About Time

Last month, while working on a paper on architectural documentation, I noticed that something wonderful had happened. A nearly decade-long wait for the Library of Congress to digitize the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) photographs of the Tuller Hotel had finally come to an end. Suddenly, there they were.

HABS is a federal architectural documentation program dating back to 1933. The program was a New Deal effort to put unemployed architects to work, with the added bonus of creating a valuable record of the American built environment. Many of the buildings documented have since been demolished. The HABS program continues today and includes thousands of records, many of which are available online via the Library of Congress.

Browsing the database, one can find a treasure trove of forgotten Detroit landmarks and ruins that passed into oblivion long before the online “urban explorer” subculture took notice of such things. One of the more significant records is the Tuller Hotel, documented shortly before its demolition in 1991-1992 for a gravel parking lot.

However, for many years the record merely appeared as a listing in the search results, none of it had actually been digitized. Then, about five years ago, about half of the photographs randomly appeared, mostly exterior views. This provided some hope that the rest would soon follow. But that was not the case. Perhaps it was merely a tease to wet my appetite? If that was the goal, it was successful.

Well, for whatever reason, last year the Library of Congress stopped updating the old HABS catalog at the American Memory site, although it is still online, and began uploading new scans on a new site. When I saw that there was a new site I immediately ran a search for the Tuller and there they were, completely scanned in all of their glory. Of course the full HABS record is still not complete. It is missing the data pages that would tell us exactly what we are looking at. But the pictures are a treasure regardless.

My personal memory of the Tuller is very dim. It was still there when I made my first trip downtown and all I really remember of it was a big old hotel being there. I was too young to really recall more than that. So for me these photographs show scenes that I never had the chance to see, and yet are all too familiar, being similar to buildings I have toured.

Prior to this I had not seen much of the Tuller’s days as a ruin. If people have photographs, they are in photo albums or shoe boxes somewhere, not online or in archives. On the other hand, I have heard plenty of stories from those who saw it, stories that only made me more curious. I was told it was worse than the Statler, a deathtrap, that the elevators were rusted birdcage style, that the rooms had murphy beds, and that the additions were weirdly connected via outdoor bridges.

These wondeful HABS photos, especially when viewed at full resolution, verify some of what I was told. The bridges are visible in some of the exterior photographs. The condition of the building was indeed poor, although I wouldn’t say it was worse than what I encountered in the Statler.

But, frustratingly, the photographer was more selective than I would have liked, the record incomplete. And as a result curiosity remains. There are no photographs of the elevators, or of the lobby, a space I had been told was heavily modernized. Incredibly there are very few photographs of the guest rooms, which made up the vast bulk of the building.

The photographer instead focused on aspects of the building that made it look vintage. Spaces that make me thirst for more information and more photographs. There are strange sky-lite corridors, the ballroom is amazingly intact, despite the excessive graffiti. Perhaps most impressive is the light fixture still hanging in the old Arabian Room, shown in a view similar to an old postcard in my collection.

Regardless of the long wait and the spaces that were not photographed, the value of this record and the entire HABS collection is immense. The HABS website is an easy way to spend an afternoon getting lost in history. For more information on the Tuller Hotel consult the article I posted back in 2004. It includes a number of historic views including a series of interiors from a circa 1920 color brochure.

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