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Detroit architect Louis Kamper and the City Beautiful

By Bill Loomis | Special to The Detroit News

He has been called the grand old man of Detroit architecture, having designed hundreds of buildings, including some of the most conspicuous commercial buildings and spectacular mansions during Detroit’s Gilded Age from the 1890s through the 1920s. Louis Kamper was responsible more than any other for the character of Detroit’s downtown architecture, creating the great buildings of an entire street — Washington Boulevard.

But he envisioned more than office buildings and fabulous homes. Kamper produced skyscrapers, hotels, parking garages, Florentine style bridges, a mausoleum, dance halls, and even a bathhouse on Belle Isle.

Perfect timing

Kamper was born in Bliesdalheim, Bavaria in 1861, and studied at the Technical School at Rheinpfalz before coming to America in 1882. He spent eight years in New York at what might be America’s most venerated architectural firm ever — McKim, Mead and White. He heard about the great wealth soaring in Detroit and figured correctly that people would need new buildings and homes.

Louis Kamper

Louis Kamper

At 26, he moved to Detroit. He was one of several famous German-born architects from the Victorian era; others included Frederick Spier, William C. Rohns, Julian Hess, and Gustav Meuller, whose most distinguished creation is the Hurlbut memorial gateway at Detroit Water Works Park. From Kamper’s own generation there was equally famous Albert Kahn, whose buildings, houses and factories are everywhere in Detroit, the most well-known being the Fisher Building.

The timing of Kamper’s arrival in Detroit was impeccable. Two things were occurring that made Detroiters seek out architects. The first was the seemingly limitless wealth that Detroit’s elite was building in mining, lumber, shipping, manufacturing and railroads. The second was the “City Beautiful” movement at the turn of the century that emphasized urban planning and architectural grandeur over uncontrolled industrial and population sprawl.

The movement promoted not only beautification of a city’s buildings, but civic and moral virtue; it is why the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Main Library of Detroit are located together. It was also the heyday of an architectural style called Eclectic, when all eyes were turned toward Europe for inspiration: Italian, English, French, Medieval, Roman, Greek, Mediterranean – Americans and wealthy Detroiters wanted them all.

Kamper’s experience at McKim, Mead and White did him well. He landed a position at a new firm in Detroit and was given a plum, albeit high-pressure project: to design a 21,000 square foot mansion on Woodward Avenue for one of Detroit’s wealthiest men. In answer, Kamper created what would be one of the most remarkable structures in the history of the city.

The Hecker House

Col. Frank J. Hecker  founded the Peninsular Car Company in Detroit and made a fortune in the railroad supply business. In 1888 he needed a home to reflect his status and wealth. By that time “upper” Woodward Avenue had replaced Jefferson Avenue as the place to build your mansion. David Whitney’s colossal home just down the street would be built five years later.

Hecker was not fond of the rusticated stone from Lake Superior used in the currently popular Romanesque style. The young Louis Kamper proposed a French Chateau; what style could better express a happy life than a 21,000-square-foot manse from Frances the First? Besides, Kamper told him, Detroit was a French town and a natural place for French style. Hecker was sold. The price: $52,000.

Construction began at Woodward Avenue at Ferry Street. which once had been the Ferry Seed farm. The style is called Chateauesque (or French Chateau architecture) and is based on the Chateau de Cenonceaux near Tours, France. Col. Hecker used his home to host elaborate parties where he entertained Victorian celebrities such as presidents William McKinley and Rutherford B. Hayes.

The exterior of the home has large turrets at the corners that rose above the leafy greenery of upper Woodward. Flemish dormers protrude from the steep roof. Several bays project from the main body of the home, and wrapped around the whole is a colonnaded loggia. This was a new level of refinement: carved garlands, shell niches over the doorway, and graceful columns. It is made of limestone but when first new and seen from a distance it gleamed white, giving it the nickname “the marble palace.”


