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Mourning Fallen Church

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Monday, May 19, 2014

This story is written only. It has no audio. It was written and photographed by Chris McCarus.

The address is supposed to be 2680 Woodward Avenue. It stood for 123 years as dark red sandstone and orange brick. It was built around 1890. But fire tore it up May 10 and within a couple days bulldozers smashed the walls that still stood.

At 7:30 Sunday night , the non-profit group Preservation Detroit gathered together about 80 people for a vigil. The Rev. Roger Mohr of the First Unitarian Church led members of the congregation and dozens of others who were saddened by the end of this building’s life.

The three-man Detroit Party Marching Band played a New Orleans style funeral dirge. The church had been abandoned for the last decade. The Unitarians’ current home is an historic building at the corner of Cass and Forest, a mile north.

On May 14, a clean black late model Land Rover moved west on Edmund Place. I paused from taking pictures of the rubble. It was 20 feet tall.

The Land Rover’s driver was a handsome dark haired man in his early ‘40’s. His name is David Kemerko. “The inside of the place was already destroyed by fire seven years ago,” Kemerko said. “There was nothing we could do with it. It was totaled. When the Super Bowl came in 2006, my dad (Salim “Sam”) and I thought this area down here would take off. We thought the sky’s the limit.” But not long after that “nothing. Nothing happened.”

The city has a history of landlords burning down their own properties to collect insurance money. The website whydontweownthis.com takes city and county information to give a detailed picture about each property in Detroit. The site names Salim Kemerko as the owner. It says the taxes are paid. I failed to pry into any issues during the brief exchange I had with David. But the frustration on his face seemed real. He said something like “yeah. It was a beautiful building.”

The city has a history of landlords burning down their own properties to collect insurance money. The website whydontweownthis.com takes city and county information to give a detailed picture about each property in Detroit. The site names Salim Kemerko as the owner. It says the taxes are paid. I failed to pry into any issues during the brief exchange I had with David. But the frustration on his face seemed real. He said something like “yeah. It was a beautiful building.”

At least two schools of thought can be heard about the area north of Foxtown where I-75 crosses east/west under Woodward. The prevailing school wants to “clear the area for development.” Detroit political and economic officials have said this for decades. That school has allowed the Ilitch family to demolish acres of buildings west of the Fox Theater and in some cases get public money to do it.

The Motown/Donovan was designed by Albert Kahn and stood at the northwest corner of Woodward and I-75. The original Sanders Ice Cream store stood next to it. The founder of Motown Records, Berry Gordy Jr. had made the Donovan his headquarters from the early 1960’s until 1972 when he moved to Los Angeles. The lot is now part of the land that Ilitch family will use for their hockey arena.

In 2006 Berry Gordy Jr demolished both buildings. The Super Bowl was coming in February 2007. An attorney, Tanya Heidelberg Yopp, agreed to speak with me at the time saying she was family friends with Gordy. Yopp said Gordy demolished it because it was an “eyesore” and he didn’t want Detroiters to be embarrassed by it when out-of-staters would be walking to Ford Field for the big game.

Four months later, in May 2007, Gordy spoke at Michigan State University’s commencement in May 2007. In a separate event the day before at the Wharton Center, he sang and played piano. I approached him after the event and Heidleberg-Yopp stood between us.

I asked Gordy “When the Motown building was demolished…”

“Didn’t we have this interview already?” Heidleberg-Yopp said.

“Yes,” I said. “There was some degree of concern that this was a cultural and architectural gem that was taken down. Why did you agree to it?”

“I don’t intend to discuss it,” Gordy said.

“We had this interview already,” Heidlberg-Yopp said again.

“Yes but not with Mr. Gordy,” I said.

“Well now you’ve had it,” said Gordy. Then he turned away.

In today’s Detroit Free Press, editor Dan Austin argues for saving the Hotel Eddystone and Hotel Park Avenue.

At the event yesterday, Francis Grunow, an attorney, historic preservation activist and member of the citizens advisory council formed because of the planned hockey area, made a similar case to me.

He stood in the the rubble of the Unitarian Church and pointed west at the two hotels that stand just a couple hundred yards away. Only Woodward and a block of empty lots separates the two sites. So far Grunow has not heard enough of Olympia Development’s plans to know if they will save the hotels. But from what he does know he believes the stadium could fit onto the open parcels. The hotels don’t need to be demolished for it.

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Earlier in the week, someone had stacked bricks by the hundreds to be saved elsewhere.

Earlier in the week, someone had stacked bricks by the hundreds to be saved elsewhere.

First Presbyterian Church Ecumenical Theological Seminary still stands on the north side of Edmund Place.

First Presbyterian Church Ecumenical Theological Seminary still stands on the north side of Edmund Place.

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Dozens of acres downtown have been kept dead for years to allow Illitch to piece together the parcels he wanted for his new arena.

Dozens of acres downtown have been kept dead for years to allow Illitch to piece together the parcels he wanted for his new arena.

The Hotel Eddystone and the Hotel Park Avenue were built one block West of Woodward at the corner of Park Ave. and Sproat St.

The Hotel Eddystone and the Hotel Park Avenue were built one block West of Woodward at the corner of Park Ave. and Sproat St.

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Joel Batterman, a transit advocate with MOSES, a top the pile of rubble next to charred pine beams.

Joel Batterman, a transit advocate with MOSES, a top the pile of rubble next to charred pine beams.

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A mourner gathers bricks from the top of the pile.

A mourner gathers bricks from the top of the pile.

The Rev. Roger Mohr of First Unitarian Church leads a memorial service.

The Rev. Roger Mohr of First Unitarian Church leads a memorial service.

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