Detroit Time Capsule: Q+A with HistoricDetroit.orgModified: May 19, 2023 | Story by Brittney Schering | Photos by Helmut Ziewers
The living, breathing history of Detroit is accessible all around us. All we must do is look up. Seeking to explore the rich spirit of Renaissance? Dive into HistoricDetroit.org for more depth.
For over a decade, HistoricDetroit.org has served as a free community resource dedicated to telling the most fascinating, factual stories belonging to Detroit’s historic landmarks. Some still stand today, while others have since transformed into newly established restaurants and hotels. The origin of Detroit remains holistically historic in ways that enrich the experience of walking through ancient doors tenfold.
From highlighting the incredible past with ancient building anniversaries to self-guided tours of historic neighborhoods and corridors, what follows is a thoughtful Q+A with photographer, Helmut Ziewers and founder, Dan Austin, to help shine the light of awareness and discovery, while also showcasing the fascinating stories of Detroit’s finest builds and soaring skyscrapers.
Q: Dan, HistoricDetroit.org offers a lot of information about historic buildings that no longer exist. Dan, which one would you point out as the most significant loss and why?
A: “Old City Hall, which was demolished in 1961, is probably the greatest architectural loss in the city’s history. Beyond the loss of a beautiful building that most cities would kill for, it was a tremendous loss of the city’s history. It was inside Old City Hall’s walls that the city’s Common Council bought Belle Isle for $180,000. Its greatest mayors, like Hazen S. Pingree and John C. Lodge, would lead from it, as would some of its worst. From its halls, land would be annexed to turn the city from a small settlement on the banks of the Detroit River into a sprawling city of 139 square miles. Cobo Hall was conceived inside of it, as was the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center – the building that would spell City Hall’s doom.”
Let’s dig into HistoricDetroit.org‘s abundant wealth of knowledge about The Motor City’s most historic locations still standing today. Revel at the many modern restaurants located inside of great old marvels with walls that hold astonishing stories still waiting to be heard, shared and learned by all who enter.
HistoricDetroit.org photographer, Helmut Ziewers, is dedicated to helping preserve the dynamic history of Detroit through his passionate work of capturing the essence of this City’s beloved buildings. The story stays alive so long as we continue to tell it right, well, and with accuracy to the authenticity of Detroit. All photos featured can be found at HistoricDetroit.org.
Perhaps a better word for it is historicity, or historical authenticity.
Full Moon Eclipse Over the Wright-Kay Building
Before Albert Kahn, Detroit’s best-known architect was Gordon W. Lloyd, who was born 191 years ago. Lloyd designed hundreds of buildings in Michigan, as well as in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other Midwest cities. Of his surviving work, his best-known designs include The Whitney restaurant, Father Dowling Hall, Central United Methodist Church, and the most majestic, astonishing Wright-Kay Building. He died Dec. 23, 1904, and is buried at Elmwood Cemetery right here in Detroit.
Q: Helmut, what did it feel like to capture the raw essence of the Full Moon Eclipse glowing bright right over the iconic Wright-Kay Building designed by the late, great architect, Gordon William Lloyd?
A: “I remember that morning as if it was yesterday. Even though there weren’t any scattered clouds to add drama to the sky, it was still a spectacular experience. I specifically planned to walk the city with a telephoto lens on a tripod and shoot the moon in conjunction with some of the iconic, historic buildings in the city. Aside from the Wright-Kay Building, I was able to capture the moon with the Kales Building, the Broderick Tower and the Fisher Building. Maybe important to mention in this context is that HistoricDetroit.org not only provides truly accurate information about the history of the buildings, but we also make sure that there are no manipulated photos displayed on the site.”
Learn more about Gordon William Lloyd, including a list of his many Detroit building designs.
Long Live The Vanity Ballroom
126 years ago, architect Charles N. Agree was born. His work in Detroit ranges from the Whittier Hotel to endangered gems like The Vanity Ballroom barely hanging on, located at East Jefferson and Newport.
“Five nights a week, Detroiters danced to the big bands on the 5,600-square-foot maple dance floor, where couples “floated” on springs that gave the floor bounce,” Dan shared at HistoricDetroit.org.
Q: Helmut, is there anything you feel compelled to share about your experience shooting The Vanity? What was it like to capture the essence of this once-festive moment in time?
A: “When I started my photographic journey about nine years ago, one of my first shoots was inside the abandoned Fisher Body 21 plant. I was very nervous about going there and entering a place that we were not supposed to be, but I was hooked on the buzz of discovering, capturing and bringing fascinating history back home. I didn’t panic as much anymore when shooting the Vanity Room a few years later, and I was actually able to “enjoy the ride,” taking in a piece of imagined music I heard from a far distance and imagining how it must have been dancing there as a teenager. Over time, I have come to the realization that preservation through visual documentation is often the only form of conservation that can occur prior to the building being redeveloped or demolished. I hope the Vanity Room will be repurposed one day.”
