Historic Detroit

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

Bowles Building

The Bowles Building began its life as a YMCA but also played a smaller, forgotten role in the formation of the auto industry.

The Young Men's Christian Association paid $30,000 in September 1885 to buy land from Alexander Brown of Philadelphia at the northeast corner of Grand River Avenue and Griswold Street on the north end of Capitol Park.

On Nov. 6, 1887, an exclusive sneak peek and building-fund fund-raising dinner was held, with some 75 Detroiters forking over $400 (the equivalent of a staggering $13,000 in 2023 dollars, when adjusted for inflation) to pick up a fork and check out the new "Y" early. The cost of the building was $117,500 (about $3.9 million in 2023 dollars).

The building was dedicated the following day, at 3 p.m. Nov. 7, 1887. Its gynmasium hosted games of basketball and other athletic events, and, like at other YMCAs, men could rent rooms. It also hosted non-athletic contests such as debate meets and held night-school classes.

It was at this YMCA that Henry Ford taught shop classes in the 1890s. One of his students was Oliver Barthel, who later introduced Ford to Charles Brady King. King became the first person to drive a gasoline-powered automobile in the city on March 6, 1896; Barthel was riding shotgun on that fateful ride. Ford said he followed King and Barthel on his bicycle on that fateful ride up Woodward Avenue.

King didn't have the resources to turn his experimental car into a production model, but he did advise Ford while he was designing his Quadricycle and reportedly gave Ford valves for his engine. Ford's first car made its first trial run a few months after King's, on June 4, 1896.

With the growing city having outgrown the old Y, J.L. Hudson and other benefactors set out to raise a small fortune to build what was then the largest YMCA in the world when it opened Jan. 1, 1909. Henry L. Bowles bought the old YMCA for $225,000 and hired the firm Strelow & Pett that same month to build a $54,337 addition. He also renamed the building after himself, calling it the Bowles Building.

Bowles and Charles C. Gilbert founded the Bowles Diners in 1902 and eventually grew their business to 11 lunchrooms in four cities, including one, appropriately enough, in the Bowles Building. The Bowles Diners, "always a sign of good food," the Detroit Free Press wrote in 1954 in announcing the closure of the chain's last restaurants.

Following Bowles' conversion of the building from a YMCA into a retail and office building, it quickly became home to a number of tailors, including McGill and Wind Tailors and New York Ladies' Tailor on the second floor, Leith & Young men's tailors on the third, and Yurchak Ladies' Tailor on the fourth. The White Sewing Machine Co. was on the ground floor. H.B. Dorris, a jeweler, was on the second, and the building also was home to Paul C. Sinz Jewelers. The Detroit Driving Club and the Detroit Whist Club -- dedicated to playing the card game whist, a forerunner of bridge -- also met in the building.

On Nov. 28, 1909, a fire broke out in the building and damaged its third floor, but the businesses got back to business soon thereafter. Bowles died in 1932, but the building continued to bear his name and had a fairly uneventful life for the next half century.

That is, until the building was sold by the estate of Eva L. Gilbert to Sam L. Stolorow in April 1965. Stolorow operated an auto-leasing firm but also had "widespread real estate interests," the Free Press noted. At the time, the Detroit Free Press reported that Stolorow planned to tear the building down and build either a motel, luxury apartments or an office building.

The old Y came down, but nothing went up for decades.

The location served as a parking lot for The Grind strip club next door until that building was destroyed by fire in 2014. That land, and the land where the Bowles Building once stood, were sold to Dan Gilbert's Bedrock Real Estate in 2015. Demolition on the former strip club at 1416 Griswold -- which was built in 1873 and was originally a repair shop for horse carriages and wagons -- began March 10, 2016.

On the two parcels, Bedrock built 28Grand, offering 218 fully furnished studios on 13 floors, billed as "microlofts." Each unit is just 260 square feet. During the time of its construction in 2017, Bedrock called it the largest ground-up resident development in Detroit since the 1980s.

“This doesn’t fill one need for one specific person. I think micro lofts fill a bunch of different needs. First of all, kids getting out of college with their first job and other people moving into the city, ” said Steve Rosenthal, principal lead of development for Bedrock. “But it also fills the commuter need, for those who are traveling in from Lansing everyday or somewhere else for work. Instead of staying at a hotel when you get tired, it feeds the need. It also feels the need for person who are from out of town. We have people where they come for three to four days a week.”

Renowned Detroit artist Charles McGee, then 92, painted an 11-story mural, titled "Unity," on the building.

In March 2018, the downtown burger bar Lovers Only opened in the building.