The Way It Was – Spirit of Detroit, 1976

Spirit of Detroit, 1976

1976 Anyone claiming to be a Detroiter has seen and admired Marshall M. Fredericks’ 1958 bronze, gilt, and marble sculpture The Spirit of Detroit in front of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building, (formerly the City-County Building), but not likely in this fish-eye view shot by Tony Spina, the vaunted Detroit Free Press photographer. Also, probably not many know that Fredericks (1908-98) never affixed that title to his work; in fact, it had no name when it was unveiled. But Detroiters soon started calling it The Spirit of Detroit, likely influenced by the inscription on the curved wall behind it that Fredericks chose from 2 Corinthians: “Now the Lord is that Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” The sculpture, measuring 26 feet across and 16 feet high, features a male figure holding in his left hand an orb with jutting rays, symbolizing God, and a group of people, representing the family, in his right hand. The wall also contains the city and county seals in relief. As the bronze oxidized, it developed a green patina, inspiring some to playfully refer to the work as “The Jolly Green Giant.” The figure is emblematic of the city’s spirit, but it also represents team spirit. When one of Detroit’s pro teams is in the playoffs, the Spirit dons a giant jersey of the hometown team. Fredericks was an Illinois native, but he lived and worked in metro Detroit for most of his life, keeping studios in Royal Oak and Bloomfield Hills. From 1932-42, he taught at Cranbrook Academy of Art. The man who hired him, Carl Milles, had also been his teacher while the young Fredericks was on a fellowship in Sweden. In addition to Michigan, Fredericks’ sculptures stand in several other states, as well as in Japan, Finland, England, Denmark, and Norway. The Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum, on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University, is a lasting tribute to the man and his art.