History Olympia Arena (Olympia Stadium), Detroit Michigan
Olympia Arena was constructed on Grand River Avenue at McGraw Avenue, approximately three miles from the center of Detroit's Central Business District of the early 1920s. This area remained undeveloped until the mid-1880s, but by 1890, a large farmhouse stood at 1420 Grand River Avenue, the parcel which became 5912 Grand River Avenue in 1921. In 1890, James D. Scovel, a partner in Scovel Brothers, seed growers, occupied the house and operated a seed farm. By the late 1890s, a large brick farmhouse and three modest frame houses stood on the property. By 1910, the farmhouse fronting on Grand River Avenue was still standing, but the remaining land between McGraw and Hooker Avenue to the north was subdivided into building lots, with fifteen frame houses fronting on McGraw and Hooker, a dozen vacant lots, and an alley between them. A five-unit apartment house, "The Barton," fronted on Lawton Avenue. A real estate atlas prepared in 1923 shows a well-developed residential neighborhood, with 26 houses between Hooker and McGraw. The area north of Hooker was also fully developed as a subdivision.
This was an excellent location for a sports arena because Grand River Avenue was a major surface street extending in a northwesterly direction from downtown Detroit and both Grand River and McGraw had major arterial lines of the electric streetcar system. A syndicate of Detroit businessmen established the Detroit Hockey Club, Inc., started site preparation for a new stadium in the summer of 1926, and then purchased a National Hockey League Franchise on 25 September 1926. The building permit for Olympia was issued on 3 February 1927 to the Detroit Hockey Club and A.A. Scovel, "to erect a brick and concrete sports arena" valued at $1,259,300.
Charles Howard Crane, who designed Olympia Arena, was one of the premier theater architects in the United States in the twentieth century. Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1685, he completed public high school there and in 1903-04, he began his active career as a draftsman with the Connecticut-based firm of Bayley & Goodrich. He moved to Detroit in 1905 and initially worked in the offices of Albert Kahn and the firm of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. Crane launched an independent practice in 1909 and quickly earned a reputation as a specialist in the design of theaters, particularly motion picture theaters. By the late 1930s, his firm also established an office in London, where he worked from 1934 to 1938 designing Earl's Court and permanent exhibition buildings.
Crane's architectural career reflected the emergence of mass consumer entertainment in the early twentieth century. He built numerous theaters as well as auditoriums and stadiums for enterprising businessmen who capitalized on the era's seemingly limitless demand for movies, rodeos, track meets, team sports, and other forms of entertainment. Detroit's first theater district, hosting vaudeville, burlesque shows, and the novel silent motion pictures, was on Monroe Street, where the city's first movie theater, the CASINO, opened in 1905. Crane's earliest theater, the PALACE (ca. 1914) was built on Monroe. His MADISON THEATER (1916) in Detroit's booming Grand Circus Park entertainment district, firmly established his reputation as a designer of movie theaters. According to W. Hawkins Ferry, "no architect did more to promote the development of the movie theater than C. Howard Crane." By the end of his career, Crane had completed 250 theaters in the United States and Canada, with more than 50 in Detroit alone.
Detroit's movie theaters of the 1910s typically borrowed from traditional architectural styles, especially the Italian Renaissance. In the 1920s, however, exotic and bizarre form of architecture found their way into the elegant fantasy world of the movie palace. Architects such as Crane, working in unison with interior designers, utilized Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latin American styles to give the buildings a "make believe" atmosphere. Crane built several of his most important movie theaters in the Grand Circus Park district; the CAPITAL THEATER (1922), the STATE THEATER (1925); the UNITED ARTISTS THEATER (1928); and his most famous, the FOX THEATER (1928) on Woodward Avenue. The FOX THEATER opened in September, 1928, with a seating capacity of 5,000. The palatial structure has a vast auditorium unobstructed by columns and it drew upon Burmese, Hindu, Persian, and Chinese art for design inspiration. While Crane's work as an architect was primarily in the entertainment field, not all of his projects were motion picture theaters. One of his earliest major commissions was for ORCHESTRA HALL (1919), the home of the Detroit Symphony until 1955.
The Olympia Arena is perhaps the least-known of Crane's major works. Like other entertainment facilities Crane designed, Olympia was massive by the standards of the day. In purely architectural terms, Olympia was far less wondrous and fanciful than other public structures of the late 1920s, including Crane's theaters. To loia extend, the buff, red, and green colors originally used on the interior contrasted with the rather ordinary-looking, dark-red brick and brown terra cotta trimmings of the Romanesque exterior. Olympia's significance, according to Crane himself, lay in the area of engineering, notably in the elaborate refrigeration system that made Olympia Arena the largest ice-skating rink in the United States at the time it opened, with an ice surface measuring 110 feet wide and 242 feet in length.
