A Historic Preservation Battle Fought & Lost: The R. Thornton Brodhead Armory

I purchased a book about historic buildings in Michigan a few months back and while looking through it I found a pamphlet from a tour of the Brodhead Armory from the late 1990s. I have explored the armory a number of times, so here is a combination of photos I have taken and information that I have learned from the pamphlet. 

 
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In the late 1920s Lieutenant Commander R. Thornton Brodhead, the head of the Michigan State Naval brigade, led a drive to establish a new naval armory. The state of Michigan appropriated $250,000 for construction, and the City of Detroit provided the land and additional funds.

On October 6, 1930 the Detroit Naval Armory was dedicated. The structure, standing on the Detroit River just east of the Belle Isle Bridge, was designed by the Detroit-based architectural firm Stratton & Hyde, featuring an Indiana limestone-faced exterior and ceramic tile crests made of Pewabic Pottery. William Stratton was a veteran of the Michigan Naval Militia’s USS Yosemite Crew during the Spanish-American War. 

Upkeep of the building was limited to primarily state funding, and as the armory opened during the Great Depression the Navy was forced to take advantage of the space they had to make money, hosting sporting events, rallies, and auto shows. Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke at the armory during his first campaign for the presidency and Joe Louis fought in the main area of the building in 1932. 

During the Great Depression the Federal Government paid a number of different artists to create works inside the building. These works gave the building the most extensive Works Progress Administration art collection of any other building in the state of Michigan. David Fredenthal began painting murals in the wardroom and officer’s bar of occupational and leisurely activities of sailors in 1936. Edgar Yaegar completed murals on the mess deck in 1937, portraying vessels that served Detroit’s Naval Reservists. John Tubaczuk carved extensive wood pieces all throughout the building, but most notably carvings of marine fantasies on the bannisters, and room-specific carvings on wooden-doors and insets. Gustave Hildebrand carved a number of unique plaster pieces on the first floor of the building, depicting occupational themes in scenes of sailors swabbing, plotting courses, and “holystoning” their decks smooth.

The anchor from the Yanic, a ship built in 1863 and used by the Navy until 1929, is centered in the front yard of the building. Brass portholes from the USS Dubuque, the first of two ships to hold said name, were installed in a steel bulkhead at the base of the stairwell leading to the wardroom.

 
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During World War II the building became a training center for electrical and diesel engineers, housing and training over 1000 sailors that would ship off to Europe, Africa, and Japan. Captain Brodhead died in the late 1940s and the State of Michigan honored him by renaming the Detroit Naval Armory in his honor. It has been named the R. Thornton Brodhead Armory since. The Navy used the building until sometime before 1989, when it was leased to the Marine Corps. At the time this pamphlet was printed, which is hand dated 1998, the armory was home to the headquarters element of the 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment (1/24) and their medical support unit, Naval Reserve 5th Marine Division (1/24). It also served as the Marine Corps Mobilization Station, where unassigned reservists mobilize in times of war or national emergency. The armory was also home to P.A.L.’s Youth Basketball League, high school graduations, and special sports activities, often free of charge. It appears to have been left abandoned sometime around 2004, ownership being transferred to the City of Detroit some time thereafter. Support beams were stolen by scrappers, caving in the roof sometime around 2014. Most of the ornate woodwork has been stolen by thieves, but some of the murals still sit somewhat intact.

The pamphlet I found was produced by the Brodhead Armory Preservation Society, a group that was established in 1998, "for the purpose of coordinating efforts to rehabilitate and maintain the armory as a historic structure and to raise funds for that purpose.” The group, based out of Royal Oak, realized that the Marines would do all they could to maintain the armory, but also knew it would take a lot of money to restore and conserve the artistic treasures the building housed. It appears they were running tours of the building to gain public awareness of the beauty it held with the Marine Corps’ permission, accepting donations to help upkeep the more ornate portions of the building. Although it appears the men and women of the Brodhead Armory Preservation Society were fighting the good fight, as you can see by the photos shown here they were unable to stave off the destruction due to scrapping, neglect, and the weather. This should be a reminder that although we have lost so much here in Detroit, we cannot let such events put a damper on our attitude towards historical preservation, as there are still a lot of battles to be fought.

