Updated: Apr 7, 2019
Inspired by, excerpted and/or paraphrased from Dan Austin's article on HISTORICDETROIT.ORG
Even the most unassuming plain swizzle stick may hold a story, sometimes that stick is the last trace from the past. So it was that when I came across a plain blue stick that read “Hotel Wolverine, Tropics Room Detroit” I had to find out more. The Tropics, was not surprisingly, not in the Tropics, but rather in Detroit, Michigan.
It was January 31st, 1920 when the celebrated Hotel Pontchartrain closed creating a loss of 400 rooms in the city. Jerome and Marcus Freud (who were running one of the largest apartment hotels, the Hotel Addison) stepped in to fill the void.
It was front-page news in the Detroit Free Press when the Wolverine opened on March 19, 1921 the final price tag was $3 million ($37.8 million today).
Architect L.P. Rose, used a Beaux Arts and Italian Renaissance-influenced style for the 17-story building. His design utilized a U-shape in order to get the most number of rooms with windows and natural light.
The hotel catered initially to transient guests. Each of its 500 rooms had a tub and shower. Among the music legends who stayed at the Wolverine were Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller.
A TROPICAL PARADISE
Adjoined to the Wolverine was The Tropics, “Michigan’s most unusual night spot and cocktail
lounge,” as a postcard called it. A huge sign on top of the red brick building blazed “Tropics Room.” Inside, bamboo fixtures, fake trees and paper mache animals transported Detroiters to the South Pacific.
The club was made up of the Native Village and the Cocktail Lounge. The former was a replica of a South Pacific island village that “skillfully captured all the beauty and charm of far-off tropic lands. A romantic atmosphere is added by the exotic music of a dance orchestra atop America’s only traveling band stand,” a postcard boasted.
The Native Village offered nightly dancing in air-conditioned comfort. The Cocktail Lounge was authentic right down to the pitter-patter of rain on the roofs of the Rainfall Bars. A waterfall tumbled down behind the bar. Orchestras lured couples out onto a large dance floor that was lighted up in colors.
THE DOWNWARD SLIDE
In the late 1940’s, in an effort to bring new business to a struggling hotel, owner John Mack commissioned Robert Dorr Jr. to give the Wolverine a complete modernization and refurnish the hotel.
On June 12, 1950, the Wolverine returned to local ownership, when the hotel and The Tropics were sold to the Detroit firm Seyburn and Berry.
It has been said that much of downtown Detroit went downhill fast after the 1967 riot bled the city of much of its population, but the truth is, the city’s decline started about a decade before, thanks in large part to the U.S. highway system of the mid-1950s. The Wolverine is a case in point, having started its descent into hard times long before the riot. In 1966, the hotel took in indigents as an emergency shelter operated by the Detroit Department of Public Welfare. By 1968, the Wolverine was already “near the fringes of poverty areas,” the Detroit News wrote that August. The bands had been silenced. The Tigers had moved out. The Wolverine called it quits.
It was announced that the Wolverine would be turned into a federally subsidized senior-housing complex. On Aug. 15, 1968, all of the Wolverine’s residents were evicted -– a mere 25 of them in a 450-room hotel. The Wolverine’s developer spent $2.75 million (about $17.8 million today) to renovate the Wolverine into 235 units. The City of Detroit then took over the building. In 1979, it was bestowed with the honor of the city’s “most-improved building.” In 1985, the city closed the hotel, this time evicting hundreds of senior citizens. The Wolverine stood empty, unsecured and open to trespass. Like many buildings left to vandals and the homeless, the building was stripped and desecrated. The city simply kicked people out, locked the door and left to the vultures. It was a textbook example of “demolition by neglect” on behalf of the city.
The End of the Wolverine The Wolverine, rundown and abandoned for a decade, was imploded on March 22, 1997, reduced to a giant mound of dust and twisted steel. The blast was filmed for a special on the Learning Channel. See video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nschNn2Kioc For more than six decades, the Wolverine catered to Detroit’s swingers, musicians, athletes, travelers and senior citizens. Today, the site of the Wolverine is a large parking lot. Sports nuts fork over up to $40 per car to park on its grave.