Dusting off Detroit's grand old castle

The G.A.R. building, once a Civil War veterans’ club, now will house offices and restaurant

By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News


A couple things stand out about the unique building called the G.A.R. Memorial Hall that stands alone on Grand River at Cass and Adams in Detroit.

The most obvious is that it looks like a sandstone castle, complete with turreted towers and narrow fortress-like windows. It also is restricted to a tiny triangular cement island lot on the northwest side of downtown, as if set aside for something. At four stories high, it’s too tall to be a Victorian house, too small to be an office building. Since 1982, commuters have driven by its boarded-up windows.

But lately, there’s new life in the old towers: an American flag now flies from one of the turrets; the plywood that covered the windows has been replaced with plate glass; there is a new roof, and temporary fencing now surrounds the ground floor.

These changes are due to new owners: two brothers, Tom and David Carleton, and their friend Sean Emery, all three of them partners in Mindfield, a media production company located in downtown Detroit.

The three plan to take the G.A.R. building’s top floor for Mindfield offices, rent out the two middle floors, and turn the ground floor into two restaurants.

It’s a transformation that will no doubt lure the curious. When the Detroit Historical Society (DHS) offers tours, they are sold out with a waiting list of 50 people. According to Rebecca McDonald, manager of programs at DHS, “People are always asking me, ‘What is the inside of the castle building like?’”

‘Pigeon guano, dust, asbestos’

The building was constructed at the turn of the century for Civil War veterans who belonged to the organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), founded on April 6, 1866 on the principles of “Fraternity, Charity and Loyalty.” The G.A.R. grew to be the biggest veterans’ organization in the country at nearly 500,000 members and was a precursor of the current U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The organization was restricted to Union veterans, although that included black veterans for the first time.

By 1934 the veterans were too old to maintain the building and handed it over to the City of Detroit, which turned it into a recreation center for a time.

Tom Carleton explains what they are up against with rehabilitating the old structure.

“When we first toured the building it was like an episode of ‘The X-Files.’ We were taken to the building with other potential buyers by a city representative at night. They gave us flashlights and hard hats and we began walking through the pitch black rooms and up creaking stairways. There was no electricity and no light since the windows were boarded up. Pigeon guano, dust, asbestos, wiring, smashed lights and graffiti covered every inch.”

While vandals had done some damage, their worst destruction was perhaps unintentional. The access to the small turret roofs was gained by lifting a simple, shingled plywood hatch. When vandals climbed down from the roof they left the roof hatches open, and years of rain water and snow melt poured through the openings. Water damage was severe, destroying or damaging a good portion of the spruce pine joists, flooring and plastered walls.

Construction is well under way; 10-feet-high plate glass windows weighing up to 500 pounds each have been fit into original oak window frames that have been refinished on what will be the building’s ground floor façade. Spring sunlight is pouring into the old castle for the first time in 30 years.

Currently, contractors are “sounding” the plaster to see what can be saved of the interior walls and what must come down to be re-plastered. The walls are in rough shape, with only vestiges of the original paint. The rooms and hallways are festooned with graffiti.

What has survived the best are the floors. In some rooms the city covered the original wood floor with plywood sheets or linoleum, which protected the hardwood beneath. In the entrance is a mosaic tiled floor that is in excellent condition.

Built to last

The castle motif was popular at the turn of the century and is referred to as Richardson Romanesque, a style with a rough stone exterior, thick walls, and castle-like flourishes intended to convey a sense of security and a militaristic feeling of strength. It is a theme also seen in light guard armories and in churches such as the First Presbyterian Church on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

Structurally the building, like many in its day, is overbuilt. Since there was no structural analysis available to architects and engineers, the practice was to be absolutely certain something was solid – so, beams, pillars and joists are all built much stronger than is actually needed. Joists seen in ceilings with destroyed plaster are huge, made from the original Michigan pine forests. “There is very little steel in this building,” Tom Carleton explained. “It’s mostly wood, stone and cement.”

