Guardians of Detroit:
Architectural Sculpture in the Motor City
This is the complete preface from the book
Detroit has its share of sleek, unadorned, glass-covered buildings. While this style of building has its place in the evolution of the architectural arts, it is not my personal favorite. I prefer buildings from earlier eras—buildings with sculpted ornamentation that interact with people passing by in symbolic and meaningful ways. And because of a fortuitous confluence of geography, natural resources, and entrepreneurial spirit, Detroit is blessed with more than its share of this style of building.
When I started the Guardians of Detroit project, I knew there were many buildings with architectural sculpture to be seen in Detroit, but I had no idea just how many. I thought I would be lucky to fill around a hundred pages. As you can tell by the volume you have before you, nothing could be further from the truth. There was so much that, in order to keep this book to a manageable size, I had to limit it to just buildings within the city of Detroit, excluding even Highland Park and Hamtramck. So the question is, why is there so much architectural sculpture in Detroit?
By the Numbers
The first building featured in this book is Fort Street Presbyterian Church, completed in 1855. Fifty years before this church was built, Detroit had burnt to the ground. Only twenty-five years before this church was built, Detroit was still a small frontier town with a population of about twenty-two hundred people. By 1850, that number had grown by an order of magnitude to just over twenty-one thousand. During the decade when this church was built, Detroit’s population more than doubled that number, passing forty-five thousand.
By the time Old City Hall was completed in 1871, Detroit was a booming industrial and transportation center, with over eighty thousand people. That number more than tripled by 1900, and Detroit had become the nation’s thirteenth-largest city. In those years before the automobile, raw materials such as copper, iron, and lumber flowed through Detroit, and industries including sawmills, cast-iron stoves, and locomotive production flourished. People came from around the country and all over Europe to help produce pharmaceuticals, paints and varnishes, soap, shoes, seeds, tobacco products, and steel.
Most of the buildings featured in this book were erected in the 1920s, when Detroit was the fourth-largest city in the country. That decade opened with Detroit’s population at just under a million people and closed with more than one and a half million people working and living in what had become the Motor City.
Obviously, the more the city grew and the more business thrived, the more new buildings were needed. And these new building were being built at a time when the most popular architectural styles included Beaux-Arts, Gothic and Romanesque Revival, and later Art Moderne and Art Deco, all of which made extensive use of sculptural ornamentation. Thus, Detroit became an incredible treasure trove of architectural sculpture, most of which is concentrated in a fairly small geographic area. Guardians of Detroit seeks to document this unique outdoor art gallery photographically while providing insight into its symbolism and meaning and crediting the often-anonymous artists and artisans who created it. While every attempt has been made to be comprehensive, some buildings may have been overlooked, and for this, I apologize.
A City of Giants
Another reason for Detroit’s wealth of architectural wonders is that this was a time of giants, people with incredible drive and ambition and, in many cases, oversized personalities—people such as James Scripps, James Scott, the Book brothers, and the Fisher brothers. Whether they came from humble beginnings and built huge fortunes in Michigan and/or Detroit or were born to some level of privilege and parlayed that into even greater wealth, all wanted to make their mark on the city they called home. Part of telling the stories of the buildings featured in Guardians of Detroit is telling the stories of these people.
Detroit was also a city of architectural giants, including George D. Mason, Wirt C. Rowland, and of course, Albert Kahn, to name only three. These men and many others brought the dreams of their wealthy patrons to reality, designing buildings that were recognized for their greatness and innovation throughout the world and putting Detroit on the architectural map. Many pages have already been written about them, and their stories are mentioned here only in passing.
A primary focus of this book is on telling the stories of the sculptors who created the architectural ornamentation featured on these pages. One of the giants in this area is Corrado Parducci. It has been said that his work adorns just about every major Detroit building erected in the 1920s and early to mid-1930s. Based on my research through many sources of information, Parducci is responsible for some or all of the exterior sculpture on at least twenty-five of the buildings on the following pages. Based on date of construction, known associations with Detroit architects and builders, and stylistic analysis, it is probable that he is also responsible for at least fifteen more of these buildings and possibly several others. He is also known to have worked on the interiors of even more buildings, a topic not covered in this volume.
