Lee Plaza

Lee Plaza is located at 2240 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan and the former apartment building is a state historic site and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s architecture is an excellent representation of Art Deco from the 1920s. During its heyday, it was known for its catch phrase: “You will never miss your home when you stay at the Lee Plaza.”2

History

Proposed by Ralph T. Lee, a self-made millionaire who began working in a furniture store and engraving company before transitioning into the real estate business, Lee Plaza was the cumulation of Lee’s vision for a grander Detroit.3 5 In October 1919, Lee left his job as an engraver with the J.B. VanAlstyne Engraving Company to start up a construction company, completing apartment complexes throughout the bustling city. His office was located on the fifth floor of the General Motors Building. By the 1920s, Lee was making more than $100,000 per year, a tidy sum pre-Depression.

Designed by Charles Noble with a set budget of $1.1 million,5 Lee Plaza was planned as an upscale apartment tower with hotel services 1 4 5 and was his tallest building to be built under his watch.3 Ground was broken on Lee Plaza on May 1, 1927 and was completed in 1929 at a cost of $2.5 million,2 4 with Otto Misch Company acting as the general contractor.5 The 15-story structure, known as Lee Plaza Hotel, was decorated with sculpture and tile that represented the Art Deco style with a Mediterranean influence, and faced with an orange glazed brick on the exterior. The top featured red Spanish tile, capped with a green copper roof. It was part of Lee’s vision for a New York Fifth Avenue feel, with the hope that West Grand Boulevard would be more upscale, more dense and stacked with residential mid-rises.

The interior was fitted with 220 one- to four-room apartments.3 5 Each unit featured a Servidor for dry cleaned goods, and the one- and two-bedroom units were furnished while the furnishings for the three- and four-bedroom units were optional.5 The first floor contained a grocery store and ballroom, while the basement contained a beauty parlor, children’s playroom and a game room. Other amenities included daily maid service and radio service. The common areas featured Italian marble floors, exquisite walnut wood paneling and hand painted frescos and detailed barrel vaulted ceilings, with polychromed plasterwork.5 Most notable was Peacock Alley, named for the use of blue, gold and green colors in the coffered ceiling of the barrel vaulted walkway.

Decline

Lee sold Lee Plaza to the Detroit Investment Company, but by December 1930, the company was behind on its payments by $1.1 million.3 The Metropolitan Trust Company was appointed as the receiver, but went into receivership and was then transferred to the Equitable Trust Company in 1931. Through some shady dealings by Lee, which involved his hardware business, and the Depression, Lee Plaza was bankrupt by 1935. The legal woes continued until Lee Plaza was sold to Charles Owen, a local real estate dealer who had owned a third of the outstanding bonds on the structure, in August 1943 for just $475,585.

But apartment homes had begun to fall out of favor by the 1940s, and the allure of Lee Plaza was on the decline, hosting transients and other short term renters. The Lee Plaza Company was formed in November to acquire the assets of Lee Plaza for $600,000.3 In the 1960s, Lee Plaza was sold to a developer who conducted minor renovations of the building. In January 1969, the company sold the building to the city who converted the building into low-income senior citizen housing. New kitchens were added and the elevators were modernized.

Lee Plaza was added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 5, 1981.3 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 due to a lack of funding to maintain Lee Plaza.

In 2000, more than 50 terra cotta lion heads were stolen from Lee Plaza and were missing until six of the heads were spotted in a new residential development project in Chicago, Illinois.3 The developer, Greene & Proppe, had purchased them for less than $1,000 each from Architectural Artifacts of Chicago, who had purchased them from an antiques dealer in Saline, Michigan. The fires were further stoked when the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois awarded the developers the Richard Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award for Outstanding New Construction in September 2002.

Architectural Artifacts helped track down some of the stolen lion heads, and 24 of the lions, along with three stone griffins, were recovered in May 2002.3 Valued at more than $2 million, the ornamentation has been put into storage for reuse at the Lee if it is redeveloped. Putting more insult to injury, the copper roof at Lee Plaza was stripped in 2005.4

Digest
  • Name: Lee Plaza
  • Location: 2240 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, Michigan
  • Years of Significance: 1927
  • Status: Abandoned

[/atab][vc_accordion_tab title=”Further Reading”]

  1. Lee Plaza at Historic Detroit
  2. Lee Plaza at Forgotten Detroit

Sources

  1. Hill, Eric J., and John Gallagher. “Lee Plaza Apartments.” Aia Detroit: The American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003. 182.Print.
  2. “Hotel & motel red book.” American Hotel & Motel Association. American Hotel Association Directory Corp., 1955. 409. Print.
  3. Austin, Dan. “Lee Plaza.” Historic Detroit. N.p., 2012. Web. 17 Apr. 2012. Article.
  4. “Lee Plaza.” Emporis. N.p., 2012. Web. 17 Apr. 2012. Article.
  5. “Lee Plaza Hotel.” City of Detroit Planning and Development Department. N.p., 2012. Web. 17 Apr. 2012. Article.

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3 Comments

  1. Curious where the 24 lions wound up, it's been 11 years since they were recovered and the building is looking more and more like it's seen it's last days.
    I could replicate the lion in terracotta with no difficulty if the building is ever renovated, but I don't see that happening.

  2. I know this may only sound like a wish, but if and/or I can get the money to help to restore the “Lee Plaza Hotel” back to it’s majestic beauty, This is something I want to try for. There is history for my family as my great uncle Ab Nicken left Monterey, Tennessee to Detroit, Michigan to run the Lee Plaza Hotel. This would have been in tand all the history in Detoithe late 1930’s to early 1940’s, because they were going to take my father’s sister with them, but she stayed in Tennessee.
    After seeing the structure I believe it needs to life, and help with the beauty,and the history not just the building but Detroit…. I’ve always been partial to Detroit even though I was born in Dayton, Ohio. LOL… Always tols my mother I claimed the tennessee hillbilly in me over the ohio buckeye anyday :-) So Michigan has a place in my heart….

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