The Book-Cadillac Hotel was the epitome of glamour when it opened its doors in 1924. The world's tallest hotel, it boasted an opulent, Italian Renaissance-inspired design. Over the years it hosted presidents, Hollywood stars and infamous gangsters.
But after a 60-year run, the declining metropolis could no longer sustain the Book-Cadillac, and it became yet another empty landmark in Detroit's once-bustling downtown.
After standing vacant for more than two decades - the gilded interior stripped by scavengers, the ballrooms exposed to the elements - the Book-Cadillac is poised to again become Detroit's ultimate luxury destination. Following several hiccups, the building is at last on its way to a new incarnation: a 455-room Westin hotel, set to open in late 2008 and topped by eight floors of pricey condos, most of which already have sold.
The long-awaited project is the latest piece of good news for downtown Detroit, which has been undergoing a slow revival, with new baseball and football stadiums, more restaurants and converted lofts. It's also a victory for preservationists, who mourned the famous hotel's decline.
Around Detroit, the Book-Cadillac is an icon.
"Everybody's got a story about the Book," said John Ferchill, the Cleveland-based developer behind the renovation. "I think that's probably our No. 1 marketing tool."
These days, the inside of the hotel is little more than a dusty construction site. The empty, second-floor space that was once the Grand Ballroom still has its dramatically arched windows, but it takes some imagination to picture the gold-leaf ceiling, the crystal chandeliers and the Juliet balconies.
The Grand Ballroom is one of two public spaces whose original look is to be recreated. The other is the Italian Garden, which was "designed to be, as its name suggests, a garden transported from some villa of sunny Italy," according to a 1925 issue of the industry magazine Hotel Bulletin devoted to the Book-Cadillac.
Aside from replicating those rooms and restoring the facade, the current developers are essentially using the building as an empty shell to install a brand new hotel.
Workers preparing to gut the place in 2004 found signs of lost grandeur everywhere: rusted pipes showing through crumbling ceilings, pigeons roosting in corners, and a mattress in a ballroom, apparently left by a squatter. The sauna still smelled of pine inside what was once a gym.
The Book-Cadillac was one of several Washington Boulevard projects of James, Herbert and Frank Book. The brothers purchased the old Cadillac Hotel, tore it down and hired their favorite architect, the German-born Louis Kamper, to build a new one.
The 33-floor hotel prided itself on superior service, had more than 1,000 rooms and cost about $14 million to build.
At one point, in a marketing scheme so original it was noted in a 1925 issue of Time magazine, the hotel offered a free 48-hour life insurance policy to all guests at check-out.
The Book-Cadillac frequently played host to history. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Harry S. Truman stayed there, as did the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Scenes from the Frank Capra movie "State of the Union," starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, were filmed at the hotel.
In 1927, leaders of Detroit's infamous Purple Gang met with Chicago mobster Al Capone at the Book-Cadillac, warning him to stay off their turf, writes Richard Bak in "Detroit Across Three Centuries."
In 1939, when the New York Yankees were staying there, Lou Gehrig sought out Yankee manager Joe McCarthy for an urgent talk, according to Gehrig biographer Jonathan Eig. The player known as the Iron Horse had been struggling to hit the ball. Though he didn't know it at the time, he was losing coordination because of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that would later kill him and become known by his name.
Sitting in McCarthy's room at the Book-Cadillac, Gehrig said he wanted to bench himself that day, thus ending his consecutive-game streak at 2,130. McCarthy solemnly announced the decision to reporters in the hotel lobby. After the Yankees left Detroit, a rumor spread that Gehrig had fallen on the Book-Cadillac's lobby staircase.
The hotel changed hands several times, and its interior evolved. The staircase rumored to have tripped up Gehrig was replaced with an escalator in the 1950s. In the 1970s, the Italian Garden was divided into two floors to create more convention space.
The Book-Cadillac closed in 1984 for renovations, but the project fell apart and the hotel was liquidated in 1986.
By that time, much of Detroit was in decline after decades of middle-class flight and racial tensions. By the time the Book-Cadillac closed, the nearby Statler Hotel, the J.L. Hudson department store and several theaters had already been shuttered.
In recent years, efforts to revive downtown Detroit have picked up steam, spurred on in part by the 2006 Super Bowl played at Ford Field.
In the 1990s, city officials began legal procedures to wrest control of the Book-Cadillac from absentee landlords. They started shopping the site to developers, hoping it might be ready for the Super Bowl. But a deal with the Ferchill Group, which is now handling the renovation, wasn't finalized until mid-2006.
Plans for the new hotel include two independently operated upscale restaurants, a steakhouse and a seafood place. The building will have a separate lobby for the condos, and a new ballroom that is bigger than the historic ones will be added.
As of early March, 61 of the 67 condos had been sold, following minimal advertising and an initial offering on Oct. 14, according to Jon Grabowski, president of Esquire Properties, which is handling the sale. Prices have ranged from $279,500 to $1,375,000.
Grabowski said both the hotel and the condos will be ready for occupancy in October 2008.
When it's done, the new Westin Book Cadillac Detroit will join other restored gems of the Jazz Age in Detroit, including the opulent Fox Theatre and the old Capitol Theater, which today serves as the Detroit Opera House.