Chapter 5: ABANDONED DETROIT TOURS
In the latter part of the 19th century, inventors competed with each other to create a pencil that didn’t need sharpening. What resulted from these efforts was the automatic pencil. Housed inside a metal case was a lead, lodged in a metal spiral, held in place by a rod with a metal stud attached. Twist the cap, the rod and stud move down. In the early twentieth century came the innovation of the colored pencil. The graphite core replaced by pigments, dyes, clay and gum.
Phineus T. Bradbury made his fortune in automatic pencils. His triumph was creating over 70 shades of colored automatic pencils. By the early 1920s his net worth was over 800 million dollars. He had always had a passion for architecture and felt a need to leave a legacy and hired architects to build a tower in the heart of Detroit.
Construction began in 1924 and was completed in 1928 in the style know as Academic Classicism touched with a bit of Beaux Art and Futurism.
Bradbury died in 1946 and the building was inherited by his sons: Hampton and Horatio. The two brothers converted the penthouse into a private nightclub they used for entertaining clients and guests. They named it the Tip-Top Club. It was quite the place. Renowned jazz and big band singers and musicians played for enrapt audiences of revelers in the exclusive venue. Some of the luminaries that played the Tip-Top Club included Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Billy Strayhorn, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington. In the 50s artists like Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Stan Getz and Miles Davis would grace the stage of the Tip-Top.
After the death of Horatio in 1963, Hampton sold the Bradbury Tower to the Griffis Group, a real estate management company that leapt at the opportunity of ownership of a prestigious address like the Bradbury Tower. At its heyday the Bradbury commanded some of the highest ground rents in the city, housing doctors, lawyers, city officials and business executives.
As the city began its steep decline in the mid 70s, tenants began to move out, rents began to decline, vacancies multiplied and fortunes were lost. The Griffis Group offered the Bradbury for sale in 1996. There were several suitors for the Bradbury Tower but no takers.
Finally in 2003, The Hidalgo Group purchased the Bradbury Tower. They had overestimated both the fortunes of the city and the demand for the building. They experienced grave financial difficulties and were forced to shut off electricity in the building, causing most of the remaining tenants to move out. The Bradbury was done.
In 2006 the Hidalgo Group declared bankruptcy and forced the remaining tenants out. The building has been vacant ever since.
Stephen Richards led his merry band of intrepid Abandoned Detroit Tours into the Bradbury Tower, 38 floors, 475 feet tall. The group flowed into the lobby. It was near dusk.
The lobby was crowned by an enormous beaux art dome. Dramatic ribbed sections of stone curved up toward double circular stone reinforcements. The ribbed glass sections were filled in with frosted glass panels. Every fifth panel contained a floral element. At the top of the dome was a square with glass panels displaying a floral pattern.
“Pretty remarkable construction. The people who walked through here in its heyday inhabited an ennobled space to marinate in. Not holy, but close. It embodies the celebration of an advanced age now gone and decaying. It awaits renewal or final destruction,” Richards said.
“Heavy man!” said Li Chen. Li was a second generation Chinese-American who was fully assimilated. He sounded Anglo. He was a chemistry and physics major. He was lean, handsome and analytical. He loves the outdoors and architecture. “What do you think Annette?”
“Pretty amazing. This is definitely a time gone by,” said Annette Franklin, a petite, pretty woman with an amazing constitution. She competed in Iron Man competitions and stayed fit by climbing mountains, lifting weights and running.
“I find it ironic that an architectural adornment would exist in an age that wouldn’t know how to recreate it. Kind of like how the West forgot how to make concrete after the fall of the Roman Empire,” said Scott Stoner, a sensitive, smart man with a devil-may-care attitude and a sense of humor that armors him from disappointment.
“Fucking A!” said Michael Smith, a black New Yorker who could pass for white on the phone. He was bright, energetic and handsome with a big heart. He really liked the ladies. “What do you think, Marlene?”
“Awe inspiring. It’s amazing to realize the there are incredible interior spaces in this city that are totally neglected to the point of destruction,” said Marlene Washington, a statuesque black woman with an amazing figure. She’d been fighting the men off since she was thirteen. “What do you think, Cal?”
“You’re right. There’s nothing like this in Bozeman,” said Cal Purcell, native of North Dakota, now from Montana. He’s an outdoorsman and avid hunter on a lark coming to the big, dark, dangerous city.
“All I can say is this is pretty cool,” said Kevin Handy, an insurance salesman and weekend bicyclist and rock-climbing enthusiast. His wife, Liz was a fitness freak, in incredible shape and kept up with Kevin step for step.
“I didn’t expect we’d find something this interesting to look at,” said Rebecca Baker, who winked at Michael. Her husband Don pretended not to notice.
“Let’s go,” Richards said. “There’s a few more places to see before we make camp.”
