A Note on the Detroit G.A.R. Building

B. Nash at the cornerstone of the G.A.R. building, Detroit


The newly restored G.A.R. building of Detroit is a much anticipated event.  Back in  August 2012,  HOUR Detroit magazine published an article: Reviving Detroit’s Castle by Richard Bak, which talked about the renovation. It also gave some historical history on its past:


“At its peak, the GAR claimed 490,000-plus members. Thousands of Detroiters,  including leading citizens such as Mayor Hazen and pharmacist James Vernor (of ginger-ale fame), were proud badge-wearing members. Detroit was chosen to host the organization’s national encampment in its silver anniversary year of 1891, a scintillating, high-profile event that kindled enthusiasm for a single clubhouse to consolidate the activites of the city’s several GAR posts. It took awhile, but on July 4, 1899, the cornerstone was laid. The massive-looking building, designed in the Romanesque style by local architect Julius Hess, opened the following year. At 20,700 square feet, it was the largest GAR hall built in Michigan. The $44,000 cost of construction was funded by $6,000 in donations from GAR members and #38,000 from the city. The vets were given a free 30-year lease.

The GAR was built on land donated to the city by one of its most revered figures, soldier and politician Lewis Cass. The terms of Cass’ will stipulated that the site was to always be used as a “market place,” so in order to meet that condition, the veterans operated several businesses on the ground floor, including a tire store and a banl. The profits were used to help maintain the building. For decades, Detroit’s “boys in blue” gathered to play cards, enjoy a drink, and swap stories at fireside while the city grew up around them. By 1934, their ranks had thinned to a handful of vets in various stages of decrepitude. “They aren’t fit to conduct business,” an 87-year-old ex-cavalryman said of his comrades, “and except for a little sentiment the old soldiers don’t care whether the building is saved or not.”

Detroit’s last Civil War veteran, 100-year-old John Haines, died in 1942. By then, the city had already opened a welfare office inside The GAR. After Haines’ passing, the city leased the building to its recreation department and renamed it the GAR Recreation Center. For the next 40 years, until Mayor Coleman A. Young ordered it closed as a cost-cutting move in 1982, the place where old soldiers had once relived the patriotic gore of distant battles, became home to checkers tournaments, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and dances for over-40 singles…”

Surely better days lay ahead for that grand old building.  Until then we wait. The ghosts of our Civil War ancestors are waiting also… May we do them proud.


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One Response to “A Note on the Detroit G.A.R. Building”

  1. Warren Barber says:

    Would just like to offer a correction on your statement that John Haines was Detroits last Civil War veteran. John Haines while not the last Civil War veteran in Detroit, he was the last member of a Detroit GAR Post. His passing on October 5 1942 closed the O.M.Poe Post 433 GAR. With Comrade Haines passing there were two Civil War veterans left in Detroit. Alonzo Dibble who passed on April 29 1943 and then Detroits LAST Civil War veteran and member of the Department of Michigan GAR George Morgan who passed on April 15, 1945.

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