CuriosiD: What’s up with the “Elevator Building?”

Guess what the Elevator Building is missing?

Listener Melody Cooper was curious about buildings on the east side of Detroit that have the word “elevator” in their names — specifically, the Elevator Building on the river front.

There are several City of Detroit offices that work with commercial properties. None of them list buildings by their “names.” For the most part, building names are unofficial. The city deals in addresses.

Detroit has had many elevator-related businesses and still has some. Lardner Elevator, Elevator Technology Inc. and Michigan Elevator are all on the east side. That accounts for some of the buildings with “elevator” on their signs.

Detroit Free Press Jan 24 1932
Detroit Free Press Jan 24 1932

Early in the 20th century, as elevators became popular features in residential and commercial buildings both began to advertise themselves as “elevator buildings” as a selling point. The phrase is still common in big cities on the east and west coast.

The Elevator Building, however, has no elevator. It was once home to a Studebaker factory and a metal manufacturing plant. There are rumors it was used by the infamous Purple Gang to smuggle booze during Prohibition. Historian and Purple Gang expert Paul Kavieff says there is no evidence any of the buildings the gang used are still standing. But, he says, there are many buildings that have been wrapped in Purple Gang mystique.

Detroit News May 1928
Detroit News May 1928

“It’s common practice in Detroit for any building that’s 100 years old or more to be a place where the Purple Gang associated with or hung out at,” Kavieff says. “It’s totally impossible to prove one way or the other. But if there was a cutting plant they used to cut Canadian whiskey or there was a place where they were brewing booze. It usually got noticed.”

Elevator Building
Elevator Building

The Detroit Elevator Company was opened on the site in the 1950s. That’s when it became known as ‘the Elevator Building.’ Before that it was just an address on Franklin Street.

The company operated there until the late 1990’s…when that building – and several others – were claimed under eminent domain. The city planned to make a ‘casino district’ along the river. That never happened. But the displaced Detroit Elevator Company is now setlled in Ferndale.

Today the Elevator Building offers ‘creative office space’ to a variety of businesses. It is one of many buildings along the riverfront to be renovated and re-purposed. The state Department of Natural Resources opened the Outdoor Adventure Center in an old factory next to it. The Aretha – formerly Chene Park – sits between the building and the river. The Dequindre Cut rolls out just to its west.

Elevator Building
Elevator Building

Kay Stefanski owns the Detroit Sign Factory which is located in the Elevator Building. She says she was looking for an urban space with history and character where her business could grow.

Big Green Detroit works from a big airy loft in the building to create learning gardens for schools in Metro Detroit. For the director, Ken Elkins, the beautifully renovated historic building makes him feel connected to the city’s history of innovation.

“So, when I look at these different spaces that’s just more to inspire me to be part of our innovation in our industry,” Elkins says.

The Elevator Building got new owners last year.  It’s also getting a fresh coat of paint and new round of renovations. No sign it will get an elevator any time soon.

Author

  • Sascha Raiyn

    Sascha Raiyn is Education Reporter at 101.9 WDET. She is a native Detroiter who grew up listening to news and music programming on Detroit Public Radio.