(This is the second in a series of articles on historic and significant buildings in Detroit history and how they may be part of Detroit’s future)
It was recently announced that a new home for the Detroit Red Wings would be built on a site just west of Woodward Ave. and just north of the I-75 freeway. The new stadium would be the centerpiece of a 45 block entertainment district that will include retail shops, restaurants, and residential sites. Several existing buildings will be repurposed and included in the district which already features the Fox Theater, Comerica Park and Ford Field. Although few details of the new arena have been given, rumors abound that the exterior of the structure may resemble the first home of the Red Wings, Olympia Stadium. The question is how many of the current day Red Wing fans even remember the original Olympia? For those of you who do this will be a walk down memory lane and for those of you who don’t it just might be a glimpse of the future.
The “Old Red Barn” as it was affectionately called was built in 1927 as a home for the Detroit Cougars hockey team (which later became the Red Wings) which had relocated from Victoria, British Columbia in 1926 and had played its inaugural season across the river in Windsor. It was built on the corner of Grand River and McGraw and financed by a group of investors led by many members of the Detroit Athletic Club. The first event was a rodeo on Oct. 26th 1927 with the Cougars playing their first game on Oct. 22nd (a 2-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators).
The building was designed by architect Howard Crane who designed other Detroit landmarks such as Orchestra Hall, the Detroit Opera House, and the Fox Theater. When it opened, the Olympia boasted the largest indoor skating rink in the United States. Another trademark of the stadium was the steep angle of the seating which made fans feel they were right on top of the action. Those of us who had the privilege of sitting in the balcony will fondly remember the railings set before each row of seats to keep you from toppling forward. They provided a great place to lean forward and rest your arms as you cheered on the Winged Warriors!
Over the next 6 decades the Olympia hosted a great variety of events including hockey, boxing, wrestling, figure skating, political conventions, circuses, and music concerts. Many of the Great Joe Louis’ early bouts were fought here on his way to World Champion and many (including this writer) remember the 1963 classic wrestling battle between Dick the Bruiser (villain) and Alex Karras (local football hero). Legions of Rock and Roll fans have fond memories of concerts at the Olympia including such legendary acts as Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin, the MC5, Pink Floyd, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s the decline of the surrounding neighborhood and the lack of parking sparked the move of the Wings to their current home on the river (Joe Louis Arena aka – “The Joe”). The final Wing’s game at Olympia Stadium was Dec. 15, 1979 (a 4-4 tie with the Quebec Nordiques). A “Last Hurrah” was played in Feb. of 1980 between the then current Red Wings and the Red Wing Old Timers (alumni). Urban Legend has it that when Gordie Howe (the greatest of all Red Wings) scored early in the third period no other player really tried to score. It seemed so fitting that Mr. Hockey should be the last to put a puck into the net at the Old Red Barn.
In an ending reminiscent to Tiger Stadium, the building remained empty for 8 years before finally being torn down in 1987. Because the infrastructure of the stadium had been built so solidly, implosion was not an option and the building was torn down piece by piece with wrecking balls. This caused a local sports caster to say that “the Old Girl just refuses to die” but die she did. Currently there is a Michigan National Guard armory on that site and is named after the storied stadium with a plaques commemorating it and its contribution to the city of Detroit.
Although with current policy to sell naming rights to stadiums, chances of the new home of the Red Wings being called Olympia are slim to none. Still chances remain that when fans approach the new arena they may seem to be looking upon ghosts from the past looming ahead as homage just might be paid to the “Old Red Barn”. What do they say about all things old becoming new again?