Historic Detroit

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

Owen Building

This structure was the home of the “Kahn System,” a revolutionary building company that helped to change the way things were built around the world - but it wasn’t the Kahn many probably think of.

The Trussed Steel Concrete Co. was incorporated Oct. 7, 1903, to manufacture and sell building products patented by Julius Kahn, famed architect Albert Kahn’s younger brother. Julius was born March 8, 1874, in Münstereifel, Germany. He graduated from the University of Michigan as an engineer.

"The object of the company is the erection of concrete buildings, an industry which is more common in the east than to this section of the country,” the Detroit Free Press wrote Oct. 8, 1903. “The patents of Julius Kahn, of Detroit, will be acquired for his system of concrete reinforcement for concrete buildings of all kinds. In concrete buildings, it is necessary to have something in the substance where strain comes, and it is Mr. Kahn's method of reinforcing with steel that is to be used. The system has been looked into by many of the principal engineers of the country and found to be very efficient in every way.”

The officers at the company’s outset were Julius Kahn as president, businessman Joseph Boyer as vice president, treasurer Herman Krolik and secretary Ralph M. Dyar. The upstart company began in the Union Trust Co. Building on Congress and Griswold. Less than two years later, it moved into the Wayne County Bank Building at 126 W. Congress St. The company’s factory was located in Youngstown, Ohio.

Even before being incorporated, the company had already secured a large contract for the erection of a government Army barracks in Washington, D.C., and another for a large cement warehouse in Marlboro, Mich., for the Great Northern Portland Cement Co. It also was already working to close a multimillion-dollar deal for a building at the Annapolis Naval academy, which the Free Press said was worth $2 million to $3 million - the equivalent of a heft $68.9 million to $103.3 million in 2024 dollars, when adjusted for inflation. Not bad for a company just getting off the ground.

This was due, in part, to the Kahn name already being highly regarded by the time Trussed Concrete officially got going. For Julius, having a renowned architect as a brother also came in handy. Trussed Concrete would go on to have its products featured in a number of Albert Kahn-designed structures, among them: the Packard Plant, Ford Highland Park Plant, and Chalmers, Cadillac, Dodge Brothers and Hudson Motor Car companies, the Burroughs Adding Machine Co.’s plant, the Grinnell Brothers Music House, the main Detroit YMCA, People’s Outfitting Co., and, unsurprisingly, the structure that would be Trussed Steel Concrete Co.’s home, the Owen Building. Other, non-Kahn-designed buildings, using the “Kahn System” included the Detroit Salt Co., Tuller Hotel, Belle Isle Casino and Breitmeyer-Tobin Building.

Furthering the family enterprise, another Kahn brother, Moritz Kahn, would join Trussed Concrete Steel in 1904 and ran the England branch of the operation starting in 1906, when the company expanded across the Atlantic, until 1923. In January 1907, it was reported that the company would be expanding across another body of water, the Detroit River, after buying 5.5 acres of land in Walkerville, Ontario, in Canada.

That same month, it was announced that Trussed Concrete would get a building of its own in the Motor City. Unsurprisingly, Julius Kahn tapped his brother to design it. Albert Kahn’s righthand man, Ernest Wilby, served as associate architect.

A home of their own

The land on which the building stood was bought by John Owen Sr. in 1839, and had been held in the family for 70 years. It would be the Owen estate that erected the structure, thus owning it, with the Trussed Concrete Co. paying rent. This led to the building being called the Owen Building for most of its life, not to be confused with a different Owen & Co. Building at 350 Gratiot Ave. that housed a furniture retailer. However, it was also known as the Trussed Concrete Building, in honor of its main tenant.

The eight-story building stood on the northeast corner of Lafayette Boulevard and what was then Wayne Street (now Washington Boulevard). It stood across Lafayette from what is now the Theodore J. Levin U.S. Courthouse; across Washington Boulevard from the Board of Commerce Building/Cass Theatre and kitty-corner from the Free Press Building. The Owen Building’s exterior was faced with glazed mottled brick, and trimmed in terra cotta. It was 120 feet deep and 48 feet across, with its main entrance on Lafayette on the building’s east end. Its halls featured marble wainscotting, and its staircases were also made of marble. The first floor was leased as retail - originally to a tailor - with the remainder being office space, including the headquarters and offices of Trussed Concrete.

