Travel back in time to the 1920s. The place to be? Detroit. This was the era that the automotive industry got its wheels turning. The Detroit skyline began to take shape as the iconic Cadillac Place (General Motors Building), Guardian, Penobscot, and Fisher buildings were erected. People flooded the city for work… and they needed a place to live.
Just north up Woodward is Palmer Park – an apartment district that was created for the slew of workers in the city. Just a block from this district was the streetcar stop that delivered residents to and from their automotive jobs. As the decades went on, Palmer Park evolved into a gay friendly neighborhood with lots of restaurants and clubs. Even Madonna got her dance on at the clubs around Palmer Park. The original Menjo’s & Cliff Bells were in this area. But violence drove out the gay population to adjacent cities (Ferndale, Royal Oak) and much of Palmer Park and the apartment district fell to blight, crime, and drugs.
My main haunts reside in the downtown/midtown regions of Detroit. It’s not too often that I venture outside these comfort zones. But after my design-savvy amiga, Melissa, heard news about an architecture tour of this Detroit corner I know nothing about, we signed right up. The good news? The cost of our tour ticket benefited the People For Palmer Park for restoration and aesthetic improvements.
The People For Palmer Park (PFPP) is a group of individuals who exude pride and passion for this area. They are volunteers who spearhead family-friendly programs, beautification efforts, fundraising, and restoration projects. This Detroit jewel had lost its shine, but they are responsible for polishing it back up. In fact, there have been several news articles (Preservation Detroit, Curbed, MLive, Hour Detroit, Huffington Post) praising this organization for their transformative endeavors.
Okay, back to the architecture tour…
A showcase of architectural diversity, Palmer Park displays various design styles including Egyptian, Spanish Colonial Revival, Tudor, Moorish, Art Moderne, and International Style. The renowned architects who came to Palmer Park flaunted their skills in this residential nook of the city. Detroit did not have the budget despair it feels today. Money was not a limitation when plans were set on the design boards. And yes, it was apparent that these structures that were built for the wealthy & middle class – exotic tile placement, marble entryways, ornate ironwork & detailed craftsmanship were all eye-catching features.
Today, most of these residences are considered low-income though the preservation & restoration of these unique features remain as rich as the day the brick & mortar was laid. Of course, this generalization does not include those buildings that were stripped & ravaged for their valuable materials.
It almost seemed surreal, looking down the crossroads and seeing only apartments lined up like dominos. No houses, no businesses – only strikingly diverse and beautiful structures. I imagined that buzz in this area would have radiated at its peak. Just think of the Prohibition parties! ;) The feeling today is a little different. While the streets were lined with cars and tenants peered through their windows, there was still a lingering sense of emptiness and uncertainty in this neighborhood.
Detroit Unity Temple
The Detroit Unity Temple was our first stop. This is a multi-purpose non-denominational community center for the people in the area. It took 5 years to build this structure. It is the art moderne style, which is apparent in its sleek, simplistic geometry, stone structure, and flat roof. Here is where I learned the difference between art deco and art moderne. From what I recall, art deco is a derivation of art moderne; it is the “decorative” pieces of the building versus the actual structure itself… that’s the art moderne piece. I think. Right? Any architecture enthusiasts out there to confirm?
The Palmer Lodge
The sheer size is overwhelming with this 57,00+ square foot Tudor-style monstrosity. This was the first apartment built in the area. The Palmer Lodge’s rich ornamentation & vibrant tiles also reflect a hint of the Spanish Colonial style that the architects were known for. In fact, much of the Spanish Colonial style buildings in Detroit were designed by Chesnow & Wiedmaier. The Palmer Lodge is currently undergoing renovation, but is expected to be a brilliant dwelling complete with a basement coffee shop and storefronts in the future.
At first glance, the chipping facade is spooky and foreboding. This is a giant cast concrete block inside and out. Hughes considered this to be his masterpiece. It is one of his few authenticated buildings. On the rooftop was a penthouse with a garden and fountain. There also were three bronze statues (goldfish, lizard, frog) that have since disappeared. I fear that they may have been scrapped for money, but hope that isn’t the case. Maybe one day they’ll be recovered.
Awkward Detroit Street Corners
What I’ve always found intriguing about some of Detroit’s architecture is the random buildings on triangular street corners that stretch back into a shape that is completely “out of the box” (ha, get it? box?) for what’d I’d expect from a typical rectangular building. But our tour guide reminded us that the original Detroit city plan was modeled after Washington, D.C. which was modeled after Paris – you know, that sort of “sunburst” look you’d see if you were a Canadian goose flying overhead. But those fires that destroyed much of the city also destroyed that original layout, and only some remnants remain. Usually these remnants are in the form of awkward-shaped buildings & frustrating navigation experiences.
Okay – a lot of photos coming with this one, folks. As you can tell, I really liked this building.
