The fate of the Madison-Lenox Hotel, a turn of the century hotel designed by A.C. Varney, epitomizes the role of competing interest groups on the physical landscape of Detroit. The hotel was located at the intersection of Grand River and Madison St., to the east of Grand Cirucs Park. In 2004, the National Trust of Historic Preservation named the hotel one of the eleven most endangered places in America. Despite publishing an article on what it deemed “Hysterical Preservation,”  The American Enterprise still praised the merit of the Madison-Lenox. As with other historical buildings in Detroit, politics has its fingerprints all over the demolition.

The 2005 Super Bowl XL initiated a revitalization of downtown Detroit. While many of these initiatives came in the form of building conversions and street improvements, several historic buildings were also demolished. Included in this list was the Madison-Lenox, with direct involvement by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The building was owned by Mike Ilitch, who had been repeatedly denied permission to tear down the hotel by Detroit’s Historic District Advisory Committee.  [1] The Downtown Detroit Development Authority (DDA) had been involved since 1996, when it hired consulting firm Zachary and Associates to prepare a report outlining the market feasibility of the Madison-Lenox. In 2003, Ilitch Holdings received a $700,000 loan from the DDA to demolish the hotel for use as a parking lot. The same year the DDA also looked at reallocating HUD (US Department of Housing and Urban Redevelopment) funds for site redevelopment, including $1,040,000 for demolition.

According to a member of the organization Friends of the Book-Cadillac Hotel (FOBC), a developer had been found in response to Ilitch Holdings’ statement that they would consider a rehabilitation plans if a developer could be found, but Ilitch Holdings stopped responding. In January 2005, the FOBC reported that forty purchase offers had been made since 2004, but the city was continuing to list the property as to be “demolished by neglect.”   [3]

Architectural Record contended that “part of the sting in losing these buildings was that, in some cases, the city seemed to ignore basic landmark protections afforded by state law. Detroit’s Historic District Advisory Committee twice refused Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s request to tear down the Madison-Lenox; the mayor’s building department then condemned the building as unsafe and razed it anyway.”   [3] A further look into the events surrounding the demolition shows that the city issued emergency orders without a permit from the Historic Commission. When preservation groups legally challenged the action, they were told that the building had become even more unstable due to the partial demolition and was now a danger to the public. Furthermore, the judge agreed with the city “that it has a right to override historic preservation considerations-even its own decisions-when a building poses an immediate threat to the public.”   [1] Demolition continued, and today it remains a parking lot.

The historic architecture in Detroit is wrought with varying levels of government complicity despite private ownership. This is not a new trend-the planning of Detroit has historically been a stage for the conflict between public and private space. The most infamous privately owned building is the Michigan Central Station, now the physical manifestation of Detroit’s decline, looming and isolated. However, the neighborhood around Grand Circus Park is as representative, if not more so, of the rise and fall of an American industrial city. Since its creation by Woodward, the area has epitomized the negotiation between public and private interests. Three buildings, the Fox Theatre, the United Artists Theater and the Madison-Lenox Hotel, are just a few examples of complicity between public and private involvement in the historic architecture of downtown Detroit. Most importantly, regardless of blame, it is clear that there is no concerted policy of utilizing historic preservation as a means to urban redevelopment.[3] Perhaps what Detroit needs is a more transparent and targeted strategy that incorporates its rich and quintessentially American history.

Top image via WikiCommons, Library of Congress. Follow UntappedCities on  Twitter  and  Facebook. Get in touch with the author at  @UntappedMich

[1] “Judge Allows Demolition of Madison-Lenox Hotel.”  USA Today (Associated Press). 20 May 2005. Web. 11 Dec 2009. <>.

[2] “Endangered Detroit, Nomination to the National Trust of Historic Preservation 11 Most Endangered Historic Places List.”   Friends of the Book-Cadillac Hotel. 19 Jan 2005, p. 18.

[3] Gallagher, John. “Super Bowl spurs demolitions in Detroit.”   Architectural Record. 194.3 (2006): 27.