This eight-story building was among the first skyscrapers constructed in downtown Detroit: 1906. It was built contemporaneously with Daniel Burnham’s Ford Building on Griswold. Surprisingly, the Breitmeyer Building was erected to provide offices for the city’s largest floral firm, John Breitmeyer Sons. A member of that family, Philip Breitmeyer became widely known as a horticulturalist and then served as president of the firm. He also was elected Mayor of Detroit and fulfilled a two year term: 1909 and 1910. Some two decades later, he was elected to city council.
Mayor Breitmeyer made a major and lasting contribution to the city. During his term, cities were very dirty places since soft coal was burned by factories and railroad engines throughout the year and by home owners during the fall, winter and spring. Horses—with their daily production of about 30 pounds of waste—were used for transportation. The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago gave rise to a “City Beautiful” movement—the idea that cities could be reclaimed from their filthy state and turned into attractive locations. Henry Ford’s popularization of motor vehicles, of course, helped monumentally.
Mayor Breitmeyer appointed the first City Plan Commission. Senator McMullen represented the State of Michigan in the US Senate for a number of years around 1900. He devoted himself to making Washington, DC a beautiful place utilizing the plan of Pierre L’Enfant and by removing the many steam rail lines that once intersected the mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Senator McMullen’s political secretary was Charles Moore, the man appointed by Mayor Breitmeyer to head the City Plan Commission. They promptly asked the famous Chicago architects; Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett to visit Detroit and offer suggestions for making the city beautiful. In 1915, Detroit’s first city plan was announced, one that called for the Cultural District on Woodward that now is home to three of the nation’s most beautiful buildings: the Detroit Public Library; the Detroit Institute of Arts and the University of Michigan’s Horace Rackham Building.
The attractive red brick with elaborately trimmed Breitmeyer Building was sold in 1926 and became the Peninsular Bank Building. The bank failed in the Depression and, by 1936, only one-quarter of the offices were occupied. One remaining tenant was the Metropolitan Life Company and their presence explains the significance of this structure for the city’s African American history.
There were—and still are—black oriented life insurance companies and others that have few black clients. Indeed, some of the early fortunes amassed by black families such as the Spaldings came from the sale of life insurance policies to African Americans. Metropolitan Life recruit black customers who were pay very small amounts each week or each month for a life insurance policy—a policy they forfeited if they missed payments. Until 1936, Met Life sent agents into Detroit’s black community to collect the required coins or dollars but then the firm insisted that their customers come to the Breitmeyer Building and make payments so a steady stream of African Americans arrived every day.
In 1944, Benjamin Tobin purchased this building, renamed it the Breitmeyer-Tobin building and began recruiting black professionals and black organization—renters who were not welcome in other downtown office building. And, thanks to full employment during World War II, black professionals and organizations prospered. Tobin rented to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, to several of the leading black law firms and to the African American wing of the state’s Democratic Party. Even in the post World War II era, Jim Crow policies dictated that black and white professionals in Detroit be located in separate buildings. With the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and integration, the need for racially separate offices declined.
This building has been refurbished in a very appealing manner and is now one component of the renewed east side of downtown Detroit, close to both the new stadia, Harmonie Park and Greektown. The ground floor is designed for retail merchants while the upper floors offer apartments or condominiums. This is a great example of recycling an old and once idle downtown skyscraper.
Architects: Raseman and Fischer
Architectural Style: Beaux Arts
Date of Construction: 1906
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Established: February 16, 1979
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Sites: #80001918; Listed: March 10, 1980
Use in 2004: Retail trade and residences
Photo: Ren Farley; April, 2004
Date of construction: 1908
Architect: Unknown to me
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Established February 16, 1979
National Register of Historic Sites: Listed March 10, 1980