Like directors whose names get attached to great films at the expense of the rest of the crew, architects also get marquee billing for the buildings they design, overshadowing a talented cast of contributing craftspeople.
Certainly Wirt Rowland fashioned a masterpiece in Detroit’s tangerine-colored Art Deco Guardian Building, but that 1929 edifice wouldn’t be nearly as grand without the superlative work of Pewabic Pottery co-founder and ceramist Mary Chase Perry Stratton and sculptor Corrado Parducci.
Similarly, the sleek Art Moderne Horace H. Rackham Building in Detroit’s Cultural Center would look a bit naked without Marshall Fredericks’ arresting sculptures adorning it.
From light fixtures to elevator doors, from china to furniture, the objects that “complete” buildings are part and parcel of those structures, though their creators are sometimes neglected.
In that spirit of collaborative recognition, the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum in Saginaw is hosting Art in Architecture: The Collaborative Spirit of the Interwar Period in Detroit.
Melissa Ford, the exhibition’s curator and museum archivist, says the years between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II witnessed a great creative flowering in the building arts.
“In Detroit, in particular, a lot of it had to do with the financing that was available with the auto industry and patrons who were willing to pay for these buildings,” she says. “Also, the Arts and Crafts movement was very strong in Detroit during this period, so those people involved in it would get to know the architects and artists and form friendships and share ideas.”
The exhibit, made possible by a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, is divided into five sections: Skyscrapers, Civic, Religious, Residential, and Cranbrook.
That Cranbrook, the educational and cultural center in Bloomfield Hills founded by George Gough Booth and his wife, Ellen Scripps Booth, should warrant its own section is testament to its confluence of artistic virtuosity.
“The whole Saarinen family worked on Cranbrook, and we focus on that interaction, as well as the collaboration among other artists there, like John Kirchmayer and Arthur Nevill Kirk,” Ford says.
One name that keeps cropping up in the show is that of Corrado Parducci (1900-81), whose signature is scrawled all over metro Detroit. The Italian-born sculptor moved to Detroit in 1924, and his workload made his downtown studio a hive of activity.
“You can’t walk around the city without seeing something of his work,” Ford says. “I think the number is over 500 buildings. He also worked on Meadow Brook Hall and the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, which are featured in the exhibition. We even have some of his tools and plaster models from his studio on exhibit.”
After World War II, public buildings and residences became less ornamental. The influence of the International, or modernist, architectural style spelled an end to Beaux Arts flourishes.
“Once the International style became prevalent, it was more about the form of the building, with stark facades, lots of windows, and little decoration,” Ford says.
But, she says, museum visitors can rejoice that all but one of the buildings in the exhibit are still a part of the local landscape.
“It’s remarkable, because so many things tend to get torn down today,” she says. “Except for Rose Terrace [Anna Thomson Dodge’s sumptuous residence in Grosse Pointe Farms, razed in 1976], all of the buildings are still standing.”