Hotel Pontchartrain, Detroit, Michigan… revisited.
Change in buildings is nearly universal and commercial buildings are forever metamorphic. The Pontchartrain is an interesting case in that aphorism. Sent to an early grave and old beyond her years, she struggled to adapt to the demands of a rapidly changing city. The last time we visited her, the Pontch was a perfect example of Renaissance Revival architecture. Now we see her sometime after the addition of another five floors in 1916, looking very Second Empire. As Stewart Brand author of How Buildings Learn described it, commercial buildings tend to change more kaleidoscopically than their slowly morphing residential sisters. Got that right! Too bad the makeover didn’t buy her more time. The Pontch was demolished four years later.
This weathered Italianate gem at the northeast corner of Church and 21st was captured by photographer Charles W. Cushman in 1952. Cushman was a natural documentarian. In capturing scenes of colorful street life and interesting architectural detail, his photographs chronicle the urban change that would sharply alter American cities in the post-war era. This modest building in Noe Valley hints at the neighborhood’s working-class and entrepreneurial roots. She was not spared by the onslaught of gentrification and development.
Originally built as the Voyager Motel and later re-branded under the the Congress Inn name, this Mid-century Modern motor hotel looks as if it were designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer:
It is not the right angle that attracts me, nor the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. What attracts me is the free and sensual curve — the curve that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuous course of its rivers, in the body of the beloved woman.
And the Voyager (or Congress, whichever you prefer) was certainly no stranger to womanly curves. In the 1970s the motel served as backdrop for the porn classic, Deep Throat. Unfortunately, that claim to fame wasn’t enough to save her. Like the Congress Inn brand name, the Voyager probably faded some time in the 1980s. Today the site is occupied by houses.
Behind that ‘65 notchback Mustang, structural glass Art Deco shop front, and afterthought of a fire escape there is a beautifully detailed yet unassuming Romanesque Revival building. Witness the exquisite Byzantine style stone capitals that demarcate the springing points of window arches that carry terracotta lion’s head keystones above which bullnose brick is employed to give the appearance of fluted pilasters… and all of it capped off with a Jacobethan parapet. Damn! They really knew how to build things to titillate the eye back then. 618 Ninth Street was built around 1890 and is seen photographed here by HABS photographer Ronald Comedy in July 1969. The building was razed in 1973 and the site is currently occupied by the Gallup Building (which, incidentally, has an arched window above its entryway, paying accidental homage to its Romanesque forebear).
In the mid-nineteenth century a group of investors established the Third Avenue Railroad Company and began offering horse-drawn street car service from City Hall to 61st Street in Manhattan. After some success, the company built this handsome Roman Renaissance car house in 1897 to accommodate its expansion northward. The building housed and serviced electric cable cars until 1948 when the transfer table and tracks were removed and the structure converted to a bus depot. The depot is shown here from its 10th Avenue facade with the elevated tracks of the 7th Avenue Subway Line, making this micro-history of New York’s public transit system complete. The Old Kingsbridge Depot was torn down sometime after 1991 when this photograph was taken to make room for new bus maintenance and storage facilities.
Built from 1890 to 1893, the Erie County Savings Bank is the work of expert architect George B. Post whose later works included the New York Stock Exchange and the Wisconsin State Capitol. Post was a student of another big name, Richard Morris Hunt, and it shows. Notice the French Neo-Gothic dormers and roofs which bear a strong resemblance to Hunt’s Vanderbilt House (razed). Also notice the charabanc, a kind of early open-air omnibus, sitting under the massive Romanesque windows. With horse-drawn wagons and electric street cars, this image is a virtual timeline of transportation history. The bank was demolished in 1968 to make way for a mall. If you’re the autosadistic type, you can view a slide show of that here.
Many buildings die not for lack of beauty or utility, but for lack of occupancy. These two Art Deco gems sat unused, but not unloved for years before Camilo José Vergara photographed them in 1993. Witness their facades which have become an artists’ canvas extolling Chicago’s past, her music, and her commerce. A tiny sampling of their terra cotta panels live on thanks to Father Donald Rowe, a Jesuit priest with an interest in architectural artifacts, who salvaged the pieces for a wall at St. Ignatius School when the buildings were torn down to make way for… nothing circa 1997.
Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel, Atlantic City, New Jersey.
It wasn’t the first reinforced concrete building in the world, but it was the largest. Construction started on the Marlborough-Blenheim in 1905, an era when Atlantic City’s boardwalk was bursting with tourists clamoring for curiosities like the Diving Horse and Dr. Couney’s Premature Infant Exhibit. With the end of World War II came family car trips, jet travel, suburbia, and, on the boardwalk, crime, poverty and corruption as tourism declined. The Marlborough-Blenheim was demolished in 1979. Today the site is occupied by a Bally’s Casino with a facade built to echo the days of Dimah the Diving Horse.
The clock started ticking on this architectural beauty when it opened its doors in 1907. At the time, most grand hotels still used shared baths. But less than 10 years later the Detroit Statler opened just four blocks up Woodward Avenue with en suite baths for all 1,000 rooms (and central air-conditioning… reportedly the first hotel in the country to have this). After only 13 years, the Hotel Pontchartrain was demolished to make way for the First National Bank Building.
When it was completed in 1958, this Buckminster Fuller inspired geodesic dome was the largest free span structure in the world. Perhaps this engineering masterpiece and architectural wonder was just a bit too futuristic too soon. After just 50 years, the dome was sent to the scrap heap.