For the past seven years, city of Detroit officials and preservationists have waged a long, expensive and impassioned legal battle to prevent Grosse Pointe Park from demolishing the historic, two-story Deck Bar.
But that success, which included a Michigan Court of Appeals victory, ended abruptly this week with the unexpected demolition of the 97-year-old building at the corner of E. Jefferson and Alter in Detroit, just south of Grosse Pointe Park.
Just one month after the Detroit Historic District Commission unanimously rejected the Park’s request to tear down the building at 14901 E. Jefferson, Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration quietly issued an “emergency” demolition permit for the old brick building.
By issuing the permit, the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED) leap-frogged the required approval of city council and the Detroit Historic District Commission, both of which have supported preserving the building.
Grosse Pointe Park officials plan to replace the building with a pocket park.
The Detroit suburb bought the long-closed bar in 2004 with plans to demolish it and build a bus-turnaround facility. But just days before the former bank building was to be razed, the Historic District Commission designated the building as a protected historic property. Grosse Pointe Park challenged the designation but lost in Wayne County Circuit Court and the Michigan Court of Appeals.
Since buying the building, which originally served as the American State Bank, Grosse Pointe Park has done very little to protect the structure, causing it to fall deeper into disrepair.
“This is yet another case in Detroit of demolition by neglect,” said Emilie Evans, of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and National Trust for Historic Preservation. “The building was in such a state of disrepair because no one maintained it and made the necessary repairs.”
According to Detroit’s inspection, the building “is vacant and open to trespass and to the elements.”
Grosse Pointe Park City Manager Dale Krajniak said the building has been dilapidated since his community bought it in 2004. When the Park prepared to demolish the building, which hadn’t yet been protected with a historic designation, Krajniak said the building was gutted.
“We had it on the market it for three years and there wasn’t any interest,” Krajniak added.
The city inspection describes a crumbling building with little to no hope of saving. The roof is collapsing. The first floor has sagging joints and falling debris. Mold has infested the wood structure.
“In our opinion, this property should be demolished as soon as possible in order to protect the healthy, safety and welfare of the public,” wrote Eric Jones, director of the city’s building department.
In the 1970s, the Deck Bar was one of the only gay establishments in southeast Michigan.
“Like most gay bars, the place had its day and then it passed,” according to the blog, Supergay Detroit. “There were attempts to extend its popularity – drag shows, piano players, Sunday brunch. But after its short stint as the ‘in’ place, it settled into life as a cozy neighborhood hangout. This life too must have run its course, the last time I was in Detroit, The Deck was just another boarded up building waiting for whatever comes next.”
Duggan’s spokesman, John Roach, said the decision to issue the demolition permit was made solely by BSEED and was not influenced by the mayor, who just months earlier signed a deal with Grosse Pointe Park to demolish buildings, including the Deck Bar, along the communities’ shared border.
“This was a decision made purely at the departmental level, and the mayor supports its decision,” Roach told me.
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.