The Statler I Knew

I thought it would be fitting to start off this blog by discussing the building that has had the greatest impact on me both personally and professionally; the Statler Hotel.  Rather than rehash historical trivia or debate the building’s eventual demolition this post will be more of a personal exercise.  I feel it is important for you to know where I am coming from, so with that in mind I will dust off my memory and discuss how I “discovered” the Statler and try to illustrate how it came to become so important to me.

If I had to list the turning points in my life, that first encounter with the Statler would be high on the list.  I was in middle school and it was my first trip to the Detroit-area.  Being an architecture nerd already, I had asked my dad to drive me into the city so I could see the buildings.  At that point I was still young and naive and the idea that buildings would be abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin like some sort of modern-day Parthenon was unheard of.  Suffice to say, the day was a shock.

Of all the eye-openers I saw that day it was the image of the Statler that would become most burned in my mind.  The V-shaped hotel was so massive, towering over Grand Circus Park like a land-locked ocean liner.   Its red-brick mass, set atop a finely-detailed and weathered stone base was the picture of elegance; the perfect hotel.  However, the building’s architectural grace clashed with the faded and torn pink awnings and slip covers hanging from the lower floors.  I couldn’t help but think that the building was wearing an old tattered dress.  Being young and naive, I assumed that a building such as this, which was boarded up, would be a time-capsule.  I thought how amazing it would be to step into its lobby, picturing a grand space filled with dusty furniture and chandeliers, and I longed for the day that I could do so.

My chance came one summer morning in 1999 as I stepped through the Washington Boulevard entrance and into the lobby.  Needless to say, I quickly realized that the reality of the Statler’s interior was nothing like my prior mental-image.  Granted, the hotel once had such grand spaces, but as my flashlight swept the scene before me I could see that remodelings and years of neglect and taken their toll.  Cramped rooms had been built within the shells of the old interiors, and the cheap modern materials, such as laminated plywood and drop ceilings, had decayed considerably.  The interior was a pitch-black tangled mess of fallen ceilings and ducts.  I was thankful to have a hard hat.

The further into the hotel’s belly I went, the more of a wreck it became.   Proceeding up and under debris, I came upon a curious artifact.  Amid the destruction, a hostess stand still bearing the name “Detroit Hilton”, as the Statler was known in later years, somehow survived intact.  A directional arrow had been painted on it, one of many throughout the interior meant to direct attendees of the liquidation sale following the hotel’s closure a quarter century earlier.  It was just about the only thing within the twisted wreckage of the lobby that was recognizable as having once been used by a human.

I was disappointed, to be sure, but something about the ruination around me was deeply intriguing.  Spaces were still arranged the way that they had always been.  Looking beyond the twisted dropped ceilings, I could see a sense of logic and order to the arrangement that was absent from the interiors of the Fort Shelby and Book-Cadillac Hotels.  Additionally the decay served to reveal the layers of the Statler’s construction history.  Fallen drop ceilings uncovered traces of ornamented vaults above and marble paneling could be seen behind rotting plywood.  I was beginning to become aware of the building’s architectural history in an unusual way.

In a way I came to think of the ruins as the best primary document available for learning about and understanding the history of a building, such as the Statler.  As time went on, and as I learned more about E.M. Statler himself and the role that he played in revolutionizing the construction of commercial hotels, I saw the shattered hotel as the best substitute that I had in place of interviewing him, a view that is reflected in the sort of photographs and notes I took as well as the annoyance I had when my friends told me that there was nothing inside worth saving.  Sure the interiors were ugly, but they had the story to tell.  One just had to look.

Making my way upstairs, I felt increasingly isolated from the outside world.  There was little to no natural light to be found, the air was a strange yet unique musty scent, and there was a weighty muffled silence, disturbed only by the crushing sound of plaster particles beneath my feet.  But my focus on my surroundings and my “conversation” with E.M. Statler had more to do with it than any of my senses.  It was only as I stood in the ballroom foyer thinking about how bizarre this whole situation was that the distant sound of a bus on Woodward Avenue pulling away from the Grand Circus stop snapped me back to reality.

The guestroom floors were a different world from those below.  Granted, they were just as interesting, if not more so, but the air and noises of post-industrial Detroit flowed freely through the thousand rooms and long corridors.  The illusion of being alone in some time-warped shipwreck was gone.  Even the massive central courtyard which completely surrounded me with buff-brick walls and hundreds of broken windows provided a glimpse of a beautiful blue summer’s sky.

These floors were the most intact.  My favorite rooms were at the corner of Park and Bagley, with little sitting nooks built into the windows.  I had read that the Statler was the first hotel in Detroit with a bathroom for every guestroom, so I paid particular attention to them.  Again, through the clever arrangement of the rooms, utility shafts, and fixtures I could get a sense of E.M. Statler’s philosophy within the plaster and concrete.  The rooms on the uppermost levels were puzzling, however.  They were redone, larger, and with interesting decor.  Some rooms by the elevator lobby had been set up as a barber shop, a dusty card on the floor read “David’s Coiffures”.  A discarded sign suggested that these upper floors were the “gateway to ‘heaven’.”  It was a faded reminder to the last effort made to lure back the luxury crowd prior to the hotel’s closure.

I eventually found myself on the roof and looking down Washington Boulevard to the Book-Cadillac Hotel, the Statler’s historic rival and sister in abandonment.  From this distance the green-hatted tower looked fine and for a moment, despite all I had just seen, I could forget that both it and the very platform on which I was standing were ruins in the truest sense of the word.  It was a fleeting moment.  The questions came, questions about the Statler, Detroit, hotels, modern ruins, preservation, some questions that could never fully be answered.  But I would try.  The Statler had hooked me, and twelve years later I have not stop seeking answers.

The years that followed offered false hope and disappointments.  The hotel’s interiors, with all of their layers of history and asbestos, were cleaned out considerably in 2001 for a proposed renovation that never came.  By 2003 I knew that the Statler was doomed.  The end finally came in 2005 when the Statler was demolished merely for the sake of demolishing it on the taxpayer’s dime.  Today the site is a fenced-off lot filled with nothing but weeds.   But to me there will always be a big abandoned hotel at Grand Circus Park.  And somehow I think this would have been true regardless of the building’s fate.

5 comments to The Statler I Knew

  • […] Statler, también acabó siendo demolido en 2005, después de permanecer más de treinta años cerrado y abandonado, en una operación tan sospechosa como ilegal, pero ya […]

  • Thank you for your website. So sad to see dying Detroit. I wish my dear Saint-Petersburg will never die.

  • @yana i don’t think it will die, memories will always be remembered =)

  • Hi, how sad! In the 40’s I worked for WXYZ and did many Band pickups from the Terrace Room of the Statler. I always considered the Statler my home away from home. So sorry to see Detroit in such sad shape.

  • Stu Yankee

    I managed the pre-demolition environmental (asbestos/pcb/water) remediation process from Oct 2001 to October 2002. I wish I still had the hundreds of photos from before & during that process ( I only have about 20). Do you have other/none published photos? Also, I am preparing “project profiles” from many of my old remediation projects & I want to know if I can use some of your pics (with credit, of course) in my presentation(s) and/or linked to my current business? Beautiful work! thanks for posting. Stuart

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