But what made this building cutting edge at the time was, while most structures of this type used a steel frame, this one, unsurprisingly, implemented Trussed Steel’s reinforced concrete system. Though the technique had been used in similar structures in other states, this one was the first office building in Detroit to do so. The steel reinforcement was used for all the concrete utilized in the building’s columns, floors and roof. The structure was completed in September 1907.

Trussed Concrete adds Trus-Con

The following year saw the creation of a new division, Trus-Con Laboratories (short for Trussed Concrete). Though the reinforced concrete was made in Ohio, Trus-Con’s sealants were produced in Chicago until a new plant was opened in late April 1913, at 1630 Caniff Ave. in Detroit. By 1915, just seven years after it was launched, Trus-Con was said to be the largest manufacturer of technical paints for architectural purposes and waterproofing sealants for concrete, and produced 50 product lines in its 7-acre plant.

Among those products was Asepticote, an antiseptic wall treatment to ensure interior walls “cannot contain germs” and enabled them to be cleaned “just as you clean the windows,” an ad said. It also produced Stone-Tex, a product for stucco, brick and concrete exteriors.

An ad for Stone-Tex that ran in the May 4, 1913, edition of the Detroit Free Press said: “A damp building is unsanitary and unsightly; besides, it is liable to crumble and decay under the disintegrating influence of moisture. Unprotected walls of brick, concrete or stucco absorb water like a sponge, and become mouldy (sic) and weather-stained. But they can be made perfectly damp-proof as well as new-appearing by an application of Trus-Con Stone-Tex - applied with a brush. A liquid cement coating which becomes an integral part of the wall, filling hair cracks and sealing pores. Gives a surface of uniform artistic color - damp-proof, weather resisting, hard as flint. Made in several pleasing tones.”

Another product was Bar-Ox (short for "bars oxidation"), an "inhibitive steel coating" that "produces a waterproof rust-inhibitive paint film over iron and steel," according to a marketing brochure.

Clients of Trus-Con products included Navin Field, the Cadillac Hotel, Newcomb-Endicott Department Store, American Lady Corset Co., the University of Michigan, the federal government, Carnegie Steel Co., Hershey Chocolate Co., and others. That same year saw Trus-Con representatives take off on a two-year trip around the world marketing its products.

By 1918, Trus-Con was selling so well, the Trussed Steel Concrete Co. rebranded itself as the Trus-Con Steel Co. (it soon dropped the hyphen and was written as “Truscon”). It remained headquartered in the Owen Building for the next 18 years.

Selling out and placing bets

In the fall of 1934, talks began about selling out to the Republic Steel Co. Truscon had plants in Cleveland, Youngstown and Detroit, and also owned large interests in the Truscon Steel Co. of Canada and the Japan Steel Products Co. of Japan. was a $14 million business at the time, the equivalent of $324 million in 2024 dollars, when adjusted for inflation, The sale was finalized in 1936, and Julius Kahn stuck with his business baby, becoming the company’s vice president, serving in that role until his retirement in 1939. The company moved out of the Owen Building after the sale.

Julius Kahn died Nov. 4, 1942, of a heart attack at his home in Cleveland. He was 68, and was buried in Ridgewood in Queens County, N.Y.

Meanwhile, the Owen Building continued to host various clients. For whatever reason, this stretch of Lafayette Boulevard became the center of the city’s illegal gambling racket during "the hectic, reckless 1930s, when vice and gambling were accepted as part of the community life," the Detroit Free Press wrote May 5, 1957. The “accepted part” might explain in part how the Owen Building and Recreation Building were such notorious gambling dens despite being directly across the street from the federal courthouse and kitty-corner from the watchful eyes at the Detroit Free Press. The other part would be explained in a scandal that dominated the front pages of the dailies.

