She's one of a kind. Some might even say beautiful in its ugliness.
No skyscraper in Detroit, let alone the Midwest, looks quite like the Book Tower on Washington Boulevard. It's a rather awkward-looking building, whether you look at its unusual maze of an external fire escape or the intricate, over-the-top details on its crown that are tough to appreciate without a pair of binoculars. It's an undeniably unique piece of the city's skyline and a rare breed of classical Renaissance-style architecture and skyscraper. As an added bonus, joined at its hip is one of the city's oldest surviving office buildings.
The Book Building
You cannot tell the story of Washington Boulevard without telling the story of the Book brothers, J. Burgess Jr., Herbert and Frank. They were the maternal grandchildren of Francis Palms, one of the city’s wealthiest men, and would soon inherit that title themselves.
Palms had bought a chunk of real estate on Washington Boulevard, and the Book boys were raised on the thoroughfare in the old Cadillac Hotel. Starting in 1916, J. Burgess Book Jr. and his brothers embarked on trying to turn the rundown and ragged Washington Boulevard into an upscale and fashionable destination, similar to Fifth Avenue in New York. The first major building they had constructed was the Book Building, a rather simple 13-story Italian Renaissance office building that opened in 1917. The stately stone-faced structure, like most of the buildings on the boulevard, was designed by Louis Kamper, the Books’ architect of choice. While the Book brothers were the men behind Washington Boulevard, Kamper was the man who would build it.
While distinguished, the Book Building was hardly the architectural conversation starter or hint of what was to come. It was Kamper’s first major commercial design. The ground floor spaces were for shops; the floors above were for office space. Along the Washington Boulevard side, the Book Building has 12 sculptures of nude women, known as caryatids, which seem to be holding up the building’s cornice. Back in the 1970s, the priests across the street at St. Aloysius Catholic Church used to call them the wives of the 12 Apostles. The building's U-shaped design allowed for ample sunlight in more offices.
As the Books continued to buy up real estate on Washington between Michigan Avenue and Grand Circus Park, they had Kamper start erecting skyscrapers along it. Following the Book Building, Kamper came up with the Washington Boulevard Building at the corner of Washington and State in 1923. The following year saw the opening of Kamper's best-known creation, the Book-Cadillac Hotel. As the city's fortunes rose with the auto industry, office and retail space on the boulevard was in serious demand. By this time, the Book brothers controlled about 60% of the frontage on Washington. But everyone else in town seemed to be building skyscrapers, and the Books wanted to make a statement of their own. And for that, they asked Kamper to build them the tallest building in the city.
Like a giant cake
The 36-story Book Tower opened in 1926 on the southwest corner of Grand River Avenue and Washington, coincidentally, the original lot that the Books' grandfather had bought on the boulevard. Its first tenant was Detroit Bond & Mortgage. At 475 feet tall, the Book Tower would lay claim to the title of tallest building in town. Though it would hold the honor only briefly: The 47-story Penobscot Building would overtake it two years later. Today, the Book Tower is good for only the seventh-tallest landmark in town
Kamper's work had never soared to such heights, and he was rather unsure how to go about decorating it. He decided to go all out and to stick with what he knew best: a classical ornamental style known as Academic Classicism.
J. Burgess Book Jr. "found in Louis Kamper an architect who was entirely sympathetic to his ideas," William Hawkins Ferry wrote in his book "The Buildings of Detroit." "Kamper, too, had journeyed about Europe studying the architectural monuments of the past. In America he saw the opportunity to impart to the new skyscraper the beauty of these masterpieces."
Intricately carved Corinthian columns, florets, scrolls and crests are all over the place. Horizontal bands of Italian Renaissance ornamentation break up the towering skyscraper with nude female figures gracing its midsection like a belt. Nearly from ground to the top of the 36th floor, the building is covered in detail. Ferry quotes Kamper as saying, with a trace of a Bavarian accent, "I like it varm." "Varm" or not, Kamper's strategy on the Book tower didn't work. His decision has been ridiculed and criticized by critics almost from the onset for not realizing the limitations on designing a structure so tall. He didn't take a fire evacuation route into consideration when designing it, necessitating the addition of the unusual fire escape all the way down the tower. Kamper had the building faced in a porous limestone that sucked up pollutants in the air, making it almost impossible to keep clean.
