DETROIT — It was not yet 8 a.m. when the van pulled up behind Lee Plaza.
A towering art deco monolith standing 16 stories tall over central Detroit, the former luxury hotel had been modeled after the opulent apartment buildings that overlook Central Park in New York City.
When it opened in 1927, it was one of most extravagant buildings in Detroit, part of an architectural renaissance in the Motor City that exemplified the city’s boom times. But legal woes involving its owner and the onset of the Great Depression caused problems almost from the start, and over the decades, Lee Plaza’s star slowly dimmed, as it went from a sumptuous hotel to bourgeois apartments. By the time it closed in the 1990s, it had been low-income housing for senior citizens — many of whom were abruptly forced out when the building’s electricity was shut off because the bills hadn’t been paid.
Since then, the orange-brick building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has become one of the most prominent symbols of Detroit’s long decline. Over the years, scavengers have stolen anything they could salvage from the hotel — from its green copper roof to the ornate terra-cotta lion heads that once framed many of the building’s windows, which are also now gone.
But Lee Plaza has grown almost more popular in death than in life, a blighted star of what has become an unusual yet thriving industry in Detroit: tours of what the locals call “ruin porn.”
Urban explorers and tourists from all over the world have descended on Detroit to see up close its crumbling buildings, even more so since the city filed for bankruptcy last summer. It’s not unlike the odd fascination inspired by devastated cities like New Orleans, where bus tours of the remains of the Ninth Ward in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina became a big tourist attraction in the months after the storm.
But there is something different about the ruins in Detroit, which are largely a man-made disaster. They are frozen-in-time monuments to a bygone Detroit that linger within a city that is desperately trying to fight its way back. As buildings teeming with people, they were engines of creativity, ideas and industry and became forces in the life of the nation. But they are also buildings where dreams died.
On a recent Saturday morning, Lee Plaza was the first stop on a tour led by Jesse Welter, a local photographer who has been taking people inside the city’s abandoned buildings since 2011.
Many of Welter’s clients are photographers — both professional and amateur — who pay between $45 and $85 for tours of Detroit’s empty structures, from old high schools and vacant churches to its dilapidated former auto plants. On this Saturday, in a heavy, driving snow and arctic temperatures, he led a group of five bundled-up photo enthusiasts through an alley behind Lee Plaza, where he found an opening in the chain-link fence surrounding the building and motioned the group to step through.
“Watch your step,” Welter warned, as he marched toward a gaping hole in the side of the building where a window used to be and climbed in.
Inside was a dark stairwell littered with trash and rocks, its concrete steps crumbling with age and neglect. From there, the group moved into what was formerly known as Peacock Alley, a once opulent hallway with a rounded ceiling featuring ornate hand-painted tiles — most of which have now been punched out.
Off the corridor, visitors stepped into the building’s old ballroom featuring a vaulted ceiling that in the dim morning light was reminiscent of an old church.
The walls were covered with muck and grime and graffiti — including a large multicolored tag that featured a skull. Its floor was covered with a thick layer of dirt and debris, as well as a smattering of old plastic toys that had been left behind by someone. And in the center of the room, where an extravagant crystal chandelier once hung, someone had fashioned a makeshift wire chandelier covered with Christmas lights and an unidentifiable gooey substance. It looked like an altar to something supernatural.
“That wasn’t here last time,” Welter said, a tone of caution in his voice, as he shone his flashlight into a dark empty balcony that once served as an orchestra pit.
Exploring the ruins can be a tricky endeavor — not just because it’s illegal, but because it can also be unsafe. Welter always conducts his tours in the early morning, just after sunrise, because he’s found that’s when you're less likely to encounter trouble. Most of the buildings are open but are rarely patrolled by a police force that is spread thin because of budget cuts. In recent months, people going into the ruins on their own have been robbed in broad daylight or carjacked.
There’s also the issue of physical safety. Those who go on Welter’s tours sign a waiver acknowledging they could be fined for trespassing. They also agree not to sue if they get injured or die. And they very well could in buildings like Lee Plaza, where explorers have to trudge up a 15-flight pitch-black dark stairwell stripped of its steel safety railing and covered with glass and rocks to get to the top. On every floor was an empty elevator shaft, the safety doors long ripped away. One slip, and you could be gone.
But this is nothing for Welter, who began exploring empty buildings on his own several years ago. He’s trudged through everything from empty train tunnels to out-of-commission ventilation shafts to photograph dozens of the estimated 78,000 abandoned buildings in Detroit.
“I found beauty in what people call ruin,” said Welter, who began to sell his photos online and at art fairs.
He started receiving emails from people who recognized the places he had photographed — whether it was the old candy store where they had ventured as a kid or a former hotel they remembered from old family photos. He was also contacted by people who wanted to see the sites for themselves.
The interest in the ruins is a sensitive subject for many Detroiters. While Welter and other urban explorers appreciate the beauty of the crumbling edifices of Detroit’s past, others are not nearly as nostalgic.
