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Grand Army of the Republic Building, Detroit

Grand Army of the Republic Building

Constructed in 1899, the Grand Army of the Republic Building in Detroit Michigan commemorates the heroes who fought in the United States of America’s Civil War. After the commencement of the Civil War, the Grand Army of the Republic was organized. With its nationwide recognition, the GAR became one of the biggest political powers in the nation. This led to the persuasion of the City of Detroit officials to construct a building to commemorate Union troops who fought in the Civil War.

Before the construction of the GAR Building, Detroit was the city where many Civil War veterans would come to hangout and meet up with their buddies back from the war. Detroit was chosen to hold an encampment for many Civil War veterans in the mid-1890s. it was estimated that 100,000 men would show up and attend the great event (Chicago Daily Tribune Aug 2, 1891). The city had plenty of smaller places for soldiers to meet up, but not one big post. This encampment opened the eyes of city officials and made them realize the sheer number of veterans that had roots in the City of Detroit. One great way to make the city even better for veterans would be to construct a main headquarters where troops could hangout and catch up with old friends. From this encampment spurred the actions to construct a great structure not only as a thanks but as a commitment to the veterans of the city. Due to the great political pull of the Grand Army of the Republic, the building was slated to be funded almost completely by the City of Detroit. The Grand Army used their political leverage and sheer size to convince the City to pay for the building. Not only would it look like the City of Detroit was making a conscious effort to help the veterans but also, they would benefit from the projected increase in people using the building. However, one glaring issue still stood in the way of the city. The property of the proposed Grand Army of the Republic Building, dedicated to the City by Gen. Lewis Cass, was to be used as a “marketplace”. To accommodate this dilemma, the City decided the building would have shops on the first floor. Once this was cleared, the City of Detroit and the Grand Army of the Republic got to work.

The Grand Army of the Republic contracted architect Julius Hess to design the building. The final design Hess produced was a great representation of the troops that had fought in the Civil War. The overall look of the building is triangular shaped with a castle persona to it, exactly what Hess believed to be worthy of a building designed for war veterans. The buildings turrets and battlements were designed to appear “as strong and the republic the veterans had fought to preserve” (Dan Austin 2010). Although Hess passed away halfway through the construction of the building, it was constructed to match his design of a great Richardsonian Romanesque style building. Formally dedicated in 1901, the GAR Building was the main headquarters for most of the army posts in the City of Detroit. Located in the heart of Detroit, the rough stone structure demonstrated the elegance of Architecture in the late 1800s (Guide to Detroit 1916, 55). The GAR building today, even though run down, is still one of the City of Detroit’s best examples of a building this style.

Julius Hess was not a stranger in the Detroit’s architectural world. He was responsible for a number of other structures throughout the city. Some of the structures he designed include Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian Church and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greektown (Dan Austin, 2019). Hess also served in the Army during the Civil War. After the war, he moved to Detroit and started his architectural career in Detroit. He formed a partnership with another architect, Richard Raseman. This partnership lasted for a few years but would prove to be very important when Hess passed away during the construction of the Grand Army of the Republic Building. Due to his past track record, Hess was the front runner, and eventual winner for the design portion of the GAR Building. Another reason his design was chosen to be constructed was because of the fortress look about it. The combination of turrets and battlements represented the strength the Veterans fought with to preserve the Union. Hess understood the importance of making the building represent the strength of the Union Army better than most due to his first-hand experience in the Civil War.

Inside room of the GAR Building
Inside the GAR Building

The Grand Army of the Republic Building was mainly constructed for veterans to use as a hangout and base for GAR operations in Michigan. The land the memorial building was to be erected on was donated by General Hon. Lewis Cass.  Once the GAR was opened, the first floor was rented out to other businesses while the rest of the building turned into a meeting hall for veterans to play cards, watch shows, swap stories, and much more. Originally the shops on the first floor of the GAR Building were rented out by the city. After many unsuccessful attempts to rent the stores to businesses, the City turned the leases over to the GAR post (Annual Report of the Controller of the City of Detroit 1906, 244). The City of Detroit gave the GAR a thirty-year rent-free lease of the building and soldiers took advantage of this gift from the city. At the end of this lease, many of the soldiers who had used the GAR Building had passed away or could not make it to the building anymore. The few veterans who still went to the GAR Building could no longer manage the burden of the building, so it was eventually turned over to the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Once the veterans turned over the Building to the City, they had one wish. Once the last veteran who used the building passed away, the Grand Army of the Republic name would pass on with the last soldier. This request led to some controversy within the group of people who wanted to take over the building at the time. A group of combined local Civil War subsidies formed the GAR Memorial Association to try to continue the legend of the Grand Army of the Republic soldier’s legacy. This did not sit well with some of the veterans and this effort quickly died out. Perhaps another reason this did not go over well with the remaining veterans is because of the supposed war of words with woman of the Grand Army of the Republic. It is believed that there was a major he said she said battle between the two sides and the Grand Army of the Republic veterans did not want the building to be converted into a meeting hall for the woman of the GAR. Because of this the building was turned over to the City of Detroit’s Welfare Department. At this time, the building was used as a meeting place for many different groups. The building was renamed the GAR Recreation Center around this time.

