The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was a fraternal organization similar to the modern Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion. It was founded in Decatur, Illinois in 1866 by Benjamin Franklin Stephenson and Reverend W. J. Rutledge. Their goal was to promote fellowship among former Union Veterans of the Civil War, honor the memory of fallen comrades, extend aid to widows and orphans of the war, and provide support for fellow soldiers who had fallen on hard times. Membership in the GAR was limited to honorably discharged veterans of the Union Army, Navy, Marine Corps or the Revenue Cutter Service who had served between April 12, 1861 and April 9, 1865.
Meeting rituals were similar to Masonic rites and the organization is best known for its annual encampments held across the country. The GAR Started with just 14 members but the organization grew rapidly to 400,000 members nationwide by 1890. By the 1880s, most northern communities had one or several active GAR posts. The community level organization was called a "post" and each was named after a deceased person of notable honor and numbered within its department, which usually represented a state or region. Detroit was home to four flourishing and colorful Posts of the GAR: the F.U. Farquhar Post, Fairbanks Post, John Brown Post, O.M. Poe Post, and The Detroit Post.
As its numbers grew, the GAR gained powerful political and social influence and was a strong supporter of the Republican Party. At one time, the organization’s voting block was so strong they held sway over the Republican ticket. Overall six post-Civil War presidents were GAR members. The organization is responsible for the creation of Memorial Day as a national holiday beginning on May 30, 1868. The organization also successfully lobbied for benefits for handicapped veterans and then, later, pensions and health care for all Union veterans in their old age. Their success in obtaining federal support for the older population set a precedent for the Social Security legislation enacted in the Roosevelt Administration in 1935 and the Medicare legislation enacted in Lyndon Johnson's Administration.
State departments and local posts of the GAR also worked to convince local governments to erect monuments commemorating the Union forces and build meeting halls for the GAR. The GAR posts in Detroit similarly pressured the city's government to build an appropriate structure as an appropriate structure for meetings and other GAR related activities.
As a result, in 1897, construction of the Detroit Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) "Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Building" began. The location was a small, triangular lot on the northwest side of downtown Detroit, the site of the outdoor Cass Farm Market, which had been demolished in 1896 and the land willed to the city by General Lewis Cass. Due to pressure from the famers who had sold their goods at the location, a stipulation in the donation of the land to the city was that there was to be a market on the first floor. Architect Julius Hess designed the imposing five-story structure in the Richardsonian Romanesque style that was popular at the time and which suggested military strength.
Construction was completed in 1900 by architect Richard Raseman, a week after Hess’s death. The final cost was $44,000; the GAR posts paid $6,000 and the City of Detroit paid the rest. The building included 13 shops and a bank of the ground floor, office space on the second and third floors, and a small auditorium on the fourth floor. The building also featured an engraved memorial stone that read: "Memorial to the Soldiers and Sailors of 1861 to 1865". It was the largest GAR meeting hall in Michigan.
As the years passed into the 20th century and the Civil War-era veterans began to pass away of old age, the membership rolls of the GAR declined rapidly. By 1934, only a handful of GAR members were still alive and the building was given to the City of Detroit, who began renting it out. It was occupied first as offices for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), then as a police lockup and, in 1943, the Department of Parks and Recreation took over the space as an activity center complete with basketball and shuffleboard on the fourth floor.
The building was then used by founding members of the DUVCW Sarah M. W. Sterling Tent No. 3 until 1973, when it was effectively abandoned except for limited use as office space for the City of Detroit. The building was boarded up in 1982 and, the next year, the city gave the property to one developer but reclaimed it in 1993 after no progress had been made. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on February 13, 1986.
After its closure, the GAR Building in Detroit was saved from the wrecking ball due primarily to the efforts of Celestine Caldwell Hollings of DUVCW Sarah M. W. Sterling Tent No. 3. Although assisted by members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), Mrs. Hollings spearheaded a 15-year effort to save this historic building.
Federal Court Judge Sean Cox entered a Consent Judgment on September 1, 2006 ensuring the GAR Building would be renovated and that the new owner will cooperate with the Allied Orders of the GAR including the SUVCW and the DUVCW. The Allied Orders will have reasonable access to the building and will create and maintain a historical display in the lobby of the building. The new owner must also restore and preserve the mosaic tile floor in the lobby and any other historically significant elements on the interior and exterior of the building.
If you’d like to take very rare photographic tours of the incredible interior of Detroit’s GAR Building, please visit DetroitFunk.com and ForgottenDetroit.com.
Sources: wikipedia.org, forgottendetroit.com, atdetroit.net, detroitfunk.com, and garmuslib.org