Historic Detroit

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St. Regis Hotel

In an era when Detroit was building modern-style new hotels, the St. Regis was a throwback, retro before it was cool.

The idea behind the building was to cater to the upscale business executives visiting the Fisher Building a block west and the General Motors Corp. world headquarters across the street. At the time of its opening, the Regis was billed as the most expensive hotel, per room, ever built in the United States, at a cost of about $39,000 per room (about $341,000 today, when adjusted for inflation). It cost $2 million ($17.5 million today) to build and several million more to furnish. The total cost of the hotel was reported to be about $5 million (about $43.7 million now).

With modern eye-catchers like the new Pontchartrain Hotel downtown, and a number of Howard Johnsons, Holiday Inns and similar type hotels elsewhere, the St. Regis went in the other direction. The men behind the venture, real estate investor Albert J. Goodman, and auto dealer Floyd Rice, wanted the six-story hotel at West Grand Boulevard and Cass Avenue to recapture the glamour of the Renaissance and Detroit's glitzy Roaring Twenties. For this, the unlikely partners hired Ferndale, Mich.-based Weil-Cohan Associates as architects.

Goodman was quoted as saying that he despised modern architecture: "If I never build anything, I'll never build a contemporary building. I like more tasteful things and good elegance."

The Regis' lobby featured 23-karat gold leaf on dark-stained oak paneling. The guest rooms were furnished in ornate reproductions of antique furniture, colorful rugs from India and Iran, and parquet floors.

For many, the allusion was convincing. "Passersby," the Detroit Free Press wrote June 4, 1966, "don't realize the new St. Regis Hotel hasn't been around for decades."

But the Regis was the subject of a great deal of criticism from architects and others when renderings and a model were unveiled in 1964.

"The gist of the complaints was that the design was a gimmick, neither a faithful reproduction of a classic design nor a modern structure in which form follows function," the Free Press continued.

Weil Cohan "chose to shun the contemporary trend toward buildings of glass, steel and jutting angles in favor of perpetuating the classical style established by the Fisher Building and the GM Building in that area," the Free Press wrote Aug. 16, 1964. "The St. Regis Hotel was designed for the comfort and pleasure of top echelon executives and their families. It will combine the grandeur reminiscent of fine European hotels with American-style comfort."

All 128 guest rooms had living-entertaining space, and the rooms entered into small foyers instead of directly into the sleeping area, for more privacy. An Olympic-size swimming pool surrounded by cabanas was to be utilized as a skating rink during the winter. An $8,000 (about $70,000 today) model 3 feet tall, 70 inches wide and 22 inches deep was put on display on the site for the public to view.

Controversy before its doors even opened

On March 9, 1964, Free Press columnist John Manning came rushing to the Regis' defense. "You probably would not wish our town to be improved and enlarged by architects exclusively. If you did, it would end up looking like perhaps the world's most monotonous, humdrum burg, full of glass and steel square houses, glass and steel business buildings, glass and steel skinny, tall apartments."

But the haters would continue to pile on.

"The proposed design for the St. Regis is neither French regency nor elegant nor attractive but merely 1964 'pretentious commercialism,'" Burton L. Kampner of Huntington Woods wrote in a letter to the editor published in the Free Press on March 14, 1964.

That same issue led Bob Missal of Clawson, Mich., to slam the Regis in a separate letter published the same day, writing, "The design seems to have no definite proportions or unity to it, although it does resemble somewhat the current Soviet apartment building, with a little Mississippi riverboat thrown in for 'effect.' ... This hotel is the only building I know that would look 50 years old as soon as it was built. And consider how it will look in 50 years."

But the Regis would find defenders on that day's editorial page, with someone who signed a letter as only "R.T." chiming in: "I think the building and architects should be congratulated. For once we will have a new building in Detroit that will look like a building, not like a prison. Let's break away from the new conformity and fight for something which will always have value and taste."

