Detroit’s residents and officials have realized for generations that one of the city’s major assets is its waterfront. In the late Nineteenth Century, the city and state governments cooperated to convert Belle Isle into the beautiful urban park that it remains. As soon as the city’s population began to grow rapidly after completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, the waterfront was lined first with docks, wharves and warehouses, and then with factories. Indeed, if you walk or drive along Detroit’s waterfront today, you still find many industrial buildings from the Nineteenth Century that block the view of the river and Canada.
After V-J day in 1945, the city prospered since consumers purchased cars as rapidly as they were produced in the city’s factories. For the first three or four years of the post-war boom, more homes were built in the city—primarily in the north and northwest sections—than were built in the surrounding suburbs. After 1950, new construction in the suburbs greatly outpaced building in the city. As Detroit boomed, city planners sought to make the waterfront beautiful starting with the area when Antoine Cadillac landed.
The city erected a Veteran’s Memorial Building to serve as an anchor for the future development of a waterfront civic center. This is the building that you see, one that was completed in 1951. It is a rectangular, ten-story, marble structure designed by the Harley, Ellington and Day firm, the architects who designed the beautiful Horace Rackham Memorial Educational Building for the University of Michigan one decade earlier. This building features a glass-enclosed terrace at the upper levels, but this is only visible from the river or from Canada. The rectangular shape of the building and the unvarying orderliness of the windows may diminish the appeal, but those liabilities are more than offset by the white marble when it glistens in the sunshine. In 1996, the Veteran’s Memorial Building was renovated by the Smith, Hinchman and Grylls firm and now serves as a training center and office building known as the Ford/UAW Building. The next building to grace Detroit’s waterfront was opened four years later. This is the Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium constructed by the Ford Foundation when that organization was managed by the firm and family. Its acoustical qualities were deficient and it now is unused.
The marble end of the Veteran’s Memorial Building facing West Jefferson displays one of Marshall Frederick’s major sculptures, albeit a period piece. The architects originally proposed windows for this face, but Marshall Fredericks encouraged them to use the entire wall for a sculpture commemorating the victories of the Allies in World War II. This is particularly appropriate for Detroit since the city was the true Arsenal of Democracy. Fredericks sculpted a powerful but graceful huge eagle some thirty feet in length and protruding so far from the building that no one can walk by and miss it. The wings of the eagle form the V for victory—a symbol frequently used in World War II propaganda, but not used in the nation’s subsequent wars in Korea, French Indo-China and the Mideast. The traditional signs of victory and glory—laurel and palm—are held in the eagle’s talons.
The eagle was the major component of Marshall Frederick’s statuary for the Veteran’s Memorial Building, but not the only component. He engraved a bronze seal of the United States to appear on a red granite wall. Then he carved seven pylons showing Cadillac founding the city, Father Gabriel Richard preaching; Chief Pontiac signing a treaty to end the Indian wars, General Perry’s defeating the British Navy on Lake Erie in the War of 1812, the meeting of Generals Grant and Lee at Appomattox, and Spanish troops surrendering to a mounted Teddy Roosevelt to end the War with Spain. As you observed, many of those sculptures commemorate the peace that followed a United States war. These pylons were subsequently moved and sandblasted.
Sculptor: Marshall Fredericks
Material: White marble
Date of construction: 1950
Photograph: Andrew Chandler; July, 2004
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