Marshall Fredericks -- the Spirit of Detroit

Sculptor Marshall Fredericks and his Spirit of Detroit in 1958.

In 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression, Marshall Fredericks won a national competition to design a sculpture for the garden area on Belle Isle in front of the Ellen Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. His wounded gazelle, a 16 foot bronze statue leaping in a simple fountain in the center of a formal garden, started the city’s long love affair with the artist.

The island’s grandiose Scott Fountain attracts much attention, but Fredericks’ more humble work, named The Levi L. Barbour Memorial, inspires visitors to pose with the beautiful beast.

“I love people, for I have learned through so many experiences, both happy and sad, how beautiful and wonderful they are,” Fredericks, who died April 4, 1998, wrote later in his 1956 “Credo.”

“I want more than anything in the world to do sculpture which will have real meaning for other people, many people, and might in some way encourage, inspire or give them happiness.”

His two greatest inspirational works, the “Spirit of Detroit” and the huge body of the crucified Christ at Indian River, do indeed inspire viewers.

Fredericks’ graceful wounded gazelle at Barbour Memorial Fountain on Belle Isle was designed to salute emigrants to America from Norway.

      The 26 foot Spirit, dubbed the “Jolly Green Giant” by some, grew even closer to Detroiters last spring when he donned a giant Red Wings jersey to help celebrate the team’s Stanley Cup victory. Jubilant fans swarmed to the sculpture to have their photos taken with the city’s — and now the team’s — icon.

In 1982 shortly before St. Patrick’s Day, someone painted large green footprints leading from the Spirit of Detroit across Woodward to a tall Manzu sculpture of a demure nude lady washing her hair in a pool in front of the gas building. The Irish and Detroiters loved it. Their Spirit had spirit!

Fredericks says he never named the “Spirit of Detroit,” but as his theme he used a verse from the Bible (2 Corinthians 3:17): “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”

“I tried to express the spirit of man through the diety and the family,” he explained in an interview with The Detroit News’ art critic, Joy Colby. “Gradually, people began calling it ‘Spirit of Detroit.'”

Fredericks worked on the large statue during the 1950s and 1960s in Olso, Norway, and told how it had to be hauled through the city at night when there was little traffic so it could be shipped to Detroit. “They took down all the municipal wiring because the sculpture was so large.” It was the largest cast statue made anywhere since the Renaissance and was designed to require no repairs for 100 years.

As he did with many civic sculptures, Fredericks waived his creative fee for Spirit, absorbing some of the costs himself. He considered the job as part of his civic responsibility. It was installed in 1958.

Fredericks with his statue of Christ on board a ship from Norway to Indian River, Mich., in 1959.

      The sheer logistics of working in so large a scale taxed not only artistic creativity and inspiration, but metal casting engineering and transportation ability.

The 55-foot redwood crucifix in northern lower Michigan attracts tourists to what may be the largest work of its kind. The shrine was designed to evoke feelings of peace. “I wanted to eliminate the suffering and agony for the observer,” Fredericks said, “and give the face an expression of great peace and strength…when he had reached the highest pinnacle of his existence on earth.”

In 1959, Fredericks had to truck the four-ton, 31-foot figure of Christ to Indian River in sections because the complete piece was wider than the highway. The bronze figure is attached to the 14 ton cross that rises on a 20 foot hill near Burt Lake.

Fredericks hired a helicopter to oversee restoration of the monument in 1992.

Fredericks was born in Rock Island, Ill., grew up in Cleveland and studied sculpture at the Cleveland School of Art. In 1930 he won a scholarship to study with Swedish artist Carl Milles, who himself had studied with the great Auguste Rodin.

When Fredericks first spotted Milles high on a scaffold working on a clay figure for his Poseidon fountain in Goteborg, he was overwhelmed. “Seeing this famous man and his huge sculpture was like being struck by lightning….I had never seen anything like that in Cleveland. It was so beautiful and mysterious. That’s when I decided I wanted to make big sculpture.”

Fredericks and his wife, Rosalind, in 1960.

      Milles later became artist-in-residence at Cranbrook, the Arts and Crafts country English style residence of the George Booth family, which had become an artistic, educational and garden complex. Milles invited Fredericks to come to Cranbrook to teach and work.

There he learned the basics of monument creation and its materials.

“I learned about different materials by trial and error,” he said. He discovered that he preferred natural materials to modern fiberglass and other manmade material. “Synthetics don’t age well. They don’t patinate. As Michaelangelo pointed out, the more difficult a material, the more beautiful it is.” Fredericks also loved marble, granite and stone.

