The building known as “Detroit’s largest art object" has been dropping jaws in New Center for more than 90 years.
The Fisher -- built by the Fisher brothers of “Body by Fisher" fame -- opened in September 1928, at Second Avenue and Grand Boulevard. Once known as the Cathedral to Commerce, the 441-foot tower is decked to the nines in fancy marbles, mosaics, soaring, painted ceilings and a whole lot of brass and bronze. This world of shops, theater, art and architectural beauty is renowned architect Albert Kahn's masterpiece, “a superbly designed complex which displays some of the finest craftsmanship in any Art Deco style building constructed in the U.S. in the 1920s," the National Park Service says.
Unquestionably, the golden tower of the Fisher Building is one of the most recognizable sights in Detroit’s skyline.
A beauty is born
Like so much of Detroit’s history, the Fisher Building is tied to the automobile industry. The Fisher brothers -– Frederick J., Charles T., William A., Lawrence P., Edward F., Alfred J. and Howard A. -– made a fortune making auto bodies for Detroit’s booming car industry. From the days in their boyhood home in Norwalk, Ohio, the brothers learned from their parents -– carriage maker Lawrence Sr. and Margaret -– to work and play together, a mentality of one for all and all for one. Their bond was strong. They arrived in Detroit in 1908 and formed the Fisher Body Co. Their timing was impeccable: Their business was founded just three months before the birth of General Motors Corp.
They were responsible for creating the closed body chassis for Cadillac in 1910. This development not only transformed the automobile from a pleasure vehicle into the indispensable, world-changing, all-weather, year-round form of transportation it is today, it also transformed the brothers into filthy rich businessmen. They had started the business with $50,000 (about $1.2 million today), and GM bought them out just 18 years later, in 1926, for $208 million (a staggering $2.5 billion today). The brothers also introduced the first four-door sedan bodies. They sold 60% interest in their company to GM -- giving Fisher exclusive supplier status -– in 1919, and the rest of the 40% in 1925, for a reputed $208 million. They made large investments in oil, railroad and aviation equipment, banking and real estate.
But unlike many Detroit millionaires of today, the Fisher brothers often used their wealth to better the city and its people. They gave millions to countless charities, civic causes, churches, educational institutions, and to making Detroit one of the finest cities in the world.
To that end, the Fishers commissioned Kahn in 1927 and essentially told him to go wild. Simply put, the Detroit News wrote in 2001, the brothers told the architect to build them “the most beautiful building in the world" and that quality would not be sacrificed in order to save money. It was an architect’s dream project.
The brothers wanted more than just an office tower to serve as the company’s headquarters, they wanted the building to also serve as a center for shopping and entertainment. The brothers did not plan on profiting from the building, rather they viewed it as a gift to Detroit. A Free Press headline in January 1927 referred to it as the brothers’ "huge testimonial to their faith in Detroit."
Or, as the Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record simply put it in October 1928, the Fisher is a building “into the making of which money has been literally flung with a generous hand, not merely for the sake of spending it, but to gratify the desire of the owners to give such an example of architectural and cultural elegance as will constitute an outstanding claim to its permanent inclusion in the list of the most important structures of the country."
Twenty years earlier, the Fishers were neither wealthy nor famous. Now, they were loaded, known around the world and would have a beautiful, soaring skyscraper to prove it.
Rising up uptown
At the time, real estate in downtown Detroit was expensive -- especially when you needed as much land for a building the size of the Fisher. And even if money were no object, just finding enough land for such a project was no easy feat. Because of this, a second downtown – New Center, as it would come to be known -- had started sprouting about 1915 in an area 3 miles north of Campus Martius. The first major building in New Center was the Kahn-designed General Motors Building, and it served as the automaker’s headquarters. The building, today known as Cadillac Place, had already introduced a considerable amount of business activity to the area. The Fisher brothers became the first tenant in the General Motors Building when it was completed in 1920.
The brothers had tried to buy a downtown block on Woodward Avenue, but couldn’t secure the rights to enough parcels for the project, so they decided to build their monument in New Center. For the first time, Fisher Body's board of directors, staff, advisers and offices would be all under one roof.
Fred Fisher, being the oldest of the brothers, announced on Jan. 15, 1927, that they had bought 32 parcels of land on the block bounded by West Grand Boulevard, Lothrop Road and Second and Third avenues -– 332,000 square feet. More than $30 million ($373 million today, when adjusted for inflation) was to be spent to erect a sprawling three-tower complex that would “serve as an expressive testimonial of the Fishers’ activity in Detroit," the Detroit Free Press reported at the time. While only one of the three spires would be built -– more on that later on -– the Fisher brothers still spent $9 million ($116.5 million today) on the present day Fisher alone, excluding the cost of the theater. Of that, it has been said that 25% -- about $29 million today -- went to art and decoration of the building.