On June 11, 1938, the city's vice squad raided the headquarters of the Metropolitan Baseball Pool in the Owen Building in what was described as “the largest gambling raid in the history of the Police Department," the Detroit Free Press wrote the following morning. The owner, Clarence Hamer, 35 years old and living at 2115 Vinewood Ave. in Southwest Detroit, was the only person present when the vice squad descended on the Owen Building. He was arrested and charged with possession of gambling equipment. Three truckloads of pool tickets were confiscated - so many, it took officers four hours for officers to load them all. Those buying the pool tickets for a nominal amount were said to have a chance of winning more than $1,000 - a cool $22,000 in 2024 valuation, when adjusted for inflation - by blindly picking the six highest-scoring teams in baseball.

Hamer's outfit occupied five offices across the building’s fourth and fifth floors, and 10 full-time employees were said to have sent pool tickets all over the country. Most of the tickets sold outside Detroit were Ohio- and Indiana-bound, but Hamer's distribution network went as far east as New Jersey.

Hamer had been charged with running an illegal sweepstakes lottery before, in 1935, but had gotten off when law enforcement was unable to link him to the evidence. Despite the literal truckloads of evidence against him, Hamer got off this time, too, when a Recorder's Court judge ruled Aug. 2, 1938, that the evidence had been obtained in violation of Hamer’s constitutional rights. Hamer either decided not to bet his luck a third time or flew under the radar from then on, as his name did not appear in the Detroit papers again.

All of Hamer’s alleged shenanigans were penny slots compared to what turned up in the Ferguson-O’Hara grand jury investigation of 1939-40, when it was found that gamblers paid off police officers and prosecutors for the privilege of operating with little interference - allowing them to run a $30 million handbook racket - the equivalent of a whopping $663 million in 2024. On Aug. 7, 1940, 156 people were indicted in the scandal. This case centered around activities that occurred in the Recreation Building, just a few doors down from the Owen Building.

The Owen Building had a rather quiet existence other than the Hamer drama. In the 1920s, it was home to the Women's Division of the State Employment Bureau. The American Air Filter Co. had space in the building in 1936, Unitor Corp in 1935. The Scientific Products Co. used the Owen Building to sell Phonak hearing aids. The Garrick Photo Supply operated there in the 1940s and ‘50s. The Reflect-O-Cell Insulation Sales Corp., which sold aluminum foil insulation for homes, was located on the Owen Building's seventh floor, and the Ohio Valve and Faucet Corp. moved into the fourth floor in the late 1930s. The Detroit Newspaper Industrial Credit Union moved into the Owen Building in 1940.

The midrise also housed a number of government offices, including the U.S. Census Bureau in 1940, and the Selective Service opened a draft board there in 1944. In 1948, the Detroit area rent office of the housing expediter moved to the Owen Building's third floor. There was a Social Security office in the building up until Nov. 30, 1956, when it moved to the Capitol Park Building when the building's days became numbered. The Owen was also home to the Tuebor Cocktail Lounge, operated by Joseph D. Sternberg. The Tuebor closed in late 1956, with its bar fixtures and equipment sold at public auction Jan. 13, 1957.

Not even the Kahn System could withstand the wrecking ball

In 1957, the building was condemned by the City of Detroit in order to allow for Washington Boulevard (still called Wayne then) to be widened. The City paid $347,727 for the property, and the building came down that April and May.

On May 2, 1957, a 26-year-old woman was injured when a 4-by-6-inch tile fell from the building during demolition and hit her. Rosemary Schmit was at Maybury Grand Industrial Medical Center, at 2730 Maybury Grand, was treated and released.

For decades, the eastern side of the site that wasn’t paved over for the wider road was home to a small cinder-block building that was home to a Tubby’s sub shop, a cheesesteak restaurant and WaLa, a beloved diner. In late 2018 or early 2019, the restaurant was demolished, and the site was turned into a parking lot, just like most of the rest of the block.