Anyone who has enjoyed a play, a musical, or a concert in downtown Detroit owes a debt of gratitude to the late Charles A. “Chuck” Forbes.
Born in Highland Park in 1929, Forbes, who passed away in late September, attended the Henry Ford Trade School, where he was class president in 1948, before spending two years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. From there, he earned a business degree from Wayne State University.
During his time at Wayne State, Forbes began working at Ford Motor Co. and, over the course of 31 years, he learned the real estate trade firsthand — identifying, acquiring, developing, and leasing dealership locations all over the country.
Retiring from Ford in 1981, at the ripe age of 51, Forbes went on a shopping spree, buying more than 40 mostly vacant buildings in downtown Detroit, especially older theaters. In 1984 alone, he purchased the Fox, State (today known as the Fillmore), Gem Theatre and Century Club, and The Colony Club. He also scooped up the Elwood Bar and Grill, an Art Deco masterpiece that at the time was located at Woodward Avenue and Elwood Street, hence the name Elwood.
Three years later, in 1987, he agreed to sell the 5,000-seat Fox Theatre and office building to the Ilitch family, which subsequently undertook a $12-million renovation of the entertainment jewel. At the time, Forbes could have pocketed the money from the sale of the Fox and retired, but the son of Scottish immigrants wasn’t one to stand still.
As the Ilitch family renovated the Fox, Forbes restored the State Theatre and the attached Francis Palms Building. He also began work on the Gem Theatre and Century Club (one building), which at the time was located next to the Elwood. A self-described preservationist, Forbes favored restoration over the destruction of architectural wonders like the YMCA, YWCA, and Wolverine Hotel — all of which were torn down to make way for surface parking lots for Comerica Park.
The stadium project, which included Ford Field, was bittersweet for Forbes. The two stadiums wiped out dozens of buildings, while the Gem Theatre and Century Club, along with the Elwood, stood in the crosshairs of redevelopment.
Rather than sell everything, Forbes made history by negotiating to have the Gem/Century and Elwood moved to Madison and Brush streets. The five-block move (1,850 feet) of the theater structure was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the heaviest building ever transported on wheels.
Today, the two buildings, separated by a multistory parking deck, appear to have always been in their current location east of the Detroit Athletic Club. And while Forbes thought the stadium planners were short-sighted — leveling everything in their path save for the Hudson’s warehouse, which now adjoins Ford Field — he didn’t allow some of the most attractive elements of his buildings to be reduced to rubble.
The courtyard in front of the Gem/Century, for example, is surrounded by an ornamental balustrade that once graced the top of the downtown YMCA, which Forbes owned, while the brick pavers came from his other buildings that were leveled for the stadiums. Inside, he furnished the structures with historic elements he saved like fireplace mantles, stained glass, sconces, and decorative wood trim.
Downtown Detroit has never looked better, and we can credit Forbes for making it all possible.