While Parducci is probably the best-known figure in Detroit architectural sculpture, there are many others. Included in their ranks are Julius Melchers, Louis Sielaff, Ulysses Ricci, Géza Maróti, Beaver Edwards, Marshall Fredericks, and several more. What I could find of their often-intersecting stories is told here. Keep in mind that in most cases these artists did not sign their work, and records of those often considered secondary contractors were not always kept. When a sculptor is identified herein as working on a particular building, it is because I have found documentation to support that claim, using primary sources when possible. In cases where I am reasonably sure but not 100 percent positive, I have used the words “attributed to” to describe a sculptor’s contribution to a building.
Creating Architectural Sculpture
There are several ways the sculpture on these buildings was created. In some buildings, particularly those constructed in the nineteenth century, the sculptor carved stone already in place on the structure. In other cases, sculptors provided full-size plaster or clay models, based on sometimes-detailed/sometimes-loose drawings provided by the architect. These models were then used by carvers to create the finished work, under the supervision of the architect or the sculptor. The names of these tradespeople were rarely preserved, but in cases where I have found them, they have been listed in the credits, identified as “carvers.” Ornamentation could also be made from terra-cotta (a type of clay), which was less expensive than carved stone. Wrought or cast iron, copper, bronze, and other metals were also used, depending on the application. Two or more of these processes could be used on a building, and I have made sure to identify who did what, when known.
Location and Preservation
While we are fortunate that so many of Detroit’s amazing buildings have lasted through the years, much of the architectural heritage of this city has been lost. While interesting and certainly worthy of study, buildings such as the Detroit Museum of Art, the old Federal Building and Post Office, and the Detroit Stock Exchange, to name a few, have not been included in this book. An exception has been made for Detroit’s Old City Hall. Razed in 1961, Old City Hall is featured in these pages because eight statues from the building’s exterior were saved and can still be seen today. Maps showing the location of Old City Hall and where four of its rescued statues are displayed, as well as every building included in this book, can be found in appendix B. Please note that many building names have changed over the years. In such cases, I have arbitrarily chosen the name I believe to be most recognizable today or chosen to include more than one name.
I encourage you to visit these buildings while you can. While most of the structures included in this book are still standing, and many are being restored and repurposed and can expect to be around for years to come, some, such as the First Presbyterian Church, the Park Avenue Building, and the National Theater, face uncertain futures. At least one building, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, has been torn down since I began working on this book, and another, the Pochelon Building, has been slated for demolition before this book is published. I hope those who peruse these pages will become more aware of the architectural wonders around them and be inspired to help preserve them. Detroit organizations dedicated to this effort include Preservation Detroit (http://preservationdetroit.org) and the Belle Isle Conservancy (www.belleisleconservancy.org). This brings us to my final point.
While doing research for this book, it has occurred to me that the most important aspect of Guardians of Detroit and any further projects that may arise from it is documentation. It has proven to be very difficult to find close-up detailed photos or drawings of the architectural sculpture of buildings that have been damaged, demolished, or “updated.” In so many cases, such records have been lost, destroyed, or simply were never made. Pictures of entire buildings are usually available, but pictures of individual architectural details are not. If anyone out there has photos of sculpture from any of Detroit’s lost buildings or knows where pieces of these building are, please contact me though my website, www.GuardiansOfDetroit.com, so photos can be made and “lost” architectural sculpture can be documented, preserved, and possibly made available through an online archive. Any help in achieving this goal will be greatly appreciated.
Creating Guardians of Detroit has been a labor of love. Working on this project has allowed me to meet many interesting people, from those who helped me with research and access to those who saw me taking pictures on the streets of Detroit and asked about what I was doing or shared stories of their connection to the building I was photographing. I hope you enjoy reading and looking through it as much as I enjoyed making it.