The future of Michigan’s largest Grand Army of the Republic outpost has been in question even since the City of Detroit took over the property. The building has been used for many different purposed since the disbanding of the GAR post in Detroit but has been abandoned for most of this time. One attempt was made in the 1980s to reopen the center and use it as a recreation center. However, this attempt was quickly abandoned, and the building was boarded back up. “On February 13, 1986, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places” (Karin Risko 2018, 67). Recently a group of investors purchased the Grand Army of the Republic Building and are looking to renovate it to house media production.

The investors to slated purchase the building were not the first ones interested in it. In the early 2000s, the GAR Building was put on the market to be sold by the City of Detroit. The Grand Army of the Republic Building caught the attention of the Illich Family. The Illich’s saw the building as a great opportunity to compliment the newly constructed Comerica Park. Along with Comerica Park, the Illich family owned many properties in the downtown Detroit area. One more building would only increase the empire the Illich family already had constructed. The bid by the Illich family however fell through and the building remained property of the city until late 2000. In August 2000, the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War in conjugation with a chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil filed a claim of ownership to the building. For 5 years, these two organizations held control of the building. In May 2005, the City of Detroit filed a complaint and got the two organizations rights to the building terminated. Once again, the building switched hands back to the City and was put up for sale. The building caught the attention of different developers around the City of Detroit, one of which was Olympia Development. As a subsidiary of the Illich Family, Olympia Development was unsuccessful in acquiring the building. Mindfield became the front runner for the purchase of the building. Due to their past success in the City of Detroit they were awarded the winning bid and proposal for the building and they started the long renovation process.

Slated to reopen in 2013, the GAR building is still to this day being used for restaurant space as well as a media production site for Mindfield. Once Mindfield purchased the building, they had to throw a lot of money into getting the building to acceptable condition. The bottom of the building houses two separate restaurants, Republic Tavern, and Parks and Rec. Both restaurants embody the atmosphere the building had when the Grand Army of the Republic was thriving at this hangout. This exciting news is accompanied by more good news for the Historical site. Mindfield is planning to restore the building to its past glory with the hope of turning it into a memorial commemorating the brave soldiers who fought in the Civil War. The coolest part of the future memorial will be centered around the artifacts found in the building. The artifacts to be featured are said to include rifles and whiskey glasses found when Mindfield purchased the building. Perhaps the most sought out artifact to be on display is a Spencer rifle that was carried by a Michigan Veteran in the battle of Gettysburg (Katelynn Medley, 2019).

GAR Building view present day
GAR Building Present Day

The Grand Army of the Republic Building has a rich history of the veterans who fought so hard to preserve the union which we call the United States of America today. Still standing strong after many hard times and tribulations the GAR Building is a embodies the grit of the Civil War soldiers perfectly. The new opportunity the building has been given by Mindfield is a great opportunity to commemorate the veterans even more and not let our past military history die. The Grand Army of the Republic was a very large organization and Detroit was one of the Bigger outposts. Restoring the building to a memorial shows the City’s willingness to help and support the veterans who fought so hard to keep America the way we know it today. The renovation of the building can also be seen as an investment into the veterans of the future. It may be comforting to current soldiers knowing even after over 100 years we are still remembering soldiers of the past. They will hopefully get the same memorial sometime after they have passed on.

Primary Sources:

  1. Keep, Helen, Burton, M (1916). Guide to Detroit 55.
  2. Chicago Daily Tribune (Aug 2, 1891). The Grand Army at Detroit
  3. Thos, Smith Press (1906). 50th Annual Report of the Controller of the City of Detroit 244.

Secondary Sources:

  1. Austin, Dan (2010). Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins
  2. Risko, Karin (2018). A History Lover’s Guide to Detroit 67.
  3. Hill, Eric (2003). AIA Detroit: The American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture 70.
  4. Binelli, Mark (2012). Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis 295.
  5. Medley, Katelynn (Aug 3, 2019). Civil War Relics were hidden in Detroit’s GAR Building
  6. Austin, Dan (2019). Grand Army of the Republic Building

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