There were no epitaphs in the papers when it fell, and few photos of it survive, but buried in the forgotten history of this forgotten hotel are dozens of fascinating tales.
It was built by a butcher, run by a foul-mouthed French Canadian, counted a German terrorist cell among its overnight guests and a hypnotist among its commercial tenants, whet whistles during Prohibition, and had its next-door neighbor Henry Ford waking its overnight guests while he banged away in his garage on his famous quadricycle.
At the end of its 37-year run, this hotel that had helped bring a new level of elegance to the city, was replaced by one of Detroit's most elegant movie palaces.
At the time it was built, the building was considered so elegant, in fact, the man who built it dubbed it The Utopia.
The bastion of beauty on Bagley
The Utopia was the brainchild of William Wreford, who built it with his son-in-law Oscar M. Springer. Work started in 1887 on the southwest corner of Clifford and Bagley, in what was then uptown. At that time, Bagley was a quiet street lined with large trees and stately homes, including that of Gov. John Judson Bagley. Horses still clomped up and down the cobblestone-paved street. There were only small hints of the development and commerce to come. A Pinkerton’s Drug Store opened at Bagley and Grand River Avenue in 1890. An old creamery that later became home to The Detroit Times newspaper set up shop there, as well. But it was mostly homes, some of them dating to the 1830s and ‘40s.
Wreford was born in England, where he learned his way around the meat industry and how to handle a cleaver. He came to Detroit in the early 1850s, eventually finding success in the meat trade here, selling meat out of Central Market and forming with six other men Detroit’s first syndicate to ship beef back to his home country, where the cattle would fetch a hefty price. In 1894, The Detroit News deemed him "the leading wholesale butcher of Detroit."
Though The Utopia was not his first foray into the real estate game, Wreford really anted up by building the hotel at what was then 38-48 Bagley (today 202-222 Bagley). Wreford paid $10,000 for the land and $37,000 to build it. In 1925, The Detroit Times credited the building as “the first apartment house ever to be erected in Detroit,” though that distinction has been called into question since. However, it was indeed one of the city's earliest. The architect on the project was the short-lived firm of Van Leyen & Preston, which lasted only from 1887-90. Edward C. Van Leyen would go on to design a slew of other buildings in Detroit, including the Belle Isle Casino, as well as numerous churches and schools. Charles Preston had spent time with leading firms in Cleveland and elsewhere. Around the same time, Wreford also built a pair of brick duplexes adjoining the hotel.
The four-story, brick-and-stone-clad Utopia opened July 6, 1888, with an orchestra, brass band and supper as highlights of the festivities.
Each of the 24 suites had two parlors, a bedroom and a bathroom, and came in furnished and unfurnished units. The papers touted amenities such as hot and cold water, gas and electricity in each room. The building also had an elevator. In December 1892, the Free Press called it "a fashionable boarding place."
"The building was planned after the higher class of French apartments. ... The apartments, which are as elegant as any in the city, are all taken except one suite of rooms, and the cafe is patronized by all in the building and many outside. The experiment, therefore, seems to be a success, and more of this class of buildings may be looked for in Detroit," the Detroit Free Press wrote April 7, 1889.
In 1902, these apartments cost $15 a month. A seemingly reasonable sum of $454 a month today, when adjusted for inflation, but a sum that was apparently out of reach for many Detroiters of the era.
The Utopia "has taken a foremost place among the apartment buildings of this city," The Detroit News wrote Nov. 14, 1902. "The large and cheerful rooms are constantly in demand by small families whose aim it is to reduce the work of housekeeping to a minimum," and The Detroit Times recalled in 1925 that The Utopia was “patronized to a large extent by the best people of the city."
But that demand seems questionable, because almost from the beginning, one proprietor after another struggled to make the hotel work. The Springers ran the hotel at first, but then leased it to a string of proprietors. It was passed to Ellen Keel at some point, and then Springer had to sue the next proprietor, E.H. Kenrick, over unpaid rent in August 1894. It is assumed someone else took it over before L.D. Teall's run starting around 1900. Then Teall was soon succeeded by a J. Lucas. Wreford was forced to cut the hoteliers' rent in half, from $200 a month to $100.
“Money was so scarce that we used postage stamps to make change,” Wreford reminisced to the Times. “Why, I even coined my own money and issued 10,000 pennies which resembled the regular U.S. coin on one side and had my firm name on the other. We used to redeem them the same as money when they turned up in the meat shops which I operated. Finally, the government forbade the manufacture of such coins, and we were forced to discontinue their use – but not without regret, for they certainly came in handy in making change.”
