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The Fisher brothers' magnificent building

When architect Albert Kahn was given a free hand to create a sensational building, he delivered

By Bill Loomis | Special to The Detroit News

In 1891 after more than a decade of wrangling, Detroit’s new Grand Boulevard was opened with a publicity stunt by Mayor Hazen Pingree, using a team of horses pulling a plow. The boulevard would circumscribe the farthest border of the city at the time in a giant arch, from Belle Isle to Springwells.

It was inspired by wide Parisian boulevards with stately homes, ornamental trees and elaborate displays of flowers; however, in 1927 this was not how Albert Kahn, architect of the Fisher Building, examined the future site for his building. He wrote:

 “Less than forty years ago the new boulevard became a reality as a gravel drive intended primarily for gentlemen with fast horses and teams. … The site to be occupied by the Fisher Building was covered by a few feet of topsoil, under which lay about ten feet of hard yellow clay. Below is a bed of blue clay about 130 feet thick. At a depth 142 feet below the surface there is a bed of good hardpan … limestone is found at a depth of 266 feet below the surface.”

Despite concerns over the base, Kahn considered the location for the building ideal. The front façade on West Grand Boulevard was bordered by Third Avenue, Lothrop Avenue and Second Avenue. It was an “off set” — meaning when you drove up Second Avenue, the front of the building dramatically filled your view as Second ended.

“It is like a terminal,” Kahn wrote. “The Fisher Building’s commanding site is therefore a happy one.”

This was to be Kahn’s greatest commercial architecture. The original concept was so enormous it would create the “New Center Area.” Kahn’s early version included three skyscrapers: two 26-story towers placed on the corners of an entire city block with a towering skyscraper vaulting nearly 70 stories in the center, a 3,000-seat movie theater and an 11-story, 1,000-car garage.

However, by the end of the 1920s, when the stock market collapsed, the plan was scaled back to a single tower, 28 stories high.

Kahn wrote that it had a bearing weight value of 18,000 pounds per square foot. The clay base was not strong enough to support the tower so Kahn built open-well caissons to a depth of 142 feet from the surface to the “hardpan” below. This was to assure building support but also to protect against any future deep excavations for a city subway that was being discussed but was never built.

Kahn would need this solid foundation for his building that would rise 441 feet and become one of the most distinguished sites on Detroit’s skyline.

 The brothers

There were seven Fisher brothers. They came from Norwalk, Ohio, where their father and two uncles had a blacksmith and carriage shop. The oldest brothers, Fred and Charles, came to Detroit in 1904 and were soon building carriage bodies for emerging automobile manufacturers. Shortly thereafter the two brothers were joined by the other five. In 1908 with $50,000 they formed the Fisher Body Corporation, and in 1926, less than 20 years later, they were bought out by General Motors for $208 million (worth approximately $2.65 billion today).

Three of the Fisher brothers - Edward; Lawrence and Alfred - appear at a ball in 1935. (Detroit News archives)

Three of the Fisher brothers — Edward, Lawrence and Alfred — appear at a ball in 1935. (Detroit News archives)

 

They were publicity shy; not many Detroiters knew much about the Fisher brothers. They looked and dressed the same: a photo of the seven brothers at the building’s dedication shows seven men all in trench coats and all wearing flat, straw skimmer hats. After the Fisher Building was completed they had a private elevator installed to their offices.

They worked together as a team and got along socially. For many years the brothers rendezvoused every day for lunch at a private dining table at the Recess Club, an exclusive business club on the 11th floor of the Fisher Building. (It closed in 1990.)

The site on Grand Boulevard was not the first choice. Originally they wanted the Fisher Building downtown but, unable to find enough land, they opted for the outskirts. It made sense since the new General Motors headquarters — also designed by Kahn, in 1921 — had recently been erected within walking distance. They wanted to give to Detroit something spectacular as a thank you for their success.

It had to be beautiful, and the brothers put no limits on the costs. None. Albert Kahn had designed factories for them and was the pre-eminent architect in Detroit. They selected him for their building.