Goodman said he was "crushed" by the criticism but soldiered on, telling The Detroit News for a May 15, 1966, story ahead of the hotel's opening: "It had been my dream. I almost canceled the project. But I had so much money tied up in the land ($550,000 for a 200-foot frontage), I decided to let it go. Now I'm happy. It's going to be the talk of the country." That $550,000 investment in land equates to $4.8 million in 2021 dollars.

A palace built by 'a slumlord'

Ground for the Regis was broken on Oct. 30, 1964, and construction continued without much incident. It was slated to be completed in November 1965, but it would miss that date.

However, on May 13, 1965, a group of Black tenants sued Goodman Brothers Real Estate in federal court over being evicted from what they called their "slum" apartments in retaliation for forming tenant councils seeking better treatment and upkeep, such as screens for windows to keep kids from falling out of them, rat control measures, painting, plaster and plumbing repairs and other improvements. The plaintiffs lived in four buildings owned by Goodman and his brothers: 2210 Pingree and 1744, 1600 and 1174 Seward.

Days later, on May 28, six demonstrators at the Regis construction site -- all members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Tenant Action Council -- were arrested and charged with trespassing for chaining themselves to the entrance to the site. The Goodmans had extensive property holdings in the Greater New Center area. "We have been doing this for 20 years," Goodman told the Free Press. "We value our customers. But we will not meet with any outside organization," an apparent reference to CORE.

The six were found guilty June 22, 1965, and faced penalties of 90 days in jail and a $100 fine.

On June 30, 1965, undeterred protesters returned to the construction site. While the owners were billing the Regis as being "designed for top echelon executives and their families," the protesters said, Goodman was a slumlord and instead of building a property for the rich, he needed to invest in his properties he already had.

A majority of the tenants protesting were people of color. One of them, Delores Whiteside, lived at a Goodman property, The Worthington at 1744 Seward. She took to the sidewalk with her kids, one carrying a placard that read, "Roaches are my playmates." Whiteside and several other residents claimed they were being evicted "because they have more than two children." Whiteside said she had the children when she moved in six months earlier, and said she was being evicted because she and other tenants targeted with eviction were active in tenant councils and for demanding repairs and better service.

So how bad was it for tenants? In 1966, the Goodman brothers owned 41 apartment buildings in Detroit, with 4,000 tenants among them -- about 90 percent of them Black. The Free Press called the Goodmans, next to the City Housing Commission, the biggest landlords in Detroit. "Some of their apartment buildings are fine places in which to live. Some are just adequate. Some are, indeed, bleak slums," the Free Press reported Oct. 2, 1966, in a profile on Albert Goodman.

In writing about one of the Goodmans' two-bedroom apartments, at 2852 John R St., the paper said that, for $17 a week ($148 a week in 2021 dollars, or $592 a month), "the landlord has furnished it with a bed, a dresser, two ragged chairs and a couch that the Salvation Army wouldn't have, and a stove and icebox. ... The floor creaks. Roaches crawl the walls. (It is) a dingy, dirty, depressing place, a hovel in which a convict should not be made to live. (Jackson Prison) is cleaner and certainly sturdier, even safer, than the Goodman's tenement house on John R."

Some of the Goodmans' other properties included 104 Watson and 124 Alfred, "where the pimps and prostitutes and Barehead Red, the king of the car thieves, earn their keep."

In his defense, Goodman told the paper, "I am strictly a businessman, in this business to make a profit, not to perform a humanitarian service. If the tenants are straight with me, I'm straight with them. If they get hard-nosed, I get hard-nosed. ... I am a businessman. I treat 'em nice for money."

The regal Regis

The Regis opened in June 1966, (some reports have said it was February, others April or August, but these are incorrect) with rooms at $22.50 to $37.50 ($197 to $328, when adjusted for inflation) for singles, and suites at $55 to $75 (about $480 to $655) per day.

Shortly after the hotel's opening, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed in Room 601 at the Regis while in town for the "We Rally for Freedom" event on June 19, 1966.

