Preserving a Faded Jewel: The Plight of Detroit’s Lee Plaza

Among the iconic abandoned structures that dot the landscape of Detroit, Michigan, Lee Plaza poignantly embodies the city’s descent from prosperity to urban blight in the latter half of the 20th century.

Among the iconic abandoned structures that dot the landscape of Detroit, Michigan, Lee Plaza poignantly embodies the city’s descent from prosperity to urban blight in the latter half of the 20th century. Simultaneously, this edifice represents a pillar of untapped potential along the storied West Grand Boulevard. Inscribed on the National Register of Historic Places, Lee Plaza is a remarkable exemplar of Art Deco architecture from the 1920s. It once served as a luxurious apartment complex that offered hotel-like amenities to its affluent residents.

On a bitterly frigid day several years ago, I ventured to West Grand Boulevard to pay homage to Lee Plaza and capture the remnants of its erstwhile beauty through the lens of my camera.

The development was conceived by Ralph Lee, a self-made millionaire who ascended from humble beginnings as a furniture salesman to become a visionary shaping the grander Detroit, one property at a time. His influence extended to over 30 upscale properties scattered throughout the burgeoning city, and Lee Plaza was to be his crowning achievement. 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, clad in orange glazed brick, featured sculptures and tiles that embodied the Art Deco style, crowned with red Spanish tile and a green copper roof. The interior was no less opulent, with 220 units ranging from one to four bedrooms, some of which were furnished. The first floor housed a ballroom and other amenities, with common areas showcasing the finest Italian marble, exquisite walnut wood paneling, and hand-painted frescoes adorning the detailed barrel-vaulted ceilings.

For Lee, this development was a part of his vision to transform West Grand Boulevard from a collection of single-family homes and apartment buildings into a corridor of mid-rise structures akin to New York City’s renowned Fifth Avenue. However, the era of luxury living at Lee Plaza proved fleeting, as apartment dwellings fell out of favor by the 1940s, supplanted by the subsidized construction of single-family homes to address the housing shortage following World War II. By the end of that decade, Lee Plaza had devolved into accommodating transients and other short-term renters. After navigating financial turbulence, Lee Plaza was eventually sold to a developer in the 1960s, who conducted minor renovations. In 1969, it transitioned into low-income senior citizen housing.

Lee Plaza was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, a testament to the preservation of its Art Deco elements, frescoes, and ornamentation, as the building had never been completely remodeled since its opening. Regrettably, the building’s decline persisted, culminating in its closure in 1997.

Time has not been kind to Lee Plaza. In 2000, more than 50 terra cotta lion heads were stolen from the building, with some resurfacing in a new residential development in Chicago. The copper roof was stripped in 2005, and the dearth of windows has only accelerated the interior deterioration.

We fervently hope that this exceptional representation of Art Deco architecture in Detroit will be preserved for future generations, ensuring that this faded jewel does not succumb to the ravages of neglect and oblivion.


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This building has not undergone any major renovation, so it clearly illustrates the type of apartment buildings architects designed for upscale clients just before the catastrophic Depression contorted Detroit. This building became controversial in the first decade of the 21st century. At one time there was an impressive array of decorative lions ornamenting the distinction between the base and the apartments. Apparently, these were stolen from Lee Plaza with no regard to the structural integrity of the historic building. In 2001, some of them were found on the facades of newly renovated buildings in Chicago. Detroit preservations sought to have them returned and raised questions about litigation concerning the destruction of buildings on the National Historic Register but, so far as I know, the lions have not yet been returned to Lee Plaza and no one has been convicted of a felony for their removal.

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