In short, Kamper's experiment was a mess. Detroit Free Press architectural columnist John Gallagher wrote in 2004 that Kamper's designs like the Book Tower were dismissed as "clumsy, chaotic, corrupt and hopelessly out of date."
"He was a cake decorator," Doug McIntosh, a Birmingham, Mich., architect, told Gallagher. "All of his buildings are frothy and decorated to the sort of outrageous level as a cake decorator would."
Said Ferry: "It seems that Kamper's involvement with the Italian Renaissance had ill-prepared him to cope with the aesthetic problems of the skyscraper. He failed to realize the effectiveness of the design of a skyscraper lies more in its mass than in its detail."
Still, the building's uniqueness and quirkiness give it an undeniable charm. Even though most critics dismiss the Book Tower "as an architectural failure," Gallagher noted, the building adds a lot of interest to the boulevard.
William M. Worden, retired director of Historic Designation for the City of Detroit and respected authority on Detroit's architectural history, added of the Book Tower: "How could anyone walk down Washington Boulevard and not look at that thing? Whether you consider it wonderful or grotesque, it's going to get your attention."
Plans for an even bigger cake
The Books continued to ride high on the boulevard, even adding another tower to the mix, the 1928-built, Kamper-designed Industrial Bank Building, known today as the Industrial Stevens Apartments. But the brothers weren't done yet. They had Kamper draft up plans for two more skyscrapers, including one for the west side of the boulevard north of Michigan. Postcards from this era show a design called either the Aviation Town and Country Club Building or the Art Building.
But they also sought to retake the city's tallest-building title - and just to make sure they didn't lose it, they told Kamper to make it 81 stories tall. This gargantuan building was said to have been the tallest office building in the world at the time and was to be erected on the south end of the complex at Washington and State Street. Renderings show it would have been a more simplified structure with a tapering effect as it went up. "Not only had Kamper caught up with the times in his conception of the skyscraper, but he was even challenging the tallest towers of Manhattan," Ferry noted.
The Books would have had a pair of towers to serve as a pair of bookends for the Book Building. The plans were serious enough to even have postcards printed of what was to be the brothers' crowning achievement. But when the Depression hit in 1929, their colossal monument was shelved and later scrapped altogether.
Rise and fall
Washington Boulevard continued to be a hot spot in town for decades, into the 1960s, in fact. Shops were filled with people; the streets bustled with activity. But like most every other building and area in the city, those fortunes changed in the late 1960s. By the time the '70s had arrived, white flight and suburban sprawl had stolen much of the city's population and office tenants. Buildings started to close. The boulevard started to lose its luster. Amid the bad news, the Book buildings entered the National Register of Historic Places on July 15, 1982, along with the rest of Washington Boulevard.
But that's about where the building's luck ran out. On the morning of Dec. 14, 1973. Sarah Watson Leisen, a 30-year-old Detroiter, leaped from a 13th-floor window in the tower and took her life - as well as that of a man she landed on. The victim, 29-year-old airline employee Raymond Dolan of Dearborn, was on his way into work in the Book Building. In March 1984, the microwave towers, antennas and satellite relays on the tower came under attack for being a dangerous source of radiation. Two years later, they'd prove dangerous in a different kind of way. On March 19, 1986, high winds sent a massive radio antenna mast crashing off the tower onto Washington Boulevard. Nobody was hurt, but the falling steel loosened several 300-pound pieces of the tower's decorative cornice.
Amid all this drama, the Book buildings' financial turmoil was equally chaotic. In May 1988, Travelers Insurance Co., the principal mortgage holder on the property, took the Book buildings' owners to court. The following year, Travelers gave Book Building Associates Ltd. one more chance to pay off the $4 million remaining on the mortgage, but the group missed the deadline. That led Travelers to sell the buildings in March 1989 to John W. Lambrecht, a popular investor and civic leader in Detroit. At the time, Lambrecht was wrapping up a $10 million renovation on his Cadillac Tower, which he had started when he bought the Campus Martius landmark in 1978. He said he had similar plans to renovate the Book buildings. Hopes were restored that the Book complex - and the boulevard - would return to glory.
