Michgander Monday: Eleanore Hutzel

Happy Women’s History Month! It might be almost over, but there’s still time for me to celebrate one of my favorite Michigan women: Eleanore Hutzel. If you live in the Detroit area, you might recognize her last name and wonder if she’s connected to Hutzel Women’s Hospital, a part of the DMC. Yep, that hospital was named after her. She was highly involved with that institution for most of her life. The hospital wasn’t the only place where she made her mark, however. She also started up a Women’s Division of the Detroit Police Department in 1922. Eleanore Hutzel was a fascinating woman who made a huge impact through her work caring for the women and children who needed it most.

Hutzel was born on September 8, 1885 in Ann Arbor. Little is known about her childhood. In 1910, at the age of 25, she moved to Detroit to study nursing at Harper Hospital and Women’s Hospital. Her work as a nurse made her more aware of the difficulties poor women faced, which led to her interest in social services. It wasn’t long before she moved to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago’s School of Social Services. After graduating, she returned to Detroit to serve as the Director of Social Services at Women’s Hospital. A true product of the progressive age, she used her position to champion a number of programs to help women and infants, particularly unwed mothers and their children.

Women’s Hospital started in 1868 with an “open door” policy, meaning that they accepted patients regardless of their ability to pay or personal situation. Initially, women unable to pay had to work off their debt, but that practice ended in 1916, soon after Hutzel returned. Hutzel worked largely with the Department of Dependent Mothers and Infants, which mostly served unmarried mothers  – in 1921 82% of the infants born under care from the department were “illegitimate” (a term that sounds unnecessarily harsh today but typical of the time). Besides maternity care, the department also operated Valley Farm Home north of the city, where pregnant women and new mothers in need of care and assistance could reside outside of the immediate time of delivery. These women were expected to use their time at the home to learn infant care, domestic skills and a profession they could use to support themselves once they left. The goal was not just to see these women through delivery of their child, but also to set them up for a better life. Another impressive program, particularly for the time, was the Detroit Bureau of Wet-Nurses. Started in 1914, the bureau’s goal was to provide wet-nurses and breast milk to infants that needed it. This program allowed nursing mothers with an oversupply to earn money by either serving as a wet-nurse or providing extra milk to the program, which then redistributed it to infants in the hospital or mothers unable to nurse. The wet-nurse part of the program proved unpopular, but the distribution of breast milk was very popular and demand increased yearly. Hutzel tried to spread the word about the program, its popularity and its benefits through an article in Mother and Child, a magazine published by the American Child Hygiene Association.

Her involvement with social services led her to a position on the board of the Girls’ Protective League, an organization that aimed to look after unsupervised women and children on the streets. This activity lead to Eleanore’s next major career change – to policewoman. She organized the Women’s Division of the Detroit Police Department to assist the police department with handling cases involving women and children. After a trial period of six months, the division became a full part of the department and Hutzel became its chief. She later wrote that changing conditions (presumably industrialization and the growth of cities) had started to bring large groups of women and girls to the attention of the police, and that they presented problems better handled by women than by men. Her vision of a policewoman’s role was closely intertwined with social services. She felt that police work with women functioned best when in full cooperation with a social services department, to which women and children could be referred for assistance and rehabilitation. Nonetheless, she understood the need for traditional police activities as well. In “The Policewoman’s Handbook,” published by Hutzel in 1933, she provides instruction in patrol work, investigation, criminal law procedure and more.

She also foresaw a number of issues for the policewomen themselves that are still issues for working women today. When discussing qualifications for policewomen, she states that they must be as well or better qualified than policemen. Cities with well qualified policewoman have accepted their role in policing society, while cities where the policewomen were less qualified have insisted that women cannot fulfill the role. She also advocated for equal pay for policewomen, due to the fact that they have the same qualifications and duties as the men. According to one survey in the 1930s, about half of the police departments with women’s divisions paid them less than then men, and another half (including Detroit) paid them the same.