Well before the Olympia Arena was constructed, the Detroit Hockey Club bought the Victoria Cougars of the Western Canada League, moved the team to Detroit, and renamed them the Detroit Cougars. On 18 November 1926, the Cougars played the first NHL game, a 2-0 loss to the Boston Bruins. The Detroit team played its home games at the Border City Arena in Windsor, Ontario, during this initial season. The loyal Cougar fans had to ride a ferry across the Detroit River in winter, then take taxis to the "home" ice in Windsor, and repeat this ordeal after the game. Their efforts went unrewarded, for Detroit won only 12 of 44 games, and finished dead last in the standings. Two important changes were evident during the 1927-28 season - Olympia Stadium was finished and became the home of the Cougars, and Jack Adams began his illustrious 35-year coaching career in Detroit. After losing the initial hockey game at Olympia on 22 November 1927 to the Ottawa Senators, Detroit finished in fourth place in the league, with a .500 record. The team changed its name to the Detroit Falcons for the 1930-31 season, but this brought no improvement in the team's performance.
The Olympia Arena was built mainly to serve as the home for Detroit's professional hockey team. At the laying of the cornerstone on & March 1927, Frank Calder, President of the National Hockey League, was one of a handful of dignitaries present, including Detroit's mayor, John Smith. Still, the earliest events at Olympia featured many other types of entertainment. Olympia'a official formal opening was on 17 October 1927, while the first major event was a Boy Scout Day program of 22 October 1927, featuring "The March of the Flags," a U.S. Navy Band concert, and the International Cowboy Rodeo Championships. Professional boxing was a major attraction as well. On 26 October 1927, Tom Heeney, a New Zealand heavyweight, won a ten-round decision over Johnny Risko of Cleveland, before a packed house of 17,000 spectators. Two weeks later, "Tiger" Flowers and Maxie Rosenbloom, two middleweights, fought to a draw. Starting on 12 November 1927, Olympia was the scene of a six day bicycle race. Conventions were also an important part of Olyapia'a history. One of the earliest was the national convention of the American Legion, held in Detroit for five days beginning 21 September 1931. President Herbert Hoover addressed the delegates at Olympia at their opening session. Through the rest of the building's long life, it remained a center for various types of mass entertainment, including the Ice Capades and other ice shows, and increasingly in the 1960s and 1970s, for rock concerts.
During the early years of the Depression, the Detroit Hockey Club suffered substantial losses and on 28 April 1932, the Union Guardian Trust Company, trustee, filed a notice of default on mortgage payments against the Detroit Hockey Club and Angia Scovel. On 28 July 1933, the Detroit Hockey Club was ordered to pay a sum of $776,770 by the middle of August or face the sale of the premises. The mortgage was foreclosed on 4 November and the Union Guardian Trust Company was granted a trustee deed for the property. Later in November 1933, James Norris, a Chicago industrialist, purchased the arena property as well as the team, which he renamed the "Red Wings," with the winged wheel as its Insignia. Detroit won the league championship in the 1933-34 season, the start of a long history of hockey success achieved by the combination of Jack Adams and the Norris family.
Olympia underwent no substantial structural changes during the first forty years of operation. In 1965, a major addition was made to the northeast (back) side of Olympia, primarily to increase the arena's capacity by 1,800 seats. The addition consisted of a steel-framed four-story segment measuring 236 feet 9 inches long, 81 feet 10 inches wide, and 98 feet 6 inches high. The building permit indicated an estimated cost of $1 million, but the overall cost of this project was roughly $2 million. The 1965 rehabilitation was already underway by the time of the official groundbreaking ceremony on 23 June 1965, attended by Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh and Sid Abel, the General Manager of the Detroit Hockey Club. This work, completed in time for the start of the 1965-66 hockey season, included the installation of 13,000 seats, at a cost of $23 each, new boards, and new timeclocks. In the summer of 1967, the piping system that carried the brine to cool the water to produce the ice surface was replaced. Private box seats were added in the early 1970s, but there were no other major changes in the building.
The deterioration of the nearby neighborhood more than the condition of the building led to a decision to replace Olympia. Suburban sites were considered, but the Detroit Hockey Club finally moved to the new city-owned Joe Louis Arena on Detroit's riverfront in December 1979. The Red Wings played their last game at Olympia on 15 December 1979, a 4-4 tie with the Quebec Nordiques. An old-timers game was played there on 22 February 1980, the last event of any kind held at Olympia Arena. The Norris Grain Company, a Nevada Corporation, then sold the building and land to the City of Detroit on 17 March 1981 for $373,513, ending a long period of Norris family ownership.