Aglow with Friendliness

Last semester I took a class on history and memory and in the process did some research on how different groups tend to remember ruins in Detroit and Gary, Indiana. Nostalgia was a big part of it, especially in how older generations who experienced the buildings in their heyday fondly look back, collect mementos, bricks, etc… There really isn’t anything too surprising on that side of the coin.

But I also had to consider nostalgia from another demographic. What about those who only know certain buildings as ruins? More often than not, I have to count myself in this group. As I looked at various case-studies I had to admit that there is a considerable nostalgia “industry” as people choose to commemorate ruins rather than buildings. You have everything from photographs, internet postings, momentos, and even going so far to mimic architectural styles/elements of favorite ruins in new construction.

Heck, while I have made a great effort for this website to discuss the pre-ruin lives of the buildings featured here, sometimes it is hard to argue what purpose the ruin photos have besides documenting and “celebrating” the ruin stage. I’ve come to think there isn’t anything wrong with that. Photographers commonly argue that they are preserving history through their work with ruins. I would say that is true, but perhaps not in the way they may think. It is a topic for another day, but in short the ruined period of a building’s life is just as much a valid part of its history as any other era.

Perhaps I am putting too much thought into all of this. But as I was conducting research for the nostalgia portion of the project I had to think of what buildings do I have a particular sense of nostalgia for as ruins. Obviously most of them closed before I was born, or when I was very young so I never knew them as anything else. Meanwhile I have a hard time thinking of Tiger Stadium or Cass Tech as abandoned buildings or ruins.

As the first photograph indicates, the one Detroit building I particularly miss and get nostalgic for is the Fort Shelby Hotel. Much like the Statler, the physical building was a joy to go through, an excellent document from which to learn of the building’s history and of commercial hotel architecture. But when I think of the Statler the doors open to all of the scholarship on the Statler chain I have done since then. I’ve become more obsessed with that building’s origins and its influences on architecture of the time. When I think of the Fort Shelby, I think of the Fort Shelby.

My fondness for the Fort Shelby should come as no surprise to anyone who read my previous blog. As those readers will recall, I made more trips to the building than I can count. In fact, I’ve easily made more trips to and spent more hours in the Fort Shelby than any other ruin in Detroit. My photographs of the building number in the thousands. As the building’s renovation drew nearer I became more and more determined to document it as much as I could, correctly recognizing that any renovation would mean the complete gutting of the original interior. It got to the point where I could recognize every room and hallway.

Of course, the Fort Shelby has always had an interesting history that I’ve enjoyed uncovering. Although written back in 2003, my write-up on the main Fort Shelby article still holds up. I just have some things to add. Although not as revolutionary as the Statler, is an excellent case-study for the typical commercial hotel of the period. Not only that, the end of its first operational life in the early 1970s featured one of the most bone-headed and amusing renovation schemes I’ve ever come across. And, of course, after nearly forty years, the hotel has now returned to operation and so far the story has a happy ending.

Walking the dark corridors and crumbling rooms opened a window to that history. The Fort Shelby certainly had the most “vintage” interior of any abandoned hotel I have photographed. The lobbies and restaurants were intact, or at least exposed due to fallen drop ceilings. The guestrooms still had their servidors, a peculiar device invented to not only improve laundry service for the guests, but to reduce the need for tipping. The bathrooms featured sleek Art-Moderne tiling. Heck, there are days I wish the building could have been restored as a museum to twentieth century hotel design. Or open it up as a truly vintage hotel. Experience a 1920s hotel in true 1920s fashion! Nothing quite like a preservationist day-dream.

As a ruin the Fort Shelby had certain unmatched aesthetic qualities as well. The colors and textures resulting from the building’s design and decay made the interiors particularly compelling and beautiful to those with an eye for such things. Although I certainly wouldn’t argue for its preservation as a ruin museum or park. Photographs can do the trick much more safely.

All things considered, I enjoyed my times at the Fort Shelby like few other places. And I am grateful that I had the opportunity to roam its halls and document it as it was and hopefully will never be again. As the other hotels fell or were renovated, the Fort Shelby increasingly became like a second home, an old friend.

It has been years since I last set foot in the old Fort Shelby. The hotel has since been completely renovated and reopened as a Doubletree with apartments on the upper levels. The hotel’s exterior has been beautifully cleaned and restored. Although it never looked that ruined from the outside, the scrubbing and new marquees are a definite improvement. The interior was largely completely gutted, especially the guestroom floors. The tiny light courts with their glazed brick walls are gone now, as are the colorful blue and green hallways. The only significant elements of the original interior to survive are the ballroom, albeit with a new canvas ceiling, the staircases and the shoeshine. It is funny how excited I become when I see these old friends.

Similar to how I’ve noted a couple of posts back of always thinking of the Statler being at the foot of Washington Boulevard and Grand Circus Park, regardless of what gets built there, I will always think of the Fort Shelby as a ruin. What do they say about first impressions? Assuming the hotel remains open in fifty years, I don’t see that changing. Perhaps I had too much fun studying this period of the hotel’s life? Yet I can’t say the same about other major downtown buildings to be renovated. Sometimes it is hard to remember that the Book-Cadillac and Kales were once ruins. Well, I am no expert on memory theory and this is just all preliminary rambling.

I should point out, that I feel somewhat uncomfortable with the thought of being nostalgic about a building being a ruin. It goes against my preservationist nature, especially when a building has since been renovated as the Fort Shelby has. Just because I study them does not mean that I feel ruins are a wonderful thing. They are just unavoidable and important topics when discussing the issues faced by preservation and memory of the built environment, especially in the Great Lakes region. And yet I have to admit, I miss the old Fort Shelby, despite the fact that I am happy that I can now, for the first time in my life, stay there as a paying overnight guest.

4 comments to Aglow with Friendliness

  • Tom Barnes

    You raise many interesting points here David. Have you returned to the renovated King Edward in Jackson? I have stayed there once, just shortly after it reopened and found many of the same mixed feelings you have expressed here. Granted, I was thrilled to see it renovated, if not exactly restored, but there were certain compromises in the renovation which were necessary, if not precisely correct. Overall, though, I believe that the King Edward, Fort Shelby and others are far better off as renovated, working entities than as husks of their former selves. Interesting food for thought you have posted today.

  • dk

    I haven’t been back to the KE since 05. From the pictures I’ve seen it appears as if they were reasonably faithful to the building’s original design. At least, more so than say the Book-Cadillac. Anyho, the hotel does look beautiful and I do need to make a return trip soon.

  • Jess hunter

    J.w do you just walk in these places for get special permission, I want to explore a few places maybe you can send me some suggestions?

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