Fort Shelby Hotel
The Fort Shelby in photos
The Fort Shelby Hotel Story
Fort Shelby 1917
The Fort Shelby Hotel in 1920.

When E.M. Statler opened his new hotel in 1915 it introduced a new standard of excellence. Most of the existing hotels could not meet the challenge effectively. Thus conditions were ripe for the construction of a new breed of Detroit hotel.

In 1917 a group of investors lead by John C. Thomson, Chas. A. Bray, and G. Brewster Loud formed the Fort Shelby Hotel Company with plans of taking advantage of the market. They wished to erect a hotel with all the latest innovations.  Its name would be taken from an old fort that previously occupied the site.  With a loan of $600,000, the Fort Shelby Hotel Company worked with all haste to complete their new hotel.

The company purchased land at the corner of First Street and Lafayette Blvd. for $200,000. This parcel of land measured 102 feet on Lafayette and 139 feet on First. It was the wish of the Fort Shelby Hotel Co. to provide affordable first class accommodations to the traveling public. With this intent in mind, the location made perfect sense.  It was near the river steamer docks and only two blocks from Union Station. It also was near the DUR station to the Michigan Central Depot. A few blocks to the east one would find the financial district and plenty of shopping. Several theaters nearby would provide entertainment for the guest.

Dining Room Entrance
Entrance to the Dining Room.

The building was designed by the Chicago firm of Richard E. Schmidt, Garden, & Martin and cost $890,000. 450 guest rooms would be contained within a 10 floor steel framed structure. The exterior was tapestry brick and cut stone.  The interior was fireproofed and designed with "proper regard for artistic decoration, together with the comfort and convenience of guest." The ground floor offered a spacious lobby, formal main dining room, a Coffee Shop, and lobby shops.  The hotel had little meeting space at this point.  The furnishings for these interiors cost $110,000.  The grand total for the land, building, and furnishings cost over $1,200,000.  The Fort Shelby Hotel Co. had managed to build a lovely efficient hotel for less then half of the cost of Hotel Statler.

Though not as large or grand as the Statler, the Fort Shelby offered patrons many new innovations.  Like the Statler, each room had a bath with running water.  The building was fireproofed. The guest rooms all offered modern heating. There was a hotel owned automobile garage built across the street. The restaurant equipment was the most modern then available. The hotel's most notable feature were the servidors. A servidor was a compartment built into a guest room door. Each side of the compartment had a door and a signal. A guest could place an item of clothing needing pressing into the compartment and a hotel employee would open the servidor from the hall to collect it. It could also be used to deliver items to the guest without disturbing them. The servidor's most praised service was its removing the need to tip employees.  The Fort Shelby offered the first servidor service in Detroit.

Fort Shelby addition
The 1927 addition by Albert Kahn.

Upon opening in late 1917 Fort Shelby proved to be a huge success. The investors were no doubt pleased to see it operated at near capacity. Emboldened by their success, the Fort Shelby Hotel Co. drew up a two stage plan to enlarge their hotel. These plans involved adding two 450 room wings to the existing structure. The final result would be the largest hotel in Detroit. In 1926 work had begun on the first addition. The company had to borrow $2,700,000 to assist in completing the new wing.  This would come back to haunt them. The addition was placed along Lafayette Blvd. Built on a smaller plot of land, the wing would be 21 stories. It would contain larger guest rooms, meeting space, an expanded lobby, and more restaurants. The building was constructed of structural steel with reinforced concrete floors.  The exterior had five floors of cut stone with the remaining floors being built of face brick and terra cotta in the classical style. In addition to the tower, the basement was reconfigured and a new heating plant installed. The design work was done by the famed Albert Kahn.

With the 1927 completion of the 450 room addition the public rooms had to be rearranged. The original lobby was expanded into the new building, the design of the new section were true to the original. However, the former dining room became a Coffee Shop as its function was now filled by a larger restaurant in the new wing. This new restaurant was known as the Empire Room which would serve Detroit society for decades. The old Coffee Shop became a Cocktail Lounge. Additional restaurants were placed in the basement of the addition and the 21st floor. The second floor was reconfigured into a conference floor. The highlight was the new Crystal Ballroom. The largest of the hotel's meeting rooms, the Crystal Ballroom offered a large column free hall with a stage. Smaller meeting rooms rotated around the Crystal Ballroom and its adjoining kitchen. These new facilities allowed the Fort Shelby to take its place as one of Detroit's leading hotels. Things were looking up for the Fort Shelby Hotel Co.

the empire room
The popular Empire Room in the 1940's.