Hecker House interior

Inside the Hecker mansion, a large oak-paneled hall designed for parties is lined with stained glass windows. (Gabriela Santiago-Romero / Special to The Detroit News)

The interior has 49 rooms, including a large oak-paneled hall designed for parties and lined with stained glass windows; an oval dining room done in mahogany; a lobby featuring English oak; a white and gold parlor and music room; a cherry smoking room, and a den with a teakwood floor. The den also housed Hecter’s art collection that included paintings by Rembrandt and Whistler.

The fireplaces were constructed of Egyptian Nubian marble and onyx, and Italian Siena marble was used in the vestibules. Kamper designed it all, including the furniture. After that impressive debut, Kamper was made a partner in the young architectural firm, now named Scott, Kamper, and Scott.

At one point in its history this structure was converted into a concert hall capable of seating 200. More recently the Hecter House has been the showcase of Smiley Brothers Music Co. and then the law offices of Charfoos and Christiensen. Currently it is for sale, with an asking price of $1.3 million.

The Book Brothers and Louis Kamper

Kamper formed his own architectural firm in 1891; his son Paul would join him in 1922. He had become the architect of the hour among Detroit’s wealthiest families. One such commission, for a mansion on East Jefferson Avenue, led to a lasting friendship.

The Book family’s real estate wealth began with a grandfather, Francis Palms. During the 1880s Palms was the largest stockholder and president of the Peoples Saving Bank, the Michigan Stove Company, and the Michigan Fire & Marine Insurance Company. After his death in 1886, Palm’s estate, valued at $12 million dollars (more than $300 million today), was divided among his family, including his daughter Clothilde Book, who had three sons: James Jr., Frank and Herbert. All three Book brothers carried on their grandfather’s interests in developing the city of Detroit, specifically Washington Boulevard.

James Burgess Book Jr. selected Louis Kamper to design his beautiful home on East Jefferson Avenue at Burns Street near the Indian Village area. It was completed in 1911. Some claim that Kamper based the home on the Petit Trianon at Versailles, the  “small” chateau that King Louis XV had architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel design for his mistress, Madam de Pompadour in the 18th century. The style is referred to as Italianate and reflects Kamper’s days at McKim, Mead and White. The Book house is currently under restoration.

Eighth Precinct Police Station

The success and attention Kamper received for the Hecter House made him the architect of choice for Detroit’s silk stocking set. He designed several other striking mansions but then directed his attention to a police station.

By today’s standards a police station would not hold much artistic challenge for the likes of Louis Kamper; however, this was the start of a new century, when city functions were viewed as equally important as commerce, and the appearance of civic buildings needed to convey this, even if only a police station.

The station is located on Grand River Avenue in the historic district of Woodbridge. Woodbridge began as a farm that extended on the west side of Trumbull owned by William Woodbridge. In 1885 the Woodbrige farm was developed into a residential neighborhood of homes owned by well-heeled Victorians. Charles “Lucky” Lindbergh lived in Woodbridge, as did Ty Cobb.

As the neighborhood grew, it was necessary to build a police station to serve the Woodbridge residents, but also to reflect the status of the upper middle-class homes.

“The police station house and barn on Grand River Avenue … designed by architect Louis Kamper is rapidly nearing completion and will be one of the finest looking and best arranged buildings of its character in the city,” wrote the Detroit Free Press in 1901.


Eighth Precinct Police Station

The Eighth Precinct Police Station at 4150 Grand River Ave. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Kamper chose the Chateauesque style he used on the Hecter House; in the late 1800s mounted policemen of the station might have been mistaken for medieval knights charging down a ramp of a French castle on the Rhine River.

There are two distinct two-story buildings here with a one-story arcade linking them: one is the station and the other was the horse stable and barn, later converted to a garage. The building is covered with Bedford, Indiana limestone, terra cotta and brick, with slate-roofed French-style cupolas on both buildings.

