600 W. Fort: Built for newspapering

A historic photo, showing the building from Fort and second streets

Free Press Staff Writer

When the Free Press, like so many newspapers around the country, began publishing under the same roof as its rival on June 26, 1998, it seemed strange.

But that's how the rivalry began -- under one roof.

In 1873, a strapped Free Press got some cash by renting a corner of its newsroom and time on its press at Griswold and Woodbridge to James Edward Scripps, who was just starting the Evening News. Two months later, the News was on its own, and on a continuing quest for ever-larger quarters. Growth kept forcing it to move until 1917 when, after more than 10 years of planning and construction, it moved into its new building by Albert Kahn west of downtown. Unusual for its time, the building was in a medieval style and one of Detroit's first non-banking commercial buildings to be made to resemble stone construction. It is made of reinforced concrete.

Newspaper ideals are engraved high on its Lafayette Boulevard and Fort Street facades, as well as marks from the earliest days of printing on the fluted stone spandrels beneath the third-story windows. Statues of Johannes Gutenburg, French printer Christophe Plantin, English printer William Caxton and Benjamin Franklin stand atop piers on the north side of the building, fixing Lafayette Boulevard with stony stares. Inside, the building housed all newspaper operations from writing to printing to building, and originally featured such touches as a globe suspended in the lobby and exquisite windows by a Tiffany protege in the library and editorial offices.

Dances, movie screenings and ladies' club teas were held in the editorial conference room where, according to a booklet published in 1918, ''The chimed hours of midday are sped with music, good reading and the colorful and stimulating conversation common to newspaperdom.''

The cafeteria separated office workers from mechanics and, in the 1930s, served ''patties of chicken a la reine,'' for 30 cents, or prime ribs of roast beef for 35. Ice cream was a nickel; sundaes a dime. George Catlin, the editorial writer for whom the News' library is named, assembled a collection of more than 30,000 volumes that made it the finest newspaper library of its age.

A ''scraparium'' held 30,000 engravings, as well as information and pictures on 80,000 subjects. The shipping room featured charging stations for electric delivery vehicles.

In the 1920s, the building became the first newspaper office in the world with its own radio station, the forerunner of today's WWJ.

Almost as soon as its new home was built, the News was swelling with acquisitions and Detroit's exploding population. The News bought the 44,000-circulation Detroit Tribune in 1919. Three years later, it bought out the Journal, with its 122,000 readers.

Rapid expansion led to some confusing matchups, and some indignities to Kahn's original design. Most tragic, to some, was the loss of the building's rooftop tennis court.

The building bloomed from its original half block, on the old homestead of Michigan Senator Zachary Chandler, to cover the whole block, and an additional garage on the west side of Third Street.

A double scoop

The best illustration of Detroit's wide open nature and the competition of its newspapers occurred on June 6, 1928. On that day, a gang of holdup men robbed the News' payroll in a fatal robbery, and the Detroit Times stole the story, all in broad daylight.

It happened like this:

At 11 a.m., shortly before the noon edition, five men carrying paper bags walked into the building and went up to payroll on the second floor. The robbers ripped open the bags to reveal shotguns and demanded cash.

A shot rang out.

A witness ran into the newsroom to report the robbery.

The paymaster was seen waving a revolver around.

Someone called police.

The robbers scooped up $14,826 and ran downstairs to the waiting getaway car. At the Lafayette door, they encountered traffic patrolman Sgt. George Barstad, who suspected something was up. They shot him dead on the steps.

The robbers dashed out and Detroit Times reporters, having heard the first police report, dashed in. With police and ambulance attendants still milling about the lobby an hour later, Detroit Times hawkers came in to the News lobby to sell extras with the story.

The next day, as the News played catch-up, the Times ran a detailed map of the robbers' route through the News building, based on what Times reporters had seen.

The News lost the battle that day, but won the war in 1960, when it bought the Times and shut it, turning Detroit into a two-newspaper town.

The biggest change in the building's exterior structure since those days -- and a hint of what was to come -- came in connection with Detroit's riot of 1967.


Throw down your pencil

With the National Guard clattering around the streets in armored personnel carriers, Neal Shine, then an editor with the Free Press, talked his way aboard one, and directed it westward to the News building. Over the loudspeaker, he demanded that the quizzical reporters inside surrender. It didn't work.

In another foray, and one of the first instances of the Free Press and News working under the same roof -- if it can be called that -- a Free Press copy boy was dispatched to acquire an advance copy of an upcoming News editorial. Free Press editors had caught word that the News was planning a controversial editorial in which it would withdraw its support of George Romney as a 1968 presidential candidate.

The copy boy went in with the cleaning crew, and came out with a copy of the editorial, which the Free Press published first.

The cooperation continued in the computer age, when the News acquired a photo of Free Press sportswriter Michelle Kaufman -- from Free Press computer files -- to accompany an article denouncing her opening of ice skater Tonya Harding's E-mail.

But, back to 1967.

In a somewhat more serious response to the disturbance, street-level arches in the building, which Kahn had designed to admit light into the pressroom and other operations areas, were bricked over. The pressroom, entombed in darkness and eventually gutted of its mechanical innards as printing operations moved to new presses in Sterling Heights, became known as ''the pit.''


Grand reopenings

News reporters and editors set up temporary quarters in the pit, working in a space festooned with wires and bare bulbs, as Danny DeVito filmed scenes for ''Hoffa" in the newsroom. They were eventually released.

With approval of the joint operating agreement and plans to move the Free Press into the building, the arches were re-opened and light poured in, as Kahn had intended, for the first time in about 25 years.

A less publicized and less-grand reopening had been attempted after Gannett Co. Inc. purchased the Evening News Association. Gannett Chairman Al Neuharth had admired the boardroom at the northeast corner of the second floor, but thought it a shame that such a handsome fireplace was a dummy. How cozy it would be, he thought, to have a crackling fire there.

Building engineers went to work and, despite several attempts and smokeouts, they couldn't find a way to undo decades of renovation to let the smoke escape. Finally, they gave up and let the fireplace resume its role as decoration.

There will be more alterations to the old building, as it is changed to accommodate its new resident, but some of the old touches will stand.

Free Press staffers who enter the new Fort Street entrance will pass under this legend, by University of Michigan professor F. N. Scott:

Reporter of the New...
Remembrancer of the Old
and Tried ... Herald of
What Is to Come.

Thanks to Patricia Zacharias and the rest of the Detroit News library staff for assistance.