Historic Structures

Second Williams Block, Detroit Michigan

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

The Second Williams Block is significant as a remnant of commercial architecture in Detroit dating from the early 1870s, although two-thirds of the building was demolished following a 1973 fire in the south part of the structure. It is also significant as an example of the work of Mortimer L. Smith, a renown Detroit architect and painter. John Constantine Williams, who built this commercial building to develop part of his real estate holdings in Detroit, was a member of one of the city's wealthiest families during the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

A Detroit Tribune article on January 26, 1872 estimated the cost of construction at $100,000. No original architectural plans have been found. The original building, which occupied the corner of Monroe and Michigan Avenues, had a curved plan to fit the street pattern, and was more than twice the size of the surviving remnant.

The Second Williams Block at 16-30 Monroe is significant as a remnant of mid-19th century commercial architecture in Detroit, Built in the early 1870s, it is also significant as an example of the work of renown architect and painter, Mortimer L. Smith. He designed the structure in the Italianate style which was fashionable from the 1850s through the 1870s. Historic photographs show that the surviving segment is typical of the original building. The Italianate character appears in the use of a widely overhanging cornice supported by large decorative brackets: horizontal belt courses; tall narrow windows; and the combination of rectangular and segmentai- and full-arch window tops that are crowned by bracketed hoods and pediments.

The structure is five-stories tall, plus basement. The surviving segment of the original building is triangular in layout. with a right angle formed at the northernmost corner, and measures 72 feet wide and 80 feet deep. The principle facade, fronting on Monroe, is divided into three vertical sections or bays, each of which contains three windows per floor above the first story.

Exterior walls are masonry load bearing and consist of common brick. The Monroe Avenue facade is sheathed in grey-colored cut sandstone panels, each 6-8" thick. The wall ornamentation on this facade consists of belt courses, which are located above and below windows, guiilochea, various bas-relief carvings, and an intricate cast-iron entablature. The wall area between windows on the second and third stories is more extensively ornamented than on the fourth and fifth floors. The shapes of window tops vary by floor: rectangular for those on the second floor, segmental-arch on the third and fourth, and full-rounded arch on the fifth floor. Pediments crown windows on the second, third and fourth stories, while bracketed semi-circular hoods crown the fifth floor windows.

The original building extended along Monroe Avenue to the Campus Martiua, and then continued to Michigan Avenue, with a substantial bend in the building facade to reflect the street patterns. The Monroe Avenue-Campua Martiua facade was approximately 200 feet in length, while the Michigan Avenue frontage was about 80 feet. The portion of the Second Williams Block remaining faces northwest and overlooks Campus Martiua, one of Detroit's first public squares, named in 1788 after the more famous square in Rome. Detroit's Campus Martius was the site of a blockhouse in the late eighteenth century and then served as a military parade ground before becoming a public park in 1835. The Second Williams Block stands at the southernmost end of Monroe Avenue, one of Detroit's major commercial centers and thoroughfares from the early nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century.

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 his 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 side 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 a small, five-story commercial building (the First Williams Block) on the property in 1859 and it is still extant. Adjoining it, he built a much larger office building, the Second Williams Block, in 1872-73. John Constantine Williams maintained a real estate office in one of the two buildings from 1859 until the mid-1880s. He moved to Florida for health reasons in 1875, and lived there until his death in 1892.

The original building has had a variety of owners and use over time, including retail stores, offices, several hotels, and a movie theater. It served as an office building through the 1870s, with retail stores on the ground floor.

This commercial building underwent a major conversion in 1880-81, when it was transformed into the Kirkwood Hotel, also known as the Kirkwood House and the Kirkwood. The proprietor of the new hotel. Commodore P. Howell, obtained a ten-year lease on the building from the owners, John Constantine and J. Mott Williams, and spent $23,000 on renovations and furnishings. The second floor included three dining rooms, a public drawing room, and several suites. The three upper floors contained 123 guest rooms, including 23 suites, all provided with steam heat, and hot and cold running water. The maiority had baths as well.

Howell opened the Kirkwood in August 1881, but transferred his lease to Harzell & Company in April 1882. The building owners closed the hotel in July 1882 after the lessees failed to pay their rent. John C. Williams reopened the hotel in 1883 under his own management. Lew B. Clark managed the hotel for Williams in 1885-1887. The Detroit City Directory of 1887 promoted the hotel as as "The New Kirkwood. Nelson and Little, Proprietors."

John 0. Plank, operator of Plank's Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, bought the Kirkwood in July 1888 and reopened it as the Plankington Hotel in October 1888. The Detroit Tribune reported that "the place has been refitted, repapered and refurnished throughout." The venture was a failure and Plank sold the hotel in Novemoer 1889 to Lew B. Clark, a previous manager. The building was then known as the Kantor Building from 1891 through 1908. The upper floors were used for general office space until the Hotel Campus operated there in 1901-1905, followed by the Hotel Fowler in 1906-1909.

During the time span when different hotels occupied the building, the hotel lobbies and public areas were situated on the second story. The first story was occupied by a variety of retail shops selling men's clothing, hats, shoes, jewelry, and cigars. Most of the Second Williams Block was gutted in 1909 and turned into the Family Theater, a 934-seat facility designed by the architect Fuller Claflin for vaudeville shows. The Family Theater was converted for movies in 1914 and it remained one of Detroit's most popular theaters into the 1950s. The Chinese Imperial Restaurant opened in 1911 in the segment of the buiidmg adiacent to the Family Theater, changed its name in 1913 to the Chinese republic Restaurant, and remained there until 1938.

This area of Detroit, including Cadillac Square, Campus Martius, and the adjacent sections o£ Monroe Avenue, was the city's first major theater district, with vaudevilie houses, nickelodeons, and movie palaces. including several designed by C. Howard Crane and Albert Kahn. Although renamed The Follies in 1967, the Family Theater remained open until it burned to the ground on July 28, 1973, in a spectacular fire which destroyed two-thirds of the Second Williams Block. A few shops remained open on the ground floor of the surviving section of the building until the late 1970s, when the City of Detroit, which owned the property, vacated the building and boarded it up.