The Luxor was such a happy surprise, mostly because all the details of the building – from the tiles to the stenciled beams to the floors – were original. The Luxor is of Moorish & Spanish style with Art Deco brickwork. One piece of Detroit I expected to see on this tour was any sort of ceramic from Pewabic. However, much of the tile (and all that you see in the Luxor) was by Flint Faience & Tile Co. – a company I never heard of until then. Their story is pretty cool. They actually created spark plugs as their primary source of business. However, because they needed to keep their kiln hot & running all the time, they decided to make ceramic tiles as well. And their tile business was very successful. Thank goodness too, because check out that Luxor!
Albert Kahn was the boss of Detroit architecture. He designed industrial buildings for Ford & GM, schemed the first airport hotel, envisioned the iconic Fisher building and Belle Isle Conservatory. So it’s no surprise that when Walter Briggs, owner of the Detroit Tigers, needed a luxury building for his players, Kahn was the man for the job. You see, the problem with much of the apartments in the area was that they didn’t allow children. The Detroit Tigers were looking for a place to live with their families. 1001 Covington became the only child-friendly apartment around. If you look at the picture above, notice the stone children above the entryway – little stone baby faces protruded all around the facade to symbolize that children were permitted in this dwelling. H-shaped, each wing was a unit and each unit had a soundproof nursery. This was to maximize the peacefulness of a residency with children (is there a such thing as peace in a home with children?). This is 1 of 4 authenticated apartment structures by Kahn.
Today they are condos. We were fortunate to receive a tour of a unit as one tenant graciously opened his home to us gawking strangers. Since the 20s, owners have decorated and renovated to their personal tastes. We were told that in one unit, there’s a secret door panel that leads to a bar that was used during prohibition. In another, there’s a secret safe where inhabitants stored money during the Depression.
Although I wanted to, I didn’t take any interior photos of this condo out of respect for its residents.
The Palmer Log Cabin
The tour concluded with a rare opportunity to view the Palmer Park Log Cabin. Yes. There is a log cabin. In Detroit.
The log cabin is only open to the public twice per year. It needs some serious TLC (that’s why I’m happy that my tour ticket proceeds will go toward restoration). If I’m honest, the cabin wreaked a lingering odor of stale urine. It was cold. Hollow. The beautiful stained glass windows were broken. I bet the Palmers are shaking their heads in disappointment. The disrespect that some people have for their homes and history is appalling. Thank the high heavens there are groups like PFPP that foil the miscreants. BUT the log cabin a work in progress. One day, it will be shining again thanks to the resilience and loyalty of PFPP.
This cabin was originally built by Thomas Palmer, a Michigan Senator who owned the land before he donated it as a park (hey! Palmer Park!) to the citizens of Detroit. This was the Palmer’s summer home. They were the social elite & according to the guide, they hosted some fun parties. The cabin overlooked a shimmering lake with swimming ducks & bowing willows. It truly is a tranquil corner of Detroit. I encountered this blog that has some nice photos of the interior when the Palmers live there (not like the two below).
And for those hours of the architecture tour, I forgot that I was in my own backyard. Surely I had just taken a tour of some old historic European town, no? Oh, I’m in Detroit? A place known for a fall of industry and urban decay? Then how did I just ride a Segway through this virgin forest?
Yeah, I didn’t know Detroit had a virgin forest either (virgin forest aka “old growth” forest = untouched by human influence since it was planted). Actually, one of the stipulations to Mr. Palmer handing over his park was that the forest would be preserved and continue to grow. Riding the segway was a bonus.
The Merrill Fountain
Just beyond the cabin is the marble Merrill Fountain. Merrill is the maiden name of Tom Palmer’s wife. She had commissioned this fountain that was constructed by the same architects of the New York Public Library. Fancy, huh? It stood in front of the Detroit Opera House where Campus Martius is today, but fear of damage from the widening roads led its relocation to Palmer Park. After a year at the park, the pipes froze and burst in the winter. The fountain hasn’t worked since. Today it is overgrown with weeds, vandalized with graffiti, and filled with litter & broken glass.
Would I live there, in Palmer Park? I want to say yes, because I believe in Detroit’s comeback and I know that people like me need to take the plunge, but geez, no, not quite there yet. The architecture is beautiful. The history is significant. But the surrounding area just a skip away made me sink down in my seat as I drove to and from the Park. Empty lots were strewn with litter. The roads were as bumpy as a pebbled path. There were way too many burned, boarded, decrepit and hollowed buildings for my comfort. But wait! I’m not trying to be negative. I’m just being honest. I know its cliché, but Palmer Park really is like a little underdeveloped oasis. With so much recent improvement, its only going to get better. It gets better from people who care and people who donate money. I encourage others to check out this park, investigate the PFPP’s initiatives, and see if you can stretch your time/money to make a difference.
The organization’s request was simple: spread the word. Talk about the Park, the recreational activities, the events, the affordable residential opportunities. Rouse excitement and share your knowledge. So here’s my small part of initiating conversation and informing the misinformed that Detroit isn’t ALL grit & murder.
I found this line in the guide book from the tour. It is piece of a song that was sang during the Palmer Park dedication ceremony: “’Twill be the gem of our fair town, a park to add to its renown and keep forever bright our crown, Tom Palmer’s Park.”
Three cheers to the People of Palmer Park for hosting an insightful tour and brightening the crown.