Historic Detroit

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

Federal Building

Magnificent, majestic and massive, Detroit’s old Federal Building and Post Office was a towering palace of government that was more than three decades in the making, took seven years to build -- and only 34 years to outgrow.

Today, photos of the building often drop the jaws of those who have never seen it. Detroit historian William Hawkins Ferry called it “one of the most outstanding monuments of the Romanesque Revival in Detroit.” The landmark literally dominated the northwestern corner of Shelby and West Fort streets. Everything about it was huge. Its 243-foot clock tower soared over everything else in the city for several decades and could be seen from outside of downtown. Detroiters would enter under enormous arched entrances and peer out from its giant windows. It was an impressive monument to the federal government and, in the words of Peter Gavrilovich of the Detroit Free Press in 2009, “a heck of a place to buy a 2-cent stamp.”

Cramped quarters call for a behemoth

The federal government ran a post office, federal courts, custom house and other offices at the northwestern corner of Griswold and Larned streets in a building that opened Jan. 30, 1860, the same day construction was completed. Detroit was a rather small city at the time, having only 45,619 people. Within 20 years, the city’s population had jumped to 116,340 -- a 155% increase -- and the building was deemed too small and inadequate for the city’s needs. A push was made for a new federal building that was not only larger, but also would do justice to Detroit’s rising prominence as one of the biggest and most thriving cities in the country.

Congress passed the first appropriation for a new federal building on May 25, 1882, allocating $600,000 ($13.2 million today, when adjusted for inflation) if a new site had to be purchased, and $500,000 ($11 million today) if the site of the old federal building was reused. Six months later, a government commission came out in favor of building on the old site. This led to protest from Detroit officials, many of whom said the location was too low and close to Savoyard Creek and inadequate for the needs of a new federal building.

The city lobbied for a site where C.J. Whitney had built an opera house in 1875. The venue happened to be “the most elaborately equipped playhouse in the city,” and its opulence “nearly upset the plans to use the present site and almost resulted in the selection of the block bounded by Fort, Shelby, Lafayette and Griswold Streets, opposite the City Hall” instead, Malcolm W. Bingay wrote in the Free Press in November 1931. But Whitney sold the building and land to the feds and built himself the Whitney Grand Opera House on Griswold, north of Michigan. It would be renamed the Garrick Theatre and was the site of Harry Houdini’s final performance before his death in 1926.

The land that would become the home of the new federal building was once the site of Ft. Lernoult, which was built in 1778-79 and later renamed Ft. Shelby, the namesake of the hotel that stands today at Lafayette and First Street.

After the site of Whitney’s opera house was selected, a new controversy arose over whether half the block was enough room, so the rest of the block was bought in 1885 and 1887 at a cost of $400,000 (about $9.5 million today). On March 3, 1887, the total amount of the appropriation for the land and construction was bumped from the previously appointed $600,000 to $1.1 million, a figure equivalent to $26 million today. Uncle Sam kept busting out the checkbook, and the final price tag of the building, land and furnishings rose to $1.55 million -- what is about $35 million today.

Building Detroit a jaw-dropper

A design by James H. Windrim of Philadelphia was selected, and excavation began June 29, 1890. The building had a decidedly Richardsonian flair, its huge, roughly cut stones giving the building a castle-like appearance, much like the Grand Army of the Republic Building that still stands today. Construction of the new Federal Building began April 11, 1891, but it would go slowly.

William D. McKendrick, the building’s engineer for 33 years and one of the men who helped build the Federal Building, told the Detroit News in 1931 that many prominent Detroiters lamented “the government’s folly in squandering thousands of dollars on a stone monument that would never be needed.” Little did they know how wrong they would be.

Oddly, the building had no cornerstone. “Just why there is no cornerstone nobody seems to know,” the Detroit News wrote in 1931. The basement’s foundation was made of granite, and the superstructure of Bedford limestone. The walls of the basement were an incredible 48 inches thick. The huge stones, as well as the Bedford limestone blocks used throughout the building, were quarried and finished by prisoners at a prison in Joliet, Ill., and were brought to Detroit on flat cars, McKendrick told the Detroit News in 1930.

