Historic Structures

First Williams Block, Detroit Michigan

Date added: October 19, 2013 Categories: Michigan Office Hotel Commercial Italianate

The Williams Block at 32-42 Monroe is significant as one of the few pre-Civil War commercial structures remaining in Detroit, one of two built by John Conatantine Williams. It is also significant as an example of the work of Sheldon Smith, one of Detroit's first generation of architects who enjoyed a reputation throughout the region for his commercial block designs. The structure's Italianate style is still visible in the elaborate floral crown moldings over the second and third floor full-arched windows. Originally, the building also had a cast-iron Italianate-style bracketed cornice with an semi-circular pediment over the central section.

The structure is five stories tail, plus basement, and is essentially rectangular in shape. It measures 60 feet wide and 100 feet deep. The Monroe Avenue facade is divided into three vertical bays, each separated by projecting piers containing recessed panels. Above the first story, each bay contains three sets of windows per floor.

Exterior walls are masonry loadbearing and are made of red-colored common brick. Wall ornamentation on the Monroe Street facade consists of brick that is used decoratively to create the piers between bays and to provide an accent above the crowns to many of the rounded-arch windows. Cast iron is used on the semi-circular crowns over the windows, as well as on the capitals and engaged columns that appear on the second through fourth floors. The original capitals and pilasters on the fifth story, visible in historic views, have been removed from the building. Cast iron palmette cresting appears in the middle of the window crowns on the second and third floors. At the parapet level are horizontal recessed panels (two in the central and three in the outer bays) containing floral designs. A fire escape on the rear of the structure extends from the ground to fifth story. Photographic evidence from circa 1908 indicates that an earlier castiron fire escape consisting of landings and ladders, supported by brackets at one time, covered the side bays of the Monroe Street facade.

The first floor is divided into three maior spaces. Two smaller commercial spaces, each 20 feet wide and 50 feet deep, flank a large central T-shaped bay, with the base of the stem on Monroe and the top of the "T" running behind the other two segments. The second through fifth floors are virtually identical, with an interior light well surrounded by rooms, with a doubleloaded corridor encircling those rooms, and additional rooms facing the southeast and northwest facades, so that each room haa at least one outside window to provide natural light.

The First Williams Block faces northwest. Prior to the late 1960s, when the commercial buildings on the opposite side of Monroe were demolished, this commercial block faced the Detroit Opera House and several office buildings on the opposite side of Monroe Avenue.

John Constantine Williams (1817-92) was one of seven sons of John R. Williams (1782-1854), the first elected mayor of Detroit (1824-25) and reputedly the wealthiest man in Michigan at the time of hla death in 1854, with most of his wealth in Detroit real estate. In 1858, the Williams children inherited their father's real estate, including property on the east aide of Monroe Avenue between Michigan Avenue and Farmer. This was a prime commercial location in the heart of Detroit's business district. John Constantine Williams erected this commercial building and a second, much larger office building adjoining it in 1872-73. He has a real estate office in one of the two buildings from 1859 until the mid-1880s, but moved to Florida in 1875 and lived there until his death in 1892.

This commercial building had retail stores on the first floor and general office space on the upper floors during its first quarter century, but then served as a hotel for most of its remaining life. The Detroit City Directories show the Stanwix Hotel at this location in 1884-86. In September 1889, George H. Gies opened Gies' European Hotel and Restaurant, which occupied the entire building. Gies had operated several taverns along this stretch of Monroe Avenue continuously between 1874 and 1888. Glee's establishment was considered among the most luxurious in Detroit at the time it opened and was an instant success. Gies operated a restaurant on the first floor seating 80, while the second floor had separate parlors for men and women, a ladles' dining room, and a reception area. The upper floors had a total of 52 guest rooms. The building was equipped with a Graves Safety Elevator, the McCormick fire alarm system, and fire escapes.

George Gies died in 1891, but his sons, Edward G. and Frank A. Gies. operated the hotel until 1899, and then ran a saloon at the restaurant site until 1908. Gies' Hotel was the site of an early legal challenge to racial segregation in Michigan. William Ferguson (1857-1910), the son of Detroit's first Black doctor, was expelled from Gies' European Hotel in 1889 after refusing to eat in the "Colored" section of the restaurant. He filed a lawsuit, lost, but appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which in 1890 ruled that segregation by race in public facilities was illegal. Ferguson later served in the Michigan House of Representatives between 1893 and 1897.

From 1909 through 1917, the Berghoff Hotel occupied the building, with the Berghoff Cafe on the ground floor. The Tuxedo Hotel & Grille Company, which operated the Frontenac Restaurant on the first story, took over the building in 1918. Starting in 1919, the business was known as the Frontenac Hotel, which included the Frontenac Restaurant on the ground floor. The Frontenac Hotel remained in operation until 1960, but by 1940, the restaurant had been replaced by a series of retail shops. Two jewelers and a lunch room occupied the Monroe Avenue frontage between 1940 and 1979, but the rest of the building remained largely vacant above the ground floor between 1960 and 1978, when the City of Detroit became the owner and vacated the entire building.