The suites had parquet floors, antique French and Spanish desks, $3,000 Syrian throw rugs and vicuna robes for the beds. Each room came with a 25-inch color television, still quite a luxury in 1966, encased in a cherry cabinet. In the lobby, above the $16,000 marble-top registration desk imported from Italy ($150,000 in 2021 dollars), was an antique cast-bronze clock with red tortoise-shell inlays that dated to the era of Louis XIV; it was purchased from the famed California estate of William Randolph Hearst. Cut-glass chandeliers were trimmed in two coats of 23-karat gold paint. Corners of nearly every room were filled with 18th Century chairs upholstered in gold velvet or antique tables of fine wood veneers with gilded bronze decoration. The fabric for the drapes was imported from Venice, Italy. A $3,000 French regency clock reposed on a $4,000 desk. The plaster on some of the walls was hand-swirled in the French style. The wall sconces were Italian crystal and set against damask walls. A 195-year-old terra cotta bust of Madame DuBarry was scooped up in Paris on a furnishings-hunting trip to Europe.

The design consultant was Cleveland antique dealer Fletcher Williams, who worked with Contract Interiors of Chicago on every detail, from the design of the carpets to the telephones.

Goodman wanted red fleur de lis tiles like those found in ancient European sidewalks, so he had an English kiln that hadn't been in operation for 90 years reactivated to make them. ("I wanted the real thing," Goodman explained to The Detroit News for a May 16, 1966, article previewing the hotel's opening the following month.

"Privacy and elegance, that's what the people who can afford it want," Goodman told The Detroit News for that article, and he proudly reaffirmed that the Regis was "the most luxurious hotel in the U.S."

Though architecture types may have assailed it on the drawing board, the Regis found at least one very appreciative critic in a Detroit News journalist, who beamed in a Sept. 11, 1966, article that the hotel "is like nothing else in the city. ... In this era of functionalism, of buildings that are like stripped skeletons, it shines like a jewel. ... It has captured the leisurely grace of an era most of us thought was gone forever. It is Europe transported, with all its Old World luxury brought over intact."

To add to the worldly ambience, much of the hotel staff in its early years hailed from Germany, Switzerland, England, Lebanon, Mexico and, of course, France.

The building's reinforced stone construction made the building "virtually atom bomb proof," manager Donald Giddings told The Detroit News in May 1966, and each room was "as tight and soundproof as a bank vault."

Bad times for the Goodmans

But all that glitz and glamour didn't come cheap, and Goodman would need high occupancy rates to start paying off his tab and pay down his mortgage. Though there were fans of this bygone era chic, this was an era in which modernism was king. Fluorescent lights were replacing chandeliers. Drop ceilings were covering up ornate plaster ones. Historic architecture like Old City Hall was being knocked down in favor of newer-styled structures like the City-County Building (now known as the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center). As an indication of how business was going for Goodman, there were often fewer than two dozen guests in the 128-room hotel just six months after opening.

And just six months after the hotel opened, tragedy struck.

On Dec. 27, 1966, the hotel's night auditor, Gottfried R. Englehard, 35, of Grosse Pointe, was shot and killed by a robber who made off with $520 from the Regis' cash drawer, about $4,500 in 2021 dollars. He was shot twice in the chest and felled under the cast-bronze antique clock inlaid with red tortoise shell.

David Lee Gauthier, 26, a room clerk at the Regis who was fired a few months earlier, on Oct. 3, was convicted July 21, 1967, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Meanwhile, in the Oct. 24, 1968, edition of the Free Press, someone who signed their name as "R.J." wrote to the paper's Action Line claiming that he or she was the main witness at the murder trial. R.J. said he or she came forward and testified because of a $1,000 reward that Goodman had offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer. R.J. claimed that Goodman refused to pay the reward.

Perhaps Goodman was just distracted: Goodman's tenants, organized by the United Tenants for Collective Action, went on a rent strike in the fall of 1968.