Detroit, it seemed, wasn’t ready for extravagant amenities and the price that comes along with them. In summing up the Utopia's money woes, The Detroit News wrote Sept. 19, 1894, that "its name is an attractive one, but it seems now and then to incur the unpleasant experiences which befall nearly all Utopias."
Fine dining and quirky tenants
The fireproof building also had ground-floor retail spaces. G. Horrut Tailor opened in September 1888. But it was its additions to the city's culinary scene that many old-time Detroiters remembered most.
In 1889, the Utopia Cafe opened and the Detroit Cooking School, run by Mrs. R.F. Dearborn, moved in.
“People used to stroll past the Utopia, as it was called, just to gaze on the novel sight of men and women eating in full view of the public, for the Utopia dining room faced on the street and was equipped with plate-glass windows,” The Times recalled in its Sept. 26, 1926, edition.
The building also had some interesting tenants. In 1892, artist Maud Mathewson opened a studio in the building. In 1901, the Utopia became home to the Detroit School of Hypnotism, operated by Dr. F.N. Bovee. A few years, later, Leore Duttee was offering "scientific massages for nervous diseases" and "massage and alcoholic treatments for nervous diseases scientifically and carefully administered" in 1905. That same year, the McLeod Restaurant joined the culinary options in the hotel.
Among the hotel's neighbors on the then-mostly residential street was a young engineer at the Edison plant named Henry Ford, who lived in a small double house on the same block as the Utopia. Working out of his home’s small garage that he had turned into a workshop, Ford tinkered away on his quadricycle, and, in 1896, changed transportation - and soon Detroit's fortunes - as the world knew it. Newspaper reports decades later claimed he tinkered so loudly, the strange noises often woke guests.
“Terrific noises and strange sounds were frequently heard emanating from the workshop, and frequently Ford himself, attired in a greasy jumper, could be seen emerging from its doors driving a buggy to which no horse was attached,” The Detroit Times wrote Sept. 26, 1926, noting Ford's journeys usually "never reached the end of the alley."
The cussing French Canadian
In December 1908, Joe Bedore, a well-known operator of a hotel on the St. Clair Flats, took over, running the place as "Joe Bedore's Hotel Utopia." Bedore, who was born in Quebec in 1839, was "the squat and picturesque little Frenchman who talked like a windmill and was the best known of all the Flat habitants," as The Detroit News described him in a July 13, 1929, article. Famous White Star Line steamers like the Tashmoo and Greyhound, loaded with passengers, docked daily at his place, and his hotel became the most renowned of all the hotels that had popped up along the water. Because he had been so wildly successful with his hotel at the Flats, he thought that he would be the one to finally find success with The Utopia.
"Joe had an astonishing command of profanity in two languages," George Stark recalled in a Sept. 12, 1954, column. "Swearing, with him, became a natural medium of speech, and he made it seem necessary to conversation. He employed it so naturally that it lacked any essence of venom."
But it wasn't just his foul mouth that made him famous.
"Joe Bedore was as widely and favorably known as the then-mayor," The News recalled July 17, 1955. "He had a robust wit. His anecdotes in patois laced with blunt Anglo Saxon phrases were carried hilariously from New York to San Francisco and from Chicago to the Gulf by appreciative guests."
Despite the years of success on the Flats, Bedore didn't last much longer than his predecessors. Only a year after expanding into Detroit, Bedore retired, citing ill health. He died in Detroit in 1921. His son-in-law, Stephen LaLonde, sold the business to John W. Stillwell and John O'Neil, who had big plans for the small hotel.
The Fairfax years
Stillwell and O’Neil took over in December 1909, and renamed the business the Fairfax Hotel. O'Neil had previously run the Russell House and Griswold House. The pair not only rebranded the hotel, but remodeled it from top to bottom.
"No expense has been spared to make this a hotel that Detroiters can justly feel proud of. A force of 50 workmen and decorators have been working steadily for over two months, turning this building into a high-class, modern hotel in every respect," an ad in the Detroit Free Press touted on March 6, 1910. Its grand reopening was held a little more than a week later, on March 15.
Some of the suites were divvied up, and the hotel now had 125 rooms - 100 of them with windows - and each with a telephone and new bathtubs, beds, furniture, linens and carpets.
Their ambitious plans also called for razing the two brick duplexes with a large, 40-by-100, six-story brick annex to the hotel of steel and reinforced concrete. This would have added 120 rooms and 60 baths - one for every two rooms, and Stillwell & O'Neil hired Gustave A. Mueller to come up with a design similar to his Bavarian-styled work on the Alt Heidelberg Cafe & Restaurant, 1307-1309 Broadway. But this addition would not come to pass, and the duplexes would live on.