On Nov. 27, 1897, the post office in the old building closed, and postal workers finally marched from their old home at Larned and Griswold to their new digs. The other courts and offices followed in early 1898. Even though federal workers had already moved in, it took nearly three more years for the interior to be finished and decorated. The building was originally named the United States Customs House and Postoffice (sic) Building, but “the title was considered too long, (and) in later years the title was shortened to ‘Federal Building’ to distinguish it from the old Federal building at Griswold and Larned street,” the News wrote in 1931. But for almost every Detroiter during the building’s life, and to those who study Detroit history today, the building was better known as simply the Post Office Building.

The central tower above the main entrance reached 243 feet above the street (some reports say it was 285 feet, though that number is doubtful), and its capstone weighed 1.5 tons. The tower had four gargoyles at the base of the housing for the clock. The roof was covered with Spanish tiles and copper. The basement housed the customs house appraisers, as well as the boilers and other equipment. The post office occupied the entire first floor, as well as part of the second. The rest of the second floor housed the customs house and internal revenue offices. The third belonged to the U.S. courts and held offices for the district attorney and U.S. marshal. The fourth was home to a variety of government offices, including the Lighthouse Board and Civil Service Commission, as well as the grand jury rooms. The loft was used for storing files and records of the departments in the building. Two flags flew from staffs high above the tiled roof; one was the U.S. flag, the other the pennant of the Treasury Department, which owned the building.

One of the highest points on the roof was used as an observation platform, originally intended for the national Weather Bureau, the forerunner of the National Weather Service. To get there, you had to go through the attic and climb a dark, long and windowless stairway. The platform, fenced by only an iron railing, afforded outstanding and unmatched views of Detroit and the Detroit River for years. It even had built-in weather equipment to measure wind, rainfall and other stats. Trouble is, it was said that the Weather Bureau never even used the platform. According to a 1931 Detroit News article, the bureau had found private office buildings that were better suited to its needs.

That’s not to say this room with a view went unused. Employees of the building were said to have gone up there to watch solar eclipses, airplanes and ships come sailing in. The News reported in 1931 that when Detroit native Charles Lindbergh had flown over his hometown, “he circled several times around the Federal Building in salute to the officials who crowded the observation platform.”

When the Federal Building was built, it had four giant, 1.5-ton stone eagles perched on each of its four corners. But the sculptures on the southwest and southeast corners disappeared when an extension on Lafayette Boulevard was added in 1915. What happened to the missing birds was a subject of much debate and rumors around the building, the News wrote in 1931.

The Million-Dollar Courtroom

The floors of all the corridors were laid in marble squares, and the wainscoting was of American, Italian and French marbles. The arches and columns of the staircases were of a fine imported marble. The main entrance’s vestibule on Fort Street had a dome ceiling of marble mosaic. Thousands and thousands of square feet of marble were used in a manner so lavish, it was wasteful: Even the corridors of the basement staircases were made of a perfectly blended marble.

Ferry noted in his “Buildings of Detroit, A History” that the building was “a symmetrical arcaded building with corner pavilions.” The skylight over the building’s atrium was decorated with large panels of stained glass depicting coats of arms of the United States and mythological figures symbolizing justice, law and government. This area, known as The Well, was frequently criticized as “Uncle Sam’s million-dollar extravagance” by those who said it neither ventilated the building nor provided enough light because of the stained glass, the Detroit News wrote in 1931. Where it lacked in frugality, it was said make up for in beauty.

But perhaps the most stunning spot in this palace of government was the so-called Million-Dollar Courtroom, an architectural marvel of the day that still survives today -– and is still known by that nickname. The courtroom was originally designed to house the U.S. Circuit Court. The Detroit News wrote in 1933: “It is estimated that Uncle Sam spent $750,000 to fit up this courtroom with marbles from every part of the world. It is said that to duplicate this room now would cost most than $2,000,000.” That’d be an absolutely unthinkable $31 million today, when adjusted for inflation, to outfit a single room.