Fredericks never ventured far from his natural heroic traditional style, which often invited criticism from the more adventuresome art lovers. But the people loved him, and so did children. His two cartoonish style animals at the Northland and Eastland shopping malls delight children and invite them to climb on. (Although the security guards tend to discourage this behavior.)

A massive stone bear at Northland bears a tiny figure on top, which proclaims the gentleness of the creature, while a reclining curly maned lion lounges with his cute mouse friend at Eastland.

Architects also loved him. His monumental vision enhanced their buildings and made them unique. The “Victory Eagle” on the Detroit Veterans Building defines the meaning and the spirit of the building: the ‘V’ shape of the wings proclaim ‘V’ for Victory and for Veterans.

Without the bird, the white marble building would look like government buildings do — anonymous and functional. The American Institute of Architects in 1952 awarded him the Gold Fine Arts Medal, an honor bestowed only three times in the organization’s history.

His assistant Scott Slocum said, “He had to be the most energetic person I’ve ever known. He was relentless — in a good way. Everything he did, there was nothing negative about it. It was either spiritually uplifting or happily humorous.”

Fredericks in his studio in 1954.

      At the dedication of a Saginaw museum dedicated to the works of Fredericks, Samuel Sachs , former director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, said that Fredericks brought to the entire region a legacy “very few living artists get to see.”

Michael Panhorst, director of the museum, the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Gallery at Saginaw Valley State University, said Fredericks’ stubborn attention to detail made him unusual. “He’s a guy who hears his own drummer and marches to that beat, and this is the tune he hears.”

The six-foot sculptor and his wife of 54 years, Rosalind, had five children. During World War II, Fredericks served in India and Asia, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1963 the king of Denmark knighted him with the Order of Dannebrog. In 1965 he and the mayor of Copenhagen started an exchange program for severely handicapped adults. He served as Danish counsul for more than 30 years, with his Royal Oak Studio serving as consulate.

He estimated that he made about 500 commissions and 5000 smaller art works. Plaster casts of 200 are displayed at the Fredericks Gallery. The 10,000-square-foot mueseum with 30-foot ceilings accommodates his large works. Private funding paid the $7 million cost of the museum.

One of the few artists capable of casting bronze, he made statues for places in London, Japan, Washington, D.C., Louisville and many other cities.

In June of 1997, at age 89 he completed the 40-foot “Star Dream Fountain” featuring a nude man and woman ascending.

Despite debilitating illness, his wife visited his studio almost daily. “It’s the most cruel and destructive thing,” he quietly lamented of her Alzheimer’s. Fredericks suffered stroke during his last year, making it more difficult for him to work.

Fredericks and his humorous “Lion and the Mouse” at Eastland Mall.

Some other works:


  • Detroit Rackham Building: 36 interior and exterior reliefs in marble, bronze and granite.
  • Alvan Macauley Memorial in the Elmwood Cemetery: two wild flying geese twice life size.
  • Pterodactyls in the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak.
  • Holden Great Ape Exhibit in the Detroit Zoo.
  • Man Protected by Healing Herbs at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.
  • Chief Pontiac at Community National Bank Building in Pontiac.
  • Sisters Fountain at Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills.
  • Saints and Sinners Fountain at Oakland University in Rochester.
  • John F. Kennedy in Mt. Clemens.
  • Mother and Baby Bear at Sterling Heights Library.
  • Henry Ford Memorial at Henry Ford Centennial Library in Dearborn.
  • Untitled reliefs at University of Michigan Administration Building in Ann Arbor.
  • Fountain of Eternal Life in Cleveland.
  • American Eagle on the Federal Building in Cincinnati.
  • Untitled reliefs on the Ohio Union Building, Ohio State University in Columbus.
  • Man and the Atomic Age, a fountain at the National Exchange Club in Toledo.
  • The Story of Kentucky on the Louisville Courier Journal Building in Louisville.
  • Man and the Expanding Universe, fountain at the State Department Building courtyard in Washington, D.C.
  • Freedom of the Human Spirit at Flushing Meadows Park in New York City.
  • Memorial to Norwegian Emigrants at Brede Vatnet in Stavanger, Norway.
  • Sir Winston Churchill Memorial in Freeport, Grand Bahamas.

    The Marshal Fredericks home beside Quarton Lake was designed by Wallace Front. The photo is dated from 1930.

    (This story was compiled using clip and photo files from The Detroit News Library.)

    By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News