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Detroit’s Master Apartment House Builder

Thismonth0801_smJANUARY 2008 – In January 1928 the National Real Estate Journal saluted REALTOR® Ralph T. Lee, Detroit’s master apartment house builder. According to the Journal, Lee built his first house only seven years earlier, “a box-like affair that nevertheless possessed the merits that an enthusiastic young builder puts into his first venture.” By 1928 he had built homes and apartment houses valued at over 10-million dollars.

Lee closely watched every step of construction, and any work that didn’t meet his standard was done over. He explained “the best you are capable of producing is only fair exchange to the man whose money you accept in payment for the building or to those who live in it as tenants.”

He had no trouble selling his buildings. “I build with the idea of keeping the building for myself, and I give it the same selfish care.” After construction was finished “its quality and appearance is such that I have dozens of offers.”

One building, the Orpha Mae, contained seventy apartments but Lee said he would never sell it. It was named for Mrs. Lee.

He emphasized meeting the demands of modern home seekers. “We must express our own times or be left behind” he told the Journal. “In this age people are not only demanding quality construction, comfortable and artistic room arrangement, but they are also insisting on good taste in every detail whether it be cornice or door knob.”

The magazine featured Lee’s newest work, the 16 story Lee Plaza. Designed for 220 apartments it would include billiard and beauty parlors, a barber shop, commissary and laundry. The building would be “distinguished in its extreme simplicity, its beautiful and majestic proportions, its refinement of line and detail, and absence of ornamentation.” On its roof would be “a 9,000,000 candlepower searchlight, the aviation beacon for Detroit.”

Lee Plaza still stands at 2240 West Grand Boulevard. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, it is now vandalized and vacant.

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