"Goodman has been exploiting Negroes because they can't get any other place better to live," Willie Crittendon, a former tenant of one of the Goodmans' properties, told the Michigan Chronicle for a Sept. 24, 1966, story on the rent strike. "Look at that St. Regis hotel, built on our backs."

Goodman rented to many Black people, but if a person of color tried to stay at the Regis, "maybe you could get in, with the Civil Rights Act firmly in hand, if you could afford a stay," The Michigan Chronicle surmised in an editorial on June 18, 1966. "The St. Regis stands a symbol of what can be gained by 'proper manipulation of slum property.'"

But rent strikes and negative headlines weren't Goodman's only troubles.

In April 1967, the Free Press reported that Goodman and his brothers, Sam and Hyman Goodman, had bought out Rice. Perhaps Rice, one of the nation's most successful auto dealers, was fed up with the seemingly endless headaches and bad press his partner brought to the project. The paper also reported that the Goodmans bought Rice out at a time when they were three months behind on the Regis' $1.1 million mortgage (about $9.3 million today, when adjusted for inflation).

In 1968, just two years after it opened, the Free Press reported that Goodman was looking to unload his posh hotel. It was even advertised for sale in the Wall Street Journal in August 1968.

A year later, on Aug. 26, 1969, it was announced that the hotel had been sold to a group of four metro Detroiters -- Ann Arbor builder and developer John R. McMullen; real estate developer Jarvis J. Schmidt of Grosse Pointe; Thomas Franke of Bloomfield Hills, who was in the real estate and construction business; and James W. Draper, a Grosse Pointe attorney. The selling price was less than $4 million ($33.8 million in 2021). Goodman couldn't be picky: Besides being in arrears on the mortgage, he had been forced to liquidate most of his apartment buildings since the rent strikes began against dozens of his properties.

McMullen, who became president of the new St. Regis Hotel Co., said the new owners would assume more than $3 million in outstanding real estate obligations, including mortgages totaling $2.8 million. Goodman walked away with a "small cash settlement." The four men took over running the Regis at the end of November 1969 and would run it for more than a decade.

New era, new look

In 1972, construction on an 800-person banquet facility was begun.

The Rolling Stones stayed at the St. Regis while in Detroit for a gig in July 1975. Over the ensuing years, other famous guests at the hotel would include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; singers Aretha Franklin, Pharrell and George Clinton; actor Billy Dee Williams; and late-night TV host Jay Leno.

The year 1975, however, also saw the Regis put the brakes on a $1 million rehab because of an economic downturn. The hotel found itself with "an embarrassing problem," the Free Press noted that October, "its drapes, carpets and upholstery don't match."

In 1976, the hotel fell into default on two federal loans totaling $3.5 million, about $17.5 million today. However, a U.S. district judge ruled against the government request to place the Regis in receivership, and the owners were allowed to continue running the hotel. The hotel was sold for $2.5 million in 1982 to Regis Associates, whose general partners were Franke and newcomers James Collins and David Ong. The Regis' occupancy at the time was about 30 percent.

The Regis "was often categorized as a gaudy bawdy house, with threadbare furniture and patched carpeting," Ong told Crain's Detroit Business for a Feb. 3, 1986 story. "It had been allowed to go to seed, and in the hotel business, that's the kiss of death."

The new owners decided to bring in a British company to help bring a touch of European hotel style to the French-inspired Regis. A management deal with Rank Hotels London was inked, and the British company took over running the Regis that June.

"We felt we owned a unique hotel property that, just for the sake of bottom line profit, shouldn't be operated on a plateau to compete with Holiday Inns or Ramada," Franke told the Free Press for a Dec. 8, 1982, story.

