Events, People

A Detroit Casino of dreams

Belle Isle CasinoLong before the three gaming casinos we know of today became a reality, there was one on Belle Isle. However, it wasn’t a “casino” in the sense of what most of us think of today.

In parks or garden areas like Belle Isle a “casino” was often built as a covered structure to provide a shady resting place in summer or a place to hold dances and other entertainment.

This Italian Renaissance-style casino was completed in 1907 and is a Van Leyen and Schilling structure (however, it is often misattributed to Albert Kahn). But I didn’t think about its origins when I was a kid.

To nine-year-old me, it was right by the pond where my dad and I would sail our model boats that we had crafted in our dining room turned art studio. It’s where we’d get a hot dog afterward, and then take the Belle Isle bus back to Jefferson to get home.

It was open back then. The place was always magical. I would always imagine it would be the kind of place that James Bond would hang out in (of course, at the time, I didn’t realize it wasn’t for gambling). I was in awe of the structure even though the paint was peeling and the bathrooms never worked right, all of which I became more aware of as I got older. But now, after the hard work of many folks, the casino has had a facelift and is teaming with life, especially during the Grand Prix.

Glass Ceiling at Belle Isle CasinoI knew it had been redone a few years ago, but I hadn’t had the chance to see it like this until this weekend. It is my hope one day it’s this busy every weekend. After all, it was designed for it. You can sit on the spacious porches, where six-top tables comfortably fit. How grand would it be to be able to have brunch and a coffee out here? After all, commerce like that is part of what makes a place alive. You can even rent it for your wedding!

In its role for the Grand Prix, as the headquarters for the media, the entire world is now seeing this restored jewel that I remember as the place I used to get a hot dog. There’s the chandelier with the nice touch of glass block in the ceiling so the light comes up through the floors from downstairs. There’s the media who have set up their portable broadcast studios on the veranda. Press conferences now happen upstairs, an area where as a kid I never remember going, and the windows are of very attractive modern materials but are in keeping with the building.

The glee of all of this — that the world is seeing what was my childhood place of wonder — is sort of hard to keep in. I doubt if any of these folks who have come to Detroit from every continent except Antarctica would understand. Why would they? But to me, typing this post in this place, I don’t know if there’s a happier feeling about the city I live in and love yet this year. The only thing missing is a model boat!

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3 comments on “A Detroit Casino of dreams

  1. The Belle Isle Casino is frequently attributed to Albert Kahn, but it was in fact done by the firm Van Leyen and Schilling. Keep up the good work, and check out my site, HistoricDetroit.org if you're interested.

  2. Dan, thanks for pointing that out! Will make the correction in the post above. In my research, I saw that name, but so many sources went with Kahn. Thanks and glad to have someone such as yourself, with your history knowledge, reading our blog. You do great work at HistoricDetroit.org.

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