Historic Detroit

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Fort Clark Hotel

It is Albert Kahn's forgotten hotel in Southwest Detroit.

This hotel was built to serve the growing number of industrial workers feeding the roaring furnaces of Southwest Detroit during the Roaring Twenties.

The building permit for the Fort Clark Hotel, located on the north side of West Fort Street between Clark and Scotten avenues, was issued Oct. 29, 1925. Renowned architect Albert Kahn was hired by developer David A. Brown’s Brownwell Corp. to design it. Kahn went with his trademark of reinforced concrete, and he accented its brick facade with Bedford stone.

The hotel opened a little less than a year after construction started, on Aug. 1, 1926. The Detroit Free Press wrote on the morning of its opening that the Fort Clark was "well-furnished and tastefully appointed." While convenient to the large industrial plants popping up in the area, it also was "easily accessible to the heart of the city" via Fort Street, the paper noted.

Because it was built to serve industrial workers, where women usually did not work in the 1920s and ’30s, the Fort Clark served only men. As a “stag hotel,” the hotel skimped on things like private baths, with the men sharing 10 showers per floor. But where it skimped on bathrooms, it made up in other amenities, including a restaurant, a barbershop, a billiards room, a lounge, and a fancy lobby with murals painted by the Lavengers Studios. The neighborhood soon boasted other amenities, such as the Hollywood Theatre three blocks to the west.

Rates at the time of the Fort Clark’s opening were $7 a week for single rooms (about $120 in 2023 dollars, when adjusted for inflation) and double rooms at $9 to $11 (about $154 to $189 today). Two men could share a double room for $5 a piece ($86).

"The clubby atmosphere of the Fort-Clark Hotel will interest every man," said an ad for the hotel that ran in the Free Press on Oct. 27, 1926. "The Fort-Clark Hotel has been designed with a view of furnishing men all the comforts they desire - a workingman's Statler at prices to suit your pocketbook.”

Around 1935, the hotel was taken over by the Madison Management Co., headed by Bernard Zimetbaum, a Detroit and New York real estate investor. In 1949, Madison installed more bathrooms to make the hotel more competitive with more modern hotels.

The Fort Clark continued to operate for the next three decades. In 1957, the Fort-Clark charged $9.50 a week with free parking (about $106 in 2023 dollars). But the neighborhood was changing, and more of the factory workers were able to afford to buy homes of their own. The city, now at almost 2 million people, also was starting to see a growing number of senior citizens. Zimetbaum decided to meet that problem while solving his own issue of a dwindling customer base in an aging, outdated hotel.

From hotel to nursing home

On Dec. 18, 1959, Zimetbaum, announced he would convert the Fort-Clark into Detroit's largest convalescent home, deciding that “perhaps he could do what others had failed to do - provide a private development with a modern concept for such patients," the Free Press wrote Aug. 10, 1960. Zimetbaum would also rebrand the Fort Clark Hotel as “The Bancroft,” though it is not clear where he came up with the name. And this time, women would be allowed to stay there.

The Bancroft also specialized in post-hospital cases, when a patient was discharged from the hospital but still needed nursing care. This was a cheaper alternative to extended hospital stays.

"This will help solve one of the unmet needs of the community," Mayor Louis Miriani told the Free Press for an article the morning after the announcement. "It is a facility that has been badly needed."

The hotel’s 400 rooms were renovated into a 300-room senior-housing and nursing home providing comprehensive care. The redesign was handled by Charles N. Agree Inc.

Everything but the concrete and steel of the four-story building was ripped out and a complete hospital – minus the operating room – was put in its place. Though there weren't any doctors on site, there were 100 nurses and a total of 400 employees. Each patient also had his or her own doctor come to the Bancroft for check-ups. Each floor was to have a recreation room with radios and TVs and a solarium. There also was a library, a bookstore, a pharmacy, a lab, X-ray facilities, a rooftop garden, a 175-seat dining room, and rooms for physical and occupational therapy. The makeover cost about $4 million.

Miriani helped dedicate The Bancroft on Aug. 10, 1960, and even presented Zimetbaum with a proclamation welcoming the facility to the community. Daily rates were $8 in a ward area (about $84 in 2023 dollars) and $14 for a private room with a bath (about $147).

