Historic Detroit

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Thunderbird Motel

The Thunderbird Motel turned out to be a lightning rod for trouble.

Today, the site serves as a simple parking lot for customers at Detroit's main post office, but from 1957 to the 1991, this corner was home to an adorable Mid-Century Modern motel that wound up being one of the city's more notorious no-tell motels.

The 31-room motel opened in 1957 amid a flurry of new modern buildings erected in what had been an industrialized part of the city, on the western outskirts of downtown. Advertisements noted that the motel was mere minutes from the city's new convention center, Cobo Hall, which opened a few years later, in 1960. Detroit's new main post office - today known as the George W. Young Post Office - opened across the street from the Thunderbird in 1961, on the southwest corner of West Fort and Eighth streets. It was also just down Trumbull from Tiger Stadium, and hosted fans for several World Series contests and the All-Star Game in 1971.

The hotel was run, possibly owned, by Bob and Ruth Ryan, from its opening until at least the late 1960s.

Like many motels that rose in the 1950s and '60s, they offered a cheaper, no-frills alternative to the grand hotels of the previous generation. They also sought to capitalize on tourists hitting the road on the new interstate system. Ads boasted that the Thunderbird was equipped with air-conditioning, phones, carpeting and free TV and parking.

The 'Beatnik Guitarist' Bandit

The Thunderbird was among the victims besieged by the "Beatnik Guitarist" Bandit and his two accomplices, a pair of brothers. In a two-day span from April 10 to April 11, 1960, the thieving trio went on a crime spree robbing six Detroit-area motels.

In addition to $90 looted from the Thunderbird on April 10, 1960, the men also hit the Mercury Motel at Michigan and Military in Dearborn for $220; the Del Prado Motel at 14300 Telegraph in Redford Township for $125; the Harlan House Motel at 6500 John C. Lodge Freeway for $215; the Fontaine Motel at 17850 Woodward Ave. for $69; and the Downtown Motel at 3540 Woodward Ave. for $163.74. The bandits raked in $882.67 in the six heists (the equivalent of about $9,300 in 2023 dollars, when adjusted for inflation).

Police nabbed 20-year-old Donald Gene Hodge and his 18-year-old brother, Ronald Dean Dodge, of 2468 W. Davison, on April 11. They confessed and flipped on Kenneth Earl Smith, then 18 and living at 5616 Commonwealth. In addition to recovering much of the stolen cash, police also recovered a pellet gun and a blank-firing starter pistol, like those used at track meets.

Smith told police that they simply "got rolling and just kept rolling" on their spree. Until his arrest, Smith -- whom the Detroit Free Press described him in an April 12, 1960, article as "a beatnik guitarist-singer" and a "slim, red-haired rock-'n'-roller -- had performed nightly at The Tantrum, 8231 Woodward Ave., where he was introduced to the Hodge brothers. Detective Ralph Palmer called Smith the "motel mastermind."

Ronald Hodge told police that he needed money for college; Donald said he "just went along for the ride." Smith's motivations were unclear, though he did tell police that he spent some of his haul on paying bills.

"In each motel, the same method of operation was used," the Free Press wrote the morning after their capture. "Two youths stormed into the office, brandishing the guns and headed right for the cash registers." In a few cases, the clerks were locked up before the bandits made off in Donald's 1954 Chevrolet.

The three were charged with armed robbery. That June, Smith was sentenced to two to 20 years, and the Hodges got three to 20. It is not clear how long the men served, nor why the so-called "mastermind" got one year less on his sentence than his accomplices.

Just a few months later, a fleet-footed motel bandit named Cornelius L. Ivory, then 28 years old and living at 650 Alfred, used a piece of pipe to rob the Thunderbird of $44 and a $20 money order at 4 a.m. on Nov. 18, 1960. Ten minutes later, Ivory struck the Alamo Motel at 2700 Woodward for $170. Unlike the Beatnik Bandit case, Ivory's spree came to an end much sooner - he was arrested just 10 minutes after his Alamo stick-up, at 4:20 a.m.


The Thunderbird also was home to a bird of a different sort.

Jimmy the Parrot was a popular pet of the Ryans, the motel's longtime operators, that greeted guests since the motel's opening in 1957. He was apparently so popular that his death in 1967 garnered an item in the Detroit Free Press. This is rather noteworthy considering the motel almost never made headlines for anything other than being held up by robbers. Not even its opening grabbed an inch of ink. Jimmy even had his likeness drawn in caricature for the obit.

"Hail and farewell to Jimmy the Parrot, who delighted thousands of visitors during the 11 years he spent in the window of the Thunderbird Motel and Eighth," the paper lamented in an Aug. 16, 1967, column. His age at the time of his passing was unknown, but the Ryans had owned him for 34 years. "Burial was Sunday," the Free Press reported, "and the Ryans have no immediate plans to replace him."

The Thunderbird gets clapped

In 1974, the Thunderbird began running ads in the papers that seemed to foreshadow its demise. The ads read -- oddly, simply and obscurely -- as follows: "ADULT MOTEL. Triple your pleasure! Thunderbird Motel, 1365 W. Fort Street, 7 blocks w. of Downtown." It wasn't clear from the small ad what it meant by triple - but a federal raid 17 years later might have provided a clue.

On Oct. 25, 1991, federal agents wielding battering rams stormed the Thunderbird, seizing it through civil forfeiture for allegedly permitting drug trafficking.

The hotel's manager was accused of charging prostitutes and crack dealers $10 to $20 a day above the $30 room rate in exchange for being allowed to sell their wares, according to an affidavit supporting the civil forfeiture action that was filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office in U.S. District Court in Detroit. The case was investigated by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, located directly across the street in the main post office building.

A number of people were arrested in the raid, but police did not give a figure. The hotel's manager was not charged at the time of the raid.

"Surveillance conducted throughout this investigation suggests there may not be any legitimate guests," read the affidavit by postal Special Agent Gary Grant.

The Free Press reported the following morning that "workers at nearby businesses cheered the agents.

"Every day I come to work, I see the chicks out there, the dope dealers, and I was about to go out there and smack a couple myself," Mike Coleman, then 26 years old and an employee of Detroit Ball Bearing, told the Free Press for the Oct. 26, 1991, story.

"I'm glad that they got these clowns out of the way," Wayne Turner, then 42, added. "That used to be a decent and clean motel."

While some news reports noted that postal employees said the motel made them afraid to walk to their parked cars, other news agencies alleged that post office staff would take "lunch breaks" with the prostitutes and drug dealers.

The motel was demolished shortly thereafter, and the site has served as a parking lot for the post office since.

Last updated 02/12/2023