Can metro Detroit’s treasure trove of mid-century modern architecture be preserved?
When Reynolds Metals’ regional sales office opened in Southfield in 1959, “Interiors” The magazine described the experience of entering the building as “like stepping into a cut gem”.
Minoru Yamasaki, the famous architect who created the World Trade Center, designed the building as visually dramatic homage to aluminum, with a lily-filled reflective pool surrounding it.
Today, however, the reflective pool has been filled in and the interior of the building has been significantly changed after several owners converted the space into a gym. The structure is now empty, just one example of the remarkable story– –and sometimes discouraging current condition– –of mid-century modern architecture in Detroit.
The modern mid-century, commonly defined as authoritative from 1933 to 1965, is known for its open floor plans, box-like shapes, heavy use of glass, and designs that emphasize a connection with nature. The style is well represented in Metro Detroit, and Oakland County’s lead planner and heritage preservation architect Ron Campbell says he tells the story of a “euphoria” after World War II.
“Most of the world was falling apart and they were rebuilding it,” says Campbell. “Returning service men and women came back with these ideas that this new age was coming … I think these are the stories we lost; how that feeling must have been.”
The subway area contains an abundance of modern mid-century architectural elements, with Southfield alone boasting numerous notable landmarks in addition to the Reynolds Building. Southfield Mayor Ken Siver is an advocate of mid-century modern architecture who regularly gives tours of examples around the city.
Southfield Mayor Ken Siver
“When Southfield exploded after World War II, a lot of development money went into the city,” says Siver. “And with that money, many developers hired some of the best architects of the day.”
One of these architects was Victor Gruen, a well-known mall architect who designed the Northland Center in 1952. Another was Gunnar Birkerts, who designed several Southfield buildings, including the former B’nai David Synagogue at 24350 Southfield Rd. In 1959 (now the Shriners Auditorium and Conference Center).
[Read our article on 5 of the greatest modern buildings in metro Detroit]
Mid-century modern architecture in Metro Detroit is certainly not limited to Southfield. The Cranbrook Educational Community was another source of modern activity in the mid-century. Eliel Saarinen acted as the campus’s chief architect, helping lure mid-century greats like Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles, and Ray Eames to the Cranbrook Academy of Art.
Perhaps the largest mid-century modern metro asset of the mid-century is the GM Technical Center in Warren. The Tech Center was designed by Eero Saarinen, a renowned architect best known for designing the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. The tech center was named as a National Historic Landmark in 2014.
GM design manager Susan Skarsgard describes the Tech Center as “one of the most important mid-century modern architecture projects in the history of American architecture”. In particular, Saarinen worked closely with GM engineers to develop design elements such as the neoprene seals that were sealed in large windows and emulated the technology used to seal automobile windshields.
“The way Saarinen looked at it, he wanted to design a campus that was related to the auto industry in several ways,” says Skarsgard. “Even the way the buildings were designed was a very systems-based approach, very modular, just like what would happen to a vehicle and how it would be put together in a very modular, structured way.”
Even beyond the main attractions, the mid-century modern riches are scattered across the region. Deborah Goldstein is President of the Michigan Chapter of Docomomo, an international organization dedicated to the preservation of modern architecture, and a historic preservation planner for the city of Detroit. She points to notable mid-century modern neighborhoods in Southfield and Oak Park, among others.
“You only find these little things, these little miracles,” says Goldstein.
Despite these marvels, much of Metro Detroit’s mid-century modern architecture has been under threat in recent years.
“If you look at a town hall or county building from the early 20th century, there’s no question that it’s going to be preserved,” said Brian Conway, state heritage commissioner. “But if you look at the same 1960s town hall or county building, it might not be that obvious to people, and it might be something they want to replace.”
Oakland County’s chief planner John Bry says this could be because many people still view mid-century modern buildings as aesthetically commonplace.
“I think a lot of people have a hard time imagining something meaningful because they’re not elaborate structures,” he says. “I think there is kind of a separation in people’s minds about what is historical and what is not.”
This separation has already meant that some modern structures in the metropolitan area were lost to history in the middle of the century. Conway points to the Yamasaki-designed Quo Vadis Entertainment Center in Westland, which opened in 1966 and demolished in 2011. There is now a parking lot and a branch of the Community Financial Credit Union on the premises.John Bry
However, Conway says that if the Quo Vadis building were still standing today, “it would not be so easy to demolish.” This is due to a variety of factors that have rekindled public appreciation for mid-century modern architecture.
One of those factors is that of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office Michigan Modern Initiative that began in 2008 to promote and document Michigan’s architectural heritage Exhibition and symposium at the Cranbrook Art Museum in 2013 and more recently Companion book.
The Formation of Docomomos Michigan chapter 2014 was another shot in the arm for local modern architecture. These efforts have sparked renewed public interest in the modern mid-century– –At least in the areas of furniture and interior design, where it seems to be never completely out of style.
“Right now, awareness is starting to rise,” says Conway. “It’ll be a lot stronger in five years.”
But there’s still a lot to be done to preserve Metro Detroit’s mid-century modern treasures, Siver says. He is currently working on a plan to “secure the future” of the Reynolds Metals building in Southfield. He is also a proponent of preserving the former Hudson structure in Northland by converting it into loft apartments.
“I believe we build things for a purpose and when times change the changes have to change,” says Siver. “Large malls are under threat across the country. So can we find adaptive reuses that make sense?”
Siver, Conway and Goldstein support the idea of preserving the aesthetic properties of modern structures from the mid-century and making historically sensitive changes to accommodate new uses.
Conway and Goldstein both refer to the Plaza Loft Apartments at 3800 Woodward Ave. in Detroit, the former Hammer and Nail medical building, as an ideal example of the adaptive reuse of a mid-century modern building. Developer Roxbury Group renovated the building archetypal concrete columns from the middle of the century and large windows that are also used for the 21st century: luxury apartments in midtown.
Goldstein says that preserving these architectural elements is especially significant as it also preserves the history of the metro area changing through urban renewal.
“These were things that were built during the unrest of the 1960s,” she says. “It’s not only that these are great buildings themselves and the architects are great architects, but the buildings represent the time they were built. And that time is worth it for the other things that happen in society are to be remembered. “
All photos by Joe Powers Insitu Photograph ??????? y.