DETROIT – It has a storied past, but if current owners Norman Silk and Dale Morgan have anything to say about it, there are still chapters to be written. The Willis Show Bar, former jazz hotspot turned den of iniquity and then shuttered for longer than it had ever been opened, may live again.
The story of the Willis Show Bar, which is located at the corner of Third Street and Willis, in the area now known as Midtown, began in 1949. That’s when the Art Moderne styled bar opened its doors and joined with venues like the Flame Show Bar in hosting the hottest live jazz and rhythm and blues around. By the mid-1960s, however, the bar was beginning to be known more for flesh peddling than playing music. Prostitution was running rampant in the bar and the area in general. Things got so bad that the bar was shut down – by order of the city – in 1975.
Five years later, the building that housed the Willis, was purchased by a couple of florists.
“We were starting our business, Silk and Morgan, which later became BLOSSOMS,” said Silk. “We lived in the West Canfield Historic District nearby and needed a place to design flowers. So we rented one of the retail storefronts then later purchased the building, which consists of the Willis Show Bar and two retail storefronts.”
But even though they owned the bar, they never put it back in operation.
“We have used the space as a warehouse for the past several years,” said Silk. “It has always been our dream to put the building, especially the bar, back into use. We were urban pioneers, renovating an 1885 Victorian house in the 1980s nearby and now, 30-plus years later Midtown is a popular place that can support this kind of development. With the influx of new residents, the new stadium and M1 rail, the district can support independent, creative owner-operated businesses in urban spaces which set them apart from the mass produced suburban chains.”
So now Silk and Morgan are looking for tenants for both retail spaces and for the bar as well.
“We are planning to renovate the two storefronts first,” Silk said. “One is about 2000 square feet, the other 1000. We hope to attract small business owners that are style driven and will create creative attractive businesses. Creativity and well-designed stores are important. This is a good opportunity to start a small business. Rents in the area are $12-$15 per square foot, much less than the suburbs, and it’s a good opportunity to reach a creative young market.”
As for the bar, Silk envisions it reopening as a casual bar and grill with a large outdoor dining area added on Willis. The original enameled steel exterior would be exposed and the original backlit neon art deco ceiling would be restored.
“With regard to the bar space, we want a tenant that will appreciate the great original Art Moderne interior ceiling,” said Silk. “This unique architectural detail cannot be duplicated. We hope the tenant will recreate the 1940’s feeling of the original bar. We hope to attract a tenant that might serve micro-brew beers, artisan pizza, burgers and simple good fresh local food. We are not looking for a slick modern suburban looking restaurant. It should be uniquely urban.”
If you think you have the vision to bring The Willis back to life, reach out to Silk and email him at email@example.com. Perhaps you can help him write the next chapter in the story of this unique bar.