The Grand River Police Station at Martin Luther King still stands and has recently been converted to condominiums. It was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1973 and listed on National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

The greatest Kamper structure never built

In 1900 plans began for Detroit’s Bicentennial (1701 to 1901). Along with parades and a reenactment of Cadillac’s landing at Detroit, complete with a descendant of Cadillac as a guest of honor, calls went out for a suitable memorial for this momentous 200-year celebration. Proposed sketches and ideas arrived from across the country, some from the leading architects of the day, such as Stanford White.

Kamper submitted several ideas, including a multi-story Florentine style bridge with shops and a dance hall stretching from the city to Belle Isle. His final concept made it to the top three, one of which would be chosen by Mayor William C. Maybury and a Bicentennial committee. The other two ideas included a memorial library to house all historic documents and letters from Detroit’s origin to the present time. The second was a grand hall lined with statues of Detroit’s greatest men and women throughout history. On March 26, 1901 Kamper submitted sketches of his plan to commemorate the bicentennial as described in the newspapers:

“A mammoth arch Corinthian in style was submitted by Louis Kamper. It is calculated to span Woodward Avenue at the Grand Circus Park, with minor arches spanning the sidewalks on either side. A statue of Cadillac surmounts the arch. In the frieze below is an immense allegorical sculpture representing the flight of time. On either side are heroic statues of historic Indian chiefs and missionary priests. Slender Corinthian pillars of exceeding grace give an airy look to an otherwise substantial structure.”

Kamper’s arch won the vote for the bicentennial memorial but sadly the Bicentennial Committee couldn’t raise the funds and the arch and all the commemorative projects were dropped.

Washington Boulevard, ‘Fifth Avenue in the West’

In his mid-thirties James Burgess Book wanted Kamper to realize and design a vision he had for downtown Detroit. Before World War I Washington Boulevard was a nondescript four-block-long side street west of Woodward Avenue. At the end at Michigan Avenue was the old Cadillac Hotel where the book brothers lived as children.  Going north, small buildings included a roller skating rink and an auto garage along with old houses called “shacks” by newspapers.

James and his brothers continued their grandfather’s profession of real estate development in Detroit.  The Books envisioned Washington Boulevard as Detroit’s version of New York’s Fifth Avenue, with grandeur and magnificent buildings and exclusive shops for Detroit’s burgeoning wealthy class. In 1915 James began buying property to develop not only a building but an entire street of buildings.

It drew national attention.

Detroit — One of the greatest boulevard developments in the world … is underway here on Washington Boulevard, one of the main downtown streets, which is being rebuilt on a harmonious architectural plan. … To carry out this development, Book Bros. have great credit and capital and are constantly getting new capital from iron mines, timber, and oil properties from the estate of Francis Palms, their grandfather.”
— Wall Street Journal, April 23, 1925

The Book Building

Louis Kamper’s first building on Washington Boulevard — and indeed his first major commercial structure —  was the Book Building, a 13-story office building designed in 1916 and opened in 1917. The street level included retail shops with the floors above for offices.

Book Building detail

Classical figures called caryatids adorn corbels at the top of the Book Building. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Kamper or Book, perhaps both, selected a Neo Renaissance Italianate style similar to James Book’s Jefferson Avenue home. The Book Building was based on the Villa Madama, a rural house to the west of Rome, Italy built during the Renaissance, and said to have influenced generations of architects on future structures.

Kamper and James Book traveled to Italy for design elements. An ancient church in Padua gave the motif for carved window pillars on the third floor. Kamper used a variety of marble for walls and Italian travertine tile for floors throughout the building. Ornamentation included sculptures of 12 nude women called caryatids, appearing to support the building’s cornice; they were called by the members of nearby St. Aloysius Church “the wives of the apostles.”

Although the building seems to pale compared to subsequent giants such as the Fisher Building and Guardian Building, during its day it was a sensation.

“Art and beauty have a place in commerce today and Mr. Louis Kamper utilized both in the creation of the Book Building, ” the  Detroit Free Press declared.