“Detroit was startled some years ago when General Motors decided to erect its mammoth office building on Grand boulevard," Fred Fisher told the Free Press at the time. “This structure, which has attracted the attention of the entire world, is now past history, but it has seen this section develop into an important one commercially."
Other reasons cited for building so far north of downtown included escaping the hassle of traffic congestion, and the fact that “this section is, as a matter of fact, from a geographical standpoint and elapsed time in traveling point, the very heart of Detroit," Fred Fisher said. That is, the Fisher is located about smack-dab in the middle of town, so it’s about the same distance from almost anywhere in the city.
The entity behind the plan was the New Center Development Corp., a subsidiary of Fisher & Co. Inc., which was in turn owned and controlled by the Fisher brothers.
Fred Fisher -- because he was the oldest brother -- turned the first shovel of dirt at the Aug. 23, 1927, groundbreaking ceremony, which was also attended by Gov. Fred W. Green and Mayor John W. Smith. That event was the beginning of what would be an enormous undertaking. The recipe called for more than 12,000 tons of steel; 350,000 cubic yards of concrete and marble; 1,800 bronze windows; 641 bronze elevator doors (inside and outside of the cars); 420 tons of bronze finishings; 46,000 square feet of concrete forms, 41,000 barrels of cement, 100,000 yards of sand and gravel and 1,275 miles of electrical and telephone wire and cable. With more than 325,000 square feet of exterior marble, the Fisher is the largest marble-clad commercial building in the world.
Still, construction took only 15 months, and by December 1928, the Fisher was 60 percent occupied -- an astonishing feat considering the level of craftsmanship and the sheer size of the place: The Fisher’s 441-foot tower is a flanked by two 11-story, flat-roofed wings and weighs in with 1.134 million square feet of floor area. Of that, however, only 463,000 square feet are usable for offices, with the arcade and 14-foot and 18-foot corridors eating up much of the square footage. The Fisher was also a symbol of Michigan's might: It was designed by a Detroiter and built by Michigan contractors and workers.
The Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record wrote in October 1928 that "from many angles of consideration, the new Fisher Building is the most distinctive piece of modern construction in Detroit and Michigan. As a matter of fact, it is at present time the most thoroughly discussed building among architects and builders in the United States. It has already begun to achieve national distinction."
Kahn may be honored today as a visionary, but he was far from a radical of his time. In his seminal book “The Buildings of Detroit," W. Hawkins Ferry writes that Kahn “viewed with alarm much that went under the name of modern architecture" and “was determined to proceed with caution in the design" of the Fisher. “He recognized that the modern skyscraper deserved an exterior treatment expressive of its structure, but he was wary of any indulgence in the strange or the bizarre, both of which he felt were too often mistaken for originality."
Kahn wrote in a periodical during the time that “there is a certain appeal to many in what is strange and what seems new to them. In architecture, to be worthy of a title there must ever be dignity and good taste, neither acrobatics nor wild orgies. The architect’s responsibility is indeed great and should prove a deterrent in erecting structures which at best are but an experiment, often proving a failure. We architects may build in our own back yard anything as ugly and curious as we please, but we have no right to do this for clients who rely on us to create that which will withstand the test of time."
Few can dispute that the Fisher Building would do just that.
Big and beautiful
The late 1920s were a time of unprecedented growth in Detroit, especially when it came to skyscrapers. From the Penobscot Building to the Fox Theatre, 1928 saw landmark after landmark rise in the Motor City.
"The gold-capped tower has taken its proper place in Detroit's ever-changing skyline," the Detroit News wrote of the Fisher in October 1928, when the finishing touches were being put on the building. "This will be the most beautiful building of its kind ever created. ... It is an outstanding example of the new American school of architecture, which has arisen to typify the spirit of modern progress. No expense, Mr. Kahn said, has been spared to make the Fisher building the very epitome of things beautiful."
To achieve this feat, the Fisher was built -- with only slight exceptions -- entirely out of granite and marble, including on the exterior. More than 40 kinds of marble from all over the world were used. From the base of the building to 50 feet up -- the first three floors -- the exterior is finished in polished Minnesota pink marble and Oriental granite. Above that is Beaver Dam marvilla marble (named such because it was harvested from the Beaver Dam Quarry at Cockeysville, Md.) on the street fronts and Carthage marble on the courts. The marble was cut and positioned to give varying textures across the exterior. "The sun (plays) on differences of saw markings and grain on each block that identify the individual pieces from their neighbors," the Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record wrote in October 1928.
