Detroit’s Castle

This is the first in a series on historic buildings in Detroit, some of which are being saved and re-purposed

Many of you have passed by this building as you traveled down Cass Avenue and affectionately called it “The Castle,” knowing little of its history and its future. The official name of the building is the GAR Building (GAR stands for Grand Army of the Republic).

Before I talk about the building, let me give you a little background on the GAR. It started out as a fraternal organization for veterans of the American Civil War and was founded in 1866 on the principles of Fraternity, Charity and Loyalty. Initially the GAR was a social organization providing a place for veterans to gather and reminisce. It later turned into a strong advocacy group, becoming one of the first groups to lobby Congress. It campaigned for voting rights for black veterans and pensions for Civil War veterans. Unfortunately, the fight for pensions did not extend to black veterans, most of whom never received any payments for their time spent or injuries received while in service to their country. The organization disbanded when Albert Woolson, the last GAR member, died in 1956 at the age of 109.

One last interesting fact about the GAR is that only one female was ever granted membership to the organization. Her name was Sarah Emma Edmonds, and she served with the 2nd Michigan Infantry from 1861 to 1863. As many women did, she served disguised as a man by the name of Franklin Thompson. Based on affidavits from former comrades, she was granted a veteran’s pension and was buried with full military honors upon her death in 1898.

The building itself was opened in 1900 with a corner stone marking it as a “Memorial to the Soldiers and Sailors of 1861 -1865.” The land had been donated by Lewis Cass, former governor of Michigan and one-time presidential candidate. He willed the land to the city of Detroit with a stipulation that it always be used as a “marketplace,” so storefronts were added to the ground floor whose rent went toward the upkeep of the new building.

The building was designed by Julius Hess, who was also responsible for the Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian Church and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greektown. For many years it served as a headquarters for 14 GAR-affiliated organizations as well as a “frat house” for the Boys in Blue.  By the 1930s, membership had dwindled so much that the veterans gave the building back to the city of Detroit, which opened the GAR Recreation Center in the early 1940s. The Rec Center remained in use for several decades until 1982 when, as a cost cutting move, Mayor Colman Young closed the center and boarded it up. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Although many proposals for possible redevelopment had been floated over the years, one major stumbling block remained. In addition to the stipulation in Lewis Cass’s will, an 1889 Michigan law stated that any building constructed by the GAR “shall forever be dedicated to the memory of the Union soldiers of the War of the Rebellion.” In 2009, the city placed the building up for bids with those two stipulations in place, along with a requirement that any owner must preserve the GAR’s historic architecture.

Mike Ilitch’s winning bid gave him ownership of the GAR building, but the city rescinded that sale when no restoration proposal had been submitted by the Ilitches. In November 2011, David and Thomas Carelton of Minifield Pictures (a creative web design firm) bought the building from the city for $220,000. After a 2-year, 2.8 million-dollar restoration, the building will reopen on Veteran’s Day of this year as headquarters for Minifield Pictures and other Detroit based micro-entrepreneurial firms. In fulfillment of the terms of the Cass will and the 1889 legislative restrictions, the ground floor will house a restaurant and other retail space, along with a small museum dedicated to Civil War veterans.

This is just another example of the revitalization of Detroit, from Downtown, to the Cultural and New Center areas, to the recent Midtown redevelopments. With visionaries and risk takers such as Dan Gilbert, the Ilitch family, and the Carleton brothers, piece by piece, a new face of Detroit is taking shape, while a good bit of the city’s history is being preserved.

Now you know a little bit about that strange-looking building on a triangular lot, and soon we will all have a reason to stop, rather than just drive by “Detroit’s Castle.”             

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