The Book Tower

Kamper’s next structure was the unusual 38 storied Book Tower with its blackened limestone and green copper roof. Love it or hate it, Kamper’s first skyscraper is ornamented from the street to the roof with Corinthian columns, florets, and more caratyds. Of course, because of its height one needs a telescope to see many of the details. Kamper was criticized for the ornamentation and general design, a mistake Kamper would not repeat.

It was begun in 1917 but not finished until 1926, when for two years it was Detroit’s tallest structure, eclipsed in 1928 by the Penobscot Building. Of course, due to its odd uniqueness, the Book Tower is a favorite among many Detroiters today.

Book-Cadillac Hotel

At the corner of Washington Boulevard and Michigan Avenue stands the third Kamper building, the beautiful Book-Cadillac Hotel, now the refurbished Westin Book Cadillac. When completed at a cost of $14 million in 1925 it was Detroit’s tallest building and the largest hotel in the country with 1,136 guest rooms with “bathrooms in every room.” The lobby and magnificent ballrooms were done in Italian Venetian and Florentine styles.

On the Michigan Avenue façade are sculptures of notable figures from Detroit history — General Anthony Wayne, Cadillac, Chief Pontiac and Robert Navarre, royal notary at Fort Ponchartrain in the 18th century.

Kamper designed three other downtown hotels, all of them opening in 1924: The Royal Palm, the Eddystone, and the Park Avenue. The Royal Palm is now a residential building and renamed the Park Avenue House; the other two hotels are vacant.

(Update: Land owner the Ilitch organization has submitted a proposal to Detroit City Council to renovate the Eddystone and demolish the Park Avenue to make way for a new hockey arena.)

The other, truly towering Book Tower

One structure that was designed for Washington Boulevard at State Street, and announced by James Book, was never built: an 85-story skyscraper that would have been the tallest building in the world during the 1920s. Kamper seemed to have learned his lesson about ornamentation, as the building’s design shows a stronger resemblance to the Fisher Building’s modern Gothic style.

The bigger Book Tower

A postcard was made of the bigger Book Tower that was never built.

In 1926 the New York Times questioned the wisdom of such a monster in Detroit (or rather outside of New York):

“Detroit, more famed for lateral locomotion than vertical structure, is to have a building eighty-five stories high, eight hundred and seventy feet in the air. The new Book Tower will rise at the corner of Washington Boulevard and State Street. It will dwarf any building in this country and abroad. …

“It is perfectly natural that a patriot dreamer in Detroit, enormous city of enormous industry, should have decided that his city needed the highest building in the world. He already built the tallest hotel in the world. [Detroiters] have a passion for superlatives. … Two years have been allowed for construction and the Fall of 1928 will be soon enough for impertinent queries which question the desirability of going eighty-five stories into the air when a city can spread over miles of flat farm land, opening out into the whole Mississippi Valley.”

Unfortunately, the Great Depression quashed the dream of the enormous Kamper skyscraper and also put an end to Kamper’s work. He continued in the late ’20s with several masterpiece buildings for Detroit, such as the David Broderick Tower, the Industrial Building, and the beautiful Art Deco Water Board Building, but by 1930 he stopped designing buildings.

Louis Kamper died in 1953, at age 91. He is interred in the two-story, classically inspired mausoleum he designed at Roseland Park Cemetery in Berkley, where a state historic site plaque cites his contributions.

“The work of the architect,” wrote the Detroit Free Press on Dec 10, 1922, “will stand as a beauty to ideals, of that dreamer and builder of Detroit, the city beautiful.”


Louis Kamper buildings

Special thanks to:

  • Rebecca Price, PhD Architecture, Urban Planning and Visual Resources Librarian at the Art, Architecture & Engineering Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
  • Allan Machielse, of Preservation Detroit. Machielse is a Detroit-based fine art photographer and architect.


Bill Loomis is the author “Detroit’s Delectable Past” and “Detroit Food” released January 2014. He is a regular contributor to Stateside with Cynthia Canty on WUOM 91.7 FM, Ann Arbor.