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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

All That is New Must Grow Old - Detroit's New Center


New Center some time after construction of the New Center Building (today the Albert Kahn Building) in 1931. 

Our attention turns to Detroit's “New Center.” Today this area is defined by several iconic buildings including the General Motors Building (1922), Fisher Building (1929), Albert Kahn Building (1931), Argonaut Building (1931) and others. While these building are the character defining features of what constitutes New Center today, there once was a finer-grained neighborhood with blocks teeming with residential and commercial uses.

How the neighborhood as it was gave way to the neighborhood as it is today is a story of considerable interest, with deep historical antecedents. Roots for Grand Boulevard go back even further to Native American paths meant to go around Fort Detroit that was once located where the Central Business District is today. Grand Boulevard when it was laid out was meant to designate the outermost extent of Detroit's city limits in the line nineteenth century. Grand Boulevard served much the same function defining an edge as the city walls in places like Paris, Athens, or Rome in Europe, or Charleston in the U.S. Whereas walls were a formidable obstacle and forced inhabitants to remain within their confines, a ring road was an invitation to push ever further outward. It should be no surprise that is precisely what happened.

The building that initiated this spread outward in many respects was Henry Ford's "Boulevard Building" constructed in 1910. Albert Kahn was the architect of this and so many other Ford buildings. An excellent article here explains the genesis and use of the building in more depth. The original three story building was constructed to provide service to Ford Motor Co. branch offices throughout Michigan. By 1913 another 5 stories were added to the original building. Detroit's 13th Annual Auto Show was held at the Boulevard Building in January 1914. An insensitive modernization program replaced the exterior with very bland window bands, making each floor appear pancaked upon one another. The building and some of its rich interiors are still there at the corner of Woodward and East Grand Boulevard.


Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1915, showing the Ford Motor Co. "Detroit Branch" (Vol. 10, Sheet 1)
What Henry Ford set into motion, it took others to fully develop. Those qualities that attracted Ford to this location in the first place - convenient access to downtown and factories, avoiding city taxes, and close proximity to exclusive Boston-Edison subdivision (where Henry Ford himself once lived) - provided a powerful inducement for other companies to locate in this area too.

The General Motors Building was constructed on a monumental scale in 1922 and is an internationally regarded architectural masterpiece. A mere 12 years after the Boulevard Building was completed, Albert Kahn was responsible for the design of the General Motors Building . At the time of its completion this was the second largest office building in the world after the Equitable Building in New York. Four identical wings off of a central spine allowed for ample light, ventilation, and views of the surrounding area. Public areas on the lower levels were spacious. The building also matched the corporate order with those with higher status on the uppermost floors and each division of the company seemingly occupying a designated wing of their own.

A somewhat lesser known story that comes along with the construction of the General Motors Building was the clearance of an entire block covered with several two to four story residential buildings. While the nature of these buildings and what efforts were required for the acquisition is beyond the scope of this article, surely a compelling story could be told about that. Instead, we simply share a massing study of the General Motors Building superimposed over the previous residential neighborhood.

General Motors Building superimposed over buildings that previously occupied the site.
General Motors Building, 1976 Detroit Urban Conservation Project
The General Motors Building dominated the landscape from every angle. One photo taken during the 1976 Detroit Urban Conservation Project shows the words "General Motors" seemingly hoovering in the background high atop the building. Another photo from the same project, has cars lined up in a row in front of the building demonstrating the domination of cars over the landscape.

The Fisher Building was another notable building that helped to give New Center another anchor and its unique identity. The Fisher brothers commissioned Albert Kahn in 1927 to design the world's finest office building. He responded with a lavishly decorated twenty-six-story tower with elegant setbacks, a three-thousand seat theater, and an eleven-story parking garage attached to the rear. Also proposed was an identical building across the street with a central tower more than twice the height of the flanking towers. This design was regrettably shelved by the Great Depression (Gallagher and Hill, 2002).

The Argonaut Building was another Albert Kahn design from 1930. Just eight short years after the General Motors Building was constructed, new space was needed for research and development. Unlike other buildings in the New Center, the inside areas were functional and lacked much ornamentation at all. The exterior with its masonry banding and brickwork created a strong architectural effect.

One final notable addition to the New Center was Kahn's New Center Building in 1931. This was constructed with materials left over from the Fisher Building project. The AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture claims that the "in some respects the architecture here is more consistent and original." The window head designs are cited as an example. In looking at the Fisher Building and New Center Building side-by-side it is both hard and easy to compare them at the same time. Hard because the two buildings are of a dramatically different scale. Easy because the New Center Building can be seen as a continuation of earlier designs begun with the Fisher.

What can be said of all the primary buildings we've described in the core of the New Center area is that they fundamentally served to transform this once residential area into a formidable center for business where leading firms had equally grand architecture suited to their status. Were this pattern to have continued, it might have been possible for the New Center to eclipse the downtown. What happened instead is that development spread ever further outward from the city center. Ford Motor Company moved their headquarters to the suburbs just south of Detroit in Dearborn. The Southfield Town Center - a cluster of five interconnected skyscrapers with 2.2 million square feet in total was built between 1975 and 1989. The construction of this complex is perhaps another topic for another day. What should be said, however, is that the roots for the Southfield Town Center and other projects like it may be found in Detroit's New Center.

Postcard around 1930 with the areas dedicated to parking in green.

View from Google Earth roughly approximating the area of the 1930's postcard. Interestingly, Google Earth has yet to render the Fisher Building in three dimensions. 

Areas in red show buildings demolished between roughly 1930 and today.

Areas in orange show areas that have been set aside for parking.
  
Demolition of buildings and expansion of areas for parking fundamentally altered the character of the New Center area.
The New Center area had perhaps its greatest cohesion and integrity just after the Albert Kahn Building was completed in 1931. At that time there were many architectural masterpieces surrounded by an area still mostly with residential character. The possibility to live and work here at that time was very great. Increasing reliance on the automobile (thanks at least in part to the Ford Motor Company and General Motors which had a presence here) made proximity of work and home less important. Whereas in the 1930's less than one city block was dedicated for surface parking, by around 2010 well over six full blocks were dedicated for parking. When you consider how the Fisher Building, General Motors Building, and New Center Building occupied approximately 2 to 3 city blocks total, the area just used for parking today could easily double or triple the size of the New Center. This over reliance on automobiles and providing such ample area for parking, had a dampening effect on other nearby residential areas such as Boston Edison. Today a committed neighborhood association and residents struggle to maintain and protect that grand residences that once were home to Albert Kahn, Henry Ford, and numerous automotive company executives.

One result of creating such density in New Center and not requiring or providing for suitable places nearby for those who worked in this area to live, made New Center a less viable or desirable place compared to outlying complexes like the Southfield Town Center. Then when you consider the sheer number of buildings lost to make way for additional parking in the New Center area, this further served to cut this area off from surrounding residential neighborhoods, making it difficult for New Center and these neighborhoods to function the way they once did. It is unclear whether the sort of corrective surgery will ever happen that is needed to return this neighborhood to its former character. When creating visions for the future of New Center it may be wise to look to the past for guidance. The sort of neighborhood that existed here in the 1930's is precisely what New Urbanists and urban planners dream to create today.

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