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Downscale Detroit: 1908

Circa 1908. "Monroe Avenue, Detroit." One of the nascent Motor City's seedier (and moldier) districts. 8x10 inch dry plate glass negative, Detroit Publishing Company. View full size.

Circa 1908. "Monroe Avenue, Detroit." One of the nascent Motor City's seedier (and moldier) districts. 8x10 inch dry plate glass negative, Detroit Publishing Company. View full size.


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Two "Theater" Ladies

Here is a painting I did based on a photograph taken in the 1930s in front of one of the theaters on Monroe Street.

August 2018

Similar perspective - 110 years later. The National Theater (left) is all that remains from Detroit's first theater district on Monroe.

One thing I neglected to mention in my last post is that it's been said that Bud Abbott (of "Abbott and Costello") spent a brief stint managing the National Theater in 1915! :

Autobots transformed it.

Urban renewaled into something else entirely.

3 Balls

For many years I have known that the 3 Ball signs identified a pawn shop. This image illustrates the point where you see several shops labeled "Loan Office" with the 3 Ball symbols hanging out front. This got me to thinking, where did this symbol originate? After a very short internet search I found this link.

Entrepreneur heaven

The Monroe Block was a normal pre-Civil War commercial area. The area didn't change when Detroit grew up around it in 1920s. Instead, it hosted successive waves of immigrants starting their first business - for instance, David T. Nederlander, founder of the Nederlander Organization theater operators, had a pawn shop nearby when this photo was taken.

In the 1970s, when Detroit hoped to build a downtown shopping mall, the city took over the Monroe Block and evicted tenants. Preservationists fought to save the buildings by declaring it a historic district, but couldn't stop the city's demolition by neglect - open windows and unmaintained roofs made the buildings unstable, and by 1990 they had to come down. The mall was never built, but earlier this year, builders started a 35 story mixed-use tower on the vacant land.

Three years before the National Theater

Monroe Street (Avenue) was Detroit's first theater district. Near the center of the picture, the building with the arch on the ground level is the Royal Theatre (or "Royale Theatre" or the "Theatre Royale" as it's been known by over the years) on Monroe Avenue at Farmer Street. What's unique here is that this picture has the distinction of being one of the few in existence to show Monroe Avenue early in the 20th century *without* the 64-foot tall twin gold-topped towers of the National Theater - now the last remaining vestige from the aforementioned Monroe Avenue theater district. A few excerpts about the National Theater, in operation from 1911-1975 from :

"Located on Monroe Street at Farmer, near Greektown, the National opened Sept. 16, 1911, as a vaudeville house. It was located in Detroit’s old theater district — before the movie palaces near Grand Circus Park were built. The old Detroit Opera House and the Gayety, Temple, Columbia, Liberty and Family theaters were among the venues that once stood nearby, making it Detroit’s main avenue of entertainment.

Inside, its small lobby was narrow and lined with tan tile and led into the 800-seat theater, which was simple yet graceful with a high, square proscenium. The interior represents the earliest surviving example of theater construction that would later characterize Detroit’s movie palaces of the Roaring ’20s. It had a suspended plaster interior shell with a brick supporting structure. The shape and technique are similar to what Kahn used in his Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor (built in 1913). Intricate, gold-leaf designs were painted on the walls. Patrons would climb up staircases in the side towers to reach the seats in the balcony.

As vaudeville slowly died out and newer theaters like the Madison (opened in 1917) started showing motion pictures, the National was forced to make changes. It, too, started showing motion pictures, but the small theater couldn’t compete with the rising movie palaces such as the Michigan and United Artists theaters and quickly switched to burlesque with a live orchestra. In the 1940s, the National Burlesk Theater was advertised as “Detroit’s biggest and best” burlesque theater. The runway was lighted from beneath with multicolored panels that the dancers pranced around in their high heels. In the 1960s, evening shows would often start at 8:35 p.m. Among the ladies strutting their stuff were Miss Dee Dee Devine, Miss Lorelei Lee, Miss Gina Gina, Miss Linda Love, Miss Leslie Lang and Miss Ann Darling.

The National was Detroit’s last live burlesque theater, but burlesque was a dying fad. As its patrons took their business elsewhere, the National’s performers would start taking off more clothes.

The Kahn-designed theater that opened with vaudeville closed with porn. In the early 1970s, the National made the logical progression from burlesque to showing adult films, operating as an X-rated movie venue known as The Palace. By the early 1970s, the Monroe Block was a dying, decaying area of mostly empty storefronts. In 1975, The Palace joined them."

Incredibly, as of May 10, 2019, the National Theater still stands (even in its neglected state indoors, it still retains its original asbestos stage curtain), though it's been threatened recently with a proposed "redevelopment" of the entire block - in which, only the facade would be saved as some sort of "pedestrian walkway".

Here's a couple of pictures of the same block with the National Theater. The first one is a colorized shot from 1918 at the intersection of Monroe and Farmer. The second is from 1988 from a similar perspective to the 1908 photo (looking south/southwest - the National Theater is at extreme left). By 1990, almost everything you see in that second photo will have been razed - everything except the National Theater:


Seedy but lovely in its own way. Thanks for the photograph of a typical Detroit street. Both of my grandfathers emigrated to the US, settling in Detroit around the time this photo was taken.

Monroe Avenue or Woodward Avenue?

Cinematreasures lists the address for the Alhambra Theatre as 9428 Woodward Avenue.

[And what are the address numbers on the storefronts in our photo? - Dave]

My bad, I thought the one sign said they were moving to Monroe Ave when their building was ready.

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