Eleanore Hutzel never ceased caring about social issues or serving the people of Michigan. In 1953, after retiring from the police force, she was appointed to Michigan’s new six-member corrections commission, which took control of the state’s prison system. She also never entirely left Women’s Hospital. She served as a trustee for many years, and in 1965 the hospital honored her service by renaming itself Hutzel Women’s Hospital. Hutzel died in 1979 but her legacy lives on at Michigan’s only nationally recognized hospital devoted to women’s health. In 1999, she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame as recognition of her importance to Michigan’s history.

Do you have a favorite woman from Michigan’s history? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter! The month may be nearly over, but we can celebrate women’s history all year long!


How to get to Canada: The Ambassador Bridge

Michiganders love to talk about our affinity with our neighbor to the north (and in some places, south). Canada may be a foreign country, but in many ways it feels like just another state because it is so close by to many parts of Michigan. Sure, it’s slightly harder to cross the border these days since you need a passport or an enhanced drivers license, yet many Michigan residents cross over often, to see shows, visit friends and relatives, to work, go shopping, or, if you are 19 or 20, to have a drink.

I swear, I'm just honoring my rum-running forefathers! Image from Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection

We’re just honoring our rum-running forefathers!
(source: Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection

But how do we get to Canada? Michigan is the only border state with no land crossings. Until the early 20th century, you would need a boat to get from Michigan to Canada. Today however, it is easier than ever. There are currently three bridges, one tunnel and two car ferries that will take a passport-bearing American citizen to Canada. These are located on the three rivers that narrow the gap between the US and Canada surrounding Michigan – the Detroit River, the St. Clair River and the St. Mary’s River. I’d like to eventually talk about this history behind all of the border crossings, but I also don’t want to make any promises I may not keep. So I will just start with the most interesting story, about the most well-known crossing: the Ambassador Bridge.

The Ambassador Bridge at night. (source)

The Ambassador Bridge at night (source)

The Ambassador Bridge is a Detroit landmark, lighting up the river and making for an impressive skyline. It might not seem like a terribly long bridge today, but it was actually the longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1929. The 1920s saw a great deal of new construction in the city, including the Fisher and Penobscot buildings. The city was growing at a rapid pace, yet it had no easy way for residents to reach its closest neighbor, Windsor (a rail tunnel, built in 1910, helped with freight traffic). Many people from around the Midwest and east coast tried to make plans for a bridge, but none of the plans came to fruition. That is, until John W. Austin met up with Joseph A. Bower. The two of them hatched a plan for a privately funded bridge between the two nations. They raised the funding, and received approval from all the necessary authorities, except one. Detroit Mayor John Smith opposed the plan, and vetoed the project. He did not like the idea of a privately owned bridge, and it seemed like all was lost.

However, Bower knew his plan was popular, and so decided to fight the veto. He put up $50,000 to have a special election on the issue of the bridge. Soon, both sides were fighting for votes, with newspaper advertisements, endorsements from leading citizens, and radio ads. In the midst of all this, Mayor Smith was up for re-election. John C. Lodge, a supporter of the bridge, used the issue to launch his mayoral campaign, causing the two issues to be inexorably intertwined.

John Smith and John C. Lodge on election day

John Smith and John C. Lodge on election day (source: Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection)

Mayor Smith was ruthless in his campaigning, which turned out to be his undoing. The day before the election, he gave a speech on the radio condemning the bridge. After the speech, he ran into H. H. Esselstyn, the Commissioner of Street Railways and former engineer on the Belle Island Bridge. It turned out Esselstyn was planning to make a contradictory speech in support of the bridge. Incensed, Mayor Smith fired him on the spot. Esselstyn still made the speech, despite his shock. At the end, he told the listeners that due to his opinions, he had been fired from his position. The unprofessional behavior of the mayor turned even more Detroiters against him, and his side was walloped the next day in the election. The bridge won by an 8 to 1 margin. Later that year, Smith was defeated by Lodge for the mayoral primaries (although he would become mayor again in 1933).

Construction, which had actually slowly begun before the election, picked up in earnest. It was finished in just over two years (and ahead of schedule). Unfortunately, the bridge opened 21 days after the crash of the New York Stock Exchange, at the very beginning of what would become the Great Depression. Additionally, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel opened in 1930, creating competition for the bridge’s traffic. The bridge endured a decade of financial troubled before things began looking up in the 1940s. Although passenger traffic was stayed low due to travel restrictions and gas rationing during the war, truck traffic increased greatly due to war manufacturing. Finally, the bridge was on solid financial footing.

