I went on the GM Architectural Heritage Tour (offered by Preservation Wayne) this past weekend and realized that I’ve forgotten a bit of the history that I worked so hard to learn in school.

The tour, only offered twice a year, explored the New Center and Milwaukee Junction areas just north of Midtown.  The tour started and ended at the Fisher Building, including a stop at the Cadillac Building, and walks around other buildings figuring prominently in Detroit’s automotive beginnings.

Unfortunately, Preservation Wayne wasn’t granted permission to tour the 14th floor (old GM executive offices) of the Cadillac Building.  For me personally, this was one of the main reasons for joining the tour.  If the next tour (September 13th) is given permission, I’ll be back. (Ellen?)


Back to my point, upon arriving back at the Fisher Building, arguably
one of Detroit’s best architectural gems, the building was described as
Art Deco.  What?  My mind immediately recalled buildings with long horizontal lines, big sweeping curves, and worse yet, nautical elements.  Please don’t call this Art Deco!?

I’ve calmed down, taken a deep breath, and dusted off my history books.  The pictures in my head inappropriately filed under Art Deco were actually Streamline Moderne, a later development of the Art Deco style.

Art Deco is a purely decorative style with no philosophical intentions.  The style is described as elegant, and stylishly modern influenced by a variety of styles including African, Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Mexican, and American Indian “primitive” arts.  It is also described as a very lavish and opulent style.   Art Deco architecture incorporated stepped forms, sweeping curves, and chevron & sunburst patterns.  Considering that Art Deco gained popularity in 1925, it’s opulence has been attributed as a reaction to the forced, simple, and unadorned style imposed an economy recovering from World War I.

If you’ve ever seen the Fisher Building up close it’s easy to understand opulent. Both inside and out, the decorations are numerous and amazing.  The overall building form gracefully steps back and ends at a green terra cotta roof.  When originally built, the roof was gilded with gold.  What else would you expect?  How about another tower of equal height and another one twice as tall as the existing?  (If anyone has a rendering of this plan, please let me know.)  The original plans included 3 phases built over a period of time.  Unfortunately, the onset of the Great Depression prevented the second and third phases from being built.

I’ll admit it.  I was confused.  The Fisher Building has been recognized as one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture. Of course everyone recognizes the Chrysler Building in New York City as Art Deco, but there’s one more well known Art Deco building in Detroit.  Do you know which one it is?

Thanks Ellen & John for the great tour. Let me know if you ever get access the the 14th floor of the Cadillac Building.

Visit any of these links if you’d like to learn more:

The Most Beautiful Building in the World [ via Detroit News ]
National Historic Register
New Center Council

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