Photographer discusses rock and roll, Detroit

On Saturday at the Ypsilanti District Library, a professional photographer gave a presentation about rock and roll’s entwined history with some of the forgotten buildings of Detroit.

Sean Doerr based his talk on Dan Austin’s book, Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins. Doerr was the photographer for the book. At the presentation, a crowd of fifty listened, asked questions and bought copies of Austin’s book.

Many Detroit buildings, now decrepit or demolished, once held epic events in rock and roll history. For example, from 1968 to 1972, MC 5 was the house band in the Grande Ballroom where The Who first performed “Tommie.”

The Grande Ballroom, on Grand River and Joy Road, is restorable in Doerr’s opinion, in spite of its rough history in the 1960s and 1970s as a major drug venue, and being known for cutting edge music.

Among the bands that played the Grande were Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dean, Jeff Beck and Cream. The Grande also featured the jazz greats John Coltrane and Sun Ra.

The Michigan Theater on Bagley near Cass is now a parking garage, but originally had 4,038 seats “under jaw-dropping ornate plasterwork and opulence.”

In the 1970s it was briefly called The Michigan Palace, where bands like Aerosmith and ZZ Top performed.

According to Doerr, the best use for the building was to invest $500,000 to strip and gut the interior and then lay the concrete floors needed to change it to a parking structure.

The Michigan Central Station still stands, largely gutted, with no hope of being restored in spite of “billionaire businessman Detroiter Manuel Moroun’s promises.”

Two more successful buildings, Doerr said, are the David Whitney Building and the David Broderick Tower, “designed as paired
towers to the entrance of downtown Detroit.”

The Broderick is almost completed, said Doerr, being refurbished as apartments that will rent for $3,000 a month. Ann Arbor construction firm J.C. Beal is doing the work, and will hold a building open house on April 5, opening day for the Detroit Tigers. Doerr’s photos showed the Broderick’s excellent views of Comerica Park and all of downtown Detroit.

The David Whitney building, according the Detroit 2020 website, will become a hotel.

The website claims that the Whitney will have 136 loft-like rooms, a bar, a 24-hour fitness center and 6,600 square feet of banquet and meeting space. It is expected to open in July 2014.

The David Whitney is one of four Detroit buildings which eminent the Chicago architect Daniel Burnham designed. According to
Doerr, restoration of the exterior was “butchered,” but the interior is still “definitely awesome.”

Doerr’s talk covered more buildings than those in Lost Detroit, and he was able to respond with photographs and historical information to every request from the audience.

According to the book, Doerr has been documenting abandoned and neglected architecture around Metro Detroit since the age of fourteen.

When asked how he gained entry to abandoned boarded up buildings, at first he “pled the Fifth.”

“If you drive past buildings regularly, eventually you’ll spot a piece of plywood pried loose,” Doerr said. “Then you just go in.”

According to Doerr, many of the buildings still have some electricity, and he met some “really nice homeless people” as he sought interior photos.


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