David Whitney Building

1553 Woodward Avenue at Grand Circus Park

Three Daniel Burnham skyscrapers are found in downtown Detroit today: the Dime Building; the Ford Building and the David Whitney Building. The Dime and the Ford remind you of the Chicago style buildings that we associate with Burnham—tall white buildings with classical elements and easily seen light wells. At first glance, you might think that the David Whitney is not a typically Burnham skyscraper. Several reasons may account for this. First, Burnham—and his firm—designed the Whitney some years later than the Dime or the Ford. Second, the plot for the Whitney is a confined triangle of land. Third. the building was finished three years after Daniel Burnham’s death, so it did not superintend its completion. Additionally, the Whitney was “modernized” in the 1950s to make it look more up to date.

David Whitney, born in Watertown, Massachusetts in 1830, moved to Detroit in 1857 to administer the lumber business of two East Coast firms. By the 1870s, he established his own business and rapidly became one of the state’s richest individuals. He and his associates realized that as the nation industrialized in the late 19th Century, there would be a tremendous demand for lumber, both for buildings and for industrial products such as railroad cars. He started in the lumber business before the Bessemer Process produced high-quality steel at low cost. Whitney’s firm typically purchased huge tracts of white pine in Michigan and Wisconsin for low prices, then cut the pine trees and sold the lumber, enabling him to become exceptionally rich.

Whitney built a suitable mansion for his family in Detroit, the elegant Romanesque Revival home designed by Gordon Lloyd and located at 4421 Woodward. Completed in 1894, it is now well preserved and serves as the Whitney restaurant. He also speculated in real estate and development in Detroit. In 1885, Whitney purchased the land at Woodward and Grand Circus Park where city assessor H. H. LeRoy had a home. The house was razed and Whitney built a five-story commercial building, the Grand Circus Building. When David Whitney died in 1900, he was the richest man in the city. His son—David Charles Whitney— controlled the family fortune. By this time, the white pine boom was coming to an end since most of the forests of Michigan and Wisconsin had been cut. As Detroit became the vehicle capital of the world, David Charles Whitney had the small Grand Circus Building razed and replaced it with the edifice that you see. He selected Daniel Burnham and his firm to design a 19-story building done in the Chicago skyscraper style and completed in 1915. The younger Whitney may have had this building constructed with the aim of providing offices for doctors and dentists.

Originally, this building had an attractive stone and terra cotta exterior at the lower level with matching colored brick used as facing for the upper floors. There were attractive decorative cornices at the top of this skyscraper. At this time in Detroit’s history, developers intended that Washington Boulevard become an elegant shopping area comparable to Park or Madison Avenue in New York. The Book’s brothers built their hotel and their huge Book Tower office buildings in hopes of promoting the Washington Boulevard shopping area. The David Whitney building and the Statler Hotel were built simultaneously at the Grand Circus Park intersection with Washington Boulevard to anchor the northern end of the district. The Book Cadillac Hotel anchored the southern end.

The David Whitney Building was designed with a five-story atrium area where shops could be located. This atrium also served to provide light for the building’s corridors This was designed as an elegant building. The atrium was done in white tile, terra cotta and marble in the Italian Renaissance style. The public corridors in the building had Italian marble floors and walls. Mahogany was used as the wood in the public areas, while the office floors were in marble. For several decades, the Whitney was, apparently, the city’s most prestigious location for medical offices.

In the 1950s, the Whitney was modernized. The exterior was substantially changed and the cornices at the top were removed. This substantially changed the appearance of the building. Alas, I do not have a good picture of the Whitney prior its modernization. Into the 1950s, the David Whitney building primarily provided office space for doctors, many of them with priviledges at the nearby hospitals in what is now the Detroit Medical Center.

The organization of medical practice changed after World War II, and doctors preferred to have their offices in or near the hospitals where they practiced. This was one serious economic problem for the owners of the Whitney but, by the 1980s, the demand for office space in downtown Detroit fell sharply.

The Whitney family owned this property until 1965 when it was sold to a New York investment firm. A Montreal corporation purchased the Whitney in 1974 and attempted a renovation, but their efforts were not financially successful. In 1985, the Grella family from New York purchased the Whitney, started to remodel and hoped to attract a clientele of artists to replace the doctors and dentists. Alas, they were not successful and the building was sold at foreclosure in 1990.

A variety of entrepreneurs have announced their hopes or plans for the Whitney in the last 15 years. At one point, there were plans to convert the structure into a Doubletree Hotel. Some parts of the building were used, briefly, as recruitment and training center for one of the city’s three casinos, but the building has basically been empty since the 1980s and awaits redevelopment. In March, 2011; a Farmington Hills hotel investment firm, Trans Inn Management, and a Detroit developer, The Roxbury Group, purchased this Whitney Building for $3.3 million. In May, 2011, they announced their attention to refurbish the structure with an emphasis upon its historic significance. They intend to open a 108 room upscale botique hotel and use the remainer of the building for apartments.

By 2011, the long awaited rebuilding of the Broderick Tower - just across from Woodward - from the David Whitney was underway. If these two buildings are successful converted into prosperous enterprises, there will be strong evidence of the renewal of downtown Detroit and its emergence as a desirable residential location.

Architect: Daniel Burnham
Architectural style: Classical Chicago skyscraper but greatly modernized in the 1950s
Date of Completion: 1916
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Listed June 7, 2000
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites. This building is, I believe, included in the
Grand Circus Park Historic District
National Register of Historic Places: This building is, I believe, included in the Grand Circus Park Historic District
Use in 2006: Awaiting renovation
Photograph: Ren Farley

Description updated: July, 2011


Return to City of Detroit Historic Designations

Return to Commercial Buildings

Return to Homepage