Thanks to twitter, I discovered last week that Pure Detroit is offering free tours of the Fisher Building (where one of its shops is located) every Saturday in March at 11am and 2pm. I was very excited when I heard about it – free tours of historic Detroit skyscrapers? SIGN ME UP.
So Saturday morning I drove downtown, looked for a place to park, discovered I didn’t have enough change for a parking meter but decided to risk it, and headed into one of the grandest buildings in the city. The tour started just after 11 and lasted about an hour. The guide was very knowledgeable about the building and did a great job of shepherding the 20 or so of us around. We mostly walked around the first floor and the third floor mezzanine and then went up to the 26th floor to get some great views of the city skyline. It’s too bad it was cloudy and grey on Saturday, because the view from the top is amazing.
The guide (I can’t remember his name!) talked about the building itself as well as the history behind it. Here’s what I learned about the Fisher Building on the tour, supplemented with a bit more research when I got home:
The family behind the building consisted of the seven Fisher brothers: Frederick, Charles, William, Lawrence, Edward, Alfred and Howard, sons of an Ohio carriage maker. They moved up to Detroit around the turn of the century and in 1908 invested $50,000 to found the Fisher Body Company, building auto bodies. The brothers had excellent timing to get in on the automobile business – General Motors was formed just 3 months later. Fisher Body provided many auto bodies for General Motors, including the first closed body for the 1910 Cadillac, which allowed automobiles to become more than just pleasure vehicles. They also introduced the first four-door sedan bodies.
The Fisher brothers were very active in the community and gave a lot of money to charities, churches and various civic causes. However, the Fisher Building was to be their greatest gift of all. In 1925, less than 20 years after founding Fisher Body, they sold it to General Motors for $208 million – not a bad profit! Soon after, they announced that they planned to use some of that money to finance the construction of a grand building in the New Center area, just north of downtown. The building was to be both a beautiful testament to the modern age and a center of economic activity. Initially planned to cost $30 million, include three towers and encompass an entire city block, due to the Great Depression the plan was eventually reduced to one $9 million tower. Nonetheless, the 1928 Art Deco skyscraper has long been considered one of Detroit’s most impressive buildings.
Designed by famous Detroit architect Albert Kahn, the exterior of the building is composed almost entirely of marble and granite and originally featured a roof made of gold-leaf tiles that gave it the nickname the “golden tower.” The tiles were covered with asphalt during WWII due to fears that they would make an easy target for enemy bombers if they ever got to the U.S., and after the war the asphalt was covered with green terra cotta, giving the tower the distinct look it has today. Although the exterior is certainly impressive, the inside is where the Fisher really shines. The brothers spared no expense on design – the interior is said to have accounted for 25% of that $9 million! The first three floors contain shops, restaurants and the Fisher Theater around a two-wing, three story arcade featuring ornate wood paneling and elaborate frescoes on the barrel vaulted ceilings. Designed by Hungarian artist Geza Maroti, the frescoes are entirely hand-painted and feature geometric designs, flora and fauna, and a series of thematic images focused on American industry and commerce.
The upper floors contain offices, the most magnificent being the Fisher brothers’ own suite on the 25th-27th floors. Their offices included walnut paneling, scrolled plaster ceilings and bronze chandeliers. They had their own kitchen, dining room and private elevator.
The Fisher Brothers intended for the building to provide for every need. According to the Detroit News,
“When the Fisher opened in 1928, visitors were treated with lavish attention. Cars were parked by men in white and shoppers enjoyed free baby sitting in a skylit fourth floor nursery complete with carousel, mosaic game-tiled floor and nurses to watch over the children. Mothers could lunch in the famed Huyler’s L’Aiglon tea room, which later became Al Green’s Celebrity Room. In the Fisher Theater lobby, there was a pond filled with goldfish and turtles. Five talking macaws were fed by patrons. Organ recitals, performances by the house orchestra, stage shows and first run movies were available at the theater.”
It was made to be one stop shopping and entertainment. Among the modern innovations featured in the building was a double-helix parking structure that allowed cars to ascend and descend simultaneously and automatic elevators that did not require attendants.
The remaining brothers sold the building in 1962, and it was sold again in 1974 and 2001. One of the issues with the building is that it is very expensive to maintain. The Free Press reported in 1970 that it cost $3.1 million annually to keep up the building – more than 7 times the amount to run the entire town of Utica. Today, although many of the upper floor offices are empty, the Fisher Theater remains a popular venue for Broadway shows and there are still a number of shops on the bottom floor. It’s a great place to see a show, or just stop by to check out the interior and maybe pick up a Detroit-themed shirt or two from Pure Detroit – like this awesome one that I bought after the tour:
Austin, Dan. “Fisher Building.” HistoricDetroit.org
“Fisher Building.” National Parks Service, Detroit: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary
Houston, Kay and Linda Culpepper. “The Most Beautiful Building in the World.” The Detroit News, March 20, 2001.