There was a tremendous demand for new housing in Detroit in the early 1920s as the automobile age came to maturity. Apartment hotels were in style then—places where you could rent an apartment and yet partake of the services found in the most popular hotels, including restaurants, dry cleaners and maid services. A developer wished to construct a large apartment hotel along East Jefferson near the intersection with Burns. The area between East Jefferson and the Detroit River was filled with expensive and prestigious single-family homes. Their owners did not want a large hotel-like building looming over their homes, so they cited zoning ordinances and sought to enjoin the construction.
The developer decided to extend Burns Street to the east of Jefferson. Previously, it extended from East Jefferson to the northwest. After extending Burns toward the Detroit River, he decided to locate the Whittier Hotel on Burns and contended that the zoning ordinances did not prohibit such construction. The bench agreed. The picture above shows the result.
Charles N. Agree was selected to design the structure. He discovered that the land near the Detroit River was not stable, so he turned to Japan for engineering information about building on shaky ground. Borrowing from the Orient, he used a slab foundation strategy and claimed that the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo provided him with the inspiration for the building that you see. Actually, there are two Agree-designed buildings in this complex. There is an eight story building in red brick and then the larger attractive 13-story Italian Renaissance style hotel that you see.
Agree was among the many Detroit architects whose career was truncated or terminated by the Depression. However, three of his impressive Detroit buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Sites: the striking and very well maintained Belcrest Apartments on Cass adjoining the city's Cultural District, the derelict but once beautiful Art-Deco Vanity Ballroom that appeared in Eminem's Eight Mile movie on East Jefferson at Newport and the Whittier Hotel.
In 2000 or 2001, the last residential tenants moved out of the Whittier and the building remains vacant. However, in 2003, a developer announced plans to capitalize on the excellent location and structural soundness of Agree's building by restoring it to its original use. In later 2004, Michigan Governor Granholm announced a series of tax credits that will, presumably, allow the developer to refurbish this grand hotel for use as condominiums.
Architect: Charles N. Agree
Date of Construction: 1926
Architectural Style: Italian Renaissance for the larger building
Use in 2005: Empty building awaiting rehabilitation
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not Listed
State of Michigan Register of Historic Places: Not Listed
National Register of Historic Places: #85002950; Listed October 9, 1985
Photograph: Andrew Chandler; July, 2004
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