Cadillac of hotels in Detroit on road back to grandeur
By Sarah Karush
Published November 12, 2006
DETROIT -- The Book-Cadillac Hotel was the epitome of glamor when it opened in 1924. The world's tallest hotel, it boasted an opulent, Italian Renaissance-inspired design, and over the years hosted presidents, Hollywood stars and famous gangsters.
But after a 60-year run, the declining metropolis could no longer sustain the Book-Cadillac, and it became yet another empty landmark in Detroit's once-bustling downtown.
After standing vacant for more than two decades--the gilded interior stripped by scavengers, the once-impeccable ballrooms exposed to the elements--the Book-Cadillac is poised to again become Detroit's ultimate luxury destination. Following several hiccups, the building is at last on its way to a new incarnation: a 455-room Westin hotel, set to open in 2008 and topped by eight floors of pricey condos, most of which already have sold.
Downtown reviving slowly
The long-awaited project is the latest piece of good news for downtown Detroit, which has been undergoing a slow revival, with new baseball and football stadiums, more restaurants and converted lofts. It's also a victory for preservationists, who mourned the famous hotel's decline.
Around Detroit, the Book-Cadillac is an icon.
"Everybody's got a story about the Book," said John Ferchill, the Cleveland-based developer behind the renovation. "I think that's probably our No. 1 marketing tool."
These days, the inside of the hotel is little more than a dusty construction site. The empty, second-floor space that was once the Grand Ballroom still has its dramatically arched windows, but it takes some imagination to picture the gold-leaf ceiling, the crystal chandeliers and the Juliet balconies.
The Grand Ballroom is one of two public spaces whose original look is to be recreated. The other is the Italian Garden, which was "designed to be, as its name suggests, a garden transported from some villa of sunny Italy," according to a 1925 issue of the industry magazine Hotel Bulletin devoted to the Book-Cadillac.
Aside from replicating those rooms and restoring the facade, the current developers are essentially using the building as an empty shell to install a brand new hotel.
Still, says Francis Grunow, who heads the group Preservation Wayne and was among the activists who lobbied for the hotel's restoration, "the psychic space is intact."
During a visit in the spring of 2004, when workers were just preparing to gut the place, signs of lost grandeur were everywhere. Intricate plaster work bordered the ceilings, which in some places were beginning to crumble, revealing rusted pipes. Pigeons roosted in the corners, and a mattress lay in the center of one of the ballrooms, apparently left by a squatter.
On one floor that had been used for offices, the carpeting was still soft underfoot and nameplates on doors advertised "Joe Maas Auctioneer" and other long-defunct businesses. Inside what was once a gym, the sauna smelled of pine and looked ready to welcome loungers.
Host to history
The Book-Cadillac was one of several Washington Boulevard projects of James, Herbert and Frank Book. The brothers purchased the old Cadillac Hotel, tore it down and hired their favorite architect, the German-born Louis Kamper, to build a new one.
The 33-floor hotel had more than 1,000 rooms and cost about $14 million to build.
It prided itself on its superior service. At one point, in a marketing scheme deemed original enough to be noted in a 1925 issue of Time magazine, the hotel announced it was giving a free 48-hour life insurance policy to all guests at checkout.
The Book-Cadillac frequently played host to history. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Harry S. Truman stayed there, as did the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Scenes from the Frank Capra movie "State of the Union," starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, were filmed at the hotel.
In 1927, leaders of Detroit's infamous Purple Gang met with Chicago mobster Al Capone at the Book-Cadillac, warning him to stay off their turf, writes Richard Bak in "Detroit Across Three Centuries."
One of the biggest stories in sports came to a dramatic climax at the Book-Cadillac. In 1939, when the New York Yankees were staying there, Lou Gehrig sought out Yankee manager Joe McCarthy for an urgent talk, according to Gehrig biographer Jonathan Eig. The player known as the Iron Horse had been struggling to hit the ball. Though he didn't know it at the time, he was losing coordination because of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that would later kill him and become known by his name.
Sitting in McCarthy's room at the Book-Cadillac, Gehrig said he wanted to bench himself that day, thus ending his consecutive-game streak at 2,130. McCarthy solemnly announced the decision to reporters in the hotel lobby. After the Yankees left Detroit, a rumor spread throughout the league that Gehrig had fallen on the Book-Cadillac's lobby staircase.
The hotel changed hands several times over its life, and its interior evolved too. The staircase rumored to have tripped up Gehrig was replaced with an escalator in the 1950s. In the 1970s, the Italian Garden was divided into two floors in an attempt to gain more convention space.
The Book-Cadillac closed in 1984 for renovations, but the project soon fell apart and the hotel was liquidated in 1986.
By that time, much of Detroit was in decline after decades of middle-class flight, fueled by racial tensions and the rise of suburbia. By the time the Book-Cadillac closed, the nearby Statler Hotel, the J.L. Hudson department store and several theaters had already been shuttered.
Saved by the Super Bowl
In recent years, efforts to revive downtown Detroit have picked up steam, particularly ahead of the Super Bowl played this year at Ford Field.
In the 1990s, city officials began legal procedures to wrest control of the Book-Cadillac from absentee landlords and began shopping the site to developers. In 2003, the city reached a deal with a subsidiary of the Kimberly-Clark Corp. to restore the grand hotel, hoping it would be ready for the Super Bowl.
Kimberly-Clark soon dropped out of the project, saying the costs were higher than initially expected. The Ferchill Group was ready to step in, but officials soon ran into problems with the financing, which relies on a variety of tax credits, one of which had been thrown into question and was awaiting a ruling from the Internal Revenue Service. The deal wasn't finalized until June.
As of the end of October, 50 of the 67 condos had been sold.
- Year completed: 1924
- Cost to build: $14 million (about $166 million in today's dollars)
- Guest rooms: 1,136, including 1,035 bedrooms
- Past names: Book-Cadillac, Sheraton-Cadillac, Radisson-Cadillac
- Estimated completion date: Fall 2008
- Estimated cost of restoration: $180 million
- Guest rooms: 455, plus 67 condos
- Current name: Westin Book-Cadillac Detroit
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