Cars travel over the newly constructed Ambassador Bridge in the 1920s (source: Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection)

Cars travel over the newly constructed Ambassador Bridge in the 1920s (source: Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Collection)

Over the years, use has continued to grow, especially by commercial trucks. Many improvements have been made to the bridge to stabilize the now aging infrastructure and help manage the growing number of vehicles. Despite these changes, the current bridge is still not enough to handle the daily traffic from Detroit to Windsor. For this reason, a proposal was created in 2004 to build a  new bridge across the Detroit River, this one publicly owned. The proposal has been through multiple setbacks, including vehement opposition from the Ambassador Bridge’s current American owner, Manual “Matty” Moroun, but it has prevailed and preliminary construction has begun. In fact, just this week two huge obstacles to the bridge were overcome. It will surely be a while before the new bridge, named the New International Trade Crossing, will open – but when it does, Michiganders will have a whole new way to get to Canada, for whatever it is they want to do there.

toronto 007

Source: myself, on a trip to Toronto in 2006 (no, I didn’t buy anything there).

Museum Round Up: Year of Museums, Part II

2014, my Year of Museums, is winding to a close. In one way, it was a success – I definitely went to more than 12 museums this year. On the other hand, going to more museums did not encourage me to write more blog posts. It was actually a pretty poor year for blogging. Only 10 posts all year! Perhaps 2015 should be the year of blogging.

Well, for all of those out there dying to know, my list of all the museums I visited is below. As you can see, most of the museums are from two big trips: my road trip around Michigan in July and my trip to Washington DC in November.

The first 5, which I wrote about in Museum Round Up Part I:

Mabry Mill (Virginia)
Arab American National Museum (Dearborn, Michigan)
Detroit Historical Museum
Detroit Institute of Arts
Thumb Octogon Barn Agricultural Museum

Then in June, I hit quite a few museums around Michigan while on vacation:

Our first stop on vacation was in Grand Rapids, where we visited friends and drank some beer. We also made a trip to the Grand Rapids Public Museum. I highly recommend a stop here for anybody living in or visiting GR. The museum focuses on the history of the city and region, but it is so much more than your typical local history museum. For starters, it’s huge! There are three floors of exhibits, including many permanent and temporary galleries. The large scale is especially noticeable in the Galleria, an open space using all three floors to display large artifacts including a (replica) whale sculpture, a locally made bi-plane, and a large steam engine. The museum is also very modern in its interpretation of the local history. Rather than a simple timeline that starts with the founding of the city and continues with important events (mostly done by rich white men), you can visit individual exhibits on many aspects of the GR history, including the original Native American inhabitants, the many immigrant groups that make up the current population, and participation in the Civil War. Much as I loved all that, I also loved the nod to the museum’s past with a natural history exhibit designed like an old-fashioned “cabinet of curiosities.” Seriously, I loved this museum. I can’t wait for an excuse to go back!

Exhibits at the Grand Rapids Public Museum: Mammoth skeleton, view of the Galleria, Civil War Camp

Exhibits at the Grand Rapids Public Museum:
Mammoth skeleton, view of the Galleria, Civil War Camp

After a day in Grand Rapids, we took the SS Badger to Wisconsin, camped there for a few days, and then headed north to the Porcupine Mountains. Most of our time in the Porkies was spend hiking (and jumping into the freezing Lake Superior), but we also made a stop at the visitor center to learn more about the area. The visitor center is small, but provides some great information about both the geologic history of the area as well as more recent history, with a few small displays on copper mining in the area. It’s a great complement to the amazing views you will see while spending time in the Porkies.

Our next stop was the Keweenaw peninsula, where we made Houghton our home base for few days while we explored the area. In Houghton, we went to the A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum on Michigan Tech’s campus to learn all about rocks, both locally mined and from all over the world. I’ll admit, rocks aren’t really my thing, but I was pleasantly surprised by this museum. There was quite a bit about local copper mining, including a gigantic piece of copper taller than me. I also was excited to find some items from other places in Michigan, including some salt from the Detroit salt mines. The salt mines are on my (long) list of things to write about, as most people don’t even know they are there.

