Historic Detroit

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

Norton Hotel (first)

This hotel gave rise to one of the city's more prominent hoteliers - but also was built on the graves of some of the city's earliest residents.

The name Norton was well-regarded in Michigan's hotel industry, starting as a family affair in the farthest reaches of metro Detroit. This hotel, and its larger successor, were the brainchildren of Charles W. Norton.

Charles Norton was born on a farm near Brighton, Mich., on Jan. 12, 1864. His father, Milton Norton, opened Brighton’s first tavern two years later. In 1880, Milton Norton opened the Triangle Hotel there, along a plank road on which farmers transported their milk to Detroit, a trip that often involved a stop over at the Triangle. Charles and one of his brothers, Henry Norton, would follow in their father’s footsteps. Henry Norton operated a hotel in Holly, Mich. Charles initially took up farming and butchering -- acquiring "large muscles to power a lusty handshake," the Detroit Free Press wrote in February 1959 -- but soon caught the bug himself.

By 1897, Charles W. Norton was running a buffet in an old building on the northwest corner of Jefferson Avenue and Griswold. It's not clear when the structure was erected, but the address of what was then 63-65 Griswold shows up as early as 1860.

On April 12, 1908, it was announced that he would be turning the building into a hotel, and the Brush estate, the building's owners, would handle the conversion. Though the outside of the building was not materially altered, the interior got a top-to-bottom makeover, with architects William S. Joy & Co. handling the job. It opened for business July 27, 1908.

Ads called it "all new and modern," but made sure to note it was "strictly a stag hotel and for gentlemen only."

It was a four-story, simple building offering affordable rooms, a cheaper option than fancier hotels like the Pontchartrain and Cadillac hotels. At first, the Norton was a stag hotel, serving only men, and had 30 rooms. It was later enlarged to about 100 rooms. Among its amenities: hot and cold water and telephones in each room. Rates in the European plan hotel ranged from 75 cents to $1.50.

The hotel was a hit. On Sept. 6, 1908, the Free Press wrote a story headlined, "Financial district invaded by enterprising hotel man." Griswold was already one of the busiest streets in the city, and many of the thousands who walked it came in on interurban car lines. Norton "foresaw the development of the thoroughfare and his new hotel just across from the Interurban station is one of the most popular in the city with visitors from Michigan towns."

In October 1912, Norton took a 10-year lease on the building's storefronts along Griswold and Jefferson from the Brush and Chaffey estates. This allowed him to remodel the building and add another 55 rooms to his hotel.

The hotel had the rather unusual, but not unremarkable, distinction of being the first hotel in Detroit to have Gideon International - the organization that places millions of Bibles in hotels and motels around the world - do its thing.

As Detroit took off and hotels were opening in the city left and right, Norton bought the land across the street to build himself a beast. The 14-story, 250-room hotel on the northeast corner of Griswold and Jefferson Avenue opened across from the old location on June 19, 1918, when the hotel offered live music and "flowers for the ladies" from 8-11 p.m. At the time, Allied forces were beating back Germans in Italy during World War II. An ad for the hotel boasted that the hotel had "a wonderful view of the Detroit River, the Canadian frontier and the city" and boasted "popular prices."

On July 29, 1919 -- 11 years and two days after it had opened -- the old Norton was liquidated, from the bar to mattresses to cash registers to cigar cases. But the New Norton had proved so popular, Charlie Norton found himself re-outfitting his old stomping grounds that same year to serve as the Norton Hotel Annex, providing overflow rooms for the new Norton across the street.

In the fall of 1922, demand apparently satiated, the old building became the 150-room Hotel Astor, charging $6 a week for rooms at the time. The Astor was run by Earl Milner, who also ran the Interurban (1 W. Jefferson), Metropole (628 Woodward), Pennsylvania (711 Third St.) and Reed (Cass and Michigan avenues) hotels.

Early in the morning of March 31, 1925, about 100 guests at the Astor were awakened by a surprise. The four-story brick building next door at 122-124 W. Jefferson was in flames, and fears were high that the fire would spread to the Astor. The hotel would be spared from the fire - but it would not be spared by progress.

At 10 a.m. March 29, 1927, everything in the Astor was auctioned off, from desks to mattresses to unclaimed baggage. A few weeks later, it was announced that Standard Savings & Loan would erect a new building on the site of the Astor. The move allowed for Standard Savings to sell its then-current home, nearby on the northeast corner of Griswold and Larned streets, to the Union Trust Co. in order to build what is now known as the Guardian Building. Standard Savings' new home was designed by architect George D. Mason.

However, following the Astor's demolition and while excavating the bank's new home, a grisly discovery was made. On April 13, 1927, crews unearthed several skeletons and old coffins. It turns out that the corner had been the site of the old church and cemetery of Ste. Anne's from the city's founding in July 1701 until it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1805. Though some of the remains -- including those of Col. John Francis Hamtramck -- had been moved to a new cemetery, most of the bodies were simply left under the old site and covered by new streets and buildings or for construction workers to find 120 years later.

The new Standard Savings & Loan Building formally opened Oct. 5, 1927. Today, the building is home to the Detroit branch of the Church of Scientology.

Charlie Norton's new Norton Hotel soon met the same fate as his old one; it was demolished in 1959 to make way for One Woodward Avenue. Another hotel he had built, the Norton-Palmer, located across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, also fell to the wreckers, in the mid-1970s.