One of the main reasons I had come to Detroit was the fantastic architecture that this city has to offer. Detroit celebrated its heyday in the early 20th century when the automobile industry took off, and car ownership became available to everyday people. Witnesses to this boom are the many stunning historic skyscrapers in Detroit, particularly from the 1920s, buildings that still define one of the most recognizable skylines in the world.
Of course the Great Depression of the 1930s put an end to this exuberant construction activity, but to this day Detroit features a great collection of architectural treasures. One of the most well-known landmarks is the former Book Cadillac Hotel, which at its opening in 1924, was the tallest building in Detroit and the tallest hotel in the world.
The Book Cadillac was developed by three brothers who intended to turn Washington Boulevard into the “Fifth Avenue of the West”. They commissioned prominent Detroit architect Louis Kamper to design their hotel property which was to be built on the location of the earlier Cadillac Hotel, a property dating back to 1885. With big fanfare this grand hotel opened in 1924, featuring 1,136 state-of-the-art guest rooms. The Book Cadillac Hotel was Detroit’s most luxurious and venerable hotel property for many years. The first five floors of the original Book Cadillac had three ballrooms, a spacious lobby and retail stores on the ground floor. Even a radio station was located on the top floor.
In 1931 finally, caused by the financial crisis of the Great Depression, the Book Brothers lost control of this property, and it was then run by the National Hotel Management Company. In May of 1939 Lou Gehrig, the New York Yankees’ famous first baseman, collapsed in the grand staircase of the hotel. He took himself out of the lineup which ended up breaking his string of 2,130 consecutive games played. Later of course, he was diagnosed with ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which also became known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The script to Frank Capra’s 1947 movie “State of the Union”, starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, made several references to the Book Cadillac. Although filmed on a movie set, a shot of the actual front entrance marquee of the hotel appeared in the movie. Over the years, many other celebrities stayed at the hotel, including Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan and Herbert Hoover all spent nights in this landmark property. Dr. Martin Luther King spent a night here in 1968, shortly before he was assassinated.
From the 1950s onwards the Book Cadillac was owned by the Sheraton chain which finally sold the hotel in 1975. This era was particularly unkind to this historic property as furniture and paint schemes were changed and the grand marble staircase was ripped out and replaced by an escalator. The hotel’s name changed to the Sheraton Cadillac as the Book Brothers’ name disappeared altogether.
Following the 1967 Detroit riot, tourism declined in the city and many businesses closed. Many of Detroit’s grand historic hotels could not survive and were shuttered. This sad fate befell the Fort Shelby Hotel, the Hotel Statler and the Hotel Tuller. The Cadillac did briefly benefit because it ended up with some chandeliers and other pieces from the Statler Hotel. The cult film “Detroit 9000”, made in 1974, highlights this era of the hotel.
Sheraton finally sold the hotel to Herbert Weissberg, a prominent New York Hotel owner, who renamed it the Detroit Cadillac. After his foreclosure the property changed hands to the Radisson chain which also implemented a number of unsuccessful renovations. After several additional sales, the hotel was turned into a mixed-used property during the 1980s that included office space. In 1984 it finally closed its doors for renovations but did not reopen as planned due to economic problems. Almost all the hotel’s contents were sold at fire-sale prices, including original Book Cadillac china, beds, linens and other items.
As a matter of fact, the Book Cadillac became an abandoned property and over time became a victim of vandalism and urban scavengers. Initially, a security guard protected the property from 1986 to 1997, but once the guard was removed, the formerly splendid hotel was ravaged, and many of the architectural details were stolen or destroyed. Graffiti was sprayed all over the property, the historic plasterwork destroyed and the entire interior was in shambles.
The historic Book Cadillac, the grande dame of Detroit, was a former shadow of itself until the Cleveland-based Ferchill Group decided to take on this historic hotel and renovate it from top to bottom. With costs of around $200 million, the historic Book Cadillac has become a Westin Hotel property that also features 67 condominiums residences on the higher floors. The Westin Book Cadillac reopened its doors at the beginning of October of 2008 and a grand opening gala evening on October 25, 2008 will officially celebrate the restoration of this historic landmark hotel. I was absolutely fortunate to witness this stunning architectural rebirth just a few days after it became accessible to the public.
On this sunny Monday morning I met with John Timko, the sales manager of the hotel, who started our tour with a trip to the rooftop of the hotel. Work crews were still working on the top level luxury condos which gave us a chance to go out on the rooftop of the hotel. 31 stories up and without any protective railings, this was a slightly hair-raising yet exhilarating experience.
I was enthralled by the ziggurats, the hotel’s crowning touches, which have been completely restored with new copper cladding since the original copper pieces had been stolen. The view of downtown Detroit and the Detroit River with Windsor on the other side of the Ambassador Bridge was simply breathtaking. Even more amazing is that once the condos are finished, there will not be any further access to the rooftop. I counted myself really lucky to have experienced the rooftop of the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel.
John continued the tour with the historic ballroom level which includes three ballrooms, including the Venetian Ballroom that was restored back to its 1924 glory, the true pride and joy of this property. The Italian Garden Room and Crystal Ballroom round out the historic meeting spaces that are located on this level. We also had a look at a variety of corporate meeting rooms as well as the Executive Center on the 19th floor. The Westin Executive Club floor with the concierge lounge is for the use of hotel guests and offers a fabulous view. The Westin Book Cadillac Hotel certainly offers everything a business or leisure traveler would ever want.
We also had a look at the Boulevard Room restaurant on the second floor which will be joined by “Roast”, a restaurant run by celebrity chef Michael Symon. The Motor Bar on the second level features cocktails and snacks in a beautifully restored high-ceilinged lounge area. Another restaurant, 24grille, will open in late January of 2009, and the WBC Grab & Go coffee shop, due also to open in January, will provide a casual bistro atmosphere.
After a visit to the large brand-new Woodward Ballroom which can be subdivided into three segments, we had a sneak peek at the almost completed exercise and pool area. Only the most modern workout equipment awaits exercise-hungry hotel guests. We finished our tour with a view of the front facade of the hotel on Washington Boulevard which illustrates the grandeur of this Art Deco beauty. The Westin Book Cadillac certainly presides again regally over this grand avenue.
Afterwards we headed into the Boulevard Room restaurant to enjoy a delicious sampling of dishes provided by the expert chefs at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel.
Under the Westin Hotel & Resorts brand, the historic Book Cadillac Hotel has been completely resurrected in all its glory, successfully combining a tasteful historic restoration with the most modern 21st century amenities. The two nights I spent in the hotel made me appreciate the ideal location of this landmark property that lets you explore all of Detroit’s downtown sights on foot.
The Westin Book Cadillac is a great example of the transformations that Detroit and many of its buildings have experienced over the past. Despite Detroit’s checkered history and economic challenges, the restoration of the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel is one of the greatest examples of successful architectural preservation and rejuvenation in the entire United States. Now the grande dame of Detroit hotels reigns supreme again on stately Washington Boulevard.