Sheet copper and halite (rock salt) from the Detroit Salt Mines

Sheet copper and halite (rock salt) from the Detroit salt mines

A little farther north of Houghton is Calumet, where we stopped in at the Calumet Visitor Center, a part of the Keweenaw National Historical Park. The Keweenaw “park” isn’t one site – it is a partnership of multiple historical sites in the area along with the National Parks System. The Calumet Visitor Center is the new home base of the park, with a museum on the region’s history as well as information about the different sites. The center was very informative, including exhibits on not only the development of the region based on the rise and fall of the mining industry, but also on the social aspects of life in the Keweenaw.

First floor of the Calumet Visitor Center

First floor of the Calumet Visitor Center

And at the tip of the Keweenaw, we spent an afternoon at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park, a living history museum that tells the story of Fort Wilkins, which was built in the 1840s to bring order to the newly populated mining towns in the region. The fort was only occupied for a few years before being abandoned, so the museum is able to focus on one point in history, rather than a broad range. It was interesting, but I have to admit we were a bit tired of copper mining history at that point!

Barracks at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park

In September, I decided to make a random visit to the Michigan Holocaust Museum (at the Holocaust Memorial Center). This moving museum does an excellent job of portraying the vibrant culture of European Jews in the era before World War I, and horrific destruction of the culture and people by the Nazis. The architecture of the museum itself helps to tell the story – exhibits on pre-war culture are on the first floor, and then you descend into the basement as the exhibits tell the story of the rise of Nazism and the ensuing Holocaust. This is a hard museum to visit, but it is an important one. We all know the history, but seeing the artifacts, hearing the stories of survivors, and gaining a better understanding of what exactly was lost makes the story more real, and hopefully ensures that it will never happen again.

If you are keeping count, I’m now at 11 museums for the year. It would have been easy enough to hit one more museum, but it was made even easier by a week long trip to Washington D.C. for work in November. While in DC, I managed to visit 6 more museums: the National Museum of Natural HistoryLibrary of Congress, National Postal Museum, National Archives, National Gallery of Art, and the National Portrait Museum. I won’t write a paragraph about each of these, as this post is already too long and they aren’t focused on Michigan history. My week in DC was fun for many reasons, including the opportunity to finish off my Year of Museums with a bang.

So how about you, readers? What museums did you visit this year? Which ones should I try to visit in 2015?

Museum Round Up: Year of Museums, Part I.

Back in January, I wrote that my New Year’s Resolution was to visit one museum a month for 2014. We’re now almost halfway through the year, and a regular reader of my blog would think that I had completely failed at my year of museums! In fact, I have visited a number of museums (although not quite one a month) but I haven’t written about any of them here. So I thought I would do a quick round up of my Year of Museums so far, and mention some of my upcoming museum plans.

I really didn’t make it to many museums in the early part of the year, and none at all in Michigan. In January, I visited Mabry Mill along the Blue Ridge Parkway while visiting family in Virginia. Mabry Mill is an outdoor complex that features a number of historic structures, including a sawmill, gristmill and blacksmith’s shop. Unfortunately, the buildings are only open from May-October, so during our January visit we could only walk around the exteriors and read some of the interpretive signs. It was still very interesting, and the scenery along the Blue Ridge Parkway was stunning, even in winter. I’d love to go back in the summer sometime, but it’s a bit far away!

Mabry Mill in Virginia

Mabry Mill in Virginia

In April, I visited the Arab American National Museum for the first time in a few years. The building itself is an architectural beauty and the exhibits inside are equally impressive. There are three main exhibits on the top floor: Coming to America, Living in America and Making an Impact, as well as a rotating exhibit space on the first floor. When we were there it was an exhibit on art in the Orthodox church, which I thought was fascinating. I don’t want to give too much of a review of the museum here, as it turns out I’m going to be spending a lot more time at the AANM in the future – I was recently offered a position there in the collections department, so I will be starting a new job in a few weeks!

