Pursuits: In Energized Detroit, Savoring an Architectural Legacy


Opened in 1928, the building was envisioned as part of an expansive, more dramatic complex, with two towers and one large tower in the middle. The stock market crash brought an end to those ambitious plans.

My Pure Detroit tour of the Fisher Building started in the barrel-vaulted arcade, with Mr. Hooper giving visitors an excellent sense of what the building was like when it opened. He explained how the adjoining garage would service cars when customers were running errands inside the building. Underground tunnels connected the Fisher Building to the neighboring Albert Kahn and Cadillac Place buildings.

The building defies the conventional wisdom that office spaces cannot be inspiring. This was evident from the third-floor overlook of the Fisher arcade, which gave us a view of the frescoes and mosaics that line the ceilings, with images of outstretched eagles that represented American power.

“After four years, I still genuinely enjoy giving tours,” Mr. Hooper said. “A lot of the people who come are first-timers or people who haven’t been in decades, and a big part of the experience is surprising people or changing their minds about architecture that’s in Detroit.”

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The Qube, a modernist 14-story building, was designed and built by Albert Kahn Associates.

Credit
Kevin Miyazaki for The New York Times

Across the street, the Albert Kahn Building, a limestone 1931 Art Deco structure, stands somewhat imposingly even though it has only 10 stories. The lower floors of the building formerly housed a Saks Fifth Avenue store that operated for 40 years. Since 1931, the building has housed the offices of Albert Kahn Associates, but the firm’s offices are moving to renovated space in the Fisher Building later this year. Apartments are expected to replace the old office space.

On the tour of the Fisher Building, visitors can see the rooftop of the neighboring Cadillac Place, the former world headquarters of General Motors. With almost 1.4 million square feet of space, it goes without saying that the building is massive. Kahn built a wide, two-story base with four, separate, 15-story buildings, which erased the fortresslike quality that many office buildings possess and allowed for sunlight from different angles.

Cadillac Place is now occupied by offices for the state of Michigan, but the first floor is open to the public. Italian marble covers many of the walls; the floors are Tennessee marble. An elaborate globe chandelier is a reminder of the building’s opulent past.

Across from Cadillac Place is the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, best known as the Argonaut Building. The red-brown brick building was the location of the General Motors Research Laboratory from 1936 to 1956. The Argonaut is a private facility, so I wasn’t able to get a sense of the interior, but this is one of Kahn’s more expressive buildings: it has beautiful arches with striped banding patterns. The patterns, at the top of the building, are virtually the same as those at the Albert, a downtown apartment building that Kahn designed.

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The Belle Isle Aquarium.

Credit
Kevin Miyazaki for The New York Times

A few blocks south, the Maccabees Building was designed in the Art Deco and Romanesque style, with broad windows and a recessed barrel vault arch on the ground floor and arched windows with spandrel panels on some of the upper floors. The 1927 building, built for the fraternal organization Knights of the Maccabees, has a limestone exterior and is owned by Wayne State University. Although it is a university building with academic programs, visitors can still see the lobby and its ceiling with intricate patterned mosaic tiles.

In the nearby Brush Park neighborhood is the Albert Kahn House, where the architect lived from 1906 to 1942, at the corner of Mack and John R. Street. Now the headquarters of the Detroit Urban League, the home embodies much of the charm of Tudor designs, with a blend of brick and stucco.

The Detroit region was home to many of Kahn’s industrial laboratories, including the Highland Park Ford Plant, where the Model T was produced, along with the Packard Automotive Plant and the Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn. Unfortunately, most of the Highland Park Plant has been razed. At the Ford River Rouge plant, virtually all of Kahn’s buildings have been torn down or significantly modified. But the Packard plant is still very much visible, with its durable brickwork and the pedestrian bridge over East Grand Boulevard evidence of past economic might.

“It was based on the Packard No. 10 building that Henry Ford hired Albert Kahn to build the Highland Park Plant in 1908,” Mr. Hodges said. “The building is interesting because it had no ornamentation whatsoever and was stripped down to the bare essentials to save his client money.”

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