 
Photo from the  Detroit Historical Society  of the armory in the 1930s. Students from Cass Tech, Crosman, Smith, and West Commerce High Schools present for an event.

Photo from the Detroit Historical Society of the armory in the 1930s. Students from Cass Tech, Crosman, Smith, and West Commerce High Schools present for an event.

 

Knowing how to get involved with historic preservation can be a little daunting at first, but in Detroit we have a number of ways to make it a little easier. A great way to make a difference is to consider donating your time or funds to an organization like Preservation Detroit. A great way to keep updated on current events is to follow HistoricDetroit.org on Facebook, and also check their website periodically. Crain's Detroit and the Motor City Muckraker are also good sources of information as well.

For more on the Brodhead Armory, check out this article from Detroit Urbex. It shows a number of before & after photographs of the wooden carvings and murals.

Written by Eric Hergenreder. Photos taken by Eric Hergenreder in December of 2015.

Grande Ballroom Strikes A Case For NRHP, Redevelopment

By Eric Hergenreder - 

 
The Grande Ballroom shortly after it opened. Photo from the Burton Historical Archives.

The Grande Ballroom shortly after it opened. Photo from the Burton Historical Archives.

 

The Grande Ballroom on Grand River and Beverly may enter the National Register of Historic Places by the end of the year. The Friends of the Grande are making a push to have the historic concert venue added to the NRHP to ensure the building’s safety and to help enable renovation. The current owners, Chapel Hill Missionary Baptist Church, have given permission to the group to pursue the nomination to be added to the list. The Grande’s sister, the Vanity Ballroom on Jefferson and Newport was added to the NRHP in 1982.

Photo by DetrotUrbex.com via HistoricDetroit.org

Photo by DetrotUrbex.com via HistoricDetroit.org

The Friends of the Grande recently met for the first time in over ten years to discuss the nomination to the NRHP which will be reviewed by committee in September. The group also talked potential business ideas and pre-development projects to stop the deterioration of the structure. Leo Early has spent over 12 years researching and collecting stories from the Grande, culminating with the publishing of his book, The Grand Ballroom: Detroit’s Rock ’N’ Roll Palace. In the book, Early tries to shed light on the building's almost 90 year history and empower hope for the future of the building he loves so dearly. This past week I was able to catch up with Leo to talk about the building and the recent meeting of the Friends of the Grande. He was most excited about the fact that after an 8+ year battle, the building owners are allowing a submission to the NRHP. He was also excited to have a number of members of the church that owns the Grande at the meeting, including the Reverend Dr. R Lamont Smith II. They also spoke about a number of different stabilization ideas and fundraising projects that would help stave off demolition, but these are all dependent on the structural integrity report. A bad report would make addition to the NRHP and saving the building quite difficult. Early is very enthusiastic about the Grande Ballroom and without patrons like him it’s likely we would have lost a number of other historic Detroit buildings. There is another meeting planned for Thursday, July 7th at the Tech Shop in Allen Park. Find more information here, and you can purchase Early’s book here.

Photo by DetrotUrbex.com via HistoricDetroit.org

Photo by DetrotUrbex.com via HistoricDetroit.org

The Grande Ballroom, as Historic Detroit describes it, was ‘a rock ’n’ roll mecca.’ The building opened its doors in 1928 as a place for young Detroiters to listen to music and dance. The Grande began to struggle in the 60s due to a lack of a liquor license and a deteriorating neighborhood. In 1966, Russ Gibb began renting the property and promoting rock shows. Detroiters and suburban youth alike began frequenting the Grande to see acts like the MC5 and The Stooges. It wasn’t unusual to find tabs of acid, kids smoking weed, and Iggy Pop bleeding on the Grande's stage. Not only did local legends rock the Grande, big name acts like Led Zeppelin, the Yardbirds, Cream, Pink Floyd, Chuck Berry, and the Velvet Underground climbed onto the stage of the historic venue. Eventually, the music stopped echoing out of the Moorish Deco walls of the ballroom, hosting its last show in 1972. The building has been seldom used since, and it has been owned by Chapel Hill Missionary Baptist Church since 2006. 

