News moving out, leaving century of memories behind
Neal Rubin recounts the 97-year history of The Detroit News' building as the staff prepares to move to its new Fort Street offices.
Ninety-seven years and nine days.
Two world wars and a lot of smaller ones. Three Pulitzer Prizes. Louis vs. Schmeling, cops vs. Purple Gang, Worthy vs. Kilpatrick.
On Oct. 15, 1917, Woodrow Wilson was president, Albert Sleeper was governor and Oscar Marx was mayor. The Detroit News was 44 years old, and it had a new home — the one we're leaving today.
Across nearly a century, the daily history of a city, a region and a state has been written at 615 W. Lafayette.
The building was a marvel when it opened, the largest and best-appointed newspaper plant in the world. It stretched along Second Avenue from Lafayette to Fort — and it was too small. The first expansion began the next year.
Now it's too big, too hard to heat and too expensive to maintain. We're moving to the old Federal Reserve headquarters on Fort, a modernized and renovated space with faster Wi-Fi and lots of little conference rooms and maybe an espresso bar.
You'll find The News there come Monday, along with the Detroit Free Press and Michigan.com, the company that handles the business responsibilities for both papers. It'll be perky and pretty and practical, and we'll get used to it.
But you could just as easily find an ad agency there, or some accountants. The place we're leaving was born to hold a newspaper, back when hundreds of thousands of readers held one in their hands every day.
"There were giants here," says Nolan Finley, 59, editorial page editor of The News.
He first walked into the building on his 21st birthday, a thoroughly awed copyboy, when editors roared and the newspaper war was fought with verve and mirth and probably some tactics that would get you fired today.
Finley remembers a Soviet sailor jumping ship in Detroit and the Free Press stashing him in a room at the old Pick-Fort Shelby Hotel on Lafayette, later closed and now miraculously reopened as a DoubleTree.
Detroit News reporters pretending to be immigration officers shanghaied the seaman and the story.
It's a tale you'd find in an old newspaper movie — one they could have filmed in our building.
If the walls could talk ...
Presidents came through the doors. So did every Michigan governor and senator since the Red Baron patrolled the skies.
Henry Ford was here — versions I and II — and Roger Penske, too. Dan Gilbert is pocketing the key; his Bedrock Real Estate Services is the new owner. But before any of them could walk into the building, Albert Kahn had to design it.
What Frank Lloyd Wright was to houses, Kahn was to industry, except his buildings didn't leak. He crafted Ford Rouge, the Packard plant and Willow Run, and used Indiana limestone to erect a paragraph factory for The News.
The structure was so immediately respected that photos of it were featured at a 1921 exhibition in Paris. "The nature of the enterprise it houses," Kahn said, "is reflected in the character of the structure itself."
There were flourishes, though, that contrasted with the hulking printing presses in the basement.
The original publisher's suite on the mezzanine has oaken woodwork, a fireplace, leaded glass windows and wet plaster ceilings. Elsewhere, there were murals and a grand piano.
Inscriptions high on the exterior walls ring the building and still ring true: "Reflector of every human interest," "Protector of civic rights," "Scourge of evil doers."
The rooftop held a tennis court, though that disappeared quickly amid expansions that pushed The News' boundaries to 404,000 square feet on an entire city block.
"I always kind of appreciated that part of town," says Joel Stone, senior curator of the Detroit Historical Society. With the old Free Press building a few blocks east on Lafayette, "there was an immense amount of knowledge on that street."
Much of it was housed in the fourth-floor library. When Vivian Baulch hired on there in 1968, it had 24 employees, clipping and filing eight daily editions of The News and answering an endless barrage of questions from readers.
File cabinet at her side, "My boss would answer 400 calls a day," says Baulch, who retired eight years ago. "I could only get to about 200."
Who won this prize fight, or wrote that poem? Is a specific body part of John Dillinger's really housed in the Smithsonian? (No.)
Says Mark Harvey, the state archivist overseeing the move of millions of The News' articles and images to Lansing: "This was the Internet before the Internet."
Embracing new technology
Now the Internet is the Internet. We draw millions of page views each week at detroitnews.com, and sacrifice fewer and fewer trees.
In 1873, founder James E. Scripps' Evening News was delivered with horses. Its descendant arrives via satellite and cellphone. But every byte stands on a foundation of old-school character — and characters.
S.L.A. Marshall, the military affairs writer, used to walk the halls with a riding crop. Doc Greene wrote columns from the Lindell A/C bar, or had copyboys write them when he'd been there too long.
One copy editor had a nationally renowned collection of ketchup bottles. One was dumped into a trash can by a testy colleague. Fists flew sometimes, as did at least one rubbish bin.
The paper kept churning off the presses. Stories were told, great and small, each important to someone. Kings were made, scoundrels were exposed.
A Joint Operating Agreement fused the business operations of The News and Free Press in 1989. The Free Press moved in nine years later, and if neither paper was happy about it, there was one side benefit: The renovation that preceded its arrival removed the bricks from some first-floor arches that had been covered after the 1967 riot.
Jon Wolman, The News' publisher and editor, takes heart in knowing that improvements will continue. "We revere Albert Kahn's vision for a 20th-century newspaper," he says, "and we're glad the building will be renovated and will live to fight another day."
He says he's pleased, too, that "we're staying in the neighborhood," nestling even further into downtown as we embrace 21st-century technology and approaches.
The production machinery moved off-site decades ago, but when it still rumbled in the bowels of the building, the papers literally came upstairs hot off the presses.
"We used to get the first editions in the newsroom," says assistant metro editor Judy Diebolt, "and the ink was still damp."
The newspaper almost seemed like a living thing. The same holds for the building, and you don't need to be an old-timer to appreciate it.
"I don't want to leave," says Amelia Eramya, 24, a designer in sports. "I'm heartbroken about it. From the light fixtures to the grimy carpet, it really felt like a newsroom."
The new place feels like ... well, we don't know yet. All we know is that we'll be comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, just like always.
Will we learn to love it?
Ask us in 97 years.