Unfortunately two years later the Great Depression hit the country like a tornado. The financial situation changed almost overnight and plans for an additional 450 rooms were canceled. The hotel quickly found itself struggling just to stay afloat. In 1934 the Fort Shelby Hotel Co. defaulted on $2,538,000 of its 1917 mortgage (1934 dollars), and $350,000 of its 1926 mortgage. It was the beginning of the destruction of the Fort Shelby Hotel Co. Four years of financial trouble, bondholder lawsuits, and mismanagement were to follow. By the late 30's the hotel recovered under the capable management of J.E. Frawley. Frawley continued to manage the hotel throughout the World War 2. At this time the hotel was suddenly hit with all the business it could handle.

The postwar hotel industry was dominated by the large chains. Hilton, Sheraton, and Albert Pick were gobbling up independent hotels across the country. On February 22, 1951 Detroiters received news that the Fort Shelby Hotel was sold for an undisclosed amount to the Albert Pick Hotels Co.  It became the 27th Pick operated hotel. Within three weeks of the sale Pick had taken over management of the hotel. It was now the Pick-Fort Shelby Hotel. J.E. Frawley continued on as Vice President and director of the hotel.

Fortunate for us, Pick did not drastically alter the hotel's decor. This contrasted sharply to the horrors Hilton and Sheraton committed upon the Statler and Book-Cadillac. The only major public rooms that were altered were the restaurants. The basement restaurant was converted into a meeting room, space on the top floor was redecorated. The Cocktail Lounge, now the Tiger Bar, was redone. The Coffee Shop was converted into the Java Room. Its old decor was covered with sleek natural wood surfaces. However, the lobby, Empire Room, and Crystal Ballroom retained their designs.

Fort Shelby 1960's
The Fort Shelby in the 1960's.

These changes could not save the Pick-Fort Shelby from hard times in the 60's and early 70's. Its chief business, the budget minded public, were flocking to the new motels in the suburbs. It also could no longer count on the railroads to bring in guest. The 70's witnessed the closing of Union Station and the near death of the Michigan Central Station. To further the hotel's problems, its convention space was never amble enough to attract large conventions. The hotel was losing money fast and Pick wanted out. They closed the Pick-Fort Shelby in December, 1973.

Despite the changing industry hopes were high that the building would reopen in some fashion. These hopes were realized when Albert Pick Hotels sold the Fort Shelby to Jay, Neena, and Vivian Ross for less then $1,000,000. They were the children of Herman Ross, aged 21, 20, and 24 respectively. Their ages and lack of experience did not dampen the enthusiasm of the media as it hyped up a $3,000,000 renovation that followed the sale. To them the newly renamed Shelby Hotel appeared to have a great future.

The conversion into the Shelby Hotel required drastic redecorating of the public rooms to meet the requirements of the Ross's vision. They wanted the hotel to be a mixed use facility. 550 hotel rooms would continue in their original function while the remaining guest rooms would be converted into apartments. New theme restaurants would take place of the old. The whole facility was to be geared to youth. The basement Terrace Room became the Subway Disco. The grand Empire Room was painted pink and green and renamed Alice's Restaurant. The Tiger Bar became JJ's. The Coffee Shop was Bubba's Delicatessen. The old Java Room was repainted with bright red and green and transformed into Papa Pasta's Spaghetti Parlor. The lobby and upper floors received new paint jobs as well. After the remodeling the hotel looked like the product of a marriage between a roller rink and grand hotel. The Shelby Hotel opened its doors on February 25, 1974.

Shelby 70's
The Shelby Hotel in the 1970's
Courtesy: Michigan State Historic Preservation Office

Not too shocking, the youth/party hotel concept did not fly. Three months after opening the Shelby Hotel announced that it would cease hotel operations. It had suffered "a considerable loss" since opening. Vacancies had remained in the 70-85% range. Part of the problem was cited was the building's focus on the youth and the presence of so many bars. Fights in the lobby were common and at least 20 burglaries had taken place. Not exactly the kind of hotel to earn AAA's recommendation. Initial plans involved keeping the apartment operation going in the tower. The 1917 building was sealed off. Likewise building's restaurants and bars would also remain open. The building had 136 guest registered in the apartments but they soon left. By the early 80's most of the remaining restaurants had closed. The vast bulk of the building was sealed off and allowed to rot. For many years the only tenant of the building was a bar named Shelby's.  It occupied part of the lobby space. It closed in 1998 and the Fort Shelby Hotel finally became completely vacant. It is now owned by a real estate firm. Plans for its renovation have surfaced.


The Detroit News and Free Press: various articles 1916-2001
The Burton Historical Collection's Fort Shelby clippings file.
The Architectural Forum, Feb 1920.


Copyright 2002 - 2003, David Kohrman
Last updated October 12, 2003