The basis for joining the NRHP is somewhat simple. The National Park Service wants to protect and inform the public about important places that have changed our history in some shape or form. There are 261 sites in Detroit that already boast this certification and 10 National Historic Landmarks, which is a higher distinction. While the fate of the Grande Ballroom is unknown, it’s pretty hard to deny that the building is something special that deserves to be remembered.  

Photographer Falls Through Abandoned Downtown Roof, Second Occurrence In One Year

By Eric Hergenreder - 

A photographer ended up in the hospital Thursday night after falling through a skylight in an abandoned building downtown. It is currently unclear what exact injuries the man suffered, but it appeared he had broken his leg, ankle, and a couple ribs. The man fell through the abandoned Harvard Square building on Broadway Avenue in downtown Detroit. This is the second occurrence that we know of within the past year, including an explorer who fell through a stairwell at the United Artist Theater last August, shattering his heel among other injuries.

Photo of Harvard Square Center by Eric Hergenreder

Photo of Harvard Square Center by Eric Hergenreder

Although the number of abandoned properties downtown has been decreasing over the past few years, there are still a good number of neglected properties within walking distance of the attractions bringing people to the city. Even with more security and police presence downtown, these photographers, explorers, and vandals continue to find their way into these buildings. Most of the neglected buildings that remain downtown have been sitting for decades, which enables the decay of these structures. After such negligence, entering these buildings is an extreme risk. Even with that being said, and all the work that has been done downtown in recent years, urban explorers are still able to find their way into buildings amidst the new hustle and bustle downtown. 

Harvard Square Center was built in the 1925 and originally housed offices and retail space. The building exchanged hands a couple times before becoming abandoned in 1998, although the street-level retail space is still operational.

The United Artists Theater opened in 1928 and was one of the most beautiful movie palaces in the city. The theater and connected office tower closed in 1975, although it was used for various things such as a recording studio for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and storage. Bricks have been falling off of the facade since the 1980’s, and not much has changed since the graffiti was buffed before the 2006 Super Bowl and the marquee was removed after falling apart onto the sidewalk in 2005. It was recently announced that the building was part of a renovation plan by Ilitch’s Olympia Entertainment, but many are weary of the behemoth of a project actually being completed. Renovation plans are set to start in 2018.

Photo of the United Artists Theater by Eric Hergenreder

Photo of the United Artists Theater by Eric Hergenreder

Both of these properties were featured on our list, Buildings in Detroit That Need to Be Saved in 2017.

Even with less and less abandoned properties downtown, it appears until they are all renovated or demolished we will continue to see accidents like this. 

A Conversation About Detroit’s Graffiti

Lately I’ve been thinking about all the buffing that’s going on around the city of Detroit. Mayor Mike Duggan is taking a very hard stance on graffiti in the city, leading to the arrest of a number of artists and the buffing of hundreds of buildings. Whereas I do think that this is a good thing, I can’t help but question Duggan’s strategy to tackle the issue. The city has been putting pressure on building owners to clean up the appearance of hundreds of buildings, which means buffing the exterior of the building. Upon first hearing this would be happening, I was happy. It’s hard to take pride in your city when there are buildings in shambles on every block outside of downtown. 

Fisher Body 21 after buffing in October of 2016. Photo by  Tom Poeschel

Fisher Body 21 after buffing in October of 2016. Photo by Tom Poeschel

After further investigation, I really don’t understand how this is really helping the city. Yes, Duggan’s iron fist is forcing building owners to clean up their buildings and he has ordered the clean-up of numerous city owned properties, but these buildings are still wide open to the elements—and graffiti artists. Fisher Body 21 in Midtown was recently buffed clean, but when you head over there, you can still walk right in. New graffiti has already been sprayed on the decaying walls of the old General Motors facility. Please tell me how that’s a good use of government funds? I understand that city leaders are trying to beautify the city, and many see graffiti to be an eye sore, but how is this any better? By buffing these structures and then leaving them wide open to the elements and vandals, the city is literally just throwing money away. The city needs to either clean these buildings up *and* secure them, or just leave them be until funds are available to do both. I understand the hard-nose attitude the city is trying to take with property owners, but sealing these buildings up is just as important as cleansing them of graffiti.