Kahn wrote later: “What further made the opportunity a rare one … the owners imbued with a desire to erect a thoroughly high class building did not make cost the prime consideration, they not only granted but encouraged the use of the finest materials through out … to engage the best talent as collaborators, the ablest sculptors, modelers, decorators and craftsmen … the highest calibre contractors.”

 The architect

Between 1910 and 1930 Albert Kahn personally developed one quarter of all commercial architectural commissions in the city. By his death in 1942 he was responsible for 1,900 structures. Any list of lifetime architectural accomplishments by Albert Kahn has the Fisher Building at or near the top. It is considered his masterpiece.

Kahn was born in Prussia in 1869. His father was a rabbi and came to Detroit in the 1870s. In 1880 he brought his family to the city, when Albert was 11 years old. Because the family was poor, Kahn left school in the seventh grade but was fortunate to find two mentors: Julius Melchers, a Detroit artist and sculptor who taught Kahn drawing, and George Mason, a Detroit architect who taught him design. Mason designed the Detroit Yacht Club, the enormous Masonic Temple and Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel. (One of Kahn’s earliest projects was to design the porch for the Grand Hotel.)

Albert Kahn

Albert Kahn (Detroit News archives)

Kahn was a skilled artist, winning a scholarship to study in Europe, and took a job with Mason’s firm as a teen. By 1896 he formed his own architectural firm. Kahn was famous for creating the 20th century factory. He was the first architect to actually design a factory; up until then, factories were generally referred to as “mills”: dark, cramped and dangerous, unchanged for centuries.

Kahn was small at 5 foot 4, and worked 14-hour days, always with a coat, vest and tie. While designing factories was his bread and butter, he remained passionate about art. He exhibited his sketches in Detroit art shows, he judged art exhibits at the Scarab Club and elsewhere; he lectured on art, and took regular trips to Europe to study and sketch monuments and buildings. Kahn believed skyscrapers to be America’s greatest contribution to architecture, but he despised the grid of streets found in American cities, such as New York.

Detroit needed more public art and beauty, he stated in 1919 in a speech to the Detroit Real Estate board at the Hotel Pontchartrain: “We have prospered in recent years as perhaps no other city of its size. We have amassed wealth and gained in population far in excess of other cities but have we not failed sadly in furthering those finer things which should have kept pace?

“What is more conspicuous in Detroit than the total absense of anything even suggesting civic improvement? … What has been done towards making Detroit a more beautiful, a more enlightened, or more cultured city? Where on this continent is there a city … with so little in the way of parks, of public playgrounds? What could be sadder than our neglected river front? Ours is a glorious opportunity to make Detroit a city not only famous for its industries and millionaires, but for its nobler communal achievements.”

 The inspiration

According to Hawkins Ferry in his book “The Legacy of Albert Kahn,” for the Fisher Building Kahn was drawn to two buildings: New York Life Insurance Company Tower (1911) and the Woolworth Building (1913), both in New York City and done in the Neo Gothic style by architect Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Main Branch of the Detroit Public Library. Their similarity to the Fisher Building is clear, but Kahn chose to do without the medieval carved ornamentation.

Kahn had no love for stripped down, cube-like steel and glass “modern architecture.” He used style and design from historic periods and was considered an “Eclectic.” In Kahn’s view, one difficulty with skyscrapers was their immense flat exterior surface that appeared like an enormous stone slab. Even when riddled with tiny windows it didn’t break up the “slab like” surface but merely looked as if it were perforated with holes. To reduce the monotony of the surface it needed to be broken up.

In 1922 Kahn was impressed with an entry for a competition to design the Chicago Tribune Tower. It came from Eliel Saarinen from Finland, who had been invited in 1904 to Michigan to help design Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, and at the time was president of Cranbrook Academy. Kahn was impressed with Saarinen’s work, and they became friends.

