Book Review: ‘Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit,’ by Dan Austin

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In 1886, a breathless headline in the Detroit Free Press screamed, “It Is Raised!” a reference to the money necessary for erecting the Detroit Museum of Art (the forerunner to the Detroit Institute of Arts). The Romanesque beauty on East Jefferson opened in 1888, but in 1960 an equally dramatic headline with a homophonous twist could have read, “It Is Razed!”

Like so many of Detroit’s architectural wonders, it came crashing down to make way for “progress,” in this case, Interstate 375.

As writer Dan Austin chronicles in his engaging if often sad Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit (The History Press, $22.99), the museum was a victim of Detroit’s exponential growth. The much larger DIA opened on Woodward in 1927, and the old edifice was left behind.

However, the former museum, unlike most of the other structures Austin includes, was inhabited by new tenants, including the Public Welfare Department. Other buildings weren’t so lucky.

Long before “repurposed” entered the architectural lexicon, Detroit Mayor Albert Cobo seemed to be a visionary regarding Old City Hall, which stood on Campus Martius since 1871. Although Detroit’s government offices moved to the new City-County Building (now the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center) in 1955, Cobo proposed using the former quarters as a welcome center and a repository for city archives — a sound idea. But when Cobo unexpectedly died, his successor, Louis C. Miriani, wanted no part in preserving Old City Hall, which was demolished in 1961.

The grand old Federal Building, which stood at Shelby and Fort, was razed because the quickly expanding city outgrew it. It lasted a mere 34 years before it was bulldozed in 1931. But the demolition of other structures seemed based on the fact that they were simply old, so down came the structurally sound Hammond (Detroit’s first skyscraper) and Majestic buildings.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is not about a building at all, but an opulent excursion steamship called the City of Detroit III, which plied the Great Lakes. Once adorned with gorgeous Beaux Arts and Gothic details, it met an undignified end when, after being stripped of its plaster and wood, it was burned in 1956 to more easily obtain its scrap metal.

Austin, a Free Press journalist who also helms historicdetroit.org, covers a lot of territory in this photo-rich collection of vanished icons, but it would have even broader appeal if he had included one of the old downtown department stores, say Kern’s, Crowley-Milner, or Newcomb-Endicott.

But what he has assembled is absorbing, and, without getting preachy, the author suggests that erasing history is not without deep and lasting consequences.

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