As someone who often finds himself inside these abandoned buildings, I also have another opinion to offer. Since when is a crumbling shell of a building covered with one (typically ugly) color paint prettier than a structure covered with art by local creatives? I mean, I’m not saying that ELMER and GASM are Michelangelo prodigies, but art is art, right? I understand that Detroit is trying to distance itself from its rugged and grimy past, but I truly believe that this very past is what makes Detroit the creative hub that it currently is. People love the murals in the Eastern Market District and other commissioned works around the city, but what many people don’t realize is that most of these artists started by spraying on abandoned buildings. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I find the tags on abandoned structures like Fisher Body, the Grand Trunk Warehouse, and other buildings around the city to be far prettier than a bare, naked, abandoned structures in shambles.

Photo of the United Artist Theater before cleanup, used with permission from  Nailhed.com

Photo of the United Artist Theater before cleanup, used with permission from Nailhed.com

The city has a history of removing graffiti from abandoned buildings when beatification attempts are being made. Before the Super Bowl came to town a decade ago then mayor Kwame Kilpatrick took a hard stance on abandoned structures, namely in downtown districts. One building that comes to mind is the United Artist Theater, which still sits abandoned today. The windows of the building were covered with pieces inspired by Mayan hieroglyphics in gold, reds, and blues. This really made the building look like quite interesting, and not like the abandoned movie palace that has been sitting empty at the hands of the Ilitch’s since 1995. The graffiti was removed before the 2006 Super Bowl to try and make downtown look nicer, but I can’t help but make the argument that the building was far more interesting, and beautiful, before they removed the artwork and left it bare and decaying. It’s far easier to point out the flaws of a building when there isn’t any paint slapped on it to take your eyes off the bricks falling from above. The Lafayette building had similar art on its windows before it saw the wrecking ball in 2009.

Photo of a recent  REMY  piece

Photo of a recent REMY piece

A friend of mine is the tagger known as ‘REMY.’ He has been exploring, and painting in, abandoned structures for a number of years in the city. He explained some of the things he has seen change since he started painting in pre-bankruptcy Detroit. “Four or five years ago the city of Detroit was a free for all, graffiti wise…lots of the city was abandoned and the police had bigger problems than artists,” REMY explained. He went on to tell me about how he and his friends used to paint street side walls in broad daylight at little to no risk at all, maybe a ticket if it was a slow day for police. He then explained how as the money began flowing into the city, stricter regulations went into effect. These laws were always technically in place, but for a long time city officials were more concerned with the bigger issues facing Detroit. As the beautification of Detroit came onto the radar of Detroit officials, the police came onto the radar of Detroit’s graffiti artists. REMY also believes that these new Detroiters “aren't able to look past the fact that it's a crime and enjoy the graffiti as an element of beautification, like the native Detroiters once did.” REMY describes this change as the end of an era, and that a lot of artists have changed up their style because of this. Having known him for almost a year now, REMY is also a skateboarder, explorer, and pretty talented photographer. As he told me, “It's kinda like either push the envelope, or get left behind.” REMY still paints and just got a new GoPro to highlight his adventures in Detroit. His tagging Instagram is @remy1r, you can see some of his work there.

Grand Trunk Cold Storage / Warehouse after buffing in October of 2016. Photo by   Tom Poeschel

Grand Trunk Cold Storage / Warehouse after buffing in October of 2016. Photo by Tom Poeschel

One thing that is very clear, the state of the Detroit graffiti scene is changing fast. I may not agree with the methods Mayor Duggan is currently utilizing to beautify Detroit, but I do think that some of what he’s doing is good for the city. It will be easier to take pride in a Detroit that lacks blight, but with the sheer amount of blight the city has, dreams of a blight free Motor City are a long way off. I also wish that the city spent money securing the buildings that are still salvageable rather than cleaning up all of them but leaving them open to the elements. I also don’t see the harm of artists putting their mark on buildings that are already dilapidated, especially if the city has neglected them enough to allow them to reach that point. I guess my question is, what roll will graffiti and street artists have in the Detroit of the future? I, for one, hope it’s one of some significance.


You can read more about the stance Mayor Mike Duggan and the City of Detroit have taken on graffiti at the link below.

http://www.detroitmi.gov/graffiti


As always, finishing with a link. Grimy subject above, grimy song down here. Been really into $UICIDEBOY$ lately for their dingy feel and hard hitting delivery. The duo hail from New Orleans and make some pretty dope music, check it out.