtown more reachable and more desirable, and commercial development had already started to move to what is now called the New Center area. The property was sold in March 1915 to the Klatt Land Co., which turned around and transferred the property to brothers Michael, Victor, and Albert Basso a few days later for $42,500. At the time, the Bassos were new to Detroit - in fact, only one of them even lived in the city, with Michael Basso first being listed in city directories in 1907. The other brothers would not follow him here until 1925-26.

The building permit for the Basso Building was issued July 2, 1915. The steel-framed, brick-and-concrete structure was listed as having an estimated cost of $20,000. Unfortunately, the architect of the building is unknown. The building initially was only a two-story structure, featuring four ground-floor retails shops and office space on the second. The early tenants included businesses such as a drug store and a jeweler, as well as a candy shop to serve those attending movies at the Regent Theatre next door. The Basso would go up quickly, with ads for retail space appearing in the local papers that October.

Buoyed by the success of the building, not to mention the reassurance in their real estate investment following General Motors building its massive new headquarters just a few blocks away, the Bassos decided to double down on their investment. In 1921-22, a five-story addition was tacked onto the building, bringing the Basso Building to seven stories in height. Sadly, the architect of the addition also is unknown. It is certainly possible, and indeed likely, that the same architect did both phases. The building in its final form stretched 80 feet along Woodward and 60 feet along Horton.

"The classical quality of the Basso Building is apparent in the column-like organization of the structure: the first and second floors (the original 1915 building) function as a base or pedestal; floors three through six as a shaft; and the seventh story and roof section as a cornice," the Historical American Buildings Survey noted. It also called the Basso an outstanding example of Beaux Arts architecture, with significant ornamentation, white glazed terra cotta blocks sheating the facade, and the building's decorative elements being in green, gold, blue, and red terra cotta.

After the building was greatly enlarged in 1921, Michael Basso established a building management/fruit brokerage office on the third floor of the structure. By 1928, all three Basso bros were working in the office under the name Basso Brothers Real Estate. As a symbol of the family's pride in the building, the firm maintained offices in Room 307 until 1974.

The building remained essentially unchanged until 1949, when the building's marquise was removed and the facade was altered to the tune of $312,000, not a paltry sum. This included replacing several architectural elements -- for example, the original spiral columns with Corinthian capitals between the windows were replaced with narrow terra cotta mullions -- and adding a new "Basso Building" sign to the first floor.

The Basso continued to operate as an office building until Basso Building Inc. sold it to Shaw College at Detroit in April 1976. Shaw College used the Basso Building for administrative offices and student services. The school had existed in Detroit, though under a different name, since 1936. Michigan Lutheran College, the predecessor of Shaw College, closed in 1970 because of debt. Shaw University of Raleigh, N.C., had already been in talks to open an extension in Detroit before the closure, and so Shaw College was born. Even though there was never a formal tie between the North Carolina school and the campus in Detroit, the Motor City location adopted the name anyway. There were 584 students in Shaw's first year in Detroit. The school offered only a basic liberal arts degree and one-year technical programs in medical and dental technologies. Most of the students were Black and, "in the past, the school has enrolled, for the most part, students who could not get into other schools," the Detroit Free Press wrote Aug. 25, 1971, while also noting many of the instructors at Shaw had complained about not getting paid.

In addition to the financial woes it had inherited from Michigan Lutheran, Shaw's Detroit campus also struggled with bad publicity. An Oct. 15, 1979, Detroit Free Press article titled "Crisis lurks in wait for black college," said the school's classrooms were rat-and-roach-infested, certain classrooms were unheated and that the school was about to close. Romallus O. Murphy, the president of Shaw College at Detroit, disputed those allegations in a letter to the editor a few days later.

A few years later, the FBI was investigating charges that former Shaw officials forged and cashed almost $100,000 in employee paychecks in 1982. The school indeed went bust, filing for Chapter 11 on Aug. 22, 1983, citing $600,000 owed to 24 creditors and an "unknown amount" to the National Labor Relations Board and Michigan Employment Security Commission. It had about 500 students at the time of the filing, even though all of its faculty members had been laid off in June.. The building than wound up in the hands of Amvest Inc., and then Uptown Land Development Company in June 1985. Throughout the early '80s, the Basso remained vacant but in good condition.

Nevertheless, Detroit's decline due to both businesses and white upper and middle-class families abandoning the city for the suburbs led to a weakened office market that left a renovation and revitalization of the Basso deemed financially infeasible. The building was demolished sometime between '86 and the mid-'90s, and - despite being on such a prominent intersection - the site has remained an undeveloped lot ever since.

Last updated 24/01/2023