Many residents, who have endured through the Detroit’s tough times, see the “ghost buildings” as painful scars on a city desperately trying to bounce back. They don’t like that the ruins have become the dominant image of Detroit for people around the world. And they see the attraction to the city’s hollowed-out ruins as something akin to people attending a funeral for a city that is hardly dead yet.
“I can see how some people find them interesting, but ruin porn doesn’t help Detroit,” said Devan Anderson, an architect who chairs the city’s Historic District Commission. “It perpetuates a certain mindset about what Detroit is that is not fair. … It’s wallowing in the ashes of what Detroit once was.”
Welter acknowledges the sensitivity around what he’s doing. But he defends his interest, arguing that he and other explorers are not seeking to exploit Detroit but rather document and admire the magnificent beauty of part of the city’s past that might not be around for much longer.
“I figured if people were as interested as I was in seeing these old places, why not take them?” Welter said. And there was one more benefit, he added: “There’s safety in numbers.”
Since then, Welter has led hundreds of people from all over the world on tours, from countries ranging from England to Australia. He’s helped a rock band scout out locations to film a music video. And not long ago, he worked with a young couple who wanted to get married in one of Detroit’s old abandoned churches.
“It was this unusual thing at first, but then it just became like a normal wedding, focused on the couple and not their surroundings,” Welter said.
Welter is one of several people in Detroit who lead the curious around the city’s blighted buildings, which permeate the city. But no one knows more about their history and what you can see inside them.
At Lee Plaza, he led the group through floor after floor of nearly collapsed hallways and rooms that were wrecked with debris. He knew where there would be odd signs of normalcy — like one room that featured a busted television positioned on a table overlooking what used to be a glorious view of the city.
On another floor, there were the remains of an apartment whose one-time tenant was a boxer on the Detroit circuit. The floor was littered with old boxing memorabilia, including news clippings about his fights and books about how to maintain a good fighting weight.
“I am constantly surprised by what you find in these buildings. It’s like an old time capsule,” Welter said. “This guy looks like he just picked up and left everything behind. … You would be surprised how many places in Detroit look like that.”
That included the next stop on the tour, which was an abandoned courthouse and police station in Highland Park, Mich., just over the Detroit city line. Inside the building, which was vacated in the 1990s, are hallways and desks littered with old arrest records — including police reports, booking photos and fingerprint records. It looked like a bomb had gone off — and it had been like this for years.
Welter is hardly the first to capitalize on the interest in Detroit’s empty buildings. There have been several books published about the city’s decay — including “The Ruins of Detroit,” by a pair of French photographers who spent five years documenting what they called “a city in a state of mummification.”
News agencies including the Associated Press, Reuters and Getty Images have dispatched photographers in the last year to document the city’s blighted buildings — photos that were later used by the media to illustrate stories about the city’s bankruptcy filing.
Last fall, television personality Anthony Bourdain irritated some locals when he filmed an episode of his CNN show “Parts Unknown” in the city and included footage of the abandoned buildings. He said it reminded him of the nuclear-ravaged Russian city of Chernobyl.
“It’s hard to look away from the ruin, to not find beauty in the decay,” Bourdain said, as images of the blighted buildings flashed on the screen. He likened them to the ruins in places like Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu and ancient Rome. But, he added, “People still live here. We forget that.”
Indeed, local officials say it can be tricky trying to sell the outside world on Detroit being on the road to comeback when the most striking images are of its collapse.
“It’s not helpful,” said Sandy Baruah, who heads up the Detroit Regional Chamber. But, he added, “It’s not something we are obsessed with or overly worried about. … I am not worried about the cosmetic (problems). We are trying to sell investors on why they should come here, and they are interested more in the story than the image.”
At several moments on Welter’s tour, the group paused to admire the old buildings almost in awe. Most of the participants had been going into the city’s abandoned structures for years but still seemed to find something new and unique to appreciate every time.
They spoke of how the light reflected off the textures of the peeling paint on the walls and how beautiful the architecture was--even in its decomposition.
They marveled at how the buildings were still standing, even as vandals picked away at them bit by bit.
“The things you see inside these buildings are incredible. The way they were built, the original architecture, they could never afford to do it today,” said Tudor ApMadoc, who works at a software company in Detroit but has been taking photos of the buildings for years. “Even though there is a lot of decay and ruin, there is a lot of beauty.”
He bristled at the idea of people describing him or others who explore and photograph the ghost buildings as exploiting a city on hard times. The thing to be angry about, ApMadoc argued, is the circumstances that led to decline of these magnificent buildings.
The group stood in what used to be a grand entryway of the old courthouse in Highland Park, with a soaring ceiling and rounded marble staircase. But it was a merely a shell of what it used to be. The bannisters were missing and the cracked marble steps were covered in a thick sheet of ice because the windows had long ago been busted out.
ApMadoc shook his head sadly. “How could someone have let this happen?” he said.