Resurgent cineribus VII: The Fisher Building

Looking up at the Fisher Building

Unlike the other buildings I have discussed in this series, Detroit’s Fisher Building has never been abandoned–but it, too, had declined before a resurgence that has helped to restore and preserve its beautiful design.  It has stood in all its Art Deco glory in Detroit’s New Center since it was completed in 1927.  Like the Guardian Building downtown, the Fisher Building is considered a work of art in its own right.  I got a chance to tour the building yesterday ahead of my concert, thanks to Pure Detroit, which runs tours of both it and the Guardian Building.  My tour guide shared a great deal of fascinating information about the building and its history.

The Fisher Building is named for the seven Fisher brothers, founders of Fisher Body.  Initially an independent company that built carriages, Fisher Body became closely associated with GM in its early years.  GM bought a 60% share in the company in 1919, and after that it manufactured exclusively GM auto bodies. GM bought up the other 40% in 1926. The division was managed by the Fishers until the 1940s.  Five of the six brothers eventually served on the Board of Directors, and one as its chief engineer.

The family and the company were hugely successful when they commissioned famed architect Albert Kahn to build what is now acknowledged as his masterpiece. Kahn built over half of the buildings he designed in Detroit, from homes to industrial projects such as the Packard Plant to buildings like the Fisher.  The 30-story Fisher would have been even larger had it not been for the Depression–originally it was intended to be one of two smaller towers that would have flanked a central 60 story tower in a complex that would have taken over an entire city block.  (Those familiar with Toronto architectural history will know that the College St. Eatons store was the only section built of a similar megaproject).

The Fishers gave Kahn carte blanche to create the “most beautiful building in the world,” unrestricted by budget constraints. The building cost about $12 million to build, with 25% of that budget spent on the decoration.  Only the finest materials were used–the exterior is primarily marble, with granite (in over 30 colours) being sourced from around the world for the interiors.  Famously, the peaked top of the building was covered in gold leaf, giving the Fisher the nickname of the Golden Tower.  Gold was also used in the frescos that adorned the ceilings.  Designed by Geza R. Maroti, these painted works highlighted two aspects of American culture:  its wealth and its artistic accomplishments, all portrayed through the mirror of mythology.  Eagles, a bird associated with Zeus as well as with the United States, are found throughout the building, as are decorative motifs based on local agriculture and figures personifying the arts and commerce.  These are repeated in mosaics as well as in the bronze elevator doors. (The elevators were automatic–another innovation.) Gorgeous Art Deco lighting chandeliers hang in the main vault, with sconces along walls.  The granite floor is formed by thousands of different-coloured triangles in geometric patterns.  Amazingly, the building took only 15 months to build, thanks to the labour of thousands of workers.

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The main hall and the undeground concourse were always meant to be public spaces, lined with shops as a shopping arcade.  A Mayan Revival-style theater was also part of the complex.  Originally used for live vaudeville shows and silent movies, it was adapted to serve exclusively as a movie theatre until 1961.  Originally the theater included live parrots and banana plants, in keeping with the tropical theme.  This was all removed when the theater was converted back to a live entertainment venue after a renovation in 1961.  The Fisher was one of the first office towers to build parking structures as part of its plan, and was the first to use a helical ramp structure.  The building always had a wide variety of tenants, including professionals (such as doctors and lawyers), government offices, and other businesses.  Radio station WJR originally broadcast from the “top of the Golden Tower” (and still does today, although according to my tour guide, no longer from the top floor.)  Incidentally, that gold plated cap was covered over in black asphalt during WWII amid concerns that a gleaming gold beacon would be an obvious target.  After WWII, they were unable to salvage the gold leaf, and the peak was recovered with green tiles and simply lit up to give it the golden colour.

The Fisher brothers sold the building in 1962.  It changed hands several times afterwards as the area entered a decline as a centre for business.  GM left its headquarters across the street for the Renaissance Center downtown.  The building was increasingly poorly maintained and was seen as outdated.  In 2015 it was sold in a foreclosure sale for just over $12 million.

Since that time, steps have been taken to restore and preserve the building, including remedying water damage to the frescoes and upgrading the HVAC system.  This is part of an overall plan to revitalize the New Center area. Curbed has an excellent article on the work done on the arcade; another update from the Detroit Free Press is here.  The common thread here with so many of the buildings I’ve covered in the past week is the incredible momentum and energy after a long period of neglect.  New tenants have been brought into the building, including a florist, boutiques, a coffee place, and a bakery.  There is also space for art installments, and the building is also hosting special events, such as maker fairs and weddings.  And, of course, the theater is still going strong, with signs up for an upcoming production of Hamilton.

Signs certainly look positive for Detroit’s largest art object.  This jewel may have become a little dulled and dirtied over the years, but with the polish and attention it’s now getting, it should be ready to shine once again as the treasure it truly is.


Historic Detroit has an extensive article on the history of the Fisher Building here.