The marble -– and in particular the two white onyx columns that flank the bench -– were “the object of special pilgrimages by artists and architects,” the Free Press noted in 1947. The article notes that the first pair of columns was lost in a shipwreck en route from Milan, Italy, where they were carved. Two more pairs were carved but damaged in shipment. Finally, the fourth time was the charm.

The walls are solid marble, of course. The onyx columns are surmounted by lion heads supporting a globe, denoting the strength of justice. There also was beautiful mosaic work on the floor near the entrance. “Scarcely a square foot of the room is without some piece of delightful wood carving emblematic of some phase of the law,” Sherman R. Miller wrote in the Free Press in September 1933. At the top of the windows were carvings representing the Department of Justice, the Post Office and the Treasury Department. What isn’t marble in the room is a beautiful, dark and intricately carved mahogany. The bench and doors are nearly as striking as the marble.

When the current Federal Building was built, today known as the Theodore J. Levin U.S. Courthouse, federal Judge Arthur J. Tuttle arranged to have his courtroom dismantled piece by piece and replaced exactly as it was in the 1897 building. “When workmen were about to demolish the historic court room, occupied in the old building by Judge Tuttle, he appealed to William J. Rush, of the Treasury Department. Both agreed that the old court room was far too valuable, with its marble and mahogany, to be destroyed or sold piecemeal,” Miller wrote in the Free Press in September 1933. “So it was painstakingly taken apart, the various sections photographed, lettered, numbered and stored in over 150 barrels in the temporary Postoffice quarters. Blueprints of the old room and its decorations and friezes were drawn up and are being used in the reassembling. …

“Judge Tuttle’s court room has been said by architects to be one of the most beautiful examples of marble and freize (sic) construction in the country."

Today, the courtroom serves as the chambers for Chief U.S. District Judge Gerald E. Rosen, a position he has held since Jan. 1, 2009. The stained glass windows and mosaic tile work near the entrance didn’t make the move, but nearly everything else, from the sconces to the chandelier to the mahogany bench, did. For photos of the Million-Dollar Courtroom today, see the photo gallery at right.

“I think all of us on our court feel indebted to Judge Tuttle for having the foresight to preserve it,” Rosen told HistoricDetroit.org. “It is a treasure and a gem, not just for our court and the city of Detroit, but our entire region.”

The Secret Stairway

The Federal Building also was home to what was known by employees as the Secret Stairway. It led from the Million-Dollar Courtroom on the third floor to a large room above the attic on the fifth. It was a dark, steep, narrow and winding trek. There were narrow windows and gas jets to light the way up the ornamental iron stairway. Originally, the room was supposed to serve as a deliberating chamber for federal grand juries. The secret stairway allowed witnesses to be brought before the juries without the knowledge of outsiders. The windows used to look out over a small park alongside the building, but the 1915 addition that extended the building to Lafayette Boulevard changed that.

Within a few years of the building’s opening, jurors, grand marshals and district attorneys prevailed upon the federal court to move the grand juries to more convenient quarters. The room became a storage facility, though during World War I, it was used by the United States Navigation School, from which several classes of oceangoing skippers graduated. After the war, what employees called the “room above the roof” returned to being a storage place for unused furniture and old files.

Time flies – but sometimes it didn’t

Like many things with federal government, the clock didn’t run as well as it should have. For weeks after being set, it would run fine, but shortly thereafter it would start to lose or gain time. Unlike the infallible clock on Old City Hall, the Federal Building’s timepiece was hardly reliable. In an era before wristwatches, this was a major problem. Postmaster Charles C. Kellogg, the building’s custodian, would be flooded with telephone calls and letters from Detroiters complaining that they had missed appointments or been inconvenienced by being late or too early. When it stopped, there was almost always difficulty in finding a repairman who understood its antiquated and clumsy workings, the News wrote in 1931.

“There is a tradition among the older tenants that the clock was never intended for the tower in the first place, but that the man who built it constructed it only as a model, and protested when the Government insisted on buying and installing the model in the tower,” the Detroit News reported in 1931. “The maker, it is said, predicted that the model clock would prove unsuited, but was overruled.”