"The problem of handling great facades with a multiplicity of windows was solved by breaking the planes into panels by recession of the wall surfaces," Ferry wrote. "The transition from the 11-story wings of the Fisher Building to the 28-story tower was gracefully accomplished by a series of setbacks that produced a tapering effect. … It was inevitable that such an overpowering masonry mass, with its strong vertical emphasis and soaring silhouette, should have suggested the Gothic. Although the first studies indicated a flat roof, there was an irresistible temptation to crown the building with a steep pyramidal roof characteristic of Gothic structures."
Up until this point, Kahn had decorated most of his interiors in more traditional styles with classical or renaissance details. The Fisher marked a departure of sorts. While far more modest than the Guardian Building's interior, the Fisher was far more modern for its time than Kahn's past works. Most of the artwork and decoration reflects American culture -– commerce, transportation, art and agriculture are all represented throughout. For the sculpture, mosaics and frescoes, Kahn turned to Geza R. Maroti, an artist from Budapest, Hungary. Maroti was a leader in his nation's art movement, and Hungary entrusted him to prepare foreign exhibitions and decorate the buildings for them. He also was associated with Eli Saarinen and working at the renowned Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills.
Maroti packed his work in the Fisher with symbolism, focusing mostly on two ideas: The wealth and power of the United States expressed through commerce and transportation, and American culture and civilization through music and drama. The eagles with their wings slightly open, ready to take flight, symbolize an America ready to advance to greater things. Other eagles in and on the Fisher have their wings outstretched, symbolizing the power of the United States. Those with their wings tucked in, in a sheltering manner, show the nation's strength and that it is sound. The victorious eagles of Zeus, with their wings spread against a purple background, hover above the entrance to the theater. They echo those that flew above the conquering armies of Greece. They signify the dedication of theater to high ideals, the genius and freedom of creativity and art and the progress of drama.
The style and hemlock motif was something from Hungarian tradition that Maroti brought over from Central Europe but modern for America at the time.
The elaborate frescoes were also designed by Maroti but carried out by artists Antonio and Tomas de Lorenzo of New York City. The painters stood atop massive scaffolds to give the arcade the right touch Kahn sought. More than $20,000 (about $265,000 today) went into the fresco work alone, covering the ceiling in gold leaf and endless oil color. Marotti produced each piece of decoration in full size cartoon form before it was painted on the ceiling by the de Lorenzos. Amazingly, it took only two months to hand-paint the arcade's huge canvas. Making the effort even more impressive was Marotti's biggest challenge: He had to make the ceilings as stunning from the ground as they were from the third-floor galleries. No easy trick.
Of its three-story lobby's hand-painted barrel-vaulted ceilings, the News wrote that "the ceiling is a mass of gorgeous color, shimmering like the plumage of exotic birds." The Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record said "no business building in America ... has been so lavishly decorated in a barbaric wealth of color." The ceiling features a flora and fauna theme and is covered in redheaded cherubs and muses frolicking among hemlock and evergreen needles. Custodians would use gallons of buttermilk to wash the ceiling.
Along the walls of the arcade are 26 lunettes with symbolical designs and subjects such as Agriculture, Art, Justice, Knowledge, Music, Navigation, Peace and Thrift.
Among the painted ceilings are words painted along the arches. The arch on the southern arch says, "The drama's law the drama's patrons give. For we that live to please must please to live." It is by 18th century author Samuel Johnson's prologue to celebrate new management of London's Drury Lane Theatre in 1747. On the other side of the southern arch, it says: "To wake the soul by tender strokes of art, to raise the genius and to mend the heart." These words are by Alexander Pope, part of a prologue to Joseph Addison's play "Cato" in 1713.
The three-story arcade is finished entirely in marble -- mostly Carthage marble -- except for the ceilings and three mosaic tile decorations. There are fluted marble pillars, each in a different color but still "in perfect harmony," the Detroit News wrote in October 1928. The floors are vari-hued Italian marble in warm tones of rose, light browns and creams. They are similar in design to the floors of many churches in Rome, which Kahn often cited as in influence on his work. The floors of the second- and third-floor concourses are Tennessee marble; their walls are polished European marble.
The Fisher had shops on the first three floors, both along the arcade and along the streets.
The mosaics are near the center of the arcade, where the north and west halls meet. Nearly 10 feet tall with an arched top, the mosaics are in gold, blues, grays, greens, oranges and siennas. One features birds of paradise sitting on a hemlock branch, echoing the hemlock covering the ceiling. The other two features eagles with outstretched wings – one on a tree of life; the other on hemlock.