The building’s features are functional rather than opulent, without the stained glass, ornately carved banisters or polished brass details of Victorian homes. The entrance doors and arched windows are huge, but the lobby is unimpressive compared to the breathtaking vaulted ceilings of the finest Detroit buildings. A late-added elevator also takes up a large portion of the lobby.

But the building has its special beauty. Ceilings are 20 feet high in almost every room. Walls are ‘coved’ or arched near the ceiling. Sunlight pours into every room from the plate glass windows and when combined with the high ceilings, the building seems airy and open. There doesn’t seem to be a right angle anywhere. The room shapes are determined by the castle structure, with round turret rooms and wedge shaped rooms.

David Carleton said, “Many of these rooms were called ‘parlors’ and some were used to house a library, a billiard room, and a cigar lounge.”

“Fairbanks Post of the G.A.R. celebrated Lincoln’s birthday by giving a smoker in the post’s rooms. … The comrades settled down to pedro (a card game) with pipes and tobacco and a big siphon (a soda siphon or what we call a seltzer bottle) of ginger ale as aids to merriment.” — Detroit Free Press, February 16, 1900.

Big doors once had sliding “peek-a-boo” slots where members might have to be approved to enter.

A provision from the past

The Carleton brothers and Sean Emery have learned one complication with owning the G.A.R. building is its history. The land for the building was donated by the descendants of Gov. Lewis Cass with the stipulation that the ground floor must remain a market open to the public; pressure from local farmers kept the ground floor as a farmer’s market even though city historian C.M. Burton claimed it was never very popular. As the building was developed, the term “market” was loosened to include any retail establishment. Over the years shops have included a tire store, a bank, and even a surplus electronic parts store.

When the Mindfield partners were awarded ownership of the building by the city, they had to honor that condition. So restaurant designers and chefs are already being interviewed for the two ground floor restaurants. One will have a ‘50s diner theme, featuring neon, chrome, tile, and a long counter. The larger adjacent space will take advantage of the castle’s unique ground floor setting with a high ceiling and rows of squared pillars.

“We are calling this restaurant ‘The Republic’ and it will have a tavern setting,” said Tom Carleton. “Lots of oak.” There will be a patio for seating outside as well.

Another condition of ownership is that the building must be maintained as a memorial to Civil War veterans — a stipulation that chased away other potential owners. The Mindfield partners saw this as an opportunity to do something good for the city while taking advantage of the building’s unique character.

Tom Carleton explained, “Maintaining the authenticity of the building increases its value. We plan to set up a display in the entrance that explains the building and its G.A.R. members. It’ll be a touch screen, interactive board because that is some of what we do at Mindfield. It will also have a case to display some of the historic artifacts we are finding as we tear up the walls and floors.”

The partners have hired a part-time historian — Bruce Butgereit from Grand Rapids, who has an expertise in Civil War-related issues — to help them understand the history of the times and the history of their building.

“There are G.A.R. buildings throughout the state,” Butgereit said. “Some are tiny, like the G.A.R. building in Sunfield, Michigan. Some have been changed into museums or other functions. The G.A.R. in St. Joseph on the river is now a children’s museum. But the Detroit hall has always been special.”

The Mindfield partners work with the State Historical Commission, since the building is designated as an historic structure.

Tom Carleton said, “At first the relationship was ‘by the book,’ literally — they have a book that says what can and cannot be done. But later as they began to see we were serious about restoration, they relaxed a bit. However, they have the final word on everything we do.”

The new owners are serious about returning the building to its roots. A deteriorated asphalt shingled roof has been replaced with a slate composite tile that looks like the original slate roof. Roof flashing and gutters were reproduced with costly historically appropriate materials. Wall and ceiling molding has been restored. Large oak doors are being built to be exact replicas.

However, the Mindfield team knows that there would be no building to restore without a key player who held on to her resolute belief that the building must be maintained to honor those Detroiters who fought in the Civil War. That person was Celestine Hollings.

