Art deco architecture is extremely distinctive. It was briefly popular in the United States in the 1920s. The best-preserved and most extensive collection of art deco buildings—primarily hotels—is found in Miami Beach south of Lincoln Road. When construction activity resumed after World War II, the art deco style was discarded.
Lee Plaza was built as an art deco apartment house for the prosperous on then-prestigious West Grand Boulevard. The architect—Charles Noble—emphasized the vertical. There is a substantial and defining rectangular terra cotta base. And then there is the soaring fifteen-story building done in attractive orange glazed brick. This is capped with an impressive chatequsque roof in copper. In total, this is a seventeen story building.
This building has not undergone any major renovation, so it clearly illustrates the type of apartment buildings architects designed for upscale clients just before the catastrophic Depression contorted Detroit. This building became controversial in the first decade of the 21st century. At one time there was an impressive array of decorative lions ornamenting the distinction between the base and the upper levels where the apartments were located. Apparently, these were stolen from Lee Plaza with no regard to the structural integrity of the historic building. In 2001, some of them were found on the facades of newly renovated buildings in Chicago. Detroit preservations sought to have them returned and raised questions about litigation concerning the destruction of buildings on the National Historic Register but the decorative lions have not yet been returned to Lee Plaza and no one has been convicted of a felony for their removal.
Craig Sasser is a Detroit native who moved to Los Angeles and became prosperous in the real estate and development business. By 2015, he realized that Detroit, after bankruptcy, was undergoing something of a redevelopment. Properties could be purchased for small sums and, if the economic redeveloped continued, might become valuable or could be sold for profit. Lee Tower Plaza eventually reverted to the city since its last owners did not pay the required property taxes. In November, 2015; Craig Sasser reached an agreement with the city to purchase the abandoned structure for $258,000. However, to retain ownership he had to obtain funds to remodeling the building and bring it up to safety standards by late 2016. At one point, Mr. Sasser described his intention to spend as much as $200 million to restore the 200 apartments and build a garage for the tenants' cars. Later he described the possible investment of $34 million to open the up-scale apartment he plans for this West Grand Boulevard site. If this building is modernized and brought back to its original glory, it will be a very visible sign of the city's comeback from its bankruptcy. And it will likely stimulate other real estate investors and brokers to consider investing in Detroit.
Date of construction: 1929
Architect: Charles Noble
Style: Art Deco
Michigan Historical Register: P25160
National Register of Historic Sites: Listed November 5, 1981
Use in 2002: Vacant building
Photo: Ren Farley, September 2002
Description updated: July, 2016
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