"The Bancroft embodies a new administrative concept for the care of geriatric, orthopedic and medical patients," Zimetbaum told The Detroit News for an Aug. 10, 1960, story. "We have made every attempt to eliminate a hospital atmosphere for a homelike setting for patients. ...

"I knew there was a demand for this type of accommodation and decided to do something about it. We decided on this concept rather than just having rooms for convalescents or older people. The purpose of the institution is to offer cheerful atmosphere with leisure-time activities and still maintain the benefits of professional care."

In the fall of 1972, the Bancroft fell under scrutiny after an elderly patient died after becoming tangled in the restraints tying him to his bed and his caregivers failed to check on him. This added growing heat on The Bancroft as the state Health Department had been slapping the nursing home with a number of violations in the years leading up to the incident, and the Bancroft was at risk of losing its license if it did not address the issues. It is assumed that it did fix things up, as the facility kept running - for several more years, at any rate.

In 1974, there was a slight tweak to its name, with it briefly going by “The New Bancroft,” possibly after getting a renovation or to imply that it had complied with the state mandates and things were different now.

But state regulations would not be the only issue The Bancroft would face.

Strike three

On June 22, 1976, 160 members of the Service Employees Local 79 (AFL-CIO) walked off the job at The Bancroft in a dispute over wages. The cooks, cleaning crew, and orderlies were paid an average of $2.27 an hour - only slightly above minimum wage - with no health insurance. That equates to about $12.50 in 2023 valuation.

"We just have to strike, Local 79 official Dan Vorkapich told the Detroit Free Press for a story the next morning. "We feel that $2.20 or $2.50 an hour, with minimum benefits, no health insurance, is just not a living wage today. Even hotel and restaurant workers make more."

They demanded a raise of 35 cents an hour, about $1.93 today.

The union also threatened strikes at four other metro Detroit nursing homes, including three others owned by the same operators as The Bancroft.

Adding to The Bancroft's troubles, the union had notified The Bancroft on June 9 that it intended to strike, but the nursing home's administrators dawdled on informing the state Health and Social Services Department until June 21. That was a big mistake given that the nursing home’s patients couldn’t be left unattended and thus new homes had to all be found for all 260 of them, and they had to be moved, in just two days. This did not improve The Bancroft's image in the eyes of the State given that the nursing home had only recently gotten out of trouble two years earlier.

Robert Gilette, a spokesman for the company that owned the Bancroft and the three other nursing homes, said the strike -- coupled with new higher federal nursing home standards and cuts to state Medicaid funding -- would force The Bancroft to close. The Medicaid costs were significant as most of The Bancroft's patients were supported by Medicaid.

"This kind of labor pressure makes it impossible for us to operate," Gilette told the Free Press the morning after the strike.

But Vorkapich countered that ownership had already planned to shutter The Bancroft, and that the strike was being used by the owners as an excuse to blame the union for the closure. Beyond the cuts to Medicaid, those aforementioned higher federal standards were going to require extensive improvements at the aging Bancroft to be started by July 1, and the strike happened only eight days before that deadline.

Surprisingly, The Bancroft's management caved, giving its 160 employees the 35 cents an hour more that they had demanded. The strike lasted only three days, ending June 24, 1976, but that didn’t mean The Bancroft would survive. Perhaps ownership was only seeking to stop or end strikes at the other three nursing homes.

Though some of The Bancroft’s patients returned after the strike, many did not. And that may have been a good thing, because they would have had to move again. The Bancroft closed shortly after the strike ended, perhaps because ownership either chose not to begin the required repairs and improvements, or because the company had never planned to begin them in the first place.

On Nov. 30, 1976, an auction was held in which The Bancroft's furnishings were sold off. A demolition permit was pulled for the property a little less than a year later, on Sept. 21, 1977.

The site of the Fort Clark, which had once served as an oasis for the hardworking factory workers of Detroit, has been swallowed up in the desert of parking lots and vacant parcels in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge. The land has remained vacant, and is now owned by Rajai J. Azar of Northville, Mich.

Special thanks to Rebecca Binno Savage for tracking down the demolition permit information.

Last updated 28/09/2023