Gorgeous ceiling at the Arab American National Museum

Gorgeous ceiling at the Arab American National Museum

May was a museum bonanza – I visited 3 that month alone! The Detroit Historical Museum was first, and I brought my grandparents as a late Christmas gift (my parents came along as well). I thought it had been a while since I had visited that particular museum, but they said they hadn’t been there since the 1960s or 70s! The newly remodeled exhibits were amazing, and included lots of fun interactive activities. Because I visited with my grandparents and my parents, all of whom have spent most of their lives in Metro Detroit, I especially enjoyed the Allesee Gallery of Culture. The Gallery of Culture isn’t one of the big, maquee exhibits. It is just one circular room, set up as a timeline of Detroit in the 20th century. Each section covers a decade or two and contains stories about living in Detroit in that era and artifacts and images from the era as well. It was so fun to go through this room with my parents and grandparents, because we were all drawn to the different sections that resonated with us.  I really enjoyed hearing my family talk about the different items and events they remembered that were represented in the exhibit. I imagine this exhibit isn’t ideal for an out-of-towner, or a group of friends the same age, but if you are bringing family to the museum, it is a wonderful multi-generational conversation starter!

Allesee Gallery of Culture

Allesee Gallery of Culture

A few weeks after the DHS, I went to the Detroit Institute of Arts with some friends to check out their traveling exhibition “Samurai: Beyond the Sword.” It was an excellent exhibit, but obviously had nothing to do with Michigan history, so I won’t talk to much about it here. You can read more about the history of the DIA here. I do want to note that I love love love that the DIA is open late on Fridays, AND serves drinks and food downstairs in the Kresge Court. I love being able to go to an exhibition at 8pm and then hang out with a glass of wine in the middle of a museum (of course, the wine stays in the court). Maybe that sounds like a lame Friday night, but judging by the number of people that were there at the same time, I’m clearly not the only one who enjoys history and art in the evening! Oh, and of course I spent a few minutes in Rivera Court – I can’t visit the DIA with out spending time with the Diego Rivera murals. Rivera Court is mostly lit through skylights, so it becomes darker in the evening, giving it a more ominous look.

"Detroit Industry" by Diego Rivera

“Detroit Industry” by Diego Rivera

My last museum in May was the Thumb Octagon Barn Agricultural Museum. This was a surprise museum trip while I was visiting my sister in, where else, the thumb of Michigan. She wouldn’t tell me where we were going until we got there! It was a lot bigger than I expected. Besides the barn, which is huge (and of course, 8-sided), there’s also a one-room schoolhouse, a small schoolhouse museum, a carriage house, and the farmhouse itself. We received a tour of most of the buildings from one of the volunteer docents, who drove us all over the complex in a golf cart. While the other buildings are interesting, the barn is clearly the centerpiece of the museum. Built in 1923-1924, the owner modeled it after a similar barn he had seen in Indiana. At the time, round and octagon barns were hailed as the “barn of the future” because you could fit more square footage inside one. That idea definitely rings true with this barn – it’s huge, at 102 feet across and 70 feet high. The architects employed a unique ventilation system to regulate the temperature inside so it does not become stuffy, even on the higher levels. It was a fascinating piece of architecture, both when it was built and today. Currently, the main floor is used for events, and also has a display of buggies. The second floor is filled with a variety of agricultural instruments from the 19th and 20th centuries. There is also a small exhibit sponsored by one of the local electrical companies, which features a number of early electrical appliances. It is certainly a unique museum that is worth a stop if you ever find yourself out that way.

Thumb Octagon Barn Agricultural Museum

Thumb Octagon Barn Agricultural Museum

That completes my museum round up! As it stands right now, we’re 6 months into 2014 and I’ve visited 5 museums. 4 in Michigan, 3 about local history. Not bad! I should be adding a bit to that list in a few weeks, as I’m heading up the U.P. on vacation, and I’m looking to hit a few museums up there. I’ll be mostly in the Keweenaw peninsula, so I’m using the list of museums and historic sites on the Keweenaw National Historic Park website for ideas on what to visit. Feel free to leave me some suggestions in the comments, I’d love to hear what places I shouldn’t miss!


