Business | Locations

Grand hotels of early Detroit: Cotillions, celebrities and Turkish baths

By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News

It was not long after the first steamboat, “Walk in the Water,” docked in Detroit in the summer of 1818 that emigrants from Europe and New England, tourists, soldiers and other visitors began pouring into the small town.

By 1835 there were hundreds of newcomers daily; strange faces spending a night and disappearing for further destinations by the next morning, succeeded by waves of new arrivals with every boat. They all needed somewhere to spend the night.

The first hotel they usually saw was Ben Woodworth’s Steamboat Hotel, which advertised its “eligible position at the corner of Woodbridge and Randolph Streets.”

City historian C.M. Burton wrote that in those days the center of business grew around Atwater, Franklin, Woodbridge and Randolph streets (now the footprint of the Renaissance Center). By 1835, the Steamboat Hotel had expanded to include a dramatic 100-foot-long veranda that faced the river. It could accommodate more than 200 guests.

Woodworth's Steamboat Hotel

The first hotel visitors to Detroit saw in the early 1800s was Woodworth’s Hotel, which began as the home of carpenter Ben Woodworth. With the arrival of steamboats he changed the name of the hotel to Woodworth’s Steamboat Hotel. It was the most popular hotel in Detroit for decades, counting President James Monroe among its guests. (Illustration by Silas Farmer)

In addition to the daily throngs of travelers, many notable Detroiters kept their permanent residence at the hotel. It was the lodging for the steamboat captains and the unofficial headquarters for the Detroit shipping industry. Governor Lewis Cass and the city leaders held many of their meetings and hatched their political maneuvers in the hotel’s smoky parlors. Hotel carpets were commonly softened by a bottom layer of hay, which “gave rather frowsy odors to the rooms,” according to George C. Bates, newspaper columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

The city’s informal host was Ben Woodworth, the hotel’s owner and operator. Born in Massachusetts in 1782, he arrived in Detroit in 1805, a carpenter by training. The hotel began as his house in 1807. Woodworth was described much later as a “broad shouldered, gray eyed, firm lipped man of sixty years, mild in outward seemings, but when enraged a perfect old volcano.”

President James Monroe stayed at the hotel in the summer of 1817. According to president’s written account, “In the evening a splendid ball was given to the President, at Mr. Woodworth’s, at which all the principal ladies and gentlemen, and the officers of the several corps, attended.”

Old Ben also provided very popular entertainment, advertised in the Detroit Democratic Free Press of 1842: “The Last Night of the Arabian Girl’s Exhibition takes place at the Steamboat Hotel this evening, when the rarest and most interesting performances may be expected.”

The dinner bell stampede

From about 1815 to 1848 the main hotels in Detroit were the Woodworth’s Steamboat Hotel, the American, the H.R. Andrews Railroad Hotel, the Mansion House and the Michigan Exchange. At that time hotels offered the “American Plan” — a room and meals combined. The alternative was called the “European Plan,” which did not include meals. The “American Plan” was popular in America because there were no restaurants, only small taverns.

However, a lot of travelers disliked the American plan, such as Amos Andrew Parker from New Hampshire. He described the free-for-all at the Steamboat Hotel:

“When the bell rang for dinner, I hardly knew what it meant. All in and about the house jumped and run as if the house had been on fire, and I thought that to have been the case. I followed the multitude, and found they were only going into the hall to dinner. It was a rough and tumble game at knife and fork — and whoever got seated first, and obtained the best portion of dinner, was the best fellow. Those who came after must take care of themselves the best way they could; and were not always able to obtain a very abundant supply.”

Parker was also not pleased with his accommodations:

“At night, I was obliged to sleep in a small room having three beds in it, take a companion, and a dirty bed.”

Not everyone hated the food. Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was a successful British writer when she decided to spend two years traveling in America. She wrote about her experiences in her book “Society in America”:

”We landed at Detroit, from Lake Erie, at seven o’clock in the morning of the 13th of June, 1836. We reached the American [hotel] just in time for breakfast. At that long table, I had the pleasure of seeing the healthiest set of faces that I had beheld since I left England. The breakfast was excellent…”

The American Hotel, on Jefferson and Randolph, was nicer than the popular Steamboat and offered parlors with attached bedrooms for families. Upon entering the American Hotel from the street you found the desk and office, the large sitting room and stairways that led to the ladies’ parlor.

