Lee Plaza Hotel / Apartments

Lee Plaza cuts a lonely figure on the Detroit skyline, being the only high-rise building west of midtown. The 15-story tower, clad in orange brick and decorated with elaborate stone carvings is still quite striking, even after over two decades of vacancy.

Lee Plaza was a residential hotel when it opened in 1929 to tremendous acclaim. As noted in the building’s 1981 National Register of Historic Places nomination form: “The 1920s witnessed a growing demand for apartment residences. The residential hotel concept was particularly popular with well-to-do single men and women because of the amenities and services provided. Although there were many hotels in the city, and a growing number of apartment houses, the Lee Plaza was one of the few apartment hotels that provided the services of a luxury hotel with the multiroom units and long-term residential features of an apartment building. It was by far the largest and most elaborate facility of its kind in Detroit.”

Much of the interior ornamentation was designed by Corrado Parducci, a decorator known for his work on the Guardian and Penobscot buildings. Particularly striking was the main corridor, known as “peacock alley,” for its vivid colors and brilliant design.

Lee Plaza was built by Ralph T. Lee, a real estate developer who had built and sold over $10 million dollars of apartments and homes. Like many others he lost of most of his holdings in the Great Depression. In 1964 the building was sold to Peter Solomon, who slowly began renovating the building into apartments. By 1968, however, Lee Plaza was sold to the Detroit Housing Commission and was converted into low-rent senior housing units. Due to declining occupancy, Lee Plaza closed permanently in 1997, and the building was abandoned.

The large amount of metal in the building made it an attractive target for metal thieves, who wasted no time stripping everything of value. The decorative terra cotta lions that ringed the outside of the building were removed in the early 2000’s and sold, some of which ended up in a new residential building in Chicago. Incredibly, between 2005 and 2006 the entire copper roof of the building was stolen. Videographer Logan Siegel recalled on his now (sadly) defunct website onlyndetroit.com watching the scrappers at work during this time:

“The two-story vaulted roof is hollow inside, allowing access to the building’s elevator motors. Using torches to loosen the copper, they would push the sections away from the building from the inside. Other scrappers would then finish pulling the copper off from outside while dangling over the roof’s very steep edge. It was a deadly ballet of fire, hammers, and brute force.”

“I watched this madness while standing next to two Detroit cops. I asked them why they couldn’t arrest the group of men, which numbered around eight or nine on the ground alone. One cop simply said, nonchalantly, ‘Its Sunday, and we ain’t got no backup. It’s just him and me on patrol, we’re fucking outnumbered, kid!’ …I watched the scrappers tear section after section from the roof. Large copper squares slowly wafted to the ground, ending in a cascade of loud crashing metal sounds. Smoke and flames occasionally could be seen coming from the hotel’s insides. I stood next to the cops as they directed traffic away from the streets in front and next to the hotel. I suppose it was literally the least they could do.”

There have been a handful of redevelopment plans proposed for Lee Plaza, but the building’s remote location and severe deterioration make it a difficult case.