Lee Plaza is one of those iconic abandonments of Detroit, Michigan that stands out as a prime example of what went wrong with the city in the latter half of the 20th century, and is a pillar of potential along West Grand Boulevard. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Lee Plaza is an excellent representation of Art Deco from the 1920s and was at one point, a luxurious apartment complex that offered hotel amenities to its wealthy residents.
On a bitterly cold day several years ago, I trekked down West Grand to pay a visit to Lee Plaza, and to capture at least some of the beauty that remained.
The development was proposed by Ralph Lee, a self-made millionaire who went from selling furniture to building his vision for a grander Detroit one property at a time. His hand extended into over 30 upscale properties that were peppered throughout the blossoming city, and Lee Plaza was to be his tallest. Designed as an upscale apartment tower with hotel services, the 15-story building was completed in 1929 at a cost of $2.5 million. Its exterior, faced with orange glazed brick, featured sculpture and tile that evoked the Art Deco architectural style, topped with red Spanish tile and a green copper roof. The interior was no less extravagant, with 220 one- to four-bedroom units with some of the apartments coming included with furnishings. The first floor contained a ballroom and other amenities, with common areas showcasing the best in Italian marble, exquisite walnut wood paneling and hand painted frescos and detailed barrel vaulted ceilings.
For Lee, this was to be a part of his vision for West Grand Boulevard, to transition it from a collection of single family houses and apartment buildings into mid-rises similar to New York City’s Fifth Avenue. But the luxury living did not last long, as apartment homes began to fall out of favor by the 1940s with the subsidization of construction of single family houses to fulfill a housing shortage at the end of World War II. By the end of that decade, Lee Plaza was hosting transients and other short term renters. Through some financial difficulties, Lee Plaza was eventually sold to a developer in the 1960s who conducted minor renovations. In 1969, it became low-income senior citizen housing.
Lee Plaza was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. From the time of its opening to the time it was added to the register, the building had never been completely remodeled, keeping intact its Art Deco elements, its frescos and ornamentation. But the decline of the building continued, cumulating with its closure in 1997.
But time has not been kind to Lee Plaza. In 2000, more than 50 terra cotta lion heads were stolen from the building, with some of them sprouting up in a new residential development in Chicago. The copper roof was stripped in 2005. And there are little to no windows to speak of, only accelerating interior deterioration.
Let’s hope that one of the best representations of Art Deco in Detroit is at least saved.