Historic Detroit

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Burns Hotel

This hotel on the northeast corner of Cadillac Square and Bates Street was short-lived, but there was still a rich and colorful history thanks to the man who built it, James D. Burns.

The boxer, the sheriff, the brickmaker

Burns had a fascinating life. He was born in what was then Springwells Township on July 28, 1865. He was the son of Peter Burns, a leading Detroit brick manufacturer, who had a 50-acre brickyard in Springwells, which later became part of Detroit. Burns bricks were used in the construction of many of the buildings erected in the growing Motor City of the late 19th century.

In his younger days, “Jimmy” Burns was a successful amateur boxer and wrestler, and was crowned the amateur middleweight boxer and wrestler in the state of Michigan. The avid sportsman never sought to go pro himself, but he is said to have started two world champs on the road to stardom. One, Noah Brusso, became world heavyweight champion under the name Tommy Burns, a name he assumed in honor of his sponsor and friend. The other was Tommy Ryan, who became a world middleweight champ.

After his father’s death, he and his three brothers took over the brickmaking enterprise for 10 years. Burns also got into the booze business in the 1890s, opening a saloon downtown next to the Majestic Building. It “became widely patronized by sport lovers, politicians and newspapermen” of the 1890s, the Detroit Free Press recalled in a Jan. 3, 1928, article.

In 1900, he and George Stallings bought the Detroit Tigers baseball franchise, which was then a part of the Western League. Though his ownership was colorful, filled with stories about taking from the till, Burns helped get the team Major League status as an inaugural member of the American League in 1901. His two-year run as co-owner would end with him selling the team a year later. He and family members opened another brickmaking company on the site of his dad’s business.

An active member of the Democratic Party, he ran for Wayne County sheriff in 1904. He lost to John Hoffman, but when Hoffman was later found ineligible for office, Burns was elected to the post in a special election in 1905. He became the first Democrat in half a century to hold the post. He was re-elected in 1906, and would serve his party as a national committeeman for several years.

But you can take the saloonkeeper out of the saloon, but you can’t take the saloon out of the saloonkeeper. Sheriff Burns decided to get back into the hospitality business and open a hotel on Cadillac Square. In March 1908, the Barlums, who owned the land where the 61-room Grand Central Hotel sat, began remodeling the structure in order to turn it over to Sheriff Burns. The interior was ripped out and part of the exterior walls were torn down and replaced with different materials. The rear of the building was raised to correspond with the front's four stories of height," The Detroit News reported Jan. 19, 1908. “The intention is to make it an up-to-date hotel of 140 rooms with parlors, lobbies, baths, etc., finished in marble with mosaic floors." The architect on the massive makeover was Joseph G. Kastler. The remodeling was expected to be done in just 70 working days.

All of the Grand Central’s furnishings were auctioned off April 29, 1908. But things turned interesting. We'll just leave this article here, headlined "THIS MAN LOVES DUST," from the April 29, 1908, edition of The Detroit News:

"'If that man doesn't stop falling on the carpets, we'll have to adjourn the sale,' exclaimed the auctioneer engaged to sell the furnishings of the Grand Central hotel, which is being remodeled for Sheriff Burns, this morning. The announcement was caused by an individual who persisted in flopping on the carpets, sending choking clouds of dust in the air. Detectives Steinhebel and Sullivan were on hand watching for suspicious persons. They accosted the man and demanded an explanation. 'I used to work in a bank and like to see the dust,' he said, whereupon the officers looked askance and chased him over to Will Allen's mission, a few doors away."

The Burns rises from the dusty ashes

The Burns Hotel’s articles of incorporation were filed May 18, 1908. Burns and his business partner, Alphonse James Singelyn, who also happened to be his undersheriff and was a vice president and treasurer of the Tivoli Brewery, owned equal shares. However, with his name being so well-known around town, Burns’ name went on the hotel’s shingle alone. After all, Burns was "one of the city's most popular men," an ad in The Detroit News on Aug. 4, 1908, noted.

But it was not joining a bustling, thriving part of town. The Hotel Pontchartrain, Detroit’s top hotel, sat kitty-corner, but its glitz and glamour apparently stopped where the Pontch’s walls did.

Despite being in the heart of downtown, Cadillac Square was actually a pretty scuzzy place at the time. On July 14, 1908, the Free Press wrote that Cadillac Square was "long known as one of Detroit's principal repudiations of her reputation as 'Detroit the beautiful,'” and called the street a “foul, garbage-littered thoroughfare." The Burns Hotel, the paper noted, would mark "one of the first examples of cleanliness on the square," an example of the "strong efforts (by) progressive businessmen to put an end to the slovenly conditions on the street." The Burns would ensure this “section of the city will take on an aspect so changed that the Square will no longer be a reproach to the city.”

Burns told the Free Press that "nearly $100,000 will be spent on the hotel, and it will contain every modern innovation of a first-class hostelry.”

The cornerstone was supposed to be laid May 8, 1908, but “wet weather” postponed the festivities. The event was to be held even though demolition work on the existing structures on the site was still ongoing. After all, Burns set an ambitious goal of opening in time for the Fourth of July. He missed the mark only slightly, with the European-style hotel opening July 28, 1908.

