Historic Detroit

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Edelweiss Cafe

The southeast corner of John R and Broadway has seen Detroiters go from parking their seat at the bar for tasty suds and German cuisine to parking their cars.

Baseball legend Ty Cobb was among those who washed down a brat with a tall cool one at the Edelweiss. The short-lived cafe was also the birthplace of the Kiwanis Club, and its German-American owner fought for Detroiters' right to party.

Goodtime Charlie's good idea

On Sept. 10, 1913, Charles Glaser opened the Edelweiss Café. Though it was not a fixture for long, this restaurant was a beloved institution, especially for Detroit’s growing German community, and Glaser became a beloved figure himself.

Glaser had come to Detroit in 1901, and started working as a salesman for the American Tap Brush Co. He came to the U.S. from his native Diedesfeld in Bavaria in 1888.

The name Edelweiss is synonymous with German and Austrian culture, a flower that grows in the Alps. The word translates to “noble white,” but because of its ability to survive the harsh weather in the Alps, the flower is often associated with strength and durability, courage and toughness.

The Edelweiss name was also a popular brand of a wheat beer brewed by the Peter Schoenhofen Brewing Co. of Chicago. The brewery was established in 1861, and had the slogan, “A case of good judgment.” The German brewer’s logo was also used as that of Glaser’s restaurant, but as far as can be determined, the brewery had no association with the restaurant other than Glaser serving the brand – both on draft and in bottles – in his establishment. The association was not laid out in the newspapers of the time, so it is unclear whether Glaser had permission to use the logo as his own, whether he named the restaurant after the beer or the flower, or whether he used the logo in the same way that many bars and restaurants today display signage advertising the beers they have on offer. Today, Edelweiss beer is brewed once again, made from the same recipe as passed down by the original brewers, though not produced by Schoenhofen, which closed in the early 1950s.

'A dream of beauty'

The Dutch Colonial brick structure was designed by Mildner & Eisen, both of whom were of German descent. The Edelweiss was near Harmonie Park and close to German-American institutions such as Alt Heidelberg, the Harmonie Club, Wasum's Hofbrau and more. The building was two stories, plus a basement. It was built at a cost of $150,000 for Oscar Rosenberger, but it was leased to and run by Glaser right from the start. The structure was made of reinforced concrete construction, with a brick exterior featuring terra cotta trim and cut stone and granite. Notably, the foundations and walls were designed to be able to support six additional floors should the need ever arise. That need never did. The building was announced Nov. 3, 1912. It would open for business 10 months later.

Its entrance along Broadway led to a grand staircase of marble with ornamental ironwork that took patrons to the main dining hall on the upper floor. The dining room was covered in murals, had floors of inlaid cork and could hold 500 people. Four windows opened onto small balconies along Broadway, offering a breeze and a view. The main hall had an electric fountain and concert stage. A banquet hall could be divided by rolling partitions into up to five smaller dining rooms. The second floor also had a dining and tearoom, which was reserved exclusively for the ladies from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Another entrance took thirsty Detroiters to the main floor’s tap room, where a large painting of a Tyrolean peasant gathering Edelweiss flowers dominated the décor. Just off the taproom was a Bavarian room, where business types could meet over wienerschnitzel.

A third entrance along John R Street opened into a deli and sausage factory. A fourth entrance on John R took folks into a basement rathskeller, the Old Hickory Beefsteak Dungeon, “where beefsteaks will be broiled before the diners’ eyes over a hickory fire.” The basement also featured a butcher shop, employing three cleaver-wielders, as well as an ice cream factory and bakery, in addition to the refrigeration and dishwashing equipment.

On Sept. 7, 1913, the Detroit Free Press previewed the café’s opening on Sept. 10, calling the restaurant “a dream of beauty,” writing that Glaser had traveled all over Europe and the United States, “and the Edelweiss Café in Detroit has arisen out of a dream that he has cherished for years.” Glaser oversaw that dream himself, managing the dining room and kitchen. Glaser also came up with the general design ideas and suggested most of the features within the café, though the interior decoration was handled by Albert Stoye of Detroit.

“The big impressions are its completeness, its roominess, and its restfulness,” the Free Press wrote in its preview story. “Two hours are required to see all the features that make up the establishment. You gain only glimpses if you try to do it in less.”

At the Edelweiss, "you will find three commodious floors devoted to a most modernly appointed cafe, with private and public dining rooms, many innovations in serving arrangements and every desirable convenience," an ad from 1913 boasted.

The cafe was also where Glaser’s famous "stammtisch," or round table, came into being. Over the years, everyone from Nobel Prize winners to painters to social revolutionists to newspapermen would gather around the giant table.