Prominent in every hotel was its tavern, for men only. There you could get a wine glass of “pure Monongahela whiskey,” Jamaican rum, or brandy imported from Quebec with no adulterants in it. (The alternative brandies were described as “liquid Hell fire suitable for murders, suicides and maniacs.”) Drinks were frequently mixed with sugar and water. Everyone smoked cigars or chewed and spit pretty much wherever convenient.

Dancing with Ulysses S. Grant

While the Steamboat and American Hotel were more popular, the Mansion House was the fanciest, situated on the far side of the city edge at Jefferson and Cass Avenue.

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant was a lieutenant stationed in Detroit in the late 1840s. He and his wife attended dances and costume parties at the Mansion House and Michigan Exchange Hotel. (Ohio Historical Society)

The Mansion House and later the Michigan Exchange were popular for dances in the late 1840s, regularly attended by then Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant and his wife.

Grant’s regiment, the Fourth United States Infantry, was stationed in Detroit at the time. Many in the regiment and others that made up the crème de la crème of Detroit youth were part of an exclusive social club called the “400” that held cotillion (dancing) parties. U.S. Grant, it was said, preferred to stand back and watch. But others took lessons and learned the dances of the day, as proclaimed in this advertisement from 1840:

Dancing Academy: Mr. Couse would inform his friends and the public that he is ready to give instructions in his room, no.65 Jefferson Avenue, in every variety of Dancing and Waltzing. Also the Bohemian and Carolli’s Polkas as danced in the court of Vienna.

By the 1850s the Detroit 400 had moved from dance parties to costume balls. The costumes were elaborate, with some dressed as characters from Shakespeare plays, English royalty, Sir Walter Scott’s novels, or simply imaginative thinking — “Miss Sallie Webster was beautifully dressed as the Maid of the Mist.” It was reported that Grant came as himself.

Getting out of hand

Hotel dinner parties attended by men, especially soldiers, had a regular habit of getting out of hand; however, hotel managers such as Edward Lyons of the Michigan Exchange maintained a calm demeanor and steady hand. Lyons was described as the most “even tempered landlord that ever held sway over the fortunes of the hotel … no matter how gay or wild ‘the boys’ would get.” Damages were tracked in detail and the charges were expected to be settled the next day.

At one public dinner a man named Curtis Emerson was among the guests at the Michigan Exchange. As city social historian General Friend Palmer related in his book “Early Days in Detroit”: “After the wine had circulated pretty freely he became quite jolly and uproarious. Mounting the table he proceeded to promenade up and down, kicking the dishes left and right. His father, Thomas Emerson, was sitting in the reading room quietly reading during all this. … [The manager] entreated upon Mr. Emerson to go to the dining room and see if his son “Curt” could not be induced to simmer down.

“The old gentleman readily assented. … He saw his son Curt dancing up and down the table and raising the old ‘Harry’ with the crockery. He looked on for a minute, chuckling, and he said, ‘Yes that is my son Curt, sure enough. I used to do the same thing when I was his age.’ He returned to the reading room.”

Detroit in the Gilded Age

During the Victorian Age, Detroit began to parade its new manufacturing wealth. Among the most obvious changes to the city landscape were hotels which started to rise after the 1870s. Hotels like the Griswold House at Grand River Avenue and Griswold served 55,000 guests a year. They were fantastic structures. One writer said the new Detroit hotel “heralds the abrogation of provincialism and places our city full abreast with others of its kind in the line of American progression.”

Hotel Cadillac, circa 1895

The dining room of the Hotel Cadillac is seen around 1895. It was said the hotel contained three-quarters of an acre of marble. (Author’s collection)

The lavish Hotel Cadillac at Washington Boulevard and Michigan Avenue was expanded in 1891 (not to be confused with the Book Cadillac of the 1920s, its successor on the same site). The editor of the magazine Hotel World reported, “It is the finest hotel in the United States. There is nothing to compare with its completeness anywhere.”

It had white marble staircases, walls, floors and pilasters. It was said the hotel contained three-quarters of an acre of marble, immense vaulted ceilings, mosaics, and stone carvings. Enormous mirrors lined the dining room — at that time the largest mirrors in the country. It had crystal chandeliers with 3,000 electric lights, stained glass, brass work, fountains, fireplaces and magnificent tapestries.

At the hotel’s opening there was a crush of Detroiters lined up at the entrance and down the block morning, noon, and night to see the interior of the newly refurbished hotel. The crowds were in the thousands.