That maker was Nels Johnson of Manistee, Mich., who installed it in early 1898. In order for the people more than 200 feet below to be able to read it, the clock had to be huge. The dial was 10 feet in diameter, and the minute hand was about 7 feet long. The marks for the hours were 4 inches across, and weighed four pounds each. The exterior featured Roman numerals and black scroll designs with gilt accents.

The framework of the dial was made of 3,200 pounds of iron. The clock mechanism itself was 7 feet high and nearly 3 feet wide and made of cast iron and brass. It was a weight-powered clock –- the suspended weight checked in at 400 pounds -– with double cogwheels providing the muscle. The pendulum was 14 feet in length and made of a zinc tube inside an iron one. The double tube was to help counteract Detroit’s chilly weather and the contraction of metal that comes with it.

Nels Johnson was quoted in an 1898 article in the Detroit Journal as saying: “The contract calls for a timepiece that shall not vary more than 10 seconds a month. … I furnish all the materials, pay the cost of putting up the mechanism and turn the clock over to the owners in good running order. And what do you suppose I get for all this? I am almost ashamed to tell you. Only $930,” about $23,000 today.

So maybe it wasn’t a model and the postmaster got what the government paid for. Johnson, who made 50 to 60 clock towers across the country and in China and India, died in Manistee on Jan. 13, 1915, so he wasn’t around to address Kellogg’s criticism of his handiwork.

Model or not, Kellogg was fed up with the bothersome clock, and decided to rid himself of the headache. The postmaster put the timepiece up for sale in 1929, and Henry Ford bought the clock for his museum. The clock mechanism survives today and is on display at the Henry Ford Museum. With the Federal Building’s future in doubt and the calls for a new, bigger structure growing, Kellogg made no effort to buy a new one, and the housing sat empty for the building’s final two years.

Not many people seemed to notice, including postal employees. “I wondered why we did not get complaints anymore about that clock not keeping correct time,” an oblivious, unnamed Post Office veteran told the News in 1931, two years after the clock was taken down.

Huge, but not huge enough

When construction of the Federal Building began in 1890, Detroit’s population was 205,876, good for the 14th largest city in the United States. When the building opened seven years later, its population had grown significantly; by 1900, Detroit had grown almost 39%, to 285,704 people.

“The city had grown so fast during the period of construction that the building was not fully occupied before its capacity was outgrown,” Clarence M. Burton wrote in his “The City of Detroit, Michigan,” the most definitive history on the city up to 1922.

Despite its size, between the population surge and with that much federal action going on, the building needed an addition. Some of the federal offices relocated back to the building on Griswold and Larned, and once again calls were made to expand the building. In 1915, crews tacked on a section to the east side of the building and also renovated the inside lobby, mailroom and other areas. The building now encompassed an entire city block. Old gaslights were replaced and other modernizations were added. “This was so skillfully handled architecturally that the completed structure stands as a symmetrical whole,” Burton noted. However, even after the additions, Burton wrote that “the building is uncomfortably crowded.”

In 1930, Detroit had grown to the fourth-largest city in the country and boasted about 1.57 million people, an increase of more than 663% since construction of the building began in 1890. Despite its opulence, such growth led to calls for the building, only a few decades old, to be replaced. And the Depression would ultimately spell the Federal Building’s doom.

Out with the old

The Depression and the Public Works Administration led to hundreds of new post offices to spring up across the country in the 1930s, part of an effort for the government to spend money to help stimulate the economy. Detroit would land one of these projects.

On April 22, 1930, the federal budget bureau recommended that Detroit get a new federal building and customs house at a price of nearly $5 million (about $63.9 million today). Robert O. Derrick (best known for designing the Henry Ford Museum) and Bronson V. Gander were selected as the architects of the new building.

In January 1931, the Detroit News interviewed veteran employees of the old Federal Building and asked them about their feelings on the decision to raze the landmark.

