Historic Detroit

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

L.B. King Building

L.B. King & Co., a wholesale china and glassware retailer, built this building in 1911, and it served as the company's main store and headquarters until 1932.

The State of Michigan historical marker adorning the six-story mid-rise proclaims that "it exemplifies the Chicago commercial style popular in the early 20th century." The terra cotta-clad building was designed by the firm Rogers & MacFarlane.

A building fit for a King

China merchant Louis Buhl King was born to Robert W. King and Elizabeth Buhl King on Dec. 4, 1851, in a house at Lafayette Boulevard and Shelby Street. Elizabeth Buhl King was the sister of Frederick and Christian H. Buhl, wealthy merchants who built the Buhl Building.

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1874, he went to work for the glassware firm that his father had founded in Detroit in early 1849. Robert King opened his doors in 1849 on the southeast corner of West Jefferson and Wayne Street (today known as Washington Boulevard). "Our stock is entirely new, of the best manufacture, and comprises all the latest styles and colors. Importing our stock direct from England and France, we are prepared to sell goods in our line as low as any of the New York jobbers," Robert King wrote to a friend in a letter dated Dec. 30, 1848, spreading the news about the formation of the company.

An 1850 ad in the Detroit Free Press boasted that its imported glassware, ivory, camphere lamps and girandoles were "the best west of New York." Detroit was a town of just 10,000 at the time, but as it was growing, its tastes were becoming more refined. The company grew quickly into "an establishment visited by Detroit's elite in search of rare pieces of crockery and chinaware," the Detroit Free Press wrote May 23, 1933.

In 1894, Robert King retired, and L.B. King became acting head of the company, with the firm being incorporated as the L.B. King & Co. Meanwhile, the store had moved to 545 Woodward Ave.

In June 1907, L.B. King was elected the firm's president. Four years later, the growing glassware and china company moved into this building on the corner of Grand River Avenue and Library Street. The company's wares would go on to grace many china cabinets in some of the city's finest homes, and the firm would grow to become one of the largest establishments of its kind in the country.

A sign inside its showroom read, "The gift store of Detroit, odd things not seen elsewhere." The second floor featured dinnerware and nickel table accessories; the third had electric lamps, children's china and serving trays; and the fourth was home to hotel supplies and kitchenware.

After the company moved out in 1932, it moved into the Fisher Building, where it would continue selling fancy china, crystal and silver until closing in 1978. That meant the firm served Detroiters for 130 years, an incredible run for any business.

L.B. King, who the Detroit Free Press eulogized as "one of Detroit's most respected and widely known merchants," had died at age 81 on May 22, 1933.

Fit for furs

Meanwhile, back on Library Street, the Annis Furs Co. moved in, renaming the L.B. King & Co. Building as the Annis Furs Building.

Annis Furs, a wholesale and retail furrier, was founded in 1887 by Isaac Newton Annis who was born Oct. 22, 1858, on a farm near St. Joseph, Mich., in Berrien County. The fur trade ran in the family. His father, Joseph Annis, was a trader who exchanged tobacco with the farmers and trappers for pelts and sold the furs in Detroit.

In 1880, Newton Annis came to Detroit to work as a raw-skin buyer for - coincidentally - Frederick Buhl, and went on to join Buhl in manufacturing before going into business himself. Annis initially set up shop in 1887 in the back of his cottage on Montcalm Street, before opening a small shop at 1505 Woodward, at Clifford Street just south of Grand Circus Park. After 36 years at that location, Annis moved into the former home of L.B. King -- built by Frederick Buhl's brother-in-law.

In addition to manufacturing and retailing furs, the company also offered cold storage on the premises. The company would grow to wholesale fur coats and trimmings from New York to Colorado.

Newton Annis died in his home at 2168 Burns St. in Detroit's Indian Village neighborhood on May 30, 1940, at age 82. He is interred at Woodlawn Cemetery. Annis had remained chairman of the board until his death. His company would stay at Grand River and Library Street until 1983, when it moved to the Penobscot Building. The furrier's old home was shuttered.

New owners and an old name

A year later, in early 1984, three Detroit-area developers - developers Michael Johnson, Ralph Byrne and Bruce Nichols - leased the building with an option to buy it for $165,000. Their plan was to buy the building and convert it into an office building, hoping to sell each tenant a floor condominium style. But that plan apparently found no takers at the time.

The 37,000-square-foot building joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1987, which was initiated in part to facilitate the renovation.

In October 1987, the law firm Patterson, Phifer & Phillips acquired the building for $400,000, and launched a three-year, $2.4-million renovation. The city, through the Downtown Development Authority, lent the developer $500,000 to buy the property, and the City employees pension board loaned them another $1.7 million for the renovation. It's unclear how much of the structure's original glamour remained at that point, but the building's interior was stripped down to its four walls.

"For years, the Annis Furs Building was just one more eyesore ... tucked behind the shuttered Hudson's store," the Detroit Free Press wrote Sept. 5, 1988. "Its rebirth is due in part to the creation of the People Mover, which whirs past it just beyond the Cadillac Square stop," making it convenient for lawyers to get over to courtrooms a few blocks away. "Without the People Mover, the project probably would have just died."

The renovation kicked off with a deep clean. "Seventy-eight years of grime have been sluiced off the Annis Furs Building, revealing its blazing white terra cotta for the first time in decades," the Detroit Free Press reported Sept. 5, 1988. "No one, least of all the handful of new owners who bought the building to fix it up, expected the one-time furs showroom to come so clean."

Lawyer Michael Patterson, one of the new owners, told the paper: "Nobody had any idea what was under all that dirt."

Despite being redeveloped by the firm Annis Historic Properties, when the renovation was completed in 1989, the building got a new name that paid tribute to its first, the L.B. King Building.

Various tenants would occupy the property over the next few decades. The upper floors were turned into residential units.

On Jan. 12, 2015, Dan Gilbert's Bedrock group and Curis Enterprises closed on the building for an undisclosed price. The purchase came during a buying binge by Gilbert. The acquisition made sense, Crain's Detroit Business noted at the time, because "the building is right in Gilbert’s downtown sweet spot and a Google search shows it’s less than a football field away (stet: it's practically next door) from his The Z parking garage at 1234 Library St." At the time, Gilbert owned more than 60 properties downtown totaling more than 9 million square feet, and invested more than $1.5 billion in Detroit. That number would only grow over the ensuing years.

“As always, we will give careful thought and consideration to plans for the building. We will maintain the integrity of the historic architecture, as we always do, and attract dynamic new tenants to work alongside existing tenants,” Bedrock CEO and Managing Partner Jim Ketai said in a statement.

Bedrock and Curis performed upgrades to the elevators and electrical and mechanical systems, as well as a restoration of the building's vault and its iconic façade.

Gucci, the iconic Italian luxury fashion brand, opened its downtown Detroit location on the first floor of the building on Aug. 19, 2022, thus continuing the L.B. King Building's history of being Detroit's go-to spot for luxury goods, whether china, furs or clothing.

Last updated 07/03/2023