Nearby, set into the floor, is a large bronze shield in low relief. It featured a semi-nude figure of Mercury -- the god of transportation and bearer of messages -- running. Around the shield are inlaid marble in warm browns, creams and reds. The four principal bronze inlays are semi-nude figures symbolizing the four elements of the ancient world: air, earth, fire and water. Sadly, the details have been mostly eroded by decades of Detroiters trodding over it. It has been roped off to prevent further damage.
The corridors on every floor are marble-faced with cove ceilings. The window sills are marble. The building is also decked out in bronze details everywhere you look. All of the hardware on every window and sash was bronze. The radiators are recessed behind bronze grilles. There were plaques and bronze floor work by Anthony Di Lorenzo, who also did the cast bronze elevator doors. "Because of the diversity of its functions, and the lavish hand with which the littlest perfection was pursued and captured, (the Fisher) becomes for many the ready expression of Detroit's golden age. It is not the consummation of a dream, but the beginning of one," the Detroit News wrote. "Even such a detail as door checks are concealed so that no unsightly bit can mar the beauty of the whole," the News noted. It is highly unlikely today that a client would even think about investing so much money in decoration, especially in an office building.
To ensure that the Fisher brothers' suite near the top of the tower was top shelf, they hired Charles Bacon of the well-known firm William Wright Co. as their interior decorator. Their 26th-floor reception room was often called the world's most exclusive club and the most lavishly furnished office space in the world of business," the News wrote. The 25th through 27th floors had a dining room, kitchen, living room and private elevator. It was outfitted with Persian rugs, massive hand-carved desks, rich walnut paneling, bronze chandeliers and scrolled plaster ceilings. It was the site of daily informal family meetings, which the brothers combined with lunch every workday at 12:45 p.m.
In 1928, the Architectural League of New York awarded Kahn a Silver Medal for the most beautiful commercial building erected that year.
"In this, his latest creation, Albert Kahn Detroit architect with an international reputation, has set his peg of excellence very high in the contest for the achievement of a purely American style, and has for the moment at least, surpassed all his fellow-contestants in the production of beauty," the Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record wrote in October 1928.
Still, Kahn was not without his critics.
The architect "was too preoccupied with images of the past to be able to make a crisp, clear statement in contemporary commercial architecture," Ferry wrote.
Architectural critic Sheldon Cheney wrote at the time that "the monumental Fisher Building in Detroit is … softened, anticlimaxed" by its sloping roof. "The boldness of the block forms is so much an asset, so clearly an appropriate machine-like element, that the sloping roof can only serve to weaken the effect – if not to make the whole as ridiculous as a naked man under a hat."
That's not to say Ferry wasn't a fan of the Fisher: Noting the splendor of the arcade, he wrote that the marble walls "would dazzle even the most jaded Roman emperor."
The Detroit Times announced the lighting of the tower in November 1928, to mark the opening of the Fisher Theatre inside the building, that "Detroit's night skies are studded by a new jewel of light. … The great Fisher Tower is ablaze with light. … It presents a startling spectacle." The paper went on to predict that the Fisher Building would be to Detroit "what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris." The News wrote in January 1927 that the Fisher was to the Motor City as Radio City is to New York City.
The building got its nickname of the Golden Tower because it was originally covered in gold-leaf faced tile. But during World War II, it was feared that the glistening tower would become a target for bombings, so it was covered with an asphalt material. After the war, the asphalt couldn't be removed without damaging it, so it was replaced with green terra cotta tile.
Big dreams, with dreams for something bigger
The L-shaped landmark was originally supposed to be a three-building complex and the largest commercial building in the world. There was to have been a taller, 60-story central tower flanked by the current 29-story Fisher Building on the right and an identical tower on the left. This is why the tower of the Fisher Building is aligned to the far right instead of centered. The Great Depression, which hit the year after the building opened, shelved the grand plans to build the other two towers. The mammoth arcade that stretches from Grand Boulevard to Lothrop and Second to the west was originally to bisect the entire length of the three-building complex that was to extend all the way to Third Avenue.
Instead, the Fisher brothers had Kahn design the New Center Building at Second Avenue and Lothrop. Work was originally going to start on the building in 1931, but they moved work on it up to 1930 to help ease the effects of the Depression by putting Detroiters to work. The decision was meant to express the Fisher brothers' unshakeable confidence that "the industrial and financial importance of this city will constantly increase," the Free Press wrote. The building, completed in 1931, is known today as the Albert Kahn Building, named after its maker. The Fisher, New Center and General Motors buildings were all joined together by a series of underground passageways lined with shops. These tunnels are still open today, though many of the storefronts are not in use.
