One of the First Apartment-Hotels in Detroit MI

Belcrest Hotel, Detroit Michigan
Date added: July 05, 2024 Categories:
View from across Cass Avenue (1984)

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Built in 1926 as a luxury class apartment hotel, the Belcrest is an early work of Detroit architect Charles N. Agree and a work that helped establish his reputation locally as a first-class designer. It is a prime early Detroit example of the apartment hotel development concept. By 1926 this development idea was successful in other major cities such as New York and Chicago, the Belcrest was one of the first buildings in Detroit to be designed to provide the services of a hotel coupled with the long-term residential features of an apartment building.

The Belcrest was constructed in 1926 as a luxury class apartment hotel. Its location on Cass Avenue was determined by the growing importance of the Cultural Center which, with the New Center business district to the north, was to form a second downtown for Detroit. The area was distinguished by the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Public Library, Detroit Teacher's College (now Wayne State University), St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral and blocks of distinctive and stunning mansions. Nearby was the burgeoning New Center area anchored by Albert Kahn's General Motors and Fisher buildings and the growing Henry Ford Hospital complex.

S. W. Straus, prominent Detroit investment brokers, wrote in their bond prospectus for the Belcrest:

"The location of this property could not be better for the purpose. Cass Avenue which faces the beautiful new public library is the principal automobile artery to the North Side. Woodward Avenue--Detroit's main thoroughfare--is only one block away and within convenient distance to the General Motors Building and the plants of the Burroughs Adding Machine, Packard Motor Car, the Dodge Motor Car, the Standard Plumbing Co., Studebaker Co., McCord Manufacturing Co., Fisher Body Corp. and … within two blocks the Maccabees propose to erect a 14 story administration building. Detroit is greatly in need of a north-side apartment hotel of this character near the Art Center. The available facilities in this section are taxed to the limit and with the rapid industrial development of Detroit bringing hundreds of new families to the city, this shortage of high grade living quarters is growing larger daily. This apartment located as it will be is sure to fill a most pressing demand. The location is quiet, close to the business section and convenient enough to the great factories, though not close enough for the smoke and dirt. A patron of the hotel can look out of his window on the beautiful grounds and buildings of the Art Center. We have financed the Palmetto Apartments and Webster Hall and the success which has come to both of these enterprises has proven the desirability of the Art Center District as a high class residence neighborhood."

The Belcrest offered high-class amenities, multi-room units, long-term residential possibilities, and unlike many other developments, encouraged children, all in an atmosphere that was a part of the city, yet removed from it. Its designer, Charles N. Agree (c. 1889-1983), was among Detroit's most noted architects. His first commission, The Whittier Hotel, on East Jefferson Avenue (Burns Avenue at the Detroit River), built in 1925 ranked as the finest apartment hotel in the city. The building brought Agree notoriety due to a spectacular court battle over its construction and due to its construction technique, being built on a Slab because of the marshy Detroit riverbank.

The Belcrest was Agree's second commission during his seminal period (1922 to 1930) and helped solidify his place among the ranks of Detroit's premier architects. Albert Kahn considered Agree a protegee and friend, often referring clients to him. Agree's career progressed rapidly in the world of the Jewish land brokers, architects and builders who were reshaping the face of Detroit during the 1920s. In a 1980 interview, Agree noted "In 1927, I did 10 million dollars worth of work, all apartment buildings." He was a prolific designer, often averaging three or four buildings a week. Unfortunately, except for the Belcrest, the Whittier, the Farrand Park (Highland Park) most of this early work has fallen victim to urban blight and been destroyed.

Agree selected the distinctive green color that marked all the Cunningham/Rexall drug stores in Detroit. Hired by Nate Shapiro, Agree utilized a green enameled steel as an outer covering for the units. He used bacatta, where the enameled steel is bonded to a piece of cast concrete rather than laid over furring strips as was commonly practiced. The coloration was picked up by Rexall stores in many other areas and became a distinctive look.

Early in his career, Agree eschewed the elaborate designs of his contemporaries, labeling much of the ornamentation "kitsch." He preferred a well-presented, soundly constructed building, often using new techniques, such as the slab base construction of the Whitter, the enameled steel in one piece in the Cunningham's stores, and the ease of steel framing and solidity of reinforced poured concrete in the Belcrest. He did not bend to the more florid designs until] later, about 1928, when he designed the Vanity Ballroom, an orange brick symphony in Art Deco, or his theaters such as the now demolished theater at Michigan Avenue and Military Road, designed with a Spanish Baroque palazzo theme.

Agree's major contribution rests in his development of the neighborhood strip shopping center. These strips, some still extant on Detroit's east side, were anchored by a theater on one end, a drug store on the other and a row of shops in between. Such developments became the center of Detroit's growing urban neighborhoods. Later, in the early 1950s, with his son Arnold who maintains the firm today, Agree designed the Pontiac Mall, the region's first break with the strip shopping center. The Mall broke the strip in half, setting the stores facing each other and roofing the public spaces. Open gardens and fountains were added to soften the effect.

