United Artists Theater Building, Detroit, MI HABS/HAER Photography

I was beyond enthused to be asked to conduct the HABS/HAER photography of the historic United Artists Theater in downtown Detroit, MI. Opened in early 1928, the combination office tower and movie theater was the epitome of elegance and style for more than four decades. In 1957 the office building was purchased by the American Automobile Club. A decade later, in the wake of racial unrest and suburban development, Detroit’s downtown population plummeted, and the fortunes of the theater joined suit. Through the 1970s the theater showed low-end and adult films to a declining audiences, and in 1974 the American Automobile Club relocated to Dearborn, leaving the 18-story office tower vacant. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Antal Dorati, used the theater for recordings from 1979 to 1983 until the conditions became unbearable. The building has remained vacant since then, despite several attempts at redevelopment.

In 2020 a new group of investors announced plans to redevelop the office tower for mixed residential and commercial uses. Unfortunately, the new development had no need for the theater, which was in an advanced state of deterioration. The developers secured permission from the City of Detroit to demolish the theater portion of the complex. At the same time, the City of Detroit’s Housing & Revitalization Department required the developers to document the building to HABS/HAER standards. City staff prepared the historic and architectural narrative, and the developer’s architectural firm, Hobbs & Black, contracted with me to prepare the photographs. I conducted the photography in January 2021, using a 4×5 large-format camera and Kodak TMAX 400 black and white film. The complete HABS package, for which I submitted 68 negatives and contact prints, was accepted by the National Park Service as HABS No. MI-451. The theater was then demolished in September 2022.

For more information on the history of the building and its various attempts at redevelopment, see the terrific summary by Historic Detroit here.