Going up - way up
The skyscraper owes as much to elevators as it does steel. After all, a luxury office 400 feet up wouldn't be such a luxury if you had to scale the stairs. And, like the rest of the building, the Fisher's elevator was also an innovation in its time as it was "automatically controlled in every way," the News marveled. At the time, most elevators in the city still used elevator attendants. And it was fast. Its express elevators ran as fast as any in the world - 800 feet per minute. While that pales in comparison to the 3,314 feet per minute of those in Taiwan's Taipei 101 tower, the Fisher offered quite a thrill ride for Detroiters in 1928.
Changing the way people parked
Kahn not only helped revolutionize the way the world built its factories, he also changed the way it parked its cars. With the rise of the automobile -- and with land values still high in Detroit -- parking was at a premium in the Motor City.
The Fisher was built with an 11-story parking garage in the rear with room for 1,100 automobiles. The garage was attached to the building, so tenants who worked on the first 11 floors were afforded the then-luxury of parking on the same floor as their offices. But the real innovation was the garage’s ramp system, which was worked out at the General Motors Proving Ground. Kahn implemented a double helix design that allowed cars to go down and up on the same ramp at the same time. Today, most garages use this technique, but at the time, Kahn's garage was groundbreaking.
The dedicated garage also helped the Fisher keep tenants in the 1940s and '60s as more metro Detroiters moved to the suburbs and commuted into work. By 1950, 90% of Americans used a car to get around, so parking was essential to most office buildings' success.
Going to the show
The Fisher Building also houses a theater that offers off-Broadway productions. It opened to the public on Nov. 16, 1928, several weeks behind the rest of the building.
In what was a rather new practice at the time, the theater was rather detached from the entrances to the building. This allowed for the Fisher Building's arcade to effectively serve as the foyer for the theater at night and a business passageway by day. It also allowed for the theater to be approached from any of the building's four entrances or the garage.
The theater -- designed by the Chicago-based architectural firm of Anker S. Graven & Arthur G. Mayger -- originally sat about 3,000 people and had an exotic Mayan temple theme in gold and ivory, complete with tropical trees and plants in the lobby and macaws that patrons could feed by hand. Banana trees filled the foyer, and turtles and goldfish filled a pond. Mayan statues flanked the stairs, and the theater had hieroglyphic-like figures around the top of the ceiling. The over-the-top design was meant to evoke a sense of wonder in moviegoers. In the 1920s, especially after the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt, the United States was obsessed with ancient civilizations, and many of movie palaces going up at the time took on the feel of such temples, the Fox and Fisher included. The Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record called the theater "a tribute to the life and times of a vanquished people." The theater's seats were described as "golden olive" and upholstered in velvet.
Its stage was large enough to accommodate most any size production, including grand operas. The Fisher Theatre’s arrival on the scene was in many ways spelled the end of older, smaller theaters.
In the early 1930s, the Fisher was run by the Paramount-Publix chain, but it also hosted stage productions. But these weren't "stage shows" as we think of them today, like musicals or dramas.
"It was a movie palace, and like all deluxe movie palaces featured a varied program featuring stage acts, dancing numbers by the resident company, occasional big name headliners, and other touring acts that were the last gasp of vaudeville—all accompanied by the large orchestra and organ," theater historian John Lauter said. "The orchestra and organ would have their own solo spots in the show. To this was added short film subjects, newsreels, and then the feature film. It’s a style of presentation that has been extinct for so long, it’s hard for today’s readers to understand."
However, by the 1950s, the Fisher was showing only movies. But as television stole audiences away from movie palaces, the Fisher Theatre began to struggle, showing films to far-from-full houses. For the last few years of the 1950s, it began showing second-run cinema. The final movie to screen there was "The Magnificent Seven" in 1960.
In 1961, the Nederlander family – a well-known figure in the Detroit theater business – took over the Fisher Theatre. Working with Lawrence P. Fisher, the Nederlander Theatrical Corporation stripped the venue of its temple theme and replaced it with a far tamer, more modern look designed by the firm Rapp & Rapp. The theater's original 3,500 seats were cut to 2,089. Dark woods and earth toned marble was used, and a large bronze sculpture of a female figure on a white marble pedestal was added to the lobby. The theater would now show only legitimate theater. The renovation helped keep the theater alive, giving "an injection of glamour," the Detroit Free Press Magazine noted in September 1966. Marble, wood, bronze and crystal done in a modern style were accented by a gold, white and walnut touch. The cost of the renovation was nearly $4 million. