The Durant Hotel served as Flint’s premier hotel for over 50 years. From 1920 to 1973, it provided luxury accommodations fit for the various dignitaries, celebrities, and business leaders visiting General Motors from around the world. Moreover, it served the City of Flint as a grand venue for all manner of weddings, conventions, and other celebrations over the course of its life. Perhaps the building’s most enduring trait is the name itself. Hotel Durant was named in honor of the founder of General Motors, William C. Durant., after he stepped down as president of the company for the last time. W.C. Durant was a charismatic leader whose passion and ambition allowed him to build successful businesses from the ground up. He started his first business purchasing a patent on a two wheel carriage in 1885. It didn’t take long for his carriage business to grow, and by the end of the 19th century he was a millionaire. However, with the days of the horse drawn carriage numbered, Durant would soon find himself in a new business: That of selling automobiles.
As a major manufacturer of both carriages and gasoline engines, Southeastern Michigan would quickly become the center of the automobile world, and Flint, being the home of W.C. Durant, would become the epicenter of that world. Countless inventors and mechanics in the area attempted to build their own versions of the horseless carriage, introduced to the U.S. in 1895. W.C. Durant, a leader in the carriage business, would soon be drawn into a partnership with a company started by one of these inventors, David Buick. Under Durant’s leadership, the Buick brand took off to become one of the most successful in the U.S. Its manufacturing facility in Flint was the largest in the world at that time, and it provided jobs to countless individuals in the area.
Later, Durant began to incorporate other companies, along with Buick, into one large company he called General Motors (GM). As time passed, Durant created a large network of various manufacturers, including Cadillac, but the vastness of his vision soon became too unwieldy. Some of his less successful acquisitions began to pull down the rest of GM, and as finances worsened, Durant was forced out of control of the company. However, still undaunted, Durant soon formed a partnership with Louis Chevrolet, and began to sell cars again. It wasn’t long before Chevrolet became a huge success. In 1916 Durant leveraged the value of Chevrolet stock into a takeover bid for GM. Once again, William Durant would control General Motors, a company that now included the Oldsmobile and Chevrolet brands in addition to Buick and Cadillac. However, as before, Durant’s enthusiasm for acquiring companies once again overshadowed sound business practice, and by 1920 he was forced to resign from the company again.
What’s important to the story of William C. Durant is the fact that, unlike many of his contemporaries, his name was never attached to the actual product he was producing. While names such as Henry Ford, David Buick, Louis Chevrolet, and Walter Chrysler have been immortalized, Durant is a name that has always been obscured by the idea of General Motors. Nevertheless, W.C. Durant was as important a figure to the U.S. auto industry as the inimitable Henry Ford, and it is important to keep the understanding of his legacy alive. The Durant Hotel stands as a reminder of this legacy. In 1918, as the developers of the hotel were looking for financial backers, it was W.C. Durant who stepped forward to pledge the first $150,000 in support of the hotel. This move lent the project instant credibility, which ultimately allowed the development team to secure the remaining financing it required to begin construction. As a further result, the hotel was also named in honor of Durant, and stands as an example of his commitment, not only to GM, but also to his hometown of Flint. At the time of construction, General Motors was growing exponentially, and the City of Flint followed suit. As a result of this growth, the formerly small town was suddenly thrust onto the national spotlight. Business leaders came to visit the city in large numbers, but there was no suitable place for all of them to stay. Many people had to stay in cities such as Detroit and Lansing to complete their business up in Flint. The Durant Hotel was built to fill this need, and ultimately fulfilled its promise as intended. Many business leaders, dignitaries, and celebrities have stayed at the hotel. Professional conferences and civic groups held meetings at the hotel from the moment it opened until its last day. It was the people of Flint, however, that held the hotel closest to their hearts, as countless weddings, funerals, dances, and bar mitzvahs took place in the hotel’s various ballrooms over its 53 year lifespan.
The Durant Hotel is an industrial and civic icon. Appropriately, it is named for a person of similar stature. William Durant started what would become the largest company in the world, and remains today a hometown hero to the people of Flint. The Durant Hotel stands as a fitting reminder of this legacy, and, as a tribute to the City of Flint, its story is one that conveys how important this small Midwestern town is to the history of U.S. manufacturing.