"Meet me at the Casino."
For more than 20 years, year-round, those five words were included in almost every plan for get-togethers, picnics and romps in the snow on Belle Isle.
Among the earliest structures after Belle Isle opened as a park was its first casino, a wooden structure designed by the Detroit firm Donaldson & Meier, which opened in June 1887.
The casino was considered a model for the country at the time it was built. Recreation-seeking Detroiters could grab a bite to eat there, or seek some shade or dry ground in case of rain. Others relaxed with a good book or gathered to play cards under its roof.
"Through the heat and cold, in season and out of season, the casino has done service," the Detroit Free Press noted in 1908. "Were those old walls to speak, they could tell strange tales, for the people who found a shelter beneath the roof ... were gathered from all walks and conditions of life."
But the structure was made of wood and had already started to show its age by the turn of the century. And by 1900, Detroit had outgrown its quaint little casino, and talk began about replacing it with something newer, bigger and more grand.
In the spring of 1908, a new casino, designed by the firm Van Leyen & Schilling, opened just to the south of the old one. Parks commissioners looked at whether the old building could be disassembled and put back together again at another location in the park, but the cost was deemed too high. It was decided that the old landmark should be razed, and workers started bringing it down that March.
"To countless thousands, not only in Detroit bur throughout Michigan and the country at large, announcement that the old casino at Belle Isle is being demolished will be a source of sincere regret," the Free Press wrote as workers started taking leveling the building to "which so many fond memories cling."