Saarinen’s building concept — which was never built — addressed the surface problem with alternating vertical planes on the wall surface, a technique called “stepped back” or “telescopic verticals.” It broke up the massive slab-like surface and maintained the Neo-Gothic style Kahn wanted.

 The Exterior

The surface of the Fisher Building was further lightened with the judicious use of marble and other materials. A dark gray-green granite is used on the lower portion of the building up to the third floor. Above the granite, the front façade switches to white Maryland Marvilla marble. The saw cuts and grain on the marble pieces are positioned to capture the sunlight and disrupt the uniformity of the surface. The other sides use a gray Carthage marble from Missouri.

It was reported by the marble industry of the day that 17 miles of Marvilla marble were cut into thicknesses of 3 to 8 inches. There were eight miles of window jambs and mullions, more miles of molded window sills, lintels and fluted spandrels, and 400 decorative heads. It was so much marble that the quarries had difficulties keeping up with the construction schedule. To help, the Fisher brothers sent their own men and money to the quarry to get it out.

The green pyramid roof originally was clad in gold. During World War II the gold was covered, over fears it would make a target for German bombers. Later it was coverd with green terra cotta tiles but illuminated “golden” at night using lights with colored lenses.

The Detroit Times announced the lighting of the tower in November 1928: “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 interior

For the interior Kahn was searching for a new decorative subject. Hawkins Ferry wrote: “He was an early supporter of the English Arts and Crafts movement, and he followed with interest the related movements in other countries.”

Among the artists that Eliel Saarinen brought to work on Cranbrook was a Hungarian who was a university professor and already well known in Europe: Geza Maroti from Budapest. His artistic roots and selection of images were based on the Magyar tradition in Hungary.

Kahn turned to Maroti for the entire theme of the interior, including the granite carved entrance arch, jewel-like mosaics, colorful frescos, bronze plaques, even details such as cast door knobs and the bronze elevator doors. Call it Art Deco, plus.

These were the ebullient 1920s and the Fisher Brothers were not about subtlety. The marble of the interior came from Europe, America, Mexico and Africa — in all, more than 56 varieties for the floors and walls.

Marble adorns the main hall, called the arcade, which reaches up three stories to a barrel vaulted ceiling that’s considered by many to be the true masterpiece. The painted eagles with wings outstretched, soaring on the ceiling, are intended to symbolize American power. Eagles painted in other locations in the arcade represent American restraint, art and culture. The ceiling is outlined in wide bands of brilliant oranges and feather-like hemlock leaves, both Hungarian images. American culture is expressed by beautifully painted human figures representing music, drama, beauty and the arts.

Colorful frescoes arch over the ceiling, as seen from the mezzanine level.  (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

Colorful frescoes arch over the ceiling, as seen from the mezzanine level. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

While Morati designed the frescos — paint applied to wet plaster based on giant drawings — they were painted by Thomas di Lorenzo from Detroit, atop enormous scaffolding. Kahn wrote that more than $20,000 (over $250,000 today) went into the ceiling alone, much in the application of gold leaf.

The arches on the third floor put you at eye level with the brilliant colors and swirling images. Those arches are also painted with oranges and Hemlock leaves, but were originally painted on canvas that was then applied to the stone arch.

The floor uses Roman Travertine inset with 70,000 triangles of various colored marble. The marbled walls are divided by 60 pilasters that rise to the third floor like a colonnade, each one fluted and composed of one of eight separate types of marble. On the open second floor are some 50 more columns, each from another 17 different kinds of marble.

Each elevator is framed by bronze and marble set off from the wall. The theater lobby is set with panels of beautiful Mexican onyx framed in bronze and black marble.

Kahn, always a lover of art, had lines of poetry also inscribed on arches at either end of the foyer. One quote by English poet Alexander Pope reads: “To wake the soul by tender strokes of art, to raise the genius and mend the heart.”

