Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Detroit Institute of Arts

When you have a building packed with gorgeous masterpieces, you’ve got to make sure the building itself is a work of art.

The city’s art museum had previously been housed downtown at the castle like Museum of Art. With growing fortunes and a growing collection, Detroit needed something bigger and better.

The Detroit Institute of Arts was seven years in the making. The plan of architect Paul Philippe Cret, an architecture professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was more or less firmly in place by February 1922, and ground was broken June 22, 1922, with Ralph Booth turned the first spade full of dirt. The cornerstone was laid April 29, 1924.

“Our city has achieved first place in industry and an enviable place in wealth,” Booth said during the cornerstone ceremony. “We are here today to crown these accomplishments by laying the cornerstone of this building which shall testify that our true ambition is not mechanical production only. This but supplies the opportunity with which we shall gather around us the finer things to which we aspire, and give tangible evidence to the world that Detroit is a city of enlightenment and progress. Where we claim the best that civilization offers in order that our lives may be fuller, and richer, and contribute to the true betterment of future generations.”

The plan was to have the building occupied by early 1925, however, the dedication did not happen until Oct. 7, 1927. As the inscription above the entrance notes, this building was “dedicated by the people of Detroit to the knowledge and enjoyment of art.”

The DIA isn’t just full of sculptures and paintings; it’s also home to a French Gothic chapel from a 16th Century chateau that was carted over from Paris in 1924 by Ralph H. Booth, president of the city arts commission.

On April 21, 1932, acclaimed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and painter Frida Kahlo arrived in Detroit in order to get to work turning the stately-but-bland Court into something special. The Edsel B. Ford Fund of the DIA’s Founders Society set aside several thousand dollars for Rivera's frescoes.

The "Detroit Industry" murals depict various scenes of Detroit manufacturing, specifically, the auto industry. When the 27 panels of frescoes opened to the public in March 1933, the pearl-clutchers were nto happy. The Detroit News even ran a front page editorial calling the work of art “psychologically erroneous, coarse in conception, and to many women observers, foolishly vulgar.”

Edsel Ford, chairman of the Detroit Arts Commission at the time the frescoes were painted, said, “I am thoroughly convinced that the day will come when Detroit will be proud to have this work in its midst. In the years to come, they will be ranked among the truly great art treasures of America.”

He was right. The murals were designated a National Historic Landmark in 2014 and are visited by more than half a million people a year.

“The new art institute, which is built for now and for the future, cannot in the beginning escape an air of emptiness,” the Detroit Free Press wrote on the day of its opening. “It must wait on the years and a growing concrete interest in what it stands for, to fill its spaciousness more completely.”

And those words came true. In fact, the DIA not only filled that emptiness, it grew beyond that.

In 1966, a new southern wing was tacked onto the original building, and a new northern addition was built in 1971. Both additions, modern in design, were designed by architect Gunnar Birkerts. In 2001, the DIA underwent a major renovation and expansion, which saw another 35,000 square feet added. Today, the DIA encompasses 658,000 square feet.

More on this building coming soon.