"The first man to walk up to the desk and spoil the virgin whiteness of the register" was J.W. Flack of Milwaukee, a prominent owner and jockey of racehorses, the Free Press reported the following morning. It was a hot spot off the bat, with 60 of the hotel's 130 rooms occupied.

The formal opening came on Aug. 26, 1908, "an affair of city and state consequence." A dinner was held for about 150 guests, and speeches by Mayor William Barlum Thompson, Sen. A.J. Doherty and others were given. Thompson, who was cousins with the hotel’s landlord, John J. Barlum, noted that, as "the fame of Detroit is spreading," the city needed a first-class hotel like the Burns. The hotel had running water and telephones in all rooms, with tubs and showers adjoining many of them. Its 150 rooms, 65 with baths, could be had at rates of $1 a day and up.

"We hear that every chair was taken at the Burns hotel opening dinner," The Detroit News noted Aug. 30, 1908. "That's a bold advance on purloining the spoons."

The hotel featured "some examples of the marble maker's art that cannot be surpassed in the country," the Detroit Free Press wrote July 12, 1908. There were 10 columns of imitation marble, "beautiful in color." Though imitation marble might seem underwhelming, the paper noted that "these are exquisite imitations and cannot be surpassed by the genuine. ... They must be seen to be appreciated." They were the work of George V. Mehling, who lived at what was then 106 Henry St. in Detroit.

The Burns Hotel Cafe, which an ad billed as "strictly high class," boasted performances by Finney's Orchestra along with fine food and drink for up to 150 guests at a time. Signs advertising its offerings, including steaks, chops, seafood and, of course Singelyn’s Tivoli beer. The cafe opened Aug. 3, 1908.

And with Burns being the sheriff, customers who decided not to pay their tab might have soon found themselves staying at Burns' "other hotel" -- the jail. "Of course," the sheriff told the Free Press for an Oct. 27, 1908, story, "the cuisine at my other hotel may not be as attractive as it is here. We may not serve oysters on the half shell, turtle soup, broiled squab and tutti frutti ice cream."

At the end of the year, however, Burns decided to give up his post as sheriff and focus on the hotel business full time. His retirement party was held, unsurprisingly, at the Burns Hotel.

Burnsing bridges

On Oct. 14, 1912, the Free Press wrote about a gambling raid at the Burns: "After employing a clever ruse to obtain entrance and watching two poker games in a corner room on the top floor of the Burns Hotel, the police descended on the room at midnight Sunday, capturing 11 men." The police were tipped off by a disgruntled unlucky man who filed a complaint after losing $5,000 there in one night. An undercover detective went to the hotel the day before the raid and registered as "a racing man." He then spent the following day loafing around the lobby, "reading a racing paper and managed to strike up an acquaintance with a stranger who offered to get him into the game." After watching the game and begging off anting up because he said the stakes were too high, he left the room with the door unlocked behind him, setting the stage for the police to bust in. Two poker tables, several thousand chips and about $500 in cash was confiscated. The games were being run, police said, by former deputy sheriff Cornelius Duress. Both Burns and Singelyn also were charged with allowing the gambling to happen in their establishment.

The irony of this was that, as sheriff, Burns never shied away from making a media spectacle of smashing up illegal slot machines and busting crap games.

At some point thereafter, in either 1915 or ’16, Burns and Singelyn parted ways, with Burns selling his share in order to run the Ste. Claire Hotel on Randolph and Monroe instead. The Ste. Claire was the first fireproof hotel built in Detroit and featured 140 guestrooms. But even with James Burns out of the picture, Singelyn kept Burns’ name on the hotel.

Perhaps because of anger over his former business partner keeping his name on the hotel, Burns took out an ad in the May 26, 1916, Detroit Free Press that read, "James D. Burns, proprietor of the Hotel Ste. Claire, wishes it expressly understood that he is in no way connected with the Burns Hotel. He will welcome his many friends at his new hostelry, the Hotel Ste. Claire."

After all, Burns was now competing with his old namesake hotel for business.

Burned out

On Oct. 8, 1921, it was announced that Burns and his partners had leased the Ste. Claire to Fred D. Blake for 15 years, and Burns went into retirement. Singelyn went through a bitter divorce from his wife, Dorothy, that played out in the papers that same year, including salacious allegations of affairs that landed on the front page of the Detroit Free Press. Possibly because of a costly divorce or just because he was just looking to leave the game, Singelyn either sold the hotel or lost it.

Either way, in November 1923, the Burns Hotel was advertised as being under new management. But it wouldn’t be long before the Burns would be under the wrecking ball.

On Aug. 22, 1925, John J. Barlum announced that he was plopping a fancy, state-of-the-art hotel along Cadillac Square – on the site of the Burns Hotel. It would stand 16 stories taller and boast 650 more rooms. The news of the new Barlum Hotel was front-page, above-the-fold news in the Detroit Free Press, but the news of the pending old hotel’s doom was only a passing mention.

Demolition began in December 1925. The Barlum opened Feb. 12, 1927.

Burns died Jan. 2, 1928, at Grace Hospital. He was 62 years old.

James Singelyn died March 16, 1938, just two days before his 64th birthday.