It was the last ballroom to open in the city. Despite the Depression, The Vanity was one of the most popular dance venues in town and a place where generations of Detroiters went to hear live performances by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Louis Prima, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, and Cab Calloway.
As learned at HistoricDetroit.org, “Couples used to swing to big band sounds and rockers like the MC5 and the Stooges used to rock in a Mayan temple on the city’s east side.”
The cost was 35 cents to enter – just a quarter and a dime. From the first floor, attendees would ascend a grand main staircase leading to the ballroom that transported them up to the faraway fantasy – an ancient Aztec temple.
“The ballroom is filled with stepped archways, rich earth-toned colors and Aztec symbols, all inspired by pre-Columbian archaeological discoveries of the time. Stylized Indian heads, stepped-brick archways and green-glazed tiles hovered over the dancers’ heads. The outside of the building is faced with orange brick with stone and tile ornamentation.
It had two long bars, an enormous cloakroom, a soda fountain (it did not sell alcohol, instead offering ginger ale and juices for 10 cents), a set of 15-inch speakers from the ceiling, a bandstand and a revolving chandelier with light-reflecting mirrors. Everything from the light fixtures to the curtain behind the stage had a Mayan-inspired design. The latter featured a scene of Chichen Itza temples.”
This awe-inspiring Art Deco marvel opened in 1929 and closed in 1988. Though still standing, it may not be for long, so if you’d like to see The Vanity Ballroom for yourself, it would be wise to do so soon.
If you feel called to save the historic, majestic timepiece that is The Vanity, now is the time to speak up (with your wallet ready).
A Take on Cake with a Look at the Book Tower
Q: Helmut, there are two things about the Book Tower that I would love for you to elaborate on if you can. First, I am captivated by the beautiful caryatids, and curious as to why, how, and when the originals were replaced.
A: “I can only assume that the originals were replaced as they deteriorated beyond repair during many years of abandonment, but I’m glad they restored them to reflect the original beauty. The Book Tower and many more historic buildings in the city continue to make me wander around to find vantage points for different angles and interesting perspectives at architectural details. I still prefer using a quality telephoto lens to capture those details instead of getting into drone photography.”
Q: Second, what is your take on the “Cake” reference throughout the detailed history as told on HistoricDetroit.org?
A: “The Book Tower was built during what I like to call the awkward, tween years of the American skyscraper. Sure, there were tall buildings all over, but most of them weren’t all that ornate at the top. Louis Kamper decided to throw everything and the architectural kitchen sink at it. There are beautiful details all over the building, but it can be a bit over the top – and many of the details can’t even be seen from the street below. You either love it or you hate it. I’ve always been fond of its quirkiness, and it certainly stands out on a Detroit skyline that has plenty of competition for the eye.”
Once & Forever Memory for Detroit Boaters: Boblo Island
Boblo Island – Once and not all that long ago, Boblo Island was a beloved boaters’ paradise.
It was also the largest warehouse on the Great Lakes when it opened on March 15, 1926.
Designed by Albert Kahn, The Detroit Harbor Terminal was made of reinforced concrete to support the weight of stored cargo coming off freighters. Better known to many as the formerly festive Boblo Island, boats stopped docking here in 1991, and the building was abandoned in the early 2000s.
The end has finally come for the Detroit Harbor Terminal, better known to many as the former Boblo Island Detroit dock. The Moroun family is currently tearing down the long-vacant warehouse. Demolition has never looked so artfully captivating as it does here in the most recent photos shared on HistoricDetroit.org.
15+ Homes Still Stand Tall in the West Canfield Historic District
Learn about the people who lived inside the homes that still stand in the West Canfield Historic District with a self-guided tour made possible courtesy of HistoricDetroit.org. Experience the awe of extraordinary architectural detail that exudes profound beauty dating back to the 1800s.
Q: Helmut, upon shooting the gorgeous George Prentiss House in the West Canfield Historic District, what did you find most striking about this still-standing, immaculate home built back in 1884?
A: “Even though it’s one of the most stunning houses in the West Canfield Historic District, it wasn’t as much the George Prentiss House by itself. It was the entire block of beautifully restored, historic homes that struck my interest. Where the Indian Village District and Boston-Edison Districts reflect the automobile-era prosperity of the city, West Canfield actually shows the prosperous appearance of pre-automobile Detroit, dating from 1871 to 1900. The West Canfield Historic District is the first area for which we built a self-guided walking tour on HistoricDetroit.org. More tours to come; you should check this one out!”