Joe Louis Arena: the Heart of Hockeytown

Playoff hockey is back in Detroit! I went to one of the last regular season games a couple of weeks ago, which of course meant heading over to Joe Louis Arena. I love the Joe, as there’s not a bad seat in the house. It’s certainly not the fanciest of stadiums – bland concrete is it’s main aesthetic – and it was once even voted the worst sports arena in the country by Maxim (not that we care about Maxim’s opinion). Many Detroiters admit it is a dump, but it’s our dump! However, we won’t be watching hockey games there much longer, as a new arena is slated to be built within the next few years. I’m interested to see the new arena, although I’m not thrilled about how it is being funded. And it will be sad to lose the Joe, as it witnessed the rebirth of the Red Wings. When the stadium was built, in 1979, the Wings were terrible, earning themselves the nickname of “Dead Wings.” In the 35 years since then, they’ve become one of the best teams in hockey, winning the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. Detroit has earned the nickname Hockeytown thanks to the Wings’ many victories, and the Joe was a huge part of that. In honor of the last days of the arena, here’s five facts about its history:

  • Joe Louis Arena is one of only 3 NHL arenas without a corporate sponsor name, and the only one named after a person (the other two are Madison Square Garden and Nassau Veterans Memorial Colosium, home of the New York Rangers and Islanders, respectively).
  • Joe Louis, the famous boxer for whom the stadium was named, has an interesting story himself. He catapulted onto the national stage in 1935 after beating heavyweight champion Primo Carnera, and quickly became a champion in his own right. He wasn’t only known for boxing, however. He also became a patriotic figure during WWII. Near the beginning of the war, he participated in a charity bout benefiting the Navy Relief Society. He fought (and defeated) Bobby Baer, raising around $88,000 in the process. The next day, he enlisted in the Army – who then wanted him to do another charity bout, this time benefiting them. He quickly agreed. In an event leading up to the fight, Louis was quoted saying about the war and his enlistment “We gonna do our part, and we will win, because we are on God’s side.” The media, and the military, quickly latched on to the quote, and it was used in recruitment posters and other propaganda throughout the war. He served in a special services division and traveled around the states and overseas, mostly participating in exhibition fights for the troops and visiting hospitals. Although Louis never saw combat during the war, his role as troop entertainer and morale booster was still considered a significant contribution to the war effort.
Joe Louis recruitment poster (source)

Joe Louis recruitment poster (source)

  • Bruce Norris, who owned the team in the 1970s, seriously considered building a stadium out in Pontiac to replace the Wings’ former home, Olympia Stadium. Not wanting to lose another team to the suburbs (the Lions had already left the city for the Pontiac Silverdome, and the Pistons followed soon after), the city offered him a great deal on riverfront property if he stayed in the city. Thank goodness for that!

    Construction of Joe Louis Arena (source)

    Construction of Joe Louis Arena (source)


  • The Joe has hosted many non-hockey events over the years, including the 1980 Republican National Convention in which Ronald Reagan was nominated. I mainly bring this up so I can show this amusing picture, from the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University. It is clearly a posed portrait, taken either during the set up or tearing down of the event. I love the combination of the construction equipment in the background, the one random woman on the ice with balloons and that awesome 80s style.
  • Another non-hockey event: the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Yep, the one with the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan mess. Although the attack actually happened next door at Cobo Hall, the championship events took place on the ice at the Joe. Did you know that leading up the the event, the big news was that the International Skating Union had decided to allow skaters who had skated professionally to return to amateur status so that they could compete in the Olympics? Brian Boitano, 1988 gold medalist who had spent a few years on the professional circuit, returned to amateur competition at the event came in second place. Too bad his big comeback got overshadowed by the crazy event’s on the women’s side.

There’s your five facts about Joe Louis Arena! What do you think about the Joe? One of your favorite spots in the city or are you relieved it’s getting replaced?



The Big Heads….They’re Following Me!

