The city of Detroit has taken control of the historic National Theatre on Monroe Street, raising the possibility that the Moorish showplace that is one of Detroit’s most historic abandoned buildings might become part of the downtown revival.
Jim Marusich of the city of Detroit planning and development department said the city “took it back” recently because the developer failed to rehabilitate the building as he had agreed to do a decade or so ago, when he acquired the building from the city.
The plan for the theater is believed to include conveying it to the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, the nonprofit that partners with the city on major developments projects. It is unclear what might happen after that, but the National sits amid some of downtown's hottest development activity.
The 102-year-old building, believed to be the only surviving theater designed by famed architect Albert Kahn, served as a showplace for vaudeville, films, burlesque and X-rated porn during its lifetime.
Restoring it, as a theater or for another use, would be a striking preservation victory in a city that has obliterated much of its 312-year history.
Vacant since 1975, the National soon will be the last remaining building on Monroe between Randolph and Farmer. Workers are demolishing a four-story parking garage and retail space on the rest of the block.
In January, Kirk Pinho of Crain's Detroit Business reported that Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert had purchased much of the block through a straw buyer.
That section of Monroe connects the Campus Martius area, the center of Gilbert’s expanding real estate empire, with his Greektown Casino to the east.
The proposed 16-story building by Schostak Bros. & Co., which became public earlier this week, would sit just to the west of the National, across Farmer Street.
A Gilbert spokeswoman said the company did not have a comment on a building it doesn’t own.
A spokesman for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation had no comment.
Pinho also reported a Gilbert business partner bought the three-story Sachs Waldman building on Bates, which is the first street south of Monroe.
The theater appears to be in solid shape on the outside, and has been secured by a stout wooden barrier for years. A visit inside last year by a Deadline Detroit reporter revealed considerably less destruction than what is inside many long-abandoned buildings. There was no dumped debris, but the 800 seats are gone, and ornate plaster was falling from the balcony.
The National Theatre is the only survivor from Detroit’s first theater district, according to Dan Austin, creator of historicdetroit.org.
“The old Detroit Opera House and the Gayety, Temple, Columbia, Liberty and Family theaters were among the venues that once stood nearby, making it Detroit’s main avenue of entertainment.
"Designed by Kahn and his associate Ernest Wilby, the National’s exterior is a Baroque-Moorish-Beaux-Arts hybrid with a Moroccan or Egyptian flavor. Like Kahn’s earlier Grinnell Brothers Music House (built in 1908), the National is covered in white terra cotta fired at Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery.
"It features two proud eagles, carved stone rosettes, cupids and other small Art Noveau details dotting the facade. It has twin, 64-foot gold-domed towers with airy grill work and a grand, recessed Romanesque arch over the entrance. Originally, the archway features a massive stained glass window. Both the Moorish towers and the arch were dramatically lighted up by hundreds of bulbs at night, giving the theater an amusement park-like vibe. There was an iron framework, illuminated marquee with glass panels, but this was later replaced with more sterile, modern-looking signage.”
The National was Detroit’s last burlesque theater, Austin wrote.
“The runway was lighted from beneath with multicolored panels that the dancers pranced around in their high heels. In the 1960s, evening shows would often start at 8:35 p.m. Among the women strutting their stuff were Miss Dee Dee Devine, Miss Lorelei Lee, Miss Gina Gina, Miss Linda Love, Miss Leslie Lang and Miss Ann Darling.”
Historic photo: historicdetroit.org.