Celestine Hollings’ campaign

Detroit native Hollings is in her 90s now and lives in Dearborn Heights. The former registered nurse and retired public school teacher discovered her Civil War connection in the early 1980s while doing genealogical research for a family reunion. Her search revealed that her mother, Ora Allen, was a daughter of a Civil War veteran, Jacob Allen of Nelson County, Ky., one of 200,000 African-American Civil War veterans.

Hollings is mentally very sharp and quick to laugh. This morning she wears a red blazer with a medal and a badge on the lapels. She points to the medal. “This one is from the ‘Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War’,” she explains. “And this badge is to record that my grandfather fought in the Civil War. I’m a direct lineal descendent.”

Hollings begins to get excited. “It is so important to think that I have this very important link to American history. That my grandfather helped save the Union flag. This means that we really did have a part, which is so new to so many people. They don’t realize that we took part.”

When the City of Detroit was considering selling the G.A.R. building in the mid 1990s, it ran into Celestine Hollings. In 1991 she had resurrected the local chapter of the Daughters of Union Veterans by contacting local women with an interest in genealogy; you had to have 10 members to become a local “tent.” They initially met in a Big Boy restaurant. The Detroit group grew to about 30 African-American women, all with ancestors who fought in the war.

When she learned that her predecessors in the local group — officially called the Sarah M.W. Sterling Tent #3 — met in the G.A.R. building, Hollings resolved to save it as a museum.

Her group spent years writing letters to city officials and attending City Council meetings. “I would not let that building rot! I would not!” she said. “They kept postponing us on the City Council agenda but we kept going.”

She met Bruce Butgereit, who is with the Sons of the Civil War Veterans in Grand Rapids, and they formed a coalition. They brought suit against the city to block the sale of the building, on the grounds that a clause in the 1898 deed stated that the city must preserve the building as a memorial to Civil War veterans. The coalition was successful and obtained a consent judgment to preserve certain historical parts of the building.

As Tom Carleton explained, “When we bought the building we had to have Celestine’s confidence that we would remain true to its history and the memory of the men who fought the war and built the building. She is a tiny woman, under five feet, but when she toured the building she climbed each stairway up four stories. She was a driving force in the 1990s that basically saved this building for years.”

The ‘silk stocking’ post

The G.A.R.’s purpose was to give the former soldiers a social organization and to provide charity assistance and health care to needy veterans and their families. It also paid for funerals and burials for those without means.

The national organization was divided into state branches called “departments” and community level organizations called “posts,” usually named after a deceased local war hero and numbered within its state department. Detroit was home to several posts: the Farquhar Post, Fairbanks Post, John Brown Post (African American), Detroit Post and the O.M. Poe Post. The building was proposed to the city by the Fairbanks Post in 1892; Fairbanks was derogatorily referred to as the “silk stockings” post by some, since many of the members came from wealthy neighborhoods.

Historian Butgereit said, “Every member wore their local post’s unique uniform that included a black Stetson hat, blue double-breasted coat, blue-black trousers, and a white belt worn outside the coat with the striking G.A.R. brass belt buckle. The Fairbanks post also wore a white ascot.”

“The main motive here was to secure in Detroit permanent free quarters for the different old soldier organizations. While some of the veterans are well-to-do and could maintain their share of the payment of rental, the mass of them are poor.” — Detroit Free Press, December 12, 1900.

The City of Detroit agreed to help pay for the new building. The cost was split between the Detroit G.A.R. members (who paid $6,000) and the city (which paid the remainder of the $44,000 total cost).

It was designed by Swiss-born local architect Julius Hess, who died before it was finished. Construction was completed in 1900, a week after Hess’s death. The dedication for the completed hall — attended by hundreds of Detroiters — was held on Jan. 16, 1901. “ Grand Old Men Now Snugly Housed,” read the headline in the Detroit Free Press.

The G.A.R.’s political power grew during the latter part of the 19th century, and it became a formidable political organization by the turn of the century. It helped elect several presidents, beginning with Ulysses S. Grant and ending with William McKinley. For a time, candidates could not get nominated to the Republican ticket without the endorsement of the G.A.R. voting bloc.

