Historic Detroit

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Russell House

There wasn’t much to Detroit when S.K. Harring opened the National Hotel on Dec. 1, 1836, on the southeast corner of Campus Martius. The city was a sleepy hamlet of only about 9,000 people, and nothing that stood downtown then stands today. The hotel would go through a string of owners, each growing and remodeling parts of it.

Then, in 1857, William Hale bought the property and hired the architectural firm Anderson & Jordan to overhaul the building. It was then leased to W.H. Russell, who opened it as the Russell House on Sept. 28, 1857.

The Russell would be the city’s leading hotel for nearly half a century, and it was the center of Detroit’s social scene. “It is first class …(with) comfortable elegance everywhere abounding,” the Detroit Free Press wrote at the time of the hotel’s opening. “In all respects, the house is (a credit) to its projector, to the city and the West.” The Russell continued to morph over the years, with sections being torn down and rebuilt and additions being tacked on in attempt to keep up with Detroit’s growing population. Over its 48-year existence, the Russell would completely be transformed, looking nothing at the end like it did in the beginning.

A cafe that launched a career

William Chittenden had been the proprietor at the Russell House since 1864. In July 1895, he had bought out the interest of his business partner, L.A. McCreary, when McCreary wished to retire. Chittenden announced that he would make $50,000 worth of improvements to the building, making arrangements with the Clark estate, owners of the property, which called for the building to be entirely remodeled into an “essentially modern hotel.” Improvements included a new steam heating system, complete electric plant, additional bathrooms, and a cafe along Cadillac Square. The interior would be redecorated “in an artistic manner.”

The first room of the cafe to be finished, the “weinstube,” opened Feb. 1, 1896. Because of his studies in Germany, the Free Press reported that the room was “in every detail true to the traditions and customs of that country.” It was 30 feet by 20 feet, finished with antique oak, heavy beams, and tables and chairs corresponding. A shelf, filled with German bier steins, wine cups and pipes, wrapped around the room.

The cafe, which the Free Press declared to be “one of the finest and most beautiful west of New York,” was comprised of six rooms stretching along almost the entire Cadillac Square side of the hotel. Guests would enter through a two-story entrance hall that was finished in old English mahogany with rich tapestries representing a harvest feast hanging on the walls. The room also featured wainscotting that was relieved by several mirrors and frescoes in a heraldic design. A “most romantic” balcony protruded just above the entrance with a tall clock stood between rows of potted plants and flowers.

To the left of the hall, through a doorway that was partially concealed by velour hangings, was a general ladies’ and gentlemen’s assembly room furnished in the style of “the old German renaissance.” Four “splendidly adorned” alcoves furnished “the feature of this retreat.” Old rugs, delft plates, ancient brass tankards, framed reproductions of paintings by Rembrandt and other famous Renaissance masters adorned the room. The room was paneled in tall oak wainscotting with French plate mirrors and the floors featured green and yellow carpets.

To the right of the entrance hall was “the most gorgeously decorated and furnished of the series,” a French medieval style room, “richly carpeted in red and frescoed in material of brilliant coloring.” Draperies of scarlet satin and leather upholstered oak furniture gave the room “proper coloring.” Through an arched corridor guests could enter a private dining room that could sit six to eight people. This room was lined in oriental tapestry wallpaper and was “effectively furnished in mahogany.”

Also opening off of the French room were two two dining rooms exclusively for men, designed in a Tyrolean Gothic style. A raised alcove with a vaulted ceiling was hung with imported German chandeliers that were reproductions of Leuchterweibchen chandeliers, which feature statuary fixed to antlers. The second dining room featured walls of plate racks, “filled with bric-a-brac of ancient pattern” and “a celebrated German poster” adorned the west wall. The floors were of red tile.

The Clark estate, owners of the Russell House, were very impressed by the young Chittenden’s design and execution of the new cafe, which would lead to his next major commission: the interior of Detroit's new opera house.

When life revolved around the Russell

Detroiters gathered in front of the Russell to listen to the latest reports from the battlefields of the Civil War. Even the Prince of Wales, who later would be crowned King Edward VII, passed through the Russell’s doors on a visit in 1860, as did the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia in 1870, Lady Jane Franklin and a number of other luminaries of the era.

But as the 20th Century rolled around, the country was ushering in a new era of industrial expansion — and the Russell was woefully behind the times. When it opened, Detroit had about 40,000 people, and its streets were filled with the sounds of horseshoes clomping on hard-packed dirt. But by 1905, automobiles had started to take over those streets, and Detroit’s population had mushroomed to about 370,000 people — an 825 percent increase during the Russell’s forty-eight years in business. It was time for the old-timer to step down and turn the room keys over to the next generation of Detroit hotel.

On May 19, 1905, the front page of the Free Press screamed in all-caps: “DETROIT WILL HAVE A MAGNIFICENT NEW HOTEL.” The newspaper trumpeted how the city would soon be home to a new million-dollar hotel, the equivalent of about $25 million today. This new hotel would “rank with the very best in the country [and] do an enormous amount of good to Detroit as a city and … serve as a monument to the pubic spirit and the enterprise of the men behind it,” the paper wrote. That hotel was the Pontchartrain - and it would shape the auto industry and almost single-handedly transform Detroit.

When the Russell House closed Nov. 19, 1905, Detroiters threw it a heck of a going-away party. “The hotel was turned practically upside-down,” the Free Press recalled. “Tablecloths were wrapped up with all the supper appurtenances inside them and carried away by guests” and “patrons had to wade out through broken bottles and glasses.”

The last guests to check out were Mr. and Mrs. John Baker.

"Among the Old Timers of our town, there is unquestionably more genuine regret over the passing of the Russell House than of any other of the dear landmarks of the older and the gentler days,” George W. Stark recalled in the Detroit News in 1941.

While Detroiters gave the Russell a heartfelt goodbye, it was a short one. Demolition began Dec. 15, 1905, and work on its successor commenced exactly one month later, on Jan. 15, 1906.

But not all Detroiters were sorry to see the Russell go.

Judge Robert E. Frazer was among those who celebrated its passing as a sacrifice for the sake of progress, writing in the News: “The ever-expanding pulsating city has outgrown it. We no longer need it, tear it down! Let loose the pick and ax and crowbar; attack it at the top; let every blow contribute to its destruction. Tear it down!...Like all other things that stand in the way of progress it is doomed—tear it down!...What do we care for the past? It is nothing to us. We have only the present and the future. These old memories live only in sentiment. Sentiment is dead.…Tear it down!”

*HistoricDetroit.org contributor Stephen Malbouef contributed to this entry. *