UPDATE 6/27: I just got off the phone with Tony Nichols, property manager for the owners of Stonehouse. They’re opening back up!!
Here’s what I know, and a bit of backstory. I make it a policy to never talk about licenses: food, entertainment, liquor, any kind of license that a bar might hold. I firmly believe that this is between a bar and the license issuer (in this case, the MLCC). I now have permission from Tony to disclose this: In the case of Stonehouse, the original owner passed away and her liquor license was non-transferrable. Michigan is a weird state when it comes to licenses, and the labyrinthian licensing process can be overwhelming. The grieving family let things get away from them a bit and the license was suspended. They’ve straightened everything out and are officially reopening on Friday, July 8th. There will be beers in the brand new coolers. There will be pizzas served from the brand new pizza ovens. The whole place has a new coat of paint and sparkling clean floors. And they’re working on booking the bands now, so it looks to be one hell of a party.
This makes me so happy. Now is your chance: If you haven’t seen Stonehouse and were bitterly regretting it, go there sometime. If you have but miss it, go there sometime. While you’re at it, go to other historic, family-owned bars that ooze Detroit history out of every grain of wood and every speck of dust. See you at the bar.
This is the worst part of what I do. The absolute worst.
What I do is fall in love with old bars. Old speakeasies mostly these days, but any ancient place with a gorgeous back bar, decades of history, and that sweet spot on the rail worn down by generations of elbows resting on it that fits your own arms juuuussst right. And these bars return the love year after year. I’ve been spilling beers at these bars for far longer than than I’ve been spilling their secrets. I fall in love with old bars, but sometimes they break my heart.
This bar, this story, break my heart.
The Stonehouse is admittedly a strange bar for a nerd from the burbs to fall in love with. If you never went there, here is the very briefest description I can muster right now: no one knows when Stonehouse became a bar. It just always was one in living memory. The stone farmhouse on what would later become the state fair grounds at 8 Mile and Woodward has been around since sometime around 1868: that’s the last date we can authenticate. Sometime after that, as folks rolled in for the Fair or for the stages and rails along Woodward, someone started serving drinks there on the first floor. Before you could say “Ulysses S Grant’s former house is around the corner”, the Stonehouse was a bar. No one can really say when it became a bar. It just was.
For as long as I can remember (admittedly my drinking history in dive bars in Detroit only goes back a decade or so), Stonehouse was the domain of Mike. Mike was the most irascible, foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping retired cop you’ve always wanted in your life. Together with Al Jolson, the resident bar cat, Mike held rowdy court over bikers of all stripes (line your patches, any patches affiliated with any group, along the bar), locals, and a random assortment of night-tripping suburbanites, and whoever had read the most recent listicle about Best Dive Bars.
Stonehouse is and has always been neutral territory for so many groups of people. It’s been the quintessential meeting place. The middle.
I wanted to write about that riotous scene. I wanted to write about the alleged tunnels under Woodward. I really wanted to write about working a shift here. I wanted to write about how hard it is to definitively prove that the Purple Gang held court there. About my years-long love/hate, older-brother-teasing relationship with Mike. How he swore at me every time I brought a bus full of drunken idiots in, and how he castigated me every time I stopped in for beers on a drunken Sunday: that I wasn’t drinking enough whiskey or coming into the bar enough without the drunken louts.
About–oh dear god–about that bottle of Polish moonshine he held in reserve under the bar to initiate the newbies. That shit was deadly and disgusting, and I don’t care who you were: if Mike told you to drink it, you goddamn well drank it.
It was that kind of bar. It was also the kind of bar, and the kind of people, that anchored the neighborhood. And it wasn’t the wealthiest neighborhood. Aside from his swearing and swill-pouring, Mike very quietly handed out food and pop and cigarettes and advice to just about anyone who came in the door. From summer through Christmas, there was a small wooden box on the bar collecting money for folks in the area who were down on their luck. The Thanksgiving dinner never got any press, but that was how Stonehouse wanted it: they simply collected cash and made as much food as they possibly could for whoever might need it, and people came and ate, no questions asked.
No grand gestures, no gimmicks, no press. That was Stonehouse. Come in, order a beer and a shot. Cheri or Mike or Jeffersen will talk to you about your day no matter who you are or if you’ve been there ten times or a hundred or never.
And now it’s gone.
Stonehouse closed without fanfare. Officially, this week. They’ve been “closed for renovation” since sometime early this spring, maybe as early as this winter. It’s hard to tell. I’ve been trying to go for months and always found it locked. But before that, the efforts to keep the bar afloat serve as a cautionary tale on the scale of “Bar Rescue” for so many bars around here.
I don’t want to go into too much detail, but here again is why my heart is hurting and why there might be a bit of a rant coming. Because this is the danger of the New Detroit. We are losing our history. It’s not always the most elegant history. History in Detroit isn’t gilded, unless it’s the Whitney or the Detroit Athletic Club. Our historic bars don’t look like the 21 Club in New York. Hell, they don’t even look like D’Mongo’s. They’ve been wood-paneled over by everybody’s grandpa and they have 80s-era Coors Light mirrors and drop ceilings hiding the original tin tiles.
After Mike left, Cheri and Jeffersen and the other loyal staff were let go unceremoniously and without warning. They were just plain old fired. That’s when the absurdity–and the cautionary tale–come in. So far as I could tell, every few weeks they had a new staff and a new Facebook gimmick. Social media can’t solve any problem and this is a perfect example. Memes were posted daily. Photos of women in tight tanks, posters for loud bands, and daily specials (even–gasp–mixed drinks) were flung out there in the hopes of snagging some cash. Somehow, somewhere.
It’s a delicate balance between tradition and innovation, especially in New Detroit. This experiment definitely didn’t work.
This was one of a dozen former real speakeasies, and it’s gone. I can’t find anyone who can tell me when exactly they’re coming back or even when they really closed. They went out without even a whimper. You just can’t go there anymore. Even Comet had a better sendoff than that.
So, yes, I am pretty damn sad about the quiet disappearance of the oldest building in Detroit that had a speakeasy. I am also deeply worried about what this means for the other good old bars that aren’t anywhere near cocktail-revival-fancy.
These are the bars that actually had living human bartenders a hundred and more years ago who knew what a Cocktail was in 1890. Let that sink in. If they weren’t slinging a Stroh’s and handing you a bottle of whiskey, they knew so much more about an Old Fashioned than the best Sugar House bartender can imagine…and that bar is gone.
I’ll leave you on that depressing note. I’m going to toast to speakeasies, smoke-easies, biker bars that accept nerds, asshole bartenders who quietly support their communities, and the eventual triumph of Al Jolson, the bar cat of Stonehouse.