The most beautiful building in the world

The Fisher Building at Grand Boulevard and Second Ave. This water color painting was the centerpiece of a lavishly illustrated booklet published by the Fisher Brothers in 1928 to mark the opening of the building.

When the seven Fisher Brothers of Fisher Body fame hired architect Albert Kahn in 1927 to design a building that would bear their name, they gave him a blank check and the instructions to build “the most beautiful building in the world.”

Plans for a $35 million three-phase project were announced by the brothers in January of 1927. The original program called for three units to be built over a period of several years, but due to the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, only phase one, the Fisher Building, was completed at a cost of $10 million.

The Grand Boulevard facade

The Grand Boulevard facade.

The site the brothers had selected for the structure was bounded by West Grand Boulevard, Lothrop Avenue, Third Avenue and Second Boulevard, across from the General Motors building. They originally wanted to build downtown but were unable to put together a suitable parcel of land. They turned to the General Motors area where the idea for a New Center was born.

Since coming to Detroit in 1908, The Fisher Brothers had played a huge role in the industrial development of the city. The seven brothers — Frederick, Charles, William, Lawrence, Edward, Alfred and Howard — were the sons of Lawrence Fisher Sr., an Ohio carriage maker. On arrival in Detroit in 1908 they founded the Fisher Body Company with a capital of $50,000. Less than 20 years later, they sold out to General Motors for $208 million.

The announcement of the Fisher Building project was made by Fred Fisher, oldest of the brothers, in January of 1927. Our aim is to create the outstanding building in the city and express in its highest character the Fishers’ appreciation of what the city of their adoption means to them, he said.

The first shovel full of dirt was turned by Fred Fisher in August of 1927 at a gala groundbreaking attended by Gov. Fred W. Green and Detroit Mayor John W. Smith, as well as many other prominent figures in Detroit and Michigan.

Plans were drawn up by Albert Kahn for a 10-story building with a 25-story tower in the center. When the building was completed in the fall of 1928 the Fisher Brothers issued a brochure lavishly illustrated with water-color paintings describing the new building.

The Detroit News waxed eloquent about its beauty: It (the Fisher building) is the summary of experience in American architecture. Detroit…has seen many buildings created during recent years, each new one challenging the pre-eminence of its predecessor. The Fisher Building belongs to this family of beauty and, because of the diversity of its functions, and the lavish hand with which the littlest perfection was pursued and captured, becomes for many, the ready expression of Detroit’s golden age….It is not the consummation of a dream, but the beginning of one.

The Fisher’s “golden tower” was originally gilded with gold, but it was stripped off during World War II over fears it could act as a beacon for enemy bombers.

The Detroit Times announced the lighting of the golden tower in November of 1928, to mark the opening of the Fisher Theater: Detroit’s night skies are studded by a new jewel of light…The great Fisher Tower is ablaze with light…It presents a startling spectacle… The Times proclaimed that the tower would be to Detroit “what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.”

Most Detroiters are familiar with radio station WJR’s trademark announcement that the broadcast is coming from the golden tower of the Fisher Building. Originally the tower was gilded with gold, but during World War II the gold was peeled off over concern it could be a beacon to enemy bombers. It was replaced by green terra cotta, but when the gold lights are turned on as the sun hits the horizon, the effect is the same as a golden beacon.

The Fisher Theater was originally a movie house with an Aztec design. In 1961the Nederlander Company and remodeled it for stage shows.

Albert Kahn’s Fisher Building was honored in 1929 by the Architectural League of New York and in 1930, Kahn was awarded first place in commercial structures by the Detroit chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The elaborate Fisher arcade includes 40 varieties of marble came from France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Africa, New York, Massachusetts and Missouri. There are about 430 tons of bronze in the building, including 2,000 window frames and 256 cast or etched elevator doors. The arcade is 600 feet long, L-shaped, measuring 30 feet wide and 44 feet high. There are 500,000 square feet of office space, 99,000 square feet of retail space and the Fisher Theater.

In 1978, the Fisher celebrated its 50th anniversary by becoming an official Michigan Historical Landmark. A Detroit News article describes the building: The exterior is American Vertical architecture. The first three stories are of Minnesota granite; upper floors are Maryland marble…The interior contains a barrel vaulted ceiling, embellished with cherubs and eagles. There are 60 nude figures on the ceiling, no two are alike. The rest of the ceiling is covered with hemlock, oranges, more eagles and other folk art. The remainder is peacock green and deep orange. Gold leaf is used profusely.

The Fisher Building arcade. Lightbulbs are changed 500 to 600 at a time

The Fisher Building arcade. Lightbulbs are changed 500 to 600 at a time.

Kate Sullivan of Birmingham recalls her reaction to the Fisher when she moved to the Detroit area in the 1950s. She had lived several years in Chicago and New York and was somewhat wistful about moving from these highly cosmopolitan areas. Then she saw the Fisher building and was struck by its beauty..even to the gold faucets in the ladies’ room at the Fisher Theater, something she had not seen even in New York.

When the Fisher opened in 1928, visitors were treated with lavish attention. Cars were parked by men in white and shoppers enjoyed free baby sitting in a skylit fourth floor nursery complete with carousel, mosaic game-tiled floor and nurses to watch over the children. Mothers could lunch in the famed Huyler’s L’Aiglon tea room, which later became Al Green’s Celebrity Room. In the Fisher Theater lobby, there was a pond filled with goldfish and turtles. Five talking macaws were fed by patrons. Organ recitals, performances by the house orchestra, stage shows and first run movies were available at the theater.

The Fisher Brothers sold the Fisher building and other nearby properties in 1962 to Louis and Harold Berry, of International Hotels. In 1974, it was sold again, to a New York group, Tristar Developments Inc.

In 1970, a building manager was examining the fourth floor and came across a door sealed with masking tape. No one seemed to know why it was sealed or what it contained. A key was found and the door opened, revealing a collection of flags from 75 nations that apparently had been put there and locked away since 1928. It was assumed they were intended to be flown when foreign dignitaries visited. It was decided to display them for a week in the arcade of the Fisher building and they are now flown each year from Flag Day to Labor Day weekend.

In 1970, the owner of the Fisher-New Center Co., Harold Berry, detailed the expenses involved in maintaining the Fisher and New Center buildings. It’s like a little city,” he said. “Special chemical solutions must be used to clean the marble. Two men work almost full time polishing the bronze fixtures, medallions, arcade ornaments and window trim.

He said operating costs are 60 percent higher than those of comparable Detroit structures. Replacing light bulbs is a major chore. Between 500 and 600 lights at a time are replaced in the chandeliers hanging from the arcade and in panels along the walls. A special telescoping platform facilitates the operation.

Today, all seven Fisher Brothers are deceased. (Edward, the last of the brothers, died in 1972). But their legacy lives on in the golden tower of the Fisher Building, a fitting tribute to their contributions to the city of Detroit.

An architect’s photo of the building lobby as the building neared completion in 1928.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Kay Houston and Linda Culpepper / The Detroit News