Located in Detroit, MI
Photo © 2008 Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
Metropolitan Building History
Located in downtown Detroit's Grand Circus Park, the Gothic castle-like Metropolitan Building was once the central hub of Detroit's jewelry district. As early as 1919, the Central Detroit Realty Company had plans to construct a single building that could centralize many parts of a single trade. In July of 1924, work was begun on the 15-story Metropolitan Building, which would be leased to the city's jewelers. The architectural firm Weston & Ellington designed Neo-Gothic structure, adorned with sculpted crests and suits of armor along the facade. The roof featured an ornamental white terra cotta tower which concealed the building's water tank, an unsightly type of structure that was often left exposed and dotted the skyline on other buildings. The building was completed in May of 1925.
The Metropolitan was quite different from the other office buildings, as it had been designed specifically for jewelers. Often known as the Jewelers Building, the Metropolitan featured retail shops from the basement to the third floor, and jewelry dealers, manufacturers, and millineries were located from the fifth to the tenth floor. The building housed a refrigerating plant and gas supply for the forges, as well as a compressed air plant in the basement, which delivered pressurized air up to the tenant's workbenches in their offices. Advertising agencies, insurance and real estate agents were located on the top two floors; the entire building was composed of about 180 establishments during its heydays.
The marble-clad lobby featured a heavily-beamed, medieval ceiling that created an air of quiet elegance for the visitor. Retail shops with recessed doorways made for excellent window displays. Near the center of the building were four Gothic-themed elevators, but these were eventually modernized in the 1940s. The grand staircase was clad in white marble and ornamental bronze grill work, impressing customers shopping for jewelry on the first few floors.
The advent of the shopping mall in the 1970s destroyed the department stores located downtown, such as Kern's, Hudson's, and Crowley-Milner, all closing shop. Without these stores drawing customers into the Metropolitan's vicinity, its tenants were doomed. The building was closed in 1977, and reverted back to city ownership a year later due to unpaid taxes, and had been sitting vacant since. Several plans for redevelopment came and went; many potential buyers were concerned about levels of radium 266 that may have been left behind in the building. This radioactive substance was used to paint watch dials that glowed in the dark, before the public was aware of its harmful nature.
A redevelopment plan materialized in 1987, but a seven-year long court battle with the city prevented any work from being done, and left the potential developer with a sour taste for Detroit's officials and abandoned the project. The city and state worked together to perform a major cleanup of the radioactive materials in 1997, in hopes to make the building more appealing for buyers, but it sat decaying for many years.
Plans for an extended-stay hotel are currently slated as of August 2015, which aim to create 100-135 rooms and apartment rentals on the upper floors. Estimated costs are at $32 million, and a national hotel company is being sought operate the facility before moving ahead. For more great history on the building, check out the page on Historic Detroit.