Detroiters were captivated by hotel life. Daily newspaper columns such as “Heard in Hotel Lobbies” or “In the Corridors” reported every person who checked into the major hotels as well as cosmopolitan society gossip, fashion, restaurant menus, and dramatic and humorous vignettes of travelers. The big hotels included the Russell House, the Wayne Hotel, Hotel Cadillac, Ste. Clair Hotel, the Pontchartrain and the Griswold House.

Dawn of the business traveler

These hotels were now seeing a new type of guest — the business traveler, frequently salesmen or “drummers” as they were called in the day. They came to Detroit to drum up business, pounding actual drums on the streets to generate excitement. Their visits to Detroit were seasonal, arriving in the spring and fall from New York, Boston and Philadelphia with their sample cases to descend on any and all forms of business, from manufacturers to haberdasheries. Detroit was used by many salesmen as a starting point for their western trips.

For the traveler, the first interaction with the hotel would be with the hotel’s clerk, who stood his post behind the counter. In 1900 it was Lucious Purtscher at the Hotel Cadillac, described in a newspaper article as a barrel-chested man with a resplendent mustache, a diamond in his shirt-front, an impeccable suit, and a daily shave and haircut clipped to perfection. As he manned the counter or sauntered about the lobby he was described as a “millionaire in disguise.” He was a stationary world traveler: shaking hands, conversing, and attentive to the needs of hotel guests from across the globe.

Purtscher remained unflappable as he assigned rooms, directed bellboys, and answered a thousand questions a day without strain. Many questions were about train schedules. This subject could be maddening since Detroit ran on its unique local time before 1916, while railroads used their own time, which was usually New York time. The United States established standard time and times zones in 1918 but until then, tracking times of arriving and departing trains took an experienced eye.

Here was a sample of Prutscher’s day:

“They want to know what time the train arrives and what time they start from everywhere to get there at that time; when the boats leave, where they run to and what time they get there; … who is playing at each of the theatres and whether the play is any good or not;… what church Rev. A is pastor of and what time service begins, who sings in such and such church and what is the best choir in town; what time the fight commences at the athletic club; will the parade come this way today, is there a yacht race tomorrow, where is the best place to have a dress made, where can he rent a bicycle for a couple of hours?”

The clerk kept a constant eye on the hotel annunciator, a technical wonder patented in 1829 as a signaling device. It was a complicated wooden panel with room numbers on it located on the wall of the front lobby near the clerk. When a guest needed assistance, he or she pulled a lever in the room that applied pressure to a wire that ran from the room to the lobby, forcing the room number on the annunciator to protrude. Many had a bell on an internal spring that jingled as well. Later electricity replaced the levers and wires.

Bellboys at your service

At the first class hotels, bellboys, also called bellhops, zipped through lobbies and raced up servant stairs wearing uniforms with brass buttons and gold braid. They ranged from teenagers to men in their twenties, kept in line by the bellboy “captain.”

When the annunciator jingled, a bellboy would take off, many times to bring drinks or cigars to a room. They knew the big tippers were “gamblers and sports.” Bellboys hauled luggage up marble stairs, ran errands, rocked babies, quietly helped drunks find their rooms, and if someone was short on cash to pay their bill, it was the bellboy who ran out and pawned a ring or diamond stud for the guest.

During lulls in business one group of bellboys challenged each other by balancing a tray of stacked champagne glasses while sliding down a marble staircase banister. A fall cost you your job.

Originally, bellboys were called hall-boys and they worked in both boarding houses and hotels. The Detroit hall boys had some guarded yet commonly shared secrets of their profession which were published in the Detroit Free Press in 1880. An excerpt is listed below:

“That cheap boarders give the most trouble,

That bachelors give much more trouble than married men in hotels,

That the average hotel detective is not worth his salt let alone his wages,

That the best clerks are those who have the least to say about themselves,

That Boston people always want a room where the carpets harmonize with the furniture,

That female boarders who laugh and chat with the servants are the kind who purloin soap and towels,

That country people’s amusement is ringing the electric bell and asking a variety of ridiculous questions,

That running up and down stairs materially shortens their lives.”


Intentionally set fires

One of the most important albeit highly discrete duties of bellboys at the turn of the century was to watch for fires. Hotel fires were not uncommon in hotels, and the New York Times in 1913 estimated about one-quarter were set intentionally; the number was suspected to be higher but the source of many fires was undetermined.

At the time it was called “Incendiarism” and it grew to an obsessive fear in the 1880s and ‘90s and continued through the early 20th century.