As for the reason for hope, "Lambrecht already has a track record here; his family has been involved in Detroit-area real estate circles for decades," Gallagher wrote in the Free Press on March 20, 1989. "A revitalized Book Tower could help stabilize Washington Boulevard, which has been in danger of slipping off the downtown map altogether" as "'Downtown' has moved east and toward the riverfront, away from the once thriving Washington Boulevard corridor. The Book Tower won't rival the new towers for glitz, but Lambrecht could help the Book anchor the boulevard again."
Sadly, Lambrecht committed suicide that year. His widow, Susan Lambrecht, took over his investments and spent millions on repairs and upgrades on the Books. While the buildings' occupancy rate left much to be desired, things seemed stable - at least for a little while.
About 1992, New York investor Charles Starace took an option to buy the Book Tower within three years for $2 million to $3 million from Lambrecht. Within a year and a half, however, Detroit Edison Co. was threatening to shut off the electricity over an unpaid bill of about $23,000. Despite an occupancy rate of about 50 percent, Starace insisted in May 1993 that the operation was financially sound. He settled his debt with the utility on the day of the deadline. Lambrecht would keep ownership of the building.
The Book buildings' survival was not aided by the addition of One Detroit Center (aka Comerica Tower) to the city's skyline in 1993; the addition of more office space flooded an already struggling market and lured tenants away from Detroit's older landmarks, like the Book Tower.
On July 25, 2006, Lambrecht sold the Book buildings to the New York-based Pagan Organization for an undisclosed price. Pagan planned to renovate the building, adding more retail space and converting some of the office space into residential. “We’ve actually had our eye on the resurgence and development of Detroit for some time,” Michael Hidalgo, vice president of the Pagan group, told the Free Press at the time. The building was run under the name Northeast Commercial Services Corp.
Under Pagan, tenants’ complaints mounted almost as quickly as the unpaid utility bills. On April 5, 2007, DTE Energy confirmed it had shut off electricity to the Book complex for nonpayment of bills over a long period. The power eventually came back on, and while many tenants fled, a few hung on.
On May 23, 2007, Northeast filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Detroit. “It’s a sad story. Why did they buy a building and force out the tenants,” Lambrecht told the Free Press in 2009. The building was then bought by AKNO Enterprises of Vancouver, British Columbia. The new ownership did not translate into newfound success, however.
There was much celebration when another piece of the Books’ former empire, the Book-Cadillac Hotel reopened Oct. 6, 2008, about a block away from the tower. It appeared that Washington Boulevard was poised once again for a major turnaround. Those hopes proved to be short-lived.
AKNO fell more than $87,000 behind on the utility bills, and DTE Energy announced it would shut off electricity to the skyscraper. The firm also owed nearly $20,000 in past-due water bills. That forced the popular Bookies Tavern – which opened in the tower in 2003 – to relocate near the Fox Theatre. At 2 a.m. Jan. 5, 2009, Bookies had its last call in the tower, leaving the Book complex abandoned. Boards promptly rose over the windows, as did fears that the boulevard’s comeback had been derailed yet again.
Hope rises -- and fades -- again
On Oct. 28, 2009, the Detroit City Council’s Green Task Force announced that Key Investment Group of Clinton Township, Mich., had signed a contract with the Book’s owners to turn the complex into 260 eco-friendly residences and retail. Key said it planned to start work on the building in June and that it could take three years to overhaul the landmark.
The plan was to install a new copper roof, a green roof plaza, clean the building's façade and restore the tower's atrium. RoseMarie Dobek, Key's chief financial officer, told the Detroit News after the news conference that the company planned to buy the Book from AKNO in the following weeks. Dobek also said the Book was one of six such green-friendly projects Key plans to undertake as part of a $320 million investment in the city, but she did not disclose the other sites.
As of June 2012, however, no work has been started on reviving either the Book Tower or the Book Building.