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Architecture

Another one bites the dust

A landmark gets demolished, and more Detroit history is lost forever

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Published 9/30/2009

Another downtown skyscraper from Detroit's golden years is being torn down, the victim of a city unwilling to maintain it and developers unwilling to invest in it.

Demolition prep work recently began at the Lafayette Building, at Michigan Avenue and Shelby, an example of the city's ornate, pre-Depression architecture. The wrecking ball comes next. 

"It's coming down because there was not an economic reason to keep it up," says Bob Rossbach, spokesperson for the Detroit Economic Development Corp., which pulled the trigger on the demolition. "It's not structurally sound, it's a hazard to pedestrians, and it has been on the market for many years. The developers who actually went inside it said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.'"

The Lafayette is a triangular, brick-and-limestone building, an office and retail space from years past, made to fit an irregular block in the heart of downtown. It's been empty for more than a decade, as various plans to redevelop it fizzled. Once bricks and chunks of stone started falling from its upper levels to the sidewalk, its fate was sealed. City officials say there's no money to shore it up and wait for better times and better offers.

When it opened in 1924, though, the building was striking. It was designed by C. Howard Crane, the architect behind the Fox Theatre, the Opera House and Orchestra Hall. Its V-shape allowed natural light to stream inside from several angles throughout the day and gave it an unusual profile in the skyline. Each floor had two marble drinking fountains and a direct phone line to the fire department. Seven elevators, arranged in circular tiers, opened into a spacious lobby. They ran at 800 feet per minute.

Its marble, Italian Renaissance interior was accented with bronze light fixtures and black-walnut walls. Thirty-one retailers occupied its bottom level, with both inside and outside entrances and large outdoor display windows. Embellished porticos led patrons in, where the ground floor was laid out as an arcade. 

"This was the precursor to malls, and they had it years ago," says Karen Nagher, executive director of Preservation Wayne. "You could get into the different shops from outside, but you didn't have to go back outside to get into the shop next door. It was well laid-out and very user-friendly."

The lower three floors were reserved for retail; the levels above held offices. Both filled rapidly once the building opened. Its tenants included the Michigan Supreme Court, the State Tax Tribunal and several railroad companies.

As the city declined, the vacancies rose. By 1997, the handful of store owners who'd kept the Lafayette alive in its last years had abandoned it. Since then it's been home only to scores of pigeons and a handful of tall, resilient trees that sprout from its rooftop. The city took possession a few years ago. 

It's been up for sale, but weather coming through the windows and its leaky roof wreaked havoc inside, driving up renovation costs with each passing year. A Florida company announced a condo development for it a few years ago, but the plans never materialized. Quicken Loans even considered the Lafayette for its national headquarters. The Ferchill Group, responsible for the renovation of the Book Cadillac, looked at the building and opted against restoring it. 

After the Book Cadillac reopened, its out-of-town guests saw blight outside their windows. "People point to it and ask, ‘What is that?' and ‘What are the plans for it?'" says Scott Stinebaugh, director of sales and marketing for the hotel. "For a long time we couldn't give a definite answer. So now there's closure. People like us, in a historic building, are huge fans of saving a building, but once all avenues are exhausted, we're fans of it going away."

So now the Lafayette's coming down, another subtraction from the skyline. A little park is planned in its place. City officials say an empty parcel is easier to market, though preservationists counter that the Hudson's lot has been empty, aside from an underground garage, for a decade, as has the Tuller Hotel lot across downtown, and no talked-about projects are set for those plots. Add the sites for the now-demolished Statler and Madison Lenox hotels, and the Motown Building, and there are already quite a few empty downtown lots awaiting development.

The Lafayette's appearance isn't as stunning as other city skyscrapers from the same era, yet it still has understated touches of beauty, especially the terra cotta fleurs de lis along the rooftop. They're like the frosting on the cake, delicate ornamentation put in place for aesthetic flavor and loveliness. They speak of a time when architects added charm and artistry to buildings, even if only those few people with offices high enough would see them. 

"We have some of the best resources in Detroit that can be found anywhere," Nagher says of the city's pre-Depression skyscrapers. "We have a fabulous opportunity to maintain that history and adaptively reuse these buildings. They add to the texture and the being of a city. And once they're gone, they're gone forever."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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