Walking across broken glass and crumbled bricks, past graffiti and gaping holes in the walls, it was hard to imagine the luxury and glamour that attracted the rich and famous to the 15-story Whittier Hotel along the Detroit River.
The Italian Renaissance high-rise is in danger of foreclosure because the owner, Phoenix Communities, owes more than $36,000 in delinquent property taxes from 2011, according to county records. The company has abandoned 10-year-old plans to convert the Whittier into a $66 million development of 80 apartments and condos and has all but given up on protecting the historic building from scrappers and vandals.
The grand building that once hosted The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, actress Mae West and playboy Horace Dodge Jr., among many others, has fallen into serious disrepair at the hands of aggressive metal thieves since the owner stopped guarding the building with security patrols. Attempts to board up the building have been feeble and are nowhere close to the investment needed to seal the hotel from resourceful scrappers.
The Whittier was built in the 1920s when Detroit’s robust auto industry attracted wealthy guests and an endless stream of people looking for decent wages. The architecturally striking building was designed by a young Charles N. Agree, who also did the Belcrest Apartments, the Grande and Vanity Ballrooms and several theaters in Detroit.
Overlooking Belle Isle and the Detroit River, “the location is unrivaled in scenic beauty by any other apartment hotel in the world,” the Whittier boasted in the Detroit Free Press shortly after opening. “The residents of the new Whittier have all the delights of suburban life without any of its drawbacks in the matter of accessibility.”
The Whittier originally was two buildings: The high-rise and an eight-story companion joined by a lavishly decorated promenade with Italian gardens. The buildings served as so-called apartment-hotels, which offered rooms for transient guests and permanent residents, who enjoyed a commissary, maid service, restaurant, ballroom and lounges.
The adjacent building has since been renovated into senior apartments, called Whittier Manor, and is open.
The only guests at the high-rise are two peregrine falcons with chicks perched on the roof. The owner has given DNR officials permission to enter the building and check on the falcons, which volunteers believe are in danger because of trespassers.
Buildings experts said the Whittier likely is salvageable if the building is transferred to the right hands.
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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.