Geza Morati also designed the beautiful blue round-topped mosaics, and hired other artists to take on areas of the building. Anthony Di Lorenzo of New York was responsible for most of the exterior and interior bronze work, including the richly embossed bronze main floor elevator doors (there are 430 tons of bronze used in the building). Corrado Parducci of Detroit designed the third floor bronze elevator doors — showing cockatiels, swimming Japanese koi and other creatures in bas relief — and the bronze inset of the god Mercury for the lobby floor, which is now roped off to prevent excessive wear.

 The theater

“Hollywood on its gayest night, never staged a premier quite so gorgeously nor with more genuine exuberance.”  Detroit Times, Nov. 15, 1928

Paul Buono, 62, handles the behind-the-scenes aspect of the theater and building: heat, boilers, air compressors that open and close the elevator doors, air conditioning and plumbing. As he walks through the building he constantly checks a hand-held thermometer, and occasionally steps into bathrooms to check the hot water.

Paul Buono

Paul Buono (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

“There are a lot of bathrooms and sinks in this building,” he laughs. “But I really love this building. I love working here.”

Buono has a long history in the building. His father, Joseph Buono, was a French horn player who sat in the orchestra pit for 50 years, playing for nearly every musical that ever came to Detroit.

He takes us to the former projection room now used for spotlights, then down to the orchestra pit and the expansive dressing rooms and set storage areas.

“The theater began as a silent movie theater,” he said, “and in the ‘60s was converted to a Broadway musical theater with the large stage, dressing rooms, sets and orchestra pit.”

The original, 3,000-seat theater opened in 1928 and presented vaudeville and stage shows. While Kahn designed the building, the theater design was awarded to A.S. Graven and Arthur Guy Mayger from Chicago. The original theater was done in a fantasy Mayan temple Art Deco theme that in the 1920s was all the rage. The actual Mayan ruins and temples at Chichen Itza had just been unearthed by Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institute in Washington. Of course the Fisher brothers hired him to oversee the artistry.

The Fisher Theatre had plaster masons simulate cut stone for Mayan drinking fountains; Xochipilli, the god of feasting and flowers; serpent columns; Mayan tomb walls, and friezes of Mayan battle scenes from the Temple of the Jaguars in Chichen Itza.

In 1961 the theater was gutted and converted from a movie house to a luxurious legitimate Broadway theater. It quickly became a first-class touring house and hosted the world premieres of “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Sweet Charity” and “Hello Dolly,” along with hundreds of stars such as Debbie Reynolds, Carol Channing and Robert Goulet.

 The accolades

The building was completed in only 15 months, opening on Nov. 11, 1928. In most cases the building owners throw a dinner banquet for the designers, contractors, artisans and architects who made it a reality, but for the Fisher Building Albert Kahn and the contractors were so pleased with the experience they held the party for the brothers. Kahn wrote in 1929: “Due to the hearty cooperation of owners, architects, and contractors the structure was completed in record time, with the quality of workmanship throughout of the highest.”

In the arcade is a bronze plaque that Kahn had permanently placed on the wall in honor of the Fisher brothers, commending them for their “exemplary business ethics and zeal for fairness.”

Kahn won the American Architectural League Silver Medal of Honor for the most beautiful commercial building erected in 1928. The local reaction to the building at its opening was even more enthusiastic, with The Detroit News among the bedazzled:

“(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.”

Special thank you to:

  • Jennifer Baross for her help in explaining the magnificent interior of the Fisher Building. She is co-founder of the Carrado Parducci Society. Baross is making a film documentary on Parducci, an artist and sculptor famous for his magnificent ornamentation of Detroit and Michigan buildings, titled “The Man Who Made Detroit Beautiful.”
  • Rebecca Price, PhD,  architecture, urban planning and visual resources librarian  at the Art, Architecture & Engineering Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
  • Paul Buono, operating engineer at the Fisher Building and Masonic Temple.
  • Claire Zimmerman, associate professor, Department of the History of Art and Coordinator, PhD program in architecture, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan.

 Bill Loomis is the author of the book “Detroit Food,” available throughout the Metro Detroit area.