Visit the Largest Women’s Club in the World
99 years ago, the Women’s City Club opened in 1924 as home to the largest women’s club in the world. The chairwoman of the building committee, Mary Perry Chase Stratton, was also the founder of Pewabic Pottery. She was married to the building’s lead architect, William “Buck” Stratton.
The Women’s City Club is being renovated and restored after sitting empty for almost 20 years.
The Corner Dates Back Before the City’s First Auto Plant
Before Detroit became The Motor City, it was a premier, popular place of professional baseball.
Detroit’s original baseball stadium knew many names. From the original Bennett Park in 1896 to Navin Field in 1911 to Briggs Stadium in 1935, it became known as Tiger Stadium in 1961. With each new name change, the capacity grew from an originally 5,000-seat ballpark to 23,000 to 53,000 seats in 1935.
111 years ago, the Detroit Tigers opened their new stadium at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Corktown. Professional baseball was first played on the site, at a 5,000-seat ballpark known as Bennett Park, on April 28, 1896 — three years before Detroit even had a single automobile plant. The field, named after fan favorite Charlie Bennett, was built on the former site of a municipal hay market.
The ballpark was razed after the 1911 season and replaced with 23,000-seat Navin Field, which opened April 20, 1912, the same day as Fenway Park in Boston — just five days following the still world-famous tragedy of the day the RMS Titanic sank.
On Oct. 21, 1935, the ballyard’s name was changed from Navin Field to Briggs Stadium — the same year it was expanded to a capacity of 53,000.
In 1961, the ballpark finally became known as Tiger Stadium. For many Detroiters, however, the place was known simply as The Corner. The final game – the 6,873rd regular season contest – at the ballpark was played Sept. 27, 1999. An athletic field, apartment and townhomes now occupy this beloved, historic site in Corktown.
Admire From Afar, or Up Close at HistoricDetroit.org
Q: Helmut, the first thing that caught my eye about The Farwell is the view from the rotunda. Your image captures the essence in a way that is majestic. The second was the entrance – also majestic. I was sad to read that the two original Tiffany chandeliers were stolen. What is it about this place that you think is most compelling to share with anyone who happens to be nearby, to encourage a peek inside?
A: “Unfortunately, The Farwell can’t be accessed by the public, only by its tenants. But if you happen to know someone who lives inside, it’s definitely worth peeking inside to see how beautifully restored the building has been, the staircase, the lobby only to mention a few. Using HistoricDetroit.org to check the pre-renovation photos against post-renovation photos is a great benefit.”
The Future is Bright for HistoricDetroit.org
Q: Dan, it is mentioned that HistoricDetroit.org is a non-profit website. Does the funding from Patreon patrons pay for running costs such as web design, etc.?
A: “Our Patreon patrons are so, so appreciated. They help to defray the costs, but at the end of the day, it actually costs me money to run it. A website with so many images requires a lot of storage, and the complicated back end to keep all of the pages linked, sorted and categorized costs us monthly fees, as well. We would certainly welcome more folks to help shoulder the cost burden, but at the end of the day, we love the city so much, it’s our way of giving back and sharing the stories behind the bricks that make up the Motor City.”
Q: Dan, with the pace at which new and fantastic content is currently added to HistoricDetroit.org, where do you see the site in, let’s say two years from now?
A: “Since Helmut joined in early 2023, the number of locations has exploded, especially in terms of images. I can’t even imagine what he’s going to accomplish in two years in terms of documenting our city. The goal is to chronicle and research some key buildings that are still missing, like the Renaissance Center and the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. When the website started, the focus was mostly on documenting buildings that were endangered, and as a one-man operation, it was a frantic, uphill race to document them before they met the wrecking ball. On top of that, buildings like the Ren Cen, though landmarks, didn’t seem all that “historic” to me. But as the decades roll on, some have aged into that category. At the same time, there are tons of buildings in our neighborhoods that are deserving of the HistoricDetroit treatment. Our current focus right now is on trying to document the city’s historic school buildings, many of which may be targeted for demolition in the near future. There are also a few projects that I’ve wanted to add for years, but either because of time or money I wasn’t able to. We also hope to make the site more mobile-friendly, as the number of mobile users has almost surpassed those on desktops and laptops. As always, we’re open to fellow history lovers joining our cause, whether by writing, researching, coding or donating funds. Having Helmut join the team has made me realize just how much better the site could have been all along if I hadn’t been doing it alone for so long.”
The living, breathing history of Detroit is accessible all around us. All we must do is look up. Seeking greater depth into the rich spirit of Renaissance? Explore more at HistoricDetroit.org.