Why the Book-Cadillac Matters

The financial and legal headaches associated with bringing the historic Book-Cadillac Hotel back may not be over. If everything goes as hoped and the deal closes this spring, construction should resume at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Michigan Avenue later this year. If the hotel reopens its doors in 2008, it will be 24 years after it initially closed and just in time for its 85th anniversary. When completed, Cleveland-based Ferchill Group’s $176 million effort will transform the tower into a 455-room Westin hotel, with 67 for-sale condominiums.

The local news media have written dozens of articles about every twist and turn in the efforts to bring the Book-Cadillac Hotel back. From the search for a developer to the innovative financing that the Detroit Economic Development Growth Corp. developed for this project — Detroit’s news media has digested, commented and speculated on every detail of this story.

The saga, however, hasn’t just been covered in the local media.

More than 200 other newspapers – from New York to Los Angeles and from Seattle to Tallahassee — also have written about the redevelopment of this hotel. This makes the Book-Cadillac Hotel one of the most widely covered development projects in recent history — not just here in Detroit, but anywhere.

Why has this one vacant hotel received so much attention when Detroit has so many other buildings? What is so special about this vacant building that it would make so many journalists from so many news outlets from so far away from Detroit cover this story?

Star-studded past

 “What isn’t special about the Book-Cadillac?” says Francis Grunow, executive director of Preservation Wayne. “When the Book-Cadillac Hotel first opened its doors in the 1920s, it was tallest building in all of Michigan and the tallest hotel in the entire world.”

The Book-Cadillac Hotel was so large and so prominent in its heyday that it had its own telegraph address and even its own radio station – WCX, which broadcasted from the top floor of the hotel.

Two different movies were filmed in part inside of the Book-Cadillac’s walls. Academy Award winning director Frank Capra filmed his 1947 classic “State of the Union” there — bringing such stars as Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Angela Lansbury to Detroit’s landmark hotel. Twenty six years later, the cult hit “Detroit 9000” also saw some of its key scenes filmed inside of the Book-Cadillac Hotel.

Sports history was made at the Book-Cadillac Hotel during the summer of 1939 when Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees collapsed on the hotel’s Grand Staircase. He later confirmed to the world that he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (now known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”) at a press conference in the hotel. Days later, he officially retired from baseball and gave his now famous “Pride of the Yankees” speech – completing a saga that, in many ways, began at the Book-Cadillac Hotel.

The list of people who were impressed by the Book-Cadillac Hotel is almost as impressive as the hotel itself. The late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed at the hotel when he visited Detroit to give a speech shortly before his assassination in the turbulent 1960s. He referred to the Book-Cadillac Hotel as, “A pearl in a sea of turmoil.”

The Book-Cadillac Hotel also served its own special role in bringing together artists and touching American culture in a way that no other place could. According to former employees of the hotel, legendary performers Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. met each other for the first time at the Book-Cadillac Hotel.

Presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were just some of the dignitaries who stayed at the Book-Cadillac Hotel while they were in Detroit. Ronald Reagan, when he has still Governor of California, also stayed at the hotel during the 1980 Republican National Convention.

Johnny Weissmuller stayed at the Book-Cadillac Hotel while in Detroit on a promotional tour in 1920s. Weissmuller had won an unprecedented five Olympic gold medals for swimming in the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games. He went on to play Tarzan in the original movies. His arrival in Detroit received, to put it mildly, a considerable amount of fanfare.

The Beatles stayed at the Book-Cadillac Hotel when they were in Detroit and so did Elvis.

The future

While looking at all that the Book-Cadillac Hotel has meant in the past is important, it’s even more important to look at what the hotel will mean in the future.

“Redeveloping the Book-Cadillac Hotel shows a tremendous amount of confidence on the part of the business community in Detroit’s rebirth,” explains Marco Frattarelli, chair of the Downtown Detroit Citizen’s District Council. “This is the same type of confidence in Detroit that was needed to build the Book-Cadillac in the first place.”

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his new development chief, George Jackson of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., spearheaded financing for the project. The $176 million financing package pulls in revenue from more than a dozen different sources. The project has had its setbacks, but the city says it’s not giving up. And it shouldn’t.

Many developers also believe that a redeveloped Book-Cadillac Hotel will provide a tremendous catalyst to the surrounding area. This comes not only from the shear size of the project, but also because of its mix of condominiums that will bring new residents to downtown, retail shops and, of course, the hotel itself.

The fact that many are predicting such an effect shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone – after all that is exactly what it was designed to do in 1920s. The Book Brothers (J.B., Herbert and Frank Book) envisioned Washington Boulevard as “The Fifth Avenue of the West” – a boulevard that was to be filled with the most glamorous of shops and restaurants. The Book-Cadillac Hotel at the southern end of Washington Boulevard, along with the former Statler Hotel at the northern end, cemented this vision.

Their vision worked for the first few years of the Book-Cadillac Hotel’s existence. As Detroit itself began to fall on hard times, however, so did the hotel. Now that downtown Detroit is well on its way to a full-fledged recovery, the timing is right for the hotel to wake up from its 20-year-long slumber.

When J.B., Herbert and Frank Book first opened their hotel in 1923, there was simply no way that they could have conceived the full magnitude of what their hotel would accomplish in the coming years but they knew it would be special. Likewise, there is no way that we can predict exactly what — or who — will come through its door in this century.

Looking at history as our guide, though, assures us that the Book-Cadillac Hotel more than deserves all of its attention.

Frank Nemecek is a novelist, independent filmmaker and native Detroiter. His documentary, “Checking In: The Story of the Book-Cadillac Hotel,” was nominated for two different awards. Additional information about the film is available at BookCadillacMovie.com or on Yahoo.

Book Cadillac Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger
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