The Edelweiss' banquet hall was also home to tourneys for the German card game skat, where German-Americans could get a taste of das Vaterland with both hands – a hand of skat in one, and a bratwurst in the other. At one such tourney in December 1913, 123 card players took part in the action.

A dance-off standoff

In March 1914, Glaser challenged the Warner-Cramton law of 1909 that barred dancing at cafes. (Technically, the law limited the number of saloons to one for every 500 people in a municipality according to the latest U.S. census. Cafes were not to have dancing like saloons did, so, the allegations contested, by serving alcohol and allowing dancing, the Edelweiss was acting like a saloon, not a café, thus surpassing the number of saloons allowed in Detroit at the time. The Warner-Cramton also limited when saloons could operate, where they could be located – i.e., not within 400 feet of a church, etc.)

“We are convinced that the makers of the law bearing on this matter did not intend that it should apply to such places as the Edelweiss Café,” said attorney James Murtha. “The law mentions only barrooms and saloons in this connection.”

Glaser was willing to go to jail in order to protect his patrons’ rights to dance. A warrant was issued March 11, 1914, charging Glaser with violating the Warner-Cramton law by having two cabaret performers dance in the Edelweiss two days earlier.

“The warrant is another step in the test of Inspector (John B.) Downey’s inhibition against café dancing,” the Free Press wrote the day the warrant was issued, noting that the other cafes had complied with his no-dance-allowed edict. The case never went anywhere, and a year later, on Sept. 1, 1914, it was announced that the upstairs dining room previously reserved for banquets had been converted into a dance floor offering cabarets. The Edelweiss, "which is giving Broadway something of the name for brilliance and up-to-dateness, which its larger eastern namesake possesses,” the Free Press noted at the time. Patrons were “ invited to indulge in the latest steps."

Birthplace of the Kiwanis

The Kiwanis Club was formally organized in November 1914 at a meeting inside the Edelweiss. The seed for the group was planted three months earlier during a conversation between Joseph G. Prance and Allen S. Browne, the latter of whom had the idea to solicit businessmen and professionals to form a new fraternal organization. At first, it was called the Supreme Lodge Benevolent Order Brothers. Well, most didn't appreciate being called a "BOBs," and when Detroit historian and businessman Clarence M. Burton was consulted for ideas, Burton suggested a Native American phrase. “Nunc Kee Wan Nis,” which could be translated to, “We trade,” was shortened to Kiwanis. The name – which has had Burton's translation questioned over the past century – was unanimously approved among a group of about 35 at the Edelweiss.

The club sought nonprofit status from the State of Michigan and was approved Jan. 21, 1915. In its early days, the group would rotate holding its meetings at the Edelweiss, the Griswold Hotel on Capitol Park and the Cafe Frontenac on Monroe near Woodward. (The first "official" meeting of the group, following its approval from the State, was held at the Griswold Hotel the last week of January 1915; the club would call the Statler Hotel its home for decades afterward.)

The Kiwanis Club of Detroit garnered nearly 200 members in its first six months, and had grown to more than 100,000 members by 1927. Today, Kiwanis International is international, with more than 550,000 members dedicated to improving the lives of children.

The Edelweiss would also host a number of events and gatherings, from University of Michigan Club meetings to fraternity get-togethers to fund-raisers for German civilians injured during World War I to bridge tournaments.

In 1914, the U and I Club - a men's business organization - was formed in the Edelweiss, as well. Tigers greats Ty Cobb and Hughie Jennings were among the local nine who feasted at the Edelweiss on April 13, 1914, during a complimentary dinner extended to the team on the eve of their seasonal opener.

"A miniature baseball diamond with a fern leaf background was placed in the center of the banquet board," the Free Press wrote the following morning. "It was a faithful imitation of the real one at Navin Field, even to the detail of benches, bases and other trappings." A large crowd of fans greeted the Tigers with roars of their own. "Neat souvenirs in the form of small baseball bats - which when the handle was pulled - exposed an American flag, were presented to the distinguished guests and the patrons."

Die Schwierigkeiten

The S. Zahloute & Co. rug store moved in March 1914 from the Annis Building, on the northwest corner of Woodward and Clifford, to the Edelweiss Building, presumably taking some of the space from Glaser’s enterprise. It was not announced in the papers what part of the cafe closed, but Glaser had previously occupied the entire building.

