321 W. Lafayette Blvd., home for 73 years

Free Press Special Writer

Though the Detroit Free Press, the city's longest surviving newspaper, dates back to 1831, it was not until 1925 that the current Free Press building became a

Stone detail of building
Stone detail of building

part of its tradition of staying "on guard" over Detroit, the nation, and the world.

The building, commissioned by Free Press owner E.D. Stair for $6 million, was designed by architect Albert Kahn. The construction firm of Spencer, White & Prentice built it.

In the mid '20s, downtown Detroit was growing dramatically, and Kahn played a vital role in the evolution of the modern city. His architectural innovation, which stressed utilitarianism and modest elegance, was used in more than a dozen structures throughout the Motor City. The Fisher Building, the Detroit News -- The Free Press' competitor -- and the National Bank Building are a few concrete examples.

Stone detail of building
Stone detail of building

Located at 321 W. Lafayette Blvd. between Washington and Cass, the Free Press building is six stories high with a central tower which extends an additional eight stories. A basement and a sub-basement give the building 288,517 square feet of floor space.

The building is a block wide, and at one time it overwhelmed neighboring buildings. Its construction smoothly combines concrete and steel, a technique that Kahn helped pioneer. Kahn, however, was a traditionalist in the sense that he disliked the glass and steel exteriors of the new skyscrapers. To improve the building's appearance and to avoid a more metallic sheen, Kahn included a facade of limestone quarried and hauled from Bedford, Ind.

Sculptor Ulysses Ricci also used the limestone to create some beautiful and symbolic carvings for the outside of the building.

The most perplexing of these are eight reliefs on the front of the building which depict famous men. The patron of printers, Benjamin Franklin, is an obvious choice, as are renowned journalists Horace Greeley and Charles Dana. George Goodale's contribution as Free Press drama critic evidently earned him a place on the wall. Lewis Cass, Michigan's first territorial governor and who helped establish Detroit's first newspaper, also is there.

But Civil War Gov. Austin Blair, Monroe native Gen. George Custer, and former University of Michigan President James Angell are incongruous selections. Their place in Michigan history is not in question, but no known thematic unity binds them to the other men on the Free Press facade. Other symbols ornament the Free Press. On the sides of the building are a variety of vehicles of transportation: a plane, a ship, a locomotive and a truck -- but no automobiles. The front doors of the building are framed by an arch, and Ricci meticulously carved owls, snails, pelicans, sea horses, lizards, and snakes for the columns that frame the arch.

Stone detail of building
Stone detail of building

Human figures also are present, as are two statues of the goddesses who traditionally represent commerce and communication.

Stair's interest in the arts is evident not only in his choice of Kahn as architect and Ricci as sculptor, but also in his early commissioning of painter Roy C. Gamble.

Gamble was a local painter who belonged to no great artistic movement but who was a muralist in his own right. Stair had called on him in 1914 to paint five murals depicting the historical development of Detroit, from the "Landing of Cadillac" to "Modern Industry." Gamble also painted a smaller portrait of Benjamin Franklin.

Publisher Neal Shine, whose career at the Free Press spans more than four decades, said that Stair loved the paintings so much that he told Kahn to design a special room for them. Initially housed in the previous Free Press building east on Lafayette near Griswold, the murals were moved to the first-floor room of Kahn's creation in 1925. Gamble's murals, along with one showing monks copying manuscripts and another depicting the development of the printing press, remain there today. Such an indulgence was not uncommon for Stair, who lived extravagantly. On the sixth floor of the Free Press he had his own barbershop, and every morning a barber would come in to give him a shave. Keeping his office on the 13th floor, the aloof Stair preferred to stay away from the active third-floor newsroom, according to Shine. Stair remained secluded in the upper levels partially because of the vibration in the lower floors when the presses were running in the basement, below street level.

Presses were installed in a new building on the Detroit riverfront in 1979 and the old presses have been removed from the Lafayette building's basement.

At the time of construction, all of the processes involved in the creation of a newspaper were within the building. On the mezzanine level, between the first and second floors, Free Press mailers sorted and stuffed the papers.

Before automation, additional sections such as the Sunday comics and the Sunday magazine had to be added to the Free Press manually, a monotonous task but one hastened by the quickness of the mailers. "You could barely see their hands moving," Shine marveled. The mailers also had to wrap, label, stack, bundle, tie, and -- of course -- mail each section of the Free Press.

Women staffers on rooftop deck
Women staffers on rooftop deck

The roof has had its place in Free Press history, too. During World War II, for instance, women were recruited as reporters in large numbers for the first time at the Free Press. A deck was built on the roof so that they could put up lounge chairs, sunbathe and relax during lunch breaks. Men were not allowed on the roof during this time.

In 1984, Free Press reporters Nancy Ross and Brian Flanigan exchanged wedding vows on the roof. Shine gave away the bride; the Episcopal priest also was a Free Press staff member, as were most of the guests at the rooftop reception.

Five years later, Shine moved out of the building in a prominent way.

Having announced that June 30, 1989, would be the last day of his 39 years at the Free Press, Shine parked behind the building and walked up the back stairs, expecting a lump-in-the-throat final day as senior managing editor. What he found was an empty office. It had been stripped.

Secretary Thelma Oakes directed a sputtering Shine to the sidewalk in front of the building. That was all the time he needed to compose himself. He arrived there to find his office, complete with working computer terminal, coffee maker and refrigerator. He sat down. The phone rang. He spent the day working on the sidewalk.

To get even for the indignity of being put out on Lafayette, Shine later came out of retirement and became publisher. The next time he retired, he did it indoors.

Even though the building was built specifically for the Free Press, Stair had Kahn design the newspaper's headquarters with additional floors not only to give it a more impressive size but also to make additional profit. The newspaper has traditionally leased unused space to other companies. Currently the entire 13th floor is leased, as is half of the ninth floor. The Press Galley restaurant and a flower shop on the first have their own entrances.

The building's longest-running relationship with another group has been with the Detroit Club, an elite social organization whose older building stands immediately behind the newspaper. So exclusive was this organization, that, according to Shine, it not only refused to admit women and minorities but at one time denied admission to white men who had acquired their money from the automobile business "because (the Detroit Club) felt that they got their hands too dirty" by working with automobiles. Stair was a member and leased parts of the fourth and fifth floor to the club.

A bridge now connects the two buildings and an alarmed door allows people to enter the Detroit Club from the third floor of the Free Press. "We used to call it the 'peasant alarm'," Shine said.

Buildings tend to have an empty existence without people, however, and any thorough history must include them. There have been eccentric editors, top journalists, wealthy owners such us E.D. Stair and a uniformed elevator man named Scotty who, decades ago, would operate the elevators with precise timing and special consideration for reporters with urgent deadlines.

Albert Kahn and E.D. Stair put the building in the center of the city; the people who worked there put it in the heart of the city.