Some of the incendiaries were hotel guests, who might use something as simple as dropping a cigar in a waste basket. Fire chiefs claimed that most fires were set for insurance collection, but the motives for arson were various: gangs used it for extortion, thieves started small fires to rifle through suddenly empty rooms, and people who were called “firebugs” and later “pyromaniacs” did it for a disturbed thrill. Some fires were set for political reasons by such groups as the Anarchists. The bellboy’s job was to remain vigilant at all times.

Working with the bellboys to catch incendiaries, thieves, extremists and riff-raff were the hotel detectives. Stalking the halls and lobby of the Pontchartain Hotel in 1917 was Charles Finnucane, who claimed he had a “camera eye” when it came to spotting crooks. Another, John Caram, house detective at the Hotel Statler, tracked his man as reported in 1917 in the Detroit Free Press:

“Newspaper thieves are the latest pests to worry hotel detectives. One of them was caught red handed in Hotel Statler on Saturday afternoon. Well dressed, debonair, carrying a walking stick, and wearing a monocle, he has been known for the last two weeks at leading hotels as the ‘newspaper bird.’

“This petty thief well supplied with money but known to be a kleptomaniac has been in the habit of stealing penny newspapers from the hotel stands.”

When the man grabbed a paper and headed to the door, Caram grabbed him and took the paper out of his pocket.

“‘Why my dear chap,’ expostulated the thief. ‘This is a terrible outrage. I intended paying fifty cents for this paper, but quite forgot it, don’t you know.’”

Kitchen army

In 1899 the kitchens of the big hotels were spectacular; the Griswold House fed 11,000 to 15,000 people a month. In 1900 it sold 167,175 meals, with food costs of less than 24 cents a plate to the hotel.

The kitchens were many times located in the basement, once gas ranges were available. The hotels were moving away from the “American plan” although they typically offered guests a choice of either the American plan served in the dining room or the European plan served in the café. Correspondingly, the kitchens were designed with two staffs, one for each plan. Food was available 24 hours a day and the kitchens never stopped humming.

One of the most impressive kitchens was at the Hotel Cadillac, where a long row of heavy wrought-iron gas ranges stretched the entire length of the room. Each stove had a special task: The first two were used for oysters and eggs, the next for vegetables and roasts, and others for broiling.

Soup was kept in tanks, and pre-prepared food was held in a new invention called the steam table, in which vegetables were kept in “deep porcelain jars,” and the meat dishes were on “platters protected by a big metal lid lifted by means of a pulley.” Butchers worked off to the side in a partitioned area, cutting steaks and grinding meat. The food cooler at the Hotel Cadillac held seven tons of block ice.

On Sundays, a hotel guest such as a traveling salesman would take the day at a more leisurely pace. He typically climbed out of bed late, bathed and visited the hotel barber. Or, he might try something more exotic. In 1891 the Hotel Cadillac had a fully equipped Turkish bathhouse. A news article from 1893 gives an excellent description of our Victorian businessman.

“A shave with a few hot towels adroitly applied will make him look like an Adonis. His clothes are neatly brushed and he buys a flower. His necktie is of the latest style with a small bow, flowing at the ends; he wears an elaborate scarf pin and his shoes are bright and shining, his trousers have no wrinkles and he carries a stick that is not too loud, just loud enough.”

Dinner Victorian Style

Dinner in the hotels became very elaborate as the hotels vied for business from not only travelers but also Detroiters. A popular trend in the late 19th century was to have holiday dinners, such as Christmas, Easter or Thanksgiving at one of the hotels. Thousands of Detroiters reserved tables. Many times music was provided by hotel orchestras or local military bands; at the Hotel Cadillac they played from the musicians’ balcony above the entrance every evening from 6 to 7:30 and on holidays. Souvenir menus were given out to families to take home.

“At all of the hotels today special dinners will be served on account of Easter. … At the Griswold House beautiful menu cards, with the covers in purple surrounding a bunch of Easter lilies will be given to guests.” – Detroit Free Press, April 15,1900

Menus of the Victorian days were nothing short of breathtaking. Below is the Christmas menu for the Cadillac Hotel promoted in 1888:

Blue points on the half shell

Green Turtle A’l’anglais

Cream custard au consommé

Boiled Red Snapper A’ la Bolonaise

Fried Pampano Sauce Tartar

Potatoes, colbert

Celery, Radishes

Boiled Partridge with a Puree of Celery

Fresh Beef Tongue Sauce Piquant

Fowl Egg Sauce

Prime Beef Au Jus

Hen Turkey With Oyster Dressing

Young Pig, cranberry sauce

Loin of Lamb

Reed birds En Canapé A la Chasseur

Young Onions

Frog Legs on Toast, Sauce Béarnaise

Terrapin Stew, in cases, Maryland style

Squab with Chestnuts a’ la Crapaudine

Sliced Cucumber Omelette Celestine Delmonico

Kirsch-wasser Punch

Green Olives

Prairie Chicken sauce natural

New Jersey Bear apple jelly

Quail Stuffed with mushrooms

Opossum with fried bananas

Chicken en aspic

Fresh Lobster

Game Salad Boneless turkey

Lettuce and eggs

Baked sweet potatoes, Mashed and boiled potatoes

Sifted peas golden beans stewed tomatoes

Sugar corn, Spinach, Asparagus, Cauliflower

Christmas Plum pudding with brandy sauce

Sliced Apple pie, Homemade Mince Pie

Lemon Meringue Pie

Chocolate éclairs, Shavings, Angel Food

Meringues with Cream

Fruit cakes, Kisses, Macaroons, Lady Fingers

Nesslerode ice cream

Mexican Oranges, Pomegranates, Persimmons

Bananas, Apples, Malaga Grapes, Pears

Mixed Nuts, Layer Raisins, Figs, Dates

Confections, Orange Jelly

Hard crackers


Edam, Pineapple, Swiss, Roquefort, Neufchatel

Champagne Cider

Café Noir

(See also: The Russell House menu of May 3, 1858)

1915, the next generation

This level of opulence and formality grew tiresome to the new generation; they were young and wanted to dance, not sit for hours being served course after course. In 1915 new hotels appeared like the magnificent Hotel Statler, 15 stories high on Washington Boulevard across from Grand Circus Park. At its grand opening it hosted more than 3,000 people who filled its halls and lobby and danced through the night in the ballroom.

In Detroit’s black community, the place to be was the nationally famous twin towered Gotham Hotel on the northern edge of downtown where Ford Field now stands. In 1943 it was purchased by local black businessmen and could compete with any hotel in the country for décor and service. It had nine stories with 300 rooms.

At its peak of fame it hosted 1,000 guests a week. Some of the regulars who lodged and dined at the Gotham over the years included Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, B.B. King, Jesse Owens, the Harlem Globetrotters, Langston Hughes, Louie Armstrong, Thurgood Marshall, Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sarah Vaughn, Joe Louis and Adam Clayton Powell.

Tallest hotel in the world

At its completion in 1924, the Book Cadillac was the tallest hotel in the world. It was built by the Book brothers — James, Frank and Herbert — who envisioned Washington Boulevard between Michigan Avenue and Grand Circus Park as the “Fifth Avenue of the West.”

Book Cadillac in 1937

It was the tallest building in Michigan and the largest hotel in the world when the Book Cadillac opened in 1924, on the site of the previous Hotel Cadillac. Seen here in 1937, the Book Cadillac offered more than 1,000 rooms. (Detroit News archives)

The Book Cadillac had 1,035 bedrooms, 54 sitting rooms, 8 alcove rooms, and 38 sample rooms. This was an impressive modern building that could boast of “bathrooms in every room.” It was luxurious but more contemporary in style; hotels like the Book Cadillac spelled the end of the overly lavish Victorian interiors and five-hour dinners.

While the new hotels could feature the exotic in the dining room — in 1919 the Hotel Statler offered whale meat on its menu — they also advertised meat loaf and blue plate specials. The days of plate throwing, costume balls and Turkish baths were only memories.

The Book Cadillac is still with us. It is an excellent example of the neo-renaissance style by architect Louis Kamper. Among its features found on the building’s main Michigan Avenue entrance are the sculptures of notable figures from Detroit’s history — General Anthony Wayne; Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac; Chief Pontiac, and early French appointee Robert Navarre.

In 2006 the Ferchill Group agreed to renovate the structure into a mixed-use hotel and condominium building, including a 453-room Westin Hotel. As part of the renovation, some of the original decor of the Grand Ballroom (renamed the Venetian Ballroom) and Italian Garden was recreated. These rooms are beautifully restored and a testament to the grandeur of the building. The Westin Book Cadillac is worth a visit to get a taste of downtown Detroit’s glorious past.

Bill Loomis is the author of the book “Detroit’s Delectable Past,” available throughout the Metro Detroit area, through online retailers and Kindle.

Interactive map: Hotels of Detroit’s past