Back in 2012, I wrote a post about Detroit’s Thanksgiving Parade, including a short blurb about the Big Head Corps:

“There’s a number of unique aspects to Detroit’s parade. The Big Head Corp is one. As I mentioned before, these have been part of the parade since the very beginning, as Charles Wendel had seen people wearing giant fake heads in Italy during Carnival and wanted to bring the idea here. The heads were made in a studio in Viareggio, Italy by Alfredo Moreschalchi and staff. The ones used in Detroit are smaller than the ones used in Italy. The heads depict characters, animals and famous Detroiters/Michiganders such as Henry Ford, Joe Louis and this year, Sparky Anderson.”

I’ve always loved the Big Heads. They are such a unique part of the parade, and showcase some of our best local celebrities. So I’ve been thrilled, lately, that I’ve been seeing the Big Heads around the city in other venues. Why should these awesome figures only be seen once a year?

First, I ran into some historic big heads at the Fisher building when I went to go see War Horse at the Fisher Theater in early January. These heads date back to before 1940, and show very different figures than the big heads of today. Instead of famous locals, most of these heads are shaped like animals or generic characters like pirates and clowns. Made in Viareggio and imported to Detroit for the parade, the Italian newsprint used in the papier-mâché construction is still visible on some of the heads (sadly, I have no pictures of that).

How you wear this while walking, I have no idea

How you wear this while walking, I have no idea

The board below these say two roosters, but I'm pretty sure the one on the left is a hippo....

The board below these say two roosters, but I’m pretty sure the one on the left is a hippo….

So what were these big heads doing at the Fisher? Pure Detroit (the same company from my tours of the Fisher and Guardian buildings), worked with The Parade Company to put on the display, called “Big Heads Take the Fisher.” The Parade Company, which is the non-profit that runs the Thanksgiving parade, owns over 300 big heads, ranging from the 20 historic heads on display to the modern ones still seen in the parade (which are now made locally). Although Pure Detroit and The Parade Company organized the display partially to show off the great history of the big heads, there was another goal as well – many of these older heads are in poor condition and in need of restoration. The Parade Company is looking for people to adopt individual figures to help pay for the necessary conservation work so that these antique heads can eventually  be put back in the parade. Wish I had the cash to adopt one – I would love to see more of these historic figures Thanksgiving morning!

Sometimes I get fancy. And pose with creepy pirates.

Sometimes I get fancy. And pose with creepy pirates.

A few weeks later, I went to the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) downtown. Although the main floor just featured cars, the downstairs exhibit room included a few other displays, including one by The Parade Company. The ParadeLand KidZone, as it was called, offered a mini-tour to kids (and adults!) of some of the floats and big heads used in the parade. They also participated in the daily parades through the main floor, although we sadly missed that part. I loved getting a chance to get up close with the big heads and floats, especially when I (once again) wasn’t expecting to see them.

I see Joe Louis and Henry Ford, and I think Aretha Franklin - not sure about the guy in the middle!

I see Joe Louis and Henry Ford, and I think Aretha Franklin – not sure about the guy in the middle!

One of these days, I would love to go on a tour of The Parade Company’s warehouse downtown and see more of the behind the scenes work for the parade. You need a minimum of 10 people for a tour however…..so I need to find 9 friends who are as crazy as me!

Has anyone else run into any unexpected history lately?

Guardian Building Tour

Top of the Guardian Building

Top of the Guardian Building

This weekend I finally got around to something I’ve been meaning to do for a while – go on Pure Detroit‘s tour of the Guardian Building in downtown Detroit. Back in March, I went on their tour of the Fisher Building and loved it, yet somehow it took me another 8 months to make it to the Guardian Building tour! I’m glad I did though, as the Guardian Building is easily one of the most beautiful buildings downtown – I think I might even call it my new favorite.

The tour leaves from the Pure Detroit store on the retail promenade of the building and I arrived about 15 minutes early, which gave me a chance to wander around the store a bit. I love all the Detroit themed items Pure Detroit sells, but this particular one made me laugh and get a little sad at the same time:

By the way, city of Detroit, I would have happily paid the $2 for the meter I parked at if only it was working. C'mon, we know you need all the money you can get!

By the way, city of Detroit, I would have happily paid the $2 for the meter I parked at if only it was working. C’mon, we know you need all the money you can get!

