Lee Plaza, Detroit
The Plaza is a beautiful Art Deco building constructed in 1927 and commissioned by one of Detroit’s wealthiest business barons Ralph T Lee. The idea was to provide what we now call a ‘serviced apartment’ to the wealthiest residents of the city. According to various sources a room at Lee Plaza was a very attractive proposition when it opened;
The one- and two-room apartments came furnished; the three- and four-room option did not. The basement had a beauty parlor, a game room with driving nets for golfers and billiards; a white-walled playroom for children at the front of the building with a specially trained supervisor; and a meat market and grocer for the tenants so they didn’t have to leave the Lee’s comfy confines. There also was a circulating library, a flower shop, a cigar stand and a beauty parlor.
The Plaza was the height of luxury but it pretty much bankrupted its owner and a series of ownership struggles took place between banks and bondholders until, by 1969, it was being used as a retirement home for low-income retirees. The building closed in 1997 and despite being heritage listed in Michigan, barricaded by cinderblocks and on a busy street it was systematically stripped and looted by anyone game enough to enter the property. The account of the building on Historic Detroit mentions one particular episode in recent years;
Another devastating blow would come in late 2005, when the Lee’s copper roof was somehow stripped, despite it being 17 stories up and Northwestern High School being next door. Its window frames are gone. Its insides smashed to pieces by drug addicts, vandals and thieves.
By the time we arrived it was completely devastated and the only signs of its early habitation was a massive pile of books and documents in a windowless room above the mezzanine. The debris in the corridors and stairwells was so thick it often felt more like climbing up inside a cave than moving around in something man-made. Entire interior walls have been knocked down and it seems like everything that isn’t raw masonry has been pulled off and carted out. There’s barely a sign of the luxury and opulence that characterised the building when it was opened.
The view from the top is one of empty and lots, boarded up houses and run-down weatherboard homes. It’s the view that makes the vandalism understandable. In this sort of poverty the preservation and respect of history must seem like a very remote concern.
Alongside the photos below I also stitched together a panorama of the view of the city from the top floor before the sun came up.