1928: Fisher Building Opens Doors

September 1, 2018 all-day

The Fisher Building swung open its doors in Detroit on September 1, 1928. To celebrate, here’s a look at some fascinating facts and figures about Detroit’s “largest art object.”

Sweet things are made of this

The recipe called for the Fisher Building called for more than 12,000 tons of steel; 350,000 cubic yards of concrete and marble; 1,800 bronze windows; 641 bronze elevator doors (inside and outside of the cars); 420 tons of bronze finishings; 46,000 square feet of concrete forms, 41,000 barrels of cement, 100,000 yards of sand and gravel and 1,275 miles of electrical and telephone wire and cable. With more than 325,000 square feet of exterior marble, the Fisher is the largest marble-clad commercial building in the world.

The Fisher was built — with only slight exceptions — entirely out of granite and marble, including on the exterior. More than 40 kinds of marble from all over the world were used. From the base of the building to 50 feet up — the first three floors — the exterior is finished in polished Minnesota pink marble and Oriental granite. Above that is Beaver Dam marvilla marble (named such because it was harvested from the Beaver Dam Quarry at Cockeysville, Md.) on the street fronts and Carthage marble on the courts. The marble was cut and positioned to give varying textures across the exterior.

Take a closer look

For the sculpture, mosaics and frescoes, Kahn turned to Geza R. Maroti, an artist from Budapest, Hungary. Maroti was a leader in his nation’s art movement, and Hungary entrusted him to prepare foreign exhibitions and decorate the buildings for them. He also was associated with Eli Saarinen and working at the renowned Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills.

Maroti packed his work in the Fisher with symbolism, focusing mostly on two ideas: the wealth and power of the United States expressed through commerce and transportation, and American culture and civilization through music and drama.

The eagles with their wings slightly open, ready to take flight, symbolize an America ready to advance to greater things. Other eagles in and on the Fisher have their wings outstretched, symbolizing the power of the United States. Those with their wings tucked in, in a sheltering manner, show the nation’s strength and that it is sound.

A figure holding an automobile is part of the bronze

The victorious eagles of Zeus, with their wings spread against a purple background, hover above the entrance to the Fisher Theatre. They echo those that flew above the conquering armies of Greece. They signify the dedication of theater to high ideals, the genius and freedom of creativity and art and the progress of drama.

The ceiling features a flora and fauna theme and is covered in redheaded cherubs and muses frolicking among hemlock and evergreen needles. The style and hemlock motif on the arcade’s ceiling was something from Hungarian tradition that Maroti brought over from Central Europe but modern for America at the time. The elaborate frescoes were also designed by Maroti but carried out by artists Antonio and Tomas de Lorenzo of New York City. The painters stood atop massive scaffolds to give the arcade the right touch Kahn sought. Marotti produced each piece of decoration in full size cartoon form before it was painted on the ceiling by the de Lorenzos. Amazingly, it took only two months to hand-paint the arcade’s huge canvas. Making the effort even more impressive was Marotti’s biggest challenge: He had to make the ceilings as stunning from the ground as they were from the third-floor galleries. No easy trick.

A hand painted figure is seen on the three-story lobby's

Among the painted ceilings are words painted along the arches. The arch on the southern arch says, “The drama’s law the drama’s patrons give. For we that live to please must please to live.” It is by 18th century author Samuel Johnson’s prologue to celebrate new management of London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1747. On the other side of the southern arch, it says: “To wake the soul by tender strokes of art, to raise the genius and to mend the heart.” These words are by Alexander Pope, part of a prologue to Joseph Addison’s play “Cato” in 1713.

Along the walls of the arcade are 26 lunettes with symbolical designs and subjects such as Agriculture, Art, Justice, Knowledge, Music, Navigation, Peace and Thrift.

It was once home to a Mayan temple

Well, sort of.

It’s no secret that the Fisher Building also houses the Fisher Theatre, which offers Broadway productions. It opened as a vaudeville and movie house on Nov. 11, 1928, several weeks behind the rest of the building. But when it opened, it looked nothing like it does today. Indeed, it looked like an even-more-over-the-top Fox Theatre.

The theater — designed by the Chicago-based architectural firm of Anker S. Graven & Arthur G. Mayger — originally sat about 3,000 people and had an exotic Mayan temple theme in gold and ivory, complete with tropical trees and plants in the lobby and macaws that patrons could feed by hand. Banana trees filled the foyer, and turtles and goldfish filled a pond. Mayan statues flanked the stairs, and the theater had hieroglyphic-like figures around the top of the ceiling. The over-the-top design was meant to evoke a sense of wonder in moviegoers.

The Fisher Theatre originally had a Mayan temple theme,

As television stole audiences away from movie palaces, the Fisher Theatre began to struggle, showing films to far-from-full houses. For the last few years of the 1950s, it began showing second-run cinema. The final movie to screen there was “The Magnificent Seven” in 1960.

In an effort to breath new life into the theater, in 1961, the space was stripped of its temple theme and replaced with the Mid-Century Modern look it sports today.

Watch your step

Set into the floor just north of the Grand Boulevard entrance is a large bronze shield in low relief. It features a semi-nude figure of Mercury — the god of transportation and bearer of messages — running. Around the shield are inlaid marble in warm browns, creams and reds. The four principal bronze inlays are semi-nude figures symbolizing the four elements of the ancient world: air, earth, fire and water. Sadly, the details have been mostly eroded by decades of Detroiters trodding over it. It has been roped off to prevent further damage.

Less than two years to build

The Fisher is a beast. At 441 feet tall, with two 11-story wings and 1.13 million square feet of floor area, and covered from head to toe in marbles, mosaics and hand-painted ceilings, it’s hard to believe but it took only 15 months to finish it.

The building was announced on Jan. 15, 1927. Wreckers got to work right away clearing the site, and the first spade of dirt was turned by Fred Fisher — the eldest brother — on Aug. 22, 1927.

The underground tunnel

The Fisher, New Center and General Motors buildings are all joined together by a series of underground passageways lined with shops. These tunnels are still open today, though many of the storefronts are not in use. This was done to make it more convenient — and warmer during the winter — for New Center workers to get from one building to the next.

Why is it called the Golden Tower when it isn’t gold?

The building got its nickname of the Golden Tower because it was originally covered in gold-leaf faced tile. But during World War II, it was feared that the glistening tower would become a target for bombings, so it was covered with an asphalt material. After the war, the asphalt couldn’t be removed without damaging it, so it was replaced with green terra cotta tile.

Changing the way people park

Kahn not only helped revolutionize the way the world built its factories, he also changed the way it parked its cars. With the rise of the automobile — and with land values still high in Detroit — parking was at a premium in the Motor City.

Today most parking garages being built are combined

The Fisher was built with an 11-story parking garage in the rear with room for 1,100 automobiles. The garage was attached to the building, so tenants who worked on the first 11 floors were afforded the then-luxury of parking on the same floor as their offices.

But the real innovation was the garage’s ramp system, which was worked out at the General Motors Proving Ground. Kahn implemented a double helix design that allowed cars to go down and up on the same ramp at the same time. Today, most garages use this technique, but at the time, Kahn’s garage was groundbreaking.

For the full article, see Dan Austin, “Happy 90th Fisher Building! 10 fascinating facts about a Detroit icon“, Detroit Free Press, September 1, 2017.

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