“We are all sorry to leave our old home here, but progress demands new and larger quarters for governmental activities in Detroit,” Kellogg, the postmaster, told the News.

“It is like leaving the home you were born in after you had lived there all your life,” said Henry Clark, superintendent of the Post Office’s claims section.

“It is just plain grief to all the old-timers in this building,” said McKendrick, the building’s chief engineer. “Maybe this building has too many memories for us old-timers anyway, and a move to strange quarters will give us new pep.”

The final day of business at the Post Office was Sept. 28, 1931. The building that took years to build took months to tear down.

For nearly three years, as the new building was being built, the federal employees took up temporary quarters in rented buildings. The postal facilities and offices were housed in the Bagley Building at Bates and Larned streets.

The new federal building

During the laying of the new building’s foundation, parts of old Ft. Lernoult were discovered. On Oct. 12, 1932, about 1,500 people braved chilly temperatures as the 4.5-ton black American granite cornerstone was swung into place. The ceremony followed a parade from the Statler Hotel, where city, state and federal officials –- from Gov. Wilber M. Brucker to Mayor Frank Murphy to congressmen to customs officials –- took part. A squadron of airplanes of the First Pursuit Group zoomed overhead. There were bands marching down Washington Boulevard to Shelby Street and Lafayette Boulevard.

“Today’s ceremony marks another outstanding epoch in the progress of our city,” Rep. Clarence J. McLeod, a Republican and Detroit native, said at the ceremony. “This imposing structure assures us of ample and spacious accommodation for the federal government’s branches in Detroit for years to come.”

A copper box was sealed in the cornerstone containing a copy of the Detroit Free Press, photographs of all the federal officials of the Detroit district, a parchment giving the activities of the federal grand jury and a history and photograph of the old Federal Building.

The price tag wound up being about $3.25 million. It was scheduled to open in November 1933, but labor troubles, changes in plans from those designated in the blueprints and delays in shipments of materials pushed back the opening. The Art Deco building, today known as the Theodore J. Levin Federal Courthouse, opened April 23, 1934.

Ties to the past

Pieces of the old, majestic building live on today. As wreckers tore down the Federal Building, they took tons of the giant Bedford stone to the yard of Batchelder-Wasmund Co., a stone contractor at 2300 W. Jefferson Ave., who bought it. The stone would be hoisted into the walls of Zion Lutheran Church on Military Avenue near Michigan Avenue. The entire edifice is made of the old Federal Building stone, as are parts of the church’s interior, such as the nave and the altar steps. The church was dedicated May 28, 1933. The weather-beaten stone from the Federal Building doesn’t look anything like it used to, however, having been run through power saws, planers and pneumatic chisels.

“The days of the hand mallet that wrought beauty out of stone are gone, and today the power chisel stutters its way across the face of the stone, fashioning it into graceful arches and sills,” the Free Press wrote about the new church in January 1933.

And those unlucky enough to find themselves standing before Judge Rosen in U.S. District Court Room 733 on the seventh floor of the Levin courthouse at least get the awe-inspiring opportunity to stand in the Million-Dollar Courtroom. If you’re going to get the book thrown at you, you might as well go out in style.

Intricately carved pieces from the exterior of the Federal Building stand outside of Lorch Hall (now the economics building) at the University of Michigan. In 1932, Emil Lorch, then the dean of U-M’s School of Architecture, paid $200 for some of the chunks.

The clock from the tower also survives and is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, though it is missing the dials and hands, weights, pendulum rod and bob.

And in January 1982, it was announced that the plans and blueprints of the building would be sent to the University of Michigan to add to its collection of famous U.S. buildings. A story about the blueprints that appeared in the Free Press ended by saying simply, the Federal Building “was considered by students of architecture as one of the most beautiful in the Country.”

For an idea of what Detroiters are missing, check out Milwaukee’s Federal Building. Built in 1899 and designed by Willoughby J. Edbrooke. It looks similar to Detroit’s fallen landmark and houses a U.S. District and U.S. Bankruptcy court. It is located at 517 E. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee.