Lee Plaza is located at 2240 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan, and the former apartment building is a state historic site and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its architecture is a true representation of Art Deco from the 1920s. During its heyday, it was known for its catch phrase: “You will never miss your home when you stay at the Lee Plaza.”
Proposed by Ralph T. Lee, a self-made millionaire who began working in a furniture store and engraving company before transitioning into the real estate business, Lee Plaza was the accumulation of Lee’s vision for a grander, greater Detroit. In October 1919, Lee left his job as an engraver with the J.B. VanAlstyne Engraving Company to start up a construction company, completing apartment complexes throughout the bustling city. His office was located on the fifth floor of the General Motors Building. By the 1920s, Lee was making more than $100,000 per year, a tidy sum for the time.
Designed by Charles Noble with a set budget of over one million dollars, Lee Plaza was planned as an upscale apartment tower with hotel services and was one of the tallest building to be built under his watch. Ground was broken on Lee Plaza on May 1, 1927 and was completed in 1929 at a cost of over $2.5 million, with Otto Misch Company acting as the general contractor. The 15-story structure, known as Lee Plaza Hotel, was decorated with sculpture and tile that represented the Art Deco style with a Mediterranean influence, and faced with an orange glazed brick on the exterior. The top featured imported red Spanish tile, capped with a green copper roof. It was part of Lee’s vision for a New York Fifth Avenue feel, with the hope that West Grand Boulevard would be upscale, denser and stacked with residential mid-rises.
The interior was fitted with 220 one-to-four-room apartments. Each unit featured a Servidor for dry cleaned goods, and the one-and-two-bedroom units were furnished, while the furnishings for the three- and four-bedroom units were optional. The first floor contained a grocery store and ballroom, while the basement contained a beauty parlor, children’s playroom and a game room. Other amenities included daily maid service and radio service. The common areas featured Italian marble floors, exquisite walnut wood paneling and hand painted frescos and detailed barrel vaulted ceilings, with polychromed plasterwork. Most notable was Peacock Alley, named for the use of blue, gold and green colors in the coffered ceiling of the barrel-vaulted walkway.
Lee sold Lee Plaza to the Detroit Investment Company, but by December 1930, the company was behind on its payments by $1.1 million. The Metropolitan Trust Company was appointed as the receiver, but went into receivership and was then transferred to the Equitable Trust Company in 1931. Through some shady dealings by Lee, which involved his hardware business, and the Depression, Lee Plaza was bankrupt by 1935. The legal woes continued until Lee Plaza was sold to Charles Owen, a local real estate dealer who had owned a third of the outstanding bonds on the structure, in August 1943 for just $475,585.
But apartment homes had begun to fall out of favor by the 1940s, and the allure of Lee Plaza was on the decline, hosting transients and other short term renters. The Lee Plaza Company was formed in November to acquire the assets of Lee Plaza for $600,000. In the 1960s, Lee Plaza was sold to a developer who conducted minor renovations of the building. In January 1969, the company sold the building to the city who converted the building into low-income senior citizen housing. New kitchens were added and the elevators were modernized.
Lee Plaza was added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 5, 1981. From the time of its opening to the time it was added to the register, the building had never been completely remodeled, keeping intact its Art Deco elements, its frescos and ornamentation. But the decline of the building continued, culminating with its closure in 1997 due to a lack of funding to maintain Lee Plaza.
In 2000, more than fifty terracotta lion heads were stolen from Lee Plaza and were missing until six of the heads were spotted in a new residential development project in Chicago, Illinois. The developer, Greene & Proppe, had purchased them for less than $1,000 each from Architectural Artifacts of Chicago, who had purchased them from an antiques dealer in Saline, Michigan. Twenty-four of the lion heads along with three stone griffins were eventually recovered. Valued at over two million dollars, the ornamentation has been put into storage for reuse at the Lee—if it is ever redeveloped. The copper roof, however, was stripped in 2005 and photos of the once grand building show it to be in poor condition.