In its better days, opulent ballrooms, majestic government buildings and luxury hotels graced the landscape.
But when tough, changing times turned the wrecking ball on many of the gems, their fascinating histories disappeared with them.
In his second book about Detroit’s under-appreciated buildings, “Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit,” journalist and historian Dan Austin unearths the tragic demise of some of the city’s most storied buildings in engrossing prose and exquisite historic photos.
Unlike his last book, “Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins,” Austin turns the focus on beautiful buildings that have long been demolished.
His vivid, captivating storytelling draws readers into a time when Detroit was full of promise.
From the neo-Gothic Graystone Ballroom that hosted jazz greats Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to the elegant Old City Hall that attracted kissing couples on New Year’s Eve, the book uncovers long-forgotten details about Detroit’s most treasured buildings.
The book is as much about the gorgeous architecture as it is about the city’s fascinating history and the people who occupied the buildings.
There’s the story of reporter Ray Girardin, a “lanky, hard-drinking, hard-living, tough as nails newspaperman,” who worked inside the marble- and granite-lined Detroit Times Building that was demolished in 1978.
Then there’s a butcher named George Hammond, who inspired the 1889 construction of the 10-story Hammond Building, the city’s first skyscraper.
Like his last book, which exceeded expectations and is now on its seventh edition, Austin uncovers intriguing details and priceless anecdotes.
Take the stately, three-story Old City Hall, which was built in 1871 and featured a 180-foot clock tower. City Hall, however, was compromised by the nonsensical decision of city alderman to slap a clashing, French-flavored Mansard roof onto building. While Old City Hall was revered and admired by many, the facade became coated with soot and dirt from nearby factories, Austin wrote. A well-intentioned effort to sandblast the facade in 1946 turned the building a hideous mustard color.
One of the most memorable chapters focuses on the short-lived, but swanky Hotel Pontchartrain, which featured 298 rooms outfitted in mahogany furniture.
“This was an unrivaled palace of hospitality in a dusty, still growing city,” Austin wrote, calling the hotel the “grandest and most opulent hotel Detroit had ever seen.”
But the hotel, built in 1907, shut down only 13 years later because more modern hotels sprung up and offered amenities like bathrooms in each room – a rarity when the Pontchartrain was built.
While Austin’s first book was a wide success and critically acclaimed, “Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit” is even more engaging.
In a city that is losing much of its history, we’re lucky to have an author who is as passionate about Detroit’s past as Austin.
The Detroit Free Press journalist works tirelessly unearthing stories and photos of Detroit’s grand buildings for his resourceful website, www.HistoricDetroit.org.
Follow his Facebook page for daily news and new photos.
“Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit” will be released Nov. 20, just in time for a great Christmas gift for any Detroit lover. Order a copy at historicdetroit.org or at any book retailer in metro Detroit. Pre-orders are being taken at historicdetroit.org.
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.