RDA Hometown Tour: Detroit 2013

In May, RDA members made a four-day visit to the Motor City to learn about its glorious past, difficult present, and hopeful future. Planned with the help of Joyce and Larry Lander, both from Michigan, and led by architectural historian Stephen Fox, the tour included a full array of architecture and history of Detroit and its suburbs.

The city seemed to be in sync with our visit – tulips, magnolias, in fact most flowering plants and trees seemed to be in their prime to welcome us. On Thursday, we began our adventure with a tour of the Ford Rouge Plant, where we were privileged to see the world’s largest living roof, which is covered in grasses and succulents and provides energy savings for the factory floor underneath. Of course, a trip to the factory would not be complete without a tour of the assembly line itself, where we saw Ford trucks being created. Several in the group wanted to take one home as a souvenir, but alas, they were not completed by the end of our tour.

We then drove to Woodward Avenue to begin our tour of the inner city. Yes, we passed many empty and boarded-up buildings along the route, but found our way to the Fox Theater (C. Howard Crane, 1928), which is definitely still in full activity. The spectacular art deco theater houses one of only a few Wurlitzer theater organs in the world to remain in its original location. As a surprise treat, our guide was the organist and he gave us an impromptu performance to show off some of the features of this amazing machine.

The Detroit Institute of Arts, “DIA,” (Paul Philippe Cret, 1927) houses significant art collections, including murals by the world-famous artist Diego Rivera. Following a brief tour of the DIA, we set off for a walking tour led by Detroit native Mark Coir to include the Detroit Public Library, Charles Lang Freer House (Wilson Eyer, 1887), and Wayne State University. Thursday ended with a delightful dinner in the historic David Whitney House (Gordon W. Lloyd, 1890).

On Friday, Stephen Fox led the group on a walking tour of downtown showcasing the Art Deco Guardian Building (Wirt C. Rowland, 1929) with its stunning Pewabic tiles, and Washington Avenue among other highlights. After a bus tour of Belle Isle, we were treated to a refreshing lunch at the Detroit Yacht Club, then it was on to a visit to the Grosse Point War Memorial and Alger House (Charles A. Plat, 1910), and then on for a comprehensive tour of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House and Garden (Albert Kahn and Jens Jensen, 1927). This wonderful estate on the shore of lake St. Clair was designed for the young family an remains largely as it was when the family was still in residence there.

Saturday we traveled north on Woodward Avenue for a full day’s adventure at Cranbrook Academy of Art, where the three Wheaton ladies (JoAnne Wheaton, Joyce Wheaton Lander, and Polly JO Wheaton Kemler), all Cranbrook alums, had arranged behind-the-scene tours. Program Presenter Diane VanderBeke Mager led us through the campus with informative commentary on the architecture, art, and history of this bucolic academy. Eliel Saarinen first headed the school and designed many of the buildings that remain today. We toured his family house and the adjacent Millus House, both by Saarinen, and the Natatorium (Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, 1999), the Cranbrook Art Museum (Eliel Saarinen and Albert Kahn, 1926) and the Kingswood Campus. Our last stop of the day was the Smith House (Frank Lloyd Wright, 1946).

Our last morning in Detroit included a tour of Lafayette Park (Mies van der Rohe, 1946), one of the largest residential projects of van der Rohe. In four days, we of course didn’t see it all, but we had visited a wonderful assortment of architecture – from classical to modern, intimate to grand, and institutional to private. The Detroit we found was a place of a proud past and a struggling present, but we left with a sense of hope for what might be ahead. The tour dates were May 2 – 5, 2013.

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