In June 1982, a major $2.5 million makeover project (nearly $9 million in 2021) was begun that would see the Regis' over-the-top opulence reined in and most of the floors torn up, refurnished and redecorated. The project marked Rank's first venture into U.S. hotel management, and its task was huge: reversing 16 years of failure by making the Regis "smaller but better." The sizes of the dining room and banquet facilities were reduced, as was the number of rooms, from 128 to 117. It also adopted a European style of hotel, with a concierge, larger staff and 24-hour service. The renovations were handled by Ezra Attia & Associates of London, which replaced all of the French period furnishings with classic styles and modern colors. Interior designer Julian Reed told the Free Press at the time that the hotel's main problem was that it had originally been furnished in an "excessive taste."

In keeping with its English management and style, the Regis offered porridge, kippered herring, English trifle, omelettes made to order with caviar and sour cream, afternoon tea and a "stirrup cup" of mulled spiced wine. Its happy hour featured serves three types of caviar, accompanied by champagne and sparkling wine.

On Dec. 7, 1982, the first stage of the renovated Regis was unveiled. Mayor Coleman A. Young and Michigan first lady-elect Paula Blanchard helped cut the ribbon amid festivities that included gimmicks such as a trumpeter in medieval English costume.

Things, for a change, were looking up for the Regis. In the 1980s, General Motors Corp. was spearheading a multimillion-dollar renovation and redevelopment of New Center, including sprucing up homes immediately north of its headquarters and the Fisher Building. "Four years under new management and nearly $3.2 million in renovations have paid off for the Hotel St. Regis in the New Center area," Crain's Detroit Business reported Feb. 3, 1986. Things were going so well, in fact, that the ownership decided to expand the hotel's number of rooms.

The Detroit City Council approved Sept. 10, 1986, a special development area around the Regis to allow for a Tax Increment Financing Authority (TIF) to loan $1.6 million to the expansion project.

David Ong, general partner in the Regis Associates partnership that owned the hotel at the time, told Crain's Detroit Business that feasibility studies showed the St. Regis "will have no trouble at all in the New Center market in supporting that many rooms."

In 1987, ground was broken on a $12 million, 100-room addition to the hotel, tacking onto the building's east side. The expansion allowed the hotel to go from 117 rooms to 229. The addition, which would equate to $29.4 million today, when adjusted for inflation, was completed the following year. For the next decade, things seemed to go OK for the Regis -- or at least, any troubles did not make the papers.

Regis Associates also had a bridge built to connect the St. Regis with a skywalk over West Grand Boulevard, linking the building with General Motors Corp.'s world headquarters, the Albert Kahn Building, Fisher Building and New Center One.

The Regis' success depended heavily on the success of its neighbors. "Our fortunes rise and fall on that," hotelier Michael Kahler told Crain's Detroit Business for a Feb. 3, 1986, article.

But in 1996, General Motors left New Center and moved into the Renaissance Center downtown, leading to a considerable decline in business for the Regis.

However, the building also began a decades-long run of being owned by African-American entrepreneurs - a welcome turnaround for a building that had been erected by a man known for poor treatment of people of color.

Attempts at a Regis renaissance

In 2004, Marcus Mitchell and David Steele were accused of trying to hide more than $1 million in drug money by buying the St. Regis and a strip club in Detroit. It is not clear when they acquired the Regis. At the time of the sale, Steele had told the hotel's previous owners that he was a doctor. They were both charged with conspiracy to launder monetary instruments and criminal forfeiture. As part of his sentencing in April 2005, Mitchell agreed to forfeit his interest in the Regis. Steele lost his claim in foreclosure, and it was acquired by a real estate development company.

In February 2006, Detroit developer Herb Strather and a group of local investors, including the legendary Rev. Jim Holley of Historic Little Rock Baptist Church, bought the Regis for $6 million and planned to convert half its rooms into condos. "We have joined together in order to move the city forward," Strather told the Free Press for its Feb. 4, 2006, edition.

