Down by the River, Detroit

Let’s walk from the Campus Martius, named after the famous field in ancient Rome where soldiers trained (it later filled up with temples such as the Pantheon), and part of the original Woodward plan of Detroit and walk down the street of the same name towards the Detroit River.

It’s here that I spot some of “old Detroit,” in which I mean Nineteenth-Century Detroit before its explosion as an automobile powerhouse.

We also see a perfect example of Post-Modernist architecture with the Ally Detroit Center, designed by Philip Johnson (who also designed the General Life Building in St. Louis), and John Burgee, and it opened in 1993. It is the tallest office building in Detroit, beating out the Penobscot Building.

Next is the new City Hall.

Perhaps the most famous element of the civic plaza is this monumentally large cast bronze sculpture, the Spirit of Detroit, the work of Marshall Fredericks and unveiled in 1958.

Supposedly it is the largest cast bronze sculpture since the Renaissance, but no reference is made to what that large predecessor is (and I spent years of my life studying the Renaissance and I’m curious to what sculpture they’re talking about), nor did they consider all the huge bronze Buddha sculptures being cast in East Asia in the last five hundred years. Well, anyway, sorry to be a Debbie Downer…

Honestly, when I first saw this sculpture years ago, I thought it was by Paul Manship, based on the similarity of the composition to Prometheus at Rockefeller Center. It clearly is indebted to it, nevertheless.

The seals of Detroit and Wayne County grace the wall behind. The Latin phrase can be roughly translated as “We hope for better; it will rise from the ashes.” It is a reference to the Great Fire of Detroit in 1805, after which Woodward designed the current street grid of downtown.

The People Mover cruises by up above; it is unique in that it is a mass transit system that travels in only one direction.

At this point, we make it down to the riverfront park, which as you can see from this historical photograph below taken from Windsor, Canada, was made by the wholesale annihilation of the warehouses and other buildings between the water and downtown’s skyscrapers.

Detroit Skyline. Canada Ontario Detroit River Detroit Windsor Michigan, ca. 1929. Photograph. Library of Congress.

Wow, where have we heard of that before? One thing that drives me crazy about the study and exposition of St. Louis history is what I refer to as “St. Louis Pseudo-Exceptionalism,” which is the undereducated and ignorant belief that certain events or trends only happened in the Gateway City. With all due respect, a lot of people need to get out more! While St. Louis was certainly at the forefront of many important historic events, in reality, it was also simply swept along by other historic trends that also occurred in other American–and world–cities.

Detroit Publishing Co., Publisher. Detroit. United States Detroit River Michigan, None. [Between 1910 and 1930] Photograph. Library of Congress.

St. Louis was not the only city in America to demolish its historic riverfront; as can be clearly seen in the above before and below after photographs, it is obvious Detroit did the same thing! And so did Cincinnati! And Peoria! And those are just a couple I can think of off the top of my head. Go to Google Maps and start looking at the river–or ocean–fronts of American cities and see how it was done all over the place!

Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Aerial view of a portion of Detroit, Michigan, with a focus on downtown buildings along the Detroit River. United States Michigan Detroit, 2020. -02-22. Photograph. Library of Congress.

There’s even an antebellum church that survived the building massacre, just like in St. Louis. This is the Mariners’ Church of Gordon Lightfoot fame, but unlike our own Old Cathedral, it was actually moved from its original location on Woodward Avenue to its current location. It was built in 1849 and moved in 1954. There was talk in St. Louis at one point of moving the Old Cathedral in the same way, by the way.

It’s a cool old church, influenced by the King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England.

To the northeast of the park and church is the Renaissance Center, which has nothing to do with the historical period known as the Renaissance and did not spur a Renaissance in the city of Detroit as intended. I remember way back in grade school in social studies class this building was featured along with the mayor at the time and gushing with optimism in my textbook.

It does have many superlatives: tallest structure Detroit, one of the tallest hotels in the world, and is the headquarters of General Motors after they moved out of their old place. Designed by John Portman, he of soaring atrium fame, it is not my favorite work by his hand. I walked in, used the restroom and continued on my way. The tunnel to Windsor is nearby, making being a pedestrian hazardous.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Beverly Snider says:

    As someone who returned to Detroit and experience the opportunity to see Henry Fords original little start up that was near Wayne State campus. Everything did not start in the huge factory building in Highland Park. Also first home was 140 Edison a few blocks from my birth home on Boston. His 2 Grosse Point homes were in construction by then.

  2. Emily J says:

    Interesting to read your reflection on cities tearing down and rebuilding their downtown riverfronts. I recently visited Newburgh, IN – a river towm on the Ohio that the railroad passed by. Its historic 1860-1890s riverfront is largely intact. Meanwhile that of Evansville, the next town over that got the railroad, was torn down and rebuilt….

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