It featured 75 rooms with private bathrooms at $1.50 and up (about $41 today, when adjusted for inflation), and 50 others boasting “hot and cold water” for $1 and up. “Suites of two and three rooms with private baths” were $2.50 and $3.50 per day and up (about $68 to $96 today). Among the other amenities were 10 private dining rooms, entertainment such as “music and singing,” private parking in back for those driving the hotel's old neighbor's automobiles, and “fish, frog and chicken dinners” for a buck.
Ads for the Fairfax touted its “beautiful location, one block from Grand Circus Park,” as well as its convenience to streetcar lines.
On May 28, 1912, the Palm Garden opened in the hotel, featuring music every evening and updates on baseball scores every inning. The Pompeii Grape Arbor Cafe and a grill and drinking room in "the German style" offered guests other options.
On Nov. 5, 1915, the building was sold by Wreford and his daughter, Emma Wreford Springer, to the Grosse Pointe Development Co. for a price believed to have been $250,000 ($6.85 million today). Edward A. Loveley of the Stormfeltz-Loveley real estate company, was the president of the company making the purchase. "Purchase of the property is made as an investment, the new owners having great confidence in the future business development of the section in which the hotel is situated," the Free Press reported the following morning.
Stillwell was allowed to continue operating the hotel until the end of his lease. It is unclear whether he lost the hotel or changed its name, but by November 1916, the business was going by the name the St. Denis Hotel.
The St. Denis: A hotel of 'ill repute'
In addition to switching its name, the hotel also switched its clientele, becoming strictly a stag hotel, or bachelor hotel. But things were clearly going downhill, and it had developed a bit of a shady reputation. The venerable old inn was on its way out.
Shortly before becoming the St. Denis, the papers reported in April 1916 that the hotel's bar was likely going to lose its liquor license. A final decision one way or the other didn't appear to make the papers. A "free-for-all fight" broke out in the early morning hours on Dec. 6, 1916, complete with shots being fired. The front page of The Detroit News from Feb. 28, 1918, told of how Detroit police had raided six businesses, part of a "drive against downtown places they say are undesirable." Sixty women, likely accused of prostitution, were taken into custody from what the News called places of "ill repute." A few months later, in June 1918, St. Denis bartender Samuel Banks was pinched for selling whisky and charged with violating Prohibition laws. Another raid, without any elaboration in the papers, was conducted at the business the following year.
But one of the most shocking black eyes to the building was no fault of the owners. Agents of the German government had waged a terror campaign from 1914-17 on U.S. soil in an attempt to stop munitions and war supplies from reaching the Allied forces.
Albert Carl Kaltschmidt, a native of Germany who still sympathized with the Fatherland, enlisted accomplices in his new home of Detroit to bomb factories and hinder the war effort. The United States hadn't even entered the war yet (it did not do so until April 6, 1917). These terrorists plotted to blow up the Detroit Screw Works, which had a U.S. military contract, on April 3, 1915, but found the factory too heavily guarded. They returned to their room at what was then still the Fairfax, with the bomb in tow. Later, the cell launched an attack on facilities in Windsor, Ontario, successfully detonating a bomb at the Peabody Leather Label Overall Factory on June 21, 1915; a second blast at the Windsor Armoury didn't go off. The terrorists had reportedly hoped to kill some 100 Canadian soldiers while they slept. Kaltschmidt was convicted Dec. 22, 1917, and sentenced to four years in prison. The trial was front-page news, and the hotel's association with the attack was read by hundreds of thousands.
The St. Denis was sold in late 1924 and it was announced that it would be torn down for a then-unnamed project. An auction was held Dec. 29, 1924, at which everything from beds to desks to safes to linen was sold off.
On Feb. 1, 1925, the papers unveiled the mystery: The St. Denis - along with the Brunswick Hotel, James Fitzsimmons & Co. furniture store, W.F. Brady & Co. tile and mantel supply, the Brunswick Drugstore, Employers' Association of Detroit, Detroit Creamery Warehouse No. 1 and a Standard Oil gas station - was to be razed to make way for the Michigan Theatre. Where The Utopia has ushered in a new era of elegance in apartments, the 4,038-seat, French Renaissance-style Michigan would usher in a new era of elegance in movie theaters.
A wreckers' sale on April 7, 1925, saw whatever was left of the old hotel, including bricks, doors and even the freight elevator, put under the hammer before demolition crews put the building under a different kind of hammer. The Globe House Wrecking Co. of 15000 Linwood reduced the hotel to rubble.
Wreford died in May 1926, having lived just long enough to see his bet on the corner of Bagley and Clifford finally come to fruition, but not long enough to see the Michigan Theatre open on Aug. 23, 1926.