At the end of the 19th century nearly anyone who was anyone was a G.A.R. member, including Detroit’s nationally famous mayor, Hazen Pingree, and drugstore owner, City Council member and creator of Detroit’s beloved ginger ale, James Vernor.

“I wonder if you know how much influence I really have. I can throw the Grand Army at any candidate like a sock. Even the President likes to know what I think about public matters. I can get senators defeated and I can pick appointments like apples. I can make men and I can destroy men. Do you know that?” — from East of Eden by John Steinbeck

But by 1910, numbers of members were beginning to dwindle:

“Since Fairbanks Post was mustered in May 1881 there have been about 1,350 veterans placed upon its rolls. Some have withdrawn … but a far greater percentage has joined their martyr comrades in the great beyond, until now only about 300 answer ‘Here!’ to roll call.” — Detroit Free Press, January 9, 1910.

Basketball, shuffleboard in a castle

When the city took over the building, it converted the space into a recreation center from 1940 to 1982, when it was closed as a cost-saving move. “The third floor housed the locker room. The top floor was shuffleboard, basketball, table tennis and more,” David Carleton said.

Originally, the top floor was a small auditorium, 80 feet wide. It was used for conferences, dances and general meetings. Three hundred people could fit in the room. Along one side is a recessed brick wall that held a stage that is now gone. Above the stage there once was a painted mural, showing scenes from three the Civil War battles. With the help of historian Butgereit and records of the time, the Mindfield partners plan to recreate the murals.

top floor balcony

Originally, the top floor was a small auditorium, 80 feet wide, with a full-length curved balcony that is so big it was classified as a half story by city building inspectors. (Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News)

Across from the stage is a full-length curved balcony that is so big it was classified as a half story by city building inspectors; so, the building is actually four and a half stories.

“We plan to use this space for our office. We can show clients video footage or other work. It’s like a movie theater,” said Tom Carleton. “Other than blocking out some editorial offices and conference rooms, we’ll leave it as it is. We love it.”

History and creativity

Every day they find hidden “jewels”: behind ugly aluminum paneling is original hardwood wainscoting in perfect condition. One wall was opened up to reveal brick fireplaces that are on every floor. Beautiful decorative steel columns were so perfectly preserved in the building’s front they decided to leave them and protect them with a clear lacquer rather than cover them with paint. A marble tablet was found under a stairway on the second floor honoring the members who provided additional funding to get the hall built. Tom Carleton said they eventually plan to display it in the lobby.

The Mindfield trio has about $1 million of their own money into the restoration, and expect an ultimate cost of close to $3 million. They hope to have the two middle floors leased out soon to another creative firm.

“Detroiters never really paid much attention to old buildings. If there was an old building it would be covered with aluminum paneling or layers and layers of paint,” Tom Carleton said.

The castle is their second rehab project, larger than their first — the Library Lofts, across from the Skillman Branch of the Detroit Public Library downtown.

“We were told ‘You will starve’,” David Carleton said. “We were told we were ‘stupid’ and ‘wasting money.’ We were completely alone. Lunch choices downtown were Coney Islands or Greektown. You could not buy a breakfast in downtown. Everybody was in the suburbs. Now, creative agencies are all down here. People come from the suburbs and from other places, like Chicago, to rent lofts. We have not had an empty loft in five years.”

To date their vision has paid off. The changes downtown leave them breathless.

“The growth has been exponential,” Sean Emery said. “The costs are so low.”

He uses the metaphor of a field that once burned comes back more fertile. “This is a transitional time; I have mixed feelings. I know we need the big chain restaurants and stores, but I think I’ll miss the entrepreneurs and pioneers.”

But they remain energetic and filled with plans.

Tom Carleton added, “People come from all over the country and get right into things, whereas people from the suburbs are more skeptical and fearful. A lot of people don’t see what we see in a building like this. It’s about the history and the people, not the building.”