He led them through a door and into what appeared to be a stairwell, but was not. The group walked up to the banister and looked down and then up into a remarkable octagonal observation deck that served no other purpose than to allow the occupants of each floor to look up and down the center of the building. The stairs were off to the side. They were four floors from the bottom, but possibly as many as 34 floors were above them. This opulent use of interior space was meant only to the delight the eye and inflame the imagination.
“Amazing,” Chen said.
“Let’s go down,” Richards said.
Richards led them down the stairway, Darrel Carter taking up the rear. Stephens opened up a door at the bottom and walked into a long hallway. They entered an enormous lobby and walked through carved double doors that had images of deer and ferns. They walked into a once ornate theater with sculptured molding with columns and a baroque style dome. There was a filigreed screen to the right, and a ruined stage at the center with stadium seating curving around the proscenium. It was lined by a baroque cornice and with incredible lattice work carved into the ceiling and the columns. The seats had long ago been removed from the theater. Only the wooden platforms remained. It looked like a cathedral of the damned, its accoutrements now decaying. Broken pieces of its ornate filigree, having rained down on the floor covering it in dust and debris.
“Let’s set up camp here,” said Richards amidst the debris. “Find a good place to lay out your sleeping bags and let’s get ready for dinner. Darrel?”
“Aye, aye sir!” Darrel Carter responded enthusiastically. Darrel was Richards’ second in command. He shared Stephens’ passion for extreme sports and was totally into base jumping.
He took off his loaded back pack, unpacked the camp stove and the compact propane tank and hooked it up to the stove. He next took out a large aluminum pot and some dehydrated casseroles: twelve servings of Beef Stroganoff. He pulled out 3 liter bottles of water, poured them into the pot and lit the burner.
The group shuffled about finding a nest to feather. Everyone selected a spot on the wooden platforms that once housed chairs for watching whatever performance emitted from the once glorious stage. The couples set up their sleeping bags away from the singles. The single men set up camp on one of the platforms. The single women set up one level above them.
“Hey Cal,” said Marlene. “Is it true what the guys are saying about you? Are you packing?”
Cal smiled and nodded his head slightly. He reached into his fanny pack and pulled out a loaded .45. “Yeah. Old hunter’s habit. Never know if you’re gonna need this for a surprise encounter with a bear, or… some old boy.”
Marlene smiled and pulled out a Glock 9. “Me too.”
The water started boiling and Darrel stirred in the dehydrated Beef Stroganoff and stirred meticulously. It was amazing how the previously inedible concoction began to soak up water and thicken and actually begin to smell like food! Pretty tasty food!
“Soup’s on! Bring your own dish and I’ll fix you up.”
The group shuffled and formed an informal queue.
“Hey Marlene. What do you say we do some exploring of our own after dinner? I’ve got some places I’d like to show you,” Michael said.
“Sorry, Romeo. I’m sure you do, but this girl’s got standards to live up to. Besides you’re too short for me.”
“Size doesn’t matter when you’re horizontal.”
“The only way you’re getting horizontal with me is if I knock you out.”
“I knew you wanted me. You sure do know how to sweet talk a guy!”
She smiled at him and shook her head. She’d been at this game most of her life. She wanted a man in her life, but not one like Michael. She’d had enough Michaels to last a lifetime.
They shuffled through the line, got their night’s meal, retreated to their sleeping areas and ate their dinner.
“What do you think?” Kevin asked Liz.
“The food, the trip. Our adventure.”
“The food sucks. The trip is kind of cool. So yes. I’m glad we came. This is one lunatic idea of a vacation, but I’m fascinated by this architecture.”
“Glad to hear that, honey.”
Rebecca Baker dug into her re-hydrated, freeze-dried dinner and rolled her eyes. “Next time I get to choose our vacation. I think a cruise would be a lot more fun. At least the food would be better.”
“There’s a bigger selection of a lot of things.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I saw you looking at that black guy earlier.”
“What’s it to you. I can look all I want.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about.”
“Look. I admit I’ve had my flings. But you don’t have to throw it in my face every chance you get. Your attitude is getting a little old.”
“Want a drink,” Don said, pulling out a fifth of Grey Goose.
“Now you’re talking.” She pulled out her camp cup and held it in front of Don who filled her cup. “Now that was real thoughtful. Thank you Don.”
“It’s no big deal,” he said as he filled his cup. They touched cups and sipped the fiery liquid.
Stephen and Darrel had set up their own area down by the stage.
“Here we are again,” said Darrel.
“It just doesn’t get old. This incredible place empty. It reminds me of some of the spots Sadaam’s Republican Guard vacated after we drove them out of Kuwait. Ornate mansions, trashed by savages, trying desperately to leave their mark, like a dog peeing on a fence post. ’Bout as meaningful.”
“What an amazing place this must have been in its heyday. Now just ruin. What a waste,” said Darrell.
“If the city ever comes back someone might restore it. They also might want to knock it down and build something more modern in its place.”
“I hope that doesn’t happen. A place this special needs to be preserved.”
“I’m going to turn in now. See you in the morning.”