Agree also developed the design for the Federal's Department Stores, most of which are now abandoned or demolished. As an urban architect, Agree moved with the pulse of the city, catering to its demands and still satisfying his own architectural needs. He also built what he called "Detroit's first privately owned community center," for Meyer Prentis, a Jewish philanthropist who heavily endowed Wayne State University, donating the Meyer and Anna Prentis Building. This community center, the forerunner of today's Jewish Community Center, is at Woodward Avenue and Holbrook Street and was largely a center of Jewish learning and culture. It is now owned by the City of Detroit and called the Considine Recreation Center.

Unfortunately, Agree's work was predominantly in what is now the inner city of Detroit and has either deteriorated or been destroyed in the sweep of urban renewal and decay that has decimated much of the early twentieth century buildings of Detroit. The Belcrest represents one of the few examples of Agree's work that has been preserved.

The Belcrest's developers, Jacob Singer and Max Hamburger, were prominent in Detroit real estate circles having developed properties in other areas of Detroit such as in the Palmer Park Apartment District. Agree served as contractor for the Belcrest construction, exerting total control over the project, a role he relinquished for other commissions as he grew too busy.

Singer and Hamburger signed an agreement to make the Belcrest a part of the Albert Pick Hotel chain in 1929. The building is now owned by the Belcrest Associates Limited Partnership, a group committed to its preservation both as a landmark and an integral part of the surrounding community.

Building Description

The Belcrest Hotel is located on the east side of Cass Avenue, across from the Wayne State University Campus and one block north of the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, in an area of Detroit known as the Cultural Center. The Belcrest Hotel is a twelve-story steel and concrete building sheathed in brown brick and trimmed with terra cotta, built in 1926 according to the designs of Detroit architect Charles N. Agree. The building is T-shaped in plan, with the base of the T abutting the sidewalk along Cass Avenue. The building has a strong vertical character emphasized by three projecting bays, one facing Cass Avenue and one on each side of the leg of the T, which rise from the third floor through the twelfth and end above the cornice line in an ornamented gable. The one-story entry foyer, projecting from the north elevation, is graced with an identical gable. Elaborate terra-cotta cornice lines located above the second-floor level, the eleventh-floor level and the twelfth-floor define horizontal sections of the building. With the exception of window replacements, the building is unaltered.

The eleventh-floor terra-cotta cornice repeats a section of the more elaborate second-floor cornice. This section consists of a banding of acanthus leaf brackets, each separated by a floral medallion. The second-floor cornice is further embellished with dentils, rope molding, and acanthus leaf molding. The colors on the second-floor cornice are grey with cream-colored highlights, while the eleventh-floor cornice is tan and dark brown with green highlights. The eleventh-floor cornice line breaks for terra-cotta balconettes below paired twelfth-floor windows on the front elevation and first bays of the side elevation. The twelfth-floor cornice is above rectangular attic windows that are enframed with terra-cotta rope moldings. The upper cornice is of tan terra cotta, molded to form a series of arches supported by acanthus leaf brackets and topped with an acanthus leaf molding and rounded coping tiles.

The three projecting bays are elaborately detailed on the twelfth-floor level with alternating bands of brick and terra cotta, round-arched masonry openings containing pairs of round-arched windows, each separated by an engaged Corinthian column, and terra-cotta diaper work surrounding a niche in the gabled parapet wall.

The angles of the T plan form a garden area on one side and a parking area on the other. The wrought iron entry gates leading to the parking area are of simple design incorporating the letter B in scrollwork above the two entrances. Though the Belcrest sign is newer, the gates are part of the original design.

The interior of the building is simple and unassuming and, except for minor changes, has not been altered. The rooms were designed for use as studio apartments, each with a kitchenette.

The area developed between the late 1870s and mid-1920s as a fashionable residential area of single-family residences and apartments. The area has since undergone radical change due to the expansion of Wayne State University, which has razed the majority of the spacious Victorian homes and replaced them with large classroom buildings. The remaining homes have either been converted to offices or classrooms or have been cut up into smaller rental units. The Belcrest, however, has escaped this urban change and remains a strong anchor for the surrounding community.

Belcrest Hotel, Detroit Michigan View from across Cass Avenue (1984)
View from across Cass Avenue (1984)

Belcrest Hotel, Detroit Michigan South facade (1984)
South facade (1984)

Belcrest Hotel, Detroit Michigan Camera looking east (1984)
Camera looking east (1984)

Belcrest Hotel, Detroit Michigan Camera looking southeast (1984)
Camera looking southeast (1984)

Belcrest Hotel, Detroit Michigan Looking north on Cass Avenue from Kirby (1984)
Looking north on Cass Avenue from Kirby (1984)

Belcrest Hotel, Detroit Michigan 12<sup>th</sup> floor bay west side (1984)
12th floor bay west side (1984)

Belcrest Hotel, Detroit Michigan Scroll work on 2<sup>nd</sup> floor (1984)
Scroll work on 2nd floor (1984)

Belcrest Hotel, Detroit Michigan Entry detail (1984)
Entry detail (1984)

Belcrest Hotel, Detroit Michigan Detail of 12<sup>th</sup> floor north side (1984)
Detail of 12th floor north side (1984)

Belcrest Hotel, Detroit Michigan Entry gates (1984)
Entry gates (1984)