Detroit Free Press Building

The Detroit Free Press Building

321 West Lafayette in downtown Detroit

On May 5, 1831, Sheldon McKnight began publishing a four page weekly newspaper called the Democratic Free Press and Michigan Intelligncer. By 1835, it became a six times every week newspaper with its own four-story building. The name was shortened to the Democratic Free Press. These, however, were not easy years for this paper. McMcKnight sold his enterprise in 1836 just after he was acquitted of murder changes that resulted from a barroom fight. And then the next year, the paper’s building burned to the ground as did quite a few of the early wooden building in Detroit.

In the 1850s, under the editorship of Wilbur Storey, this newspaper may have been the first in the nation to publish a Sunday edition. Storey was also one of a small number of northern editors who strongly opposed the abolition of slavery. He also claimed to be the founder of “beat” reporting. That is, he assigned a reporter to walk the docks of Detroit daily to learn about shipping, trade and what was happening in the origin points of the many ships that offloaded and loaded products along the Detroit River. Storey’s reporter walked the beat every day thereby establishing that occupation. In 1878, the Free Press became the first newspaper to publish a section targeted to the interests of women. Three years later, the paper became the first United States paper to publish an edition in Europe. The London version of the Detroit Free Press was a weekly and eventually gained a circulation of 90,000.

The building you see pictured above opened in 1925. At this time, circulation of the Free Press was less than that of its two rivals: The Detroit Times, owned by William Randolph Hearst, and the Detroit News, owned by James Scripps, but the Detroit News was published on presses owned by the Detroit Free Press. That ranking may explain why the building has the shape that you see today. The commanding 13-story tower at the center of the structure was designed to be rental space. The two six-story wings on either side of the tower were to be used by the Free Press. Albert Kahn designed three stories of basements where the presses were located. Although there are Art Deco touches, the limestone facing suggests that Kahn was strongly influenced by the classical tradition when he designed this magnificent and imposing structure. Many of his buildings, especially the First National Bank and the General Motors Building clearly convey the importance of the firm occupying them. There are elements of the design of this building that resemble the nearby building that Albert Kahn designed for the Detroit News.

The sculplted stone on the exterior of this building is extraordinary and merits a close look. The carvings represent images of the industrial era when this structure was built. To design these bas reliefs, Kahn recruited Ulysses Ricci who was a popular stone carver in that era. His sculpture appears on the outsides of many impressive building throughout the United States and Canada. Kahn used his talents to add stone carved images to the exterior of the General Motors Building and the Fisher Tower in Detroit and to Angell Hall and the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The Detroit Free Press used this structure for 76 years before leaving the building in 2001. It has been available for other uses since that time, but was unoccupied since the Fress Press. The Detroit Free Press Historical Marker is now affixed to the Detroit News Building at 615 West Lafayette for reasons that I do not understand. In 2017, the offices of both the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News were located on West Fort in the building that was formerly the Detroit branch of the Federal Reserve Branch Bank of Chicago. That building was removed and is owned by Dan Gilbert's Bedrock real estate firm.

In 2008, a Fort Lauderdale firm purchased the Free Press building, presumably with plans to renovate the structure. In June, 2010, the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority approved financial incentives for reconfiguring this structure. In December, 2010, that Fort Lauderdale firm announced plans to spend 73 million to convert the building into retail space, apartments and offices. These plans called for 23,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor. The second floor will be reconfiured into 27,000 square feet of commercialo office space. One hundred and fifteen market rates apartments were to be created on the third through 13th floor of Albert Kahn's magnificent structure. This plan fell through, perhaps a result of the continuing economic crisis that began in the fall of 2008. In October, 2013, the building was sold for $4.2 million to a Shanghai based firm, DDI Group but also known as Dongdu International Group. Presumably DDI Group intended tospend 40 to 50 million dollars to create retail space on the ground level. Those plans also fell apart. In January, 2017, Dan Gilbert's Bedrock real estate firm announced that they had obtained the building and might devote approximately $75 million to a renovation which would provide retail space at the ground level, several stories of offices and then apartment at the upper levels of this fourteen story building. The newspaper announcement mention an anticipated opening date for the renovated building in 2019.

Architect: Albert Kahn
Architectural Style: Art Deco and Classical themes
Date of Completion: 1925
Use in 2017: Empty building awaiting renovation
Sculptor for the many bas relief figures on the exterior: Ulysses A. Ricci
Website for the Detroit Free Press:
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Listed January 8, 1981
State of Michigan Historic Marker: Put in place April 7, 1981. This is now on the Fort Street side of the Detroit News Building.
National Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; May 2, 2009
Description updated: January, 2017

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