Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Welcome to the GAR Building, Detroit’s cool old frat house!

At first glance, it reminds me of the castle in “The Holy Grail” from which the little Frenchman repeatedly taunts King Arthur. It’s a gothic-looking old building on Grand River Avenue at Cass, and it appears to be standing guard against evil invaders. It would be fair to assume that it’s simply another of Detroit’s wartime relics. At least I hope it’s fair to assume that, because that’s what I did.

But then I consulted with the Kage’s crack research team (i.e. – the fine folks at Google) and learned a little bit about the building known as the Grand Army of the Republic Building. Without going into too much detail, it was essentially built in 1899 as an extravagant “thank-you” to veterans of the Civil War. It was a place for them to get together, play cards, drink beer, and panty raid the Delta Zeta house down on Woodward. (OK, I made that last part up.)

It sounds like it was a real rockin’ place, all the way up until the 1930s. The street-level space was rented to shopkeepers, but upstairs the old-timers had themselves a real fun house. By the mid-‘30s, there were only a couple dozen Civil War vets alive, and the building turned back over to the city.  

Interestingly, like too many of the buildings downtown, the GAR Building is boarded up and currently unused. Unlike many of those buildings, it seems to be drawing some demand to occupy it. Among the entities who’ve shown interest are Ilitch Holdings and a successful design company downtown called Mindfield. Unfortunately, because of stipulations in the original will, the building cannot simply be sold to the highest bidder and used for any purpose. Apparently there has to be a street-level “marketplace”, and that side of town ain’t exactly a retail hotspot. Hopefully it’s a detail that can be sorted through, because it’d be great to see the boards come down and the building explored again. There are probably some old beer bongs up in the attic!