The hotel was shut down for a $4 million renovation in 2007, during which rooms were updated and plumbing problems fixed. But just two years later, in 2009, Strather and the Regis' ownership group defaulted on an $8.7 million loan from Chicago-based Shorebank Corp., which provided loans in inner cities and underserved communities. The hotel had received utility shutoff notices, was behind on its taxes and insurance, and had missed payroll, court papers showed. Strather told The Wall Street Journal for a March 18, 2009, article that some of the Regis' struggles may have stemmed from the decision to close for the renovation, rather than keeping it open and fixing it in stages to maintain a revenue stream.

In February 2009, a U.S. district court judge granted Shorebank's request to appoint a receiver, tapping AlixPartners, a Southfield, Mich.-based firm specializing in corporate turnarounds. A month later, AlixPartners hired Alliance Hospitality Management LLC, a hotel-management and development company based in Raleigh, N.C., to save the St. Regis.

But the odds were stacked against success.

Detroit was struggling at the time, with the City headed toward bankruptcy a few years later, the automobile industry in shambles, and the city's reputation rundown with images of "ruin porn" photography and crime stories making headlines. Metro Detroit's hotel occupancy rate was about 41 percent in January 2009, compared with the national rate of 46 percent, according to Smith Travel Research. This lack of demand drove the region's average daily room rate at that time to about $87, compared with $101 nationally. But the Regis' rates were even worse, with an occupancy rate below 35 percent at the end of 2008 and rates below $80 a night. Rooms were going for as little as $30 a night through discount hotel websites.

In August 2010, Shorebank was shut down, and the Regis and $2.2 billion in Shorebank's assets were bought by a new entity, Urban Partnership Bank. The Regis was closed and put up for auction by Southfield, Mich.-based turnaround firm BBK in January 2011. Bidding started at $350,000.

St. Regis Sky Group LLC, an entity with ties to Avinash Rachmale -- who at the time owned the Lakeshore Global Building a block away -- won the auction for $850,000. However, two years earlier, the district judge had given the group led by Strather the right of first refusal to buy the hotel back for the same price it could fetch at auction. So, in February 2011, the Regis was sold for $850,000 to Wilco Associates LLC, an entity controlled by Shirley Wilson, who was part of the group of owners who renovated the hotel in 2007. The purchase price represented a cost of $3,800 per room, well below the going sales price for a quality hotel.

In November 2015, the 1987 addition was turned into the 58-apartment Regis Houze, led by Barbat Holdings LLC of West Bloomfield Township, Mich. The 64,000-square-foot addition now is home to 48 one-bedroom units, eight studios and two two-bedroom apartments. At some point, the apartments' name was changed to the St. Regis House Apartments.

Then it was announced in February 2018 that Detroit-based Invictus Equity Group bought a controlling interest in the Regis. The ownership group included some big names in Black business, including former General Motors Corp. executive Roy Roberts. Key among the ownership group was Tony Saunders, former CFO and chief restructuring officer for Wayne County and former emergency financial manager for the City of Benton Harbor, Mich.; the turnaround expert was tasked with turning around the Regis. Another partner was Gretchen Valade, granddaughter of Hamilton Carhartt, founder of the clothes manufacturer Carhartt. O'Neil D. Swanson, best known for his family's funeral homes in the city, continued to own a piece of the hotel; the Swansons had been part of the Regis' previous ownership group. Invictus announced at the same time that the hotel would undergo a $6 million renovation, including an overhaul of the lobby, 350-person ballroom and conference center, restaurant and its 125 rooms. The renovations were handled by McIntosh Poris, a suburban Detroit-based firm. The final tab wound up being closer to $9 million.

“It’s a gorgeous building with a lot of history, and when you look at all of the energy that is shifting into the New Center area at this time, we feel it has the potential to be an anchor institution for the area,” Saunders told the Michigan Chronicle at the time of the sale. “The fact that it is located close to the last stop on the QLINE adds to its attractiveness and the impact it can have on the area. We are looking to create a dynamic experience that will keep people coming back for more.”

In 2020, it was announced that the Regis would undergo a top-to-bottom, $9 million renovation of its 125 hotel rooms, ballroom, guest areas and dining and hospitality facilities.