On March 16, 1915, the Edelweiss Cafe found itself with new owners when Otto Gunther of Detroit and Robert Wagner of Cleveland bought the cafe from the Glaser Restaurant Co. Gunther had been a steward at the Edelweiss since 1913; Wagner was connected with the Colonial Hotel in Cleveland. The building itself, however, was still owned by Oscar Rosenberger. It is not clear why Glaser sold the business. But the new owners couldn’t keep the suds flowing and the ladies dancing. A bankruptcy sale was held just four months later, on July 27, 1915. All the china and glassware, fixtures, silverware, tables, drapes, coffee urns, and stoves were auctioned off at the cafe on Aug. 17, and another auction was held Oct. 16.

Following the café’s closure, the structure was renamed the John R. Broadway Building, and in early 1916, the National Express Co. moved in. Perhaps looking to capitalize off Glaser’s beloved brand or the popular beer, another Edelweiss Buffet opened on East Jefferson shortly thereafter, but that one was run by a Fred Mercer.

The Edelweiss building itself would see a number of small businesses open within the various storefronts carved out of the famed cafe. There are too many to list here, but a small sample includes: The corner spot was taken over by James R. Cordon Tailors around 1921. Around that same timeframe, there was the Peninsular Chandelier Co., which became the Central Lighting & Supply Co. in 1929, which begat the Harco Radio Co. by 1935. In April 1924, Bert Bartley and Frank Hurren relocated their Cabin Chop House into the former Edelweiss space. In 1929, it became the Valencia Gardens. Then it changed its name again to simply Bert’s in 1930. The National Radio Co. tuned in around 1925, which became the Serlin & Co. radio outlet by 1929. The year 1928 saw Plantation Catering open in the building. Oct. 14, 1931, saw the opening of the Club Astor. In 1933, it was the John Burns Restaurant. Three years later, there was the Club Chateau offering "all-male revues" starring "Roxy, Buddy Mayo and many others." There was Rubin’s Furs on the corner for almost the entire 1940s.

Glaser’s other ventures

Following his sale of the Edelweiss, Charlie Glaser moved, in 1918, to the Liberty Kitchen at Library and Monroe streets -- and the "stammtisch" went with him. In July 1921, Glaser was charged with selling beer in violation of the Prohibition law, and the establishment was padlocked in 1924. That same year saw Glaser and his table move to the Frontenac Hotel on Monroe Avenue. Finally, he hung his shingle at Woodward and Congress, where he stayed until he was hospitalized with a heart ailment in 1938 at Seymour Hospital at Eloise. Glaser died there July 11, 1945. "To old timers at the funeral, the white-goateed Charlie will remain forever a nostalgic symbol of that more leisurely and neighborly Detroit that is no more," the Free Press wrote the morning after his death. "Marriage troths were spoken, mayors were made and important business deals transacted in Glaser's series of downtown establishments between 1912 and 1938. "The cuisine in his places always was excellent, as were the vintages (until Prohibition), but it was Charlie, himself, who was always the chief attraction."

Auf wiedersehen

On Feb. 19, 1949, it was announced that Hudson’s would build a larger parking garage for its shoppers on the site of the Edelweiss. The department store giant already had the 293-space Shoppers’ Parking garage next door to the Edelweiss Building. The three-level garage, opened in 1939, was one block away from Hudson’s flagship location. However, the Big Store’s big crowds meant it was always packed with fashion-seekers. It was announced that this new mega garage with 800-850 spaces (sources differ on the number) would be built in two phases and cover the entire block, bounded by Broadway, Grand River Avenue, and John R and Center streets.

The Edelweiss would be torn down so that the first piece of the new garage could go up in its place, giving shoppers a place to park while the old Hudson’s garage was razed in order to extend the new garage. The last of the Edelweiss came down in early 1950. The new four-level, five-deck garage and its 14 storefronts was completed in late 1950. At the time of opening, the rates were 30 cents for the first hour and 10 cents for each additional hour.

Hudson’s closed its downtown Detroit location in 1983 but continued to own and operate the garage, with the last Hudson’s office staff leaving the Big Store in the fall of 1986. The garage was then operated by Boardwalk Development, then by Park Rite.

In 1996, with Hudson’s long since closed and the reborn Capitol Theatre now serving as the latest Detroit Opera House, Park Rite rebranded the parking deck as the Opera House Garage. In 2003, the Michigan Opera Theatre bought the garage from the Aubrey family’s Park Rite empire. The MOT operated it for a short time, including operating a convenience store out of one of the old storefronts. But with the aging parking deck proving insufficient for the beautifully restored opera house, the former Hudson’s garage was demolished in 2004 for a new one that opened in 2005, and occupies the site today.

Special thanks to Michael Hauser for his assistance with the Hudson's garage information.

Last updated 23/10/2022