The tour started just after 11 with a short speech in the lobby about the history of the building. The Guardian was designed by Wirt Rowland of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls for the United Trust Company Bank in 1929. Rowland and SHG are both major players in Detroit architecture. Rowland, with SHG, had already brought Art Deco to Detroit with the Buhl (1925) and Penobscot (1928) buildings. Today Smith, Hinchman and Grylls is one of the oldest continually running architecture firms in the country. Now known as SmithGroup, the firm is headquartered in the Guardian Building, which makes a neat little circle of architectural history.

Rowland intended to make the Guardian into a “Cathedral of Finance.” The front lobby is shaped like the narthex of a church and then the main floor is designed like a nave, with a large mural of Michigan where the alter would be. Huge, vaulted ceilings reinforce the idea, making you truly feel like you are walking into a cathedral. Only, instead of a place of worship, it is a place of business (I wonder how religious leaders felt about that). The main floor was originally lined with teller windows and filled with people taking care of financial matters. By the time the building opened, the bank held 40% of Detroit’s banking resources after buying out several other institutions and becoming the Guardian Detroit United Group.

Of course, anyone today can guess that things did not go well for the bank. After all, the building opened its doors in spring of 1929, right before the Great Depression. By 1932, the bank had gone into receivership. The Guardian went through several different owners since then and is currently owned by the Sterling Group. The Cathedral of Finance still holds up to its name, however, as Bank of America has a large presence on the first floor, along with a cafe, Pure Detroit and another small shop. It may not see quite the hustle and bustle it once did, but it is far from one of the Detroit stereotype of a empty, abandoned building.

Well, I have somehow already written 500  words without mentioning a thing about the design of the building itself. And I certainly have a few things to say about it! The Guardian is, in a word, gorgeous. It is an Art Deco masterpiece, covered in intricate tile and metal work, stunning statuary, and beautiful stained glass. The first half of the tour was outside, as we viewed the exterior and talked about the surrounding neighborhood. The Guardian was built of brick, an unusual choice for Art Deco skyscrapers (the orange color of the bricks was dubbed Guardian Brick). However, brick is cheaper than limestone or granite, allowing more money to be spent on design. There was so much tile work on both the exterior and interior that four different companies were used, Pewabic from Detroit, Flint Faiance (who I’ve mentioned on here before) Rookwood out of Cincinnati, and The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company. Sculptures adorning the exterior were designed by Italian Corrado Parducci. Two large figures flank the entrance, representing Strength and Security, were intended to signal to the masses that this was a safe place to keep your money. Although the symbolism is a bit ironic considering the fate of the original bank, the statues are still impressive.

We will totally guard your money against stock market crashes, we swear

We will totally guard your money against stock market crashes, we swear

Beautiful as the exterior is, it is outshone by the interior. More colorful tiles adorns the walls, along with two types of rare marble. There is black marble from Belgium and red from Tunisia – from a closed mine Rowland convinced to reopen just long enough to get some marble for his new building. Much of the design, as is common in Art Deco, was inspired by Native American art. Our tour guide explained that part of the impetus for this homage was a distaste for European influence after the violence of World War I. Americans began to look for more homegrown forms of art, and thus turned towards Native Americans art, particularly the Aztecs and Mayans of Central America. The result is geometric patterns along with Native American symbolism and figures.

The main floor has an ornately painted ceiling that is actually made of a woven horsehair canvas. This canvas helps muffle sound, a necessity in a banking environment.  It also features a large mural of Michigan, painted by Ezra Winter, depicting the state’s main industries including manufacturing, agriculture and mining. Considering maps, Michigan and history are among my favorite things, I’m pretty much in love with this mural.


Cathedral of Finance indeed

Can I take this home with me?

Can I take this home with me?

Rowland put an Art Deco touch on every detail. Take a look at these pictures of the elevators, and the bottom of an original bank table pulled out of storage by Bank of America.



Sadly, unlike the Fisher Building tour, we did not get the chance to go upstairs and take a look around. Fun as that would have been, I’m still very satisfied with the tour. I love getting the chance to learn about all the amazing architecture in Detroit and learn a bit about the city’s history at the same time. Pure Detroit still has one more tour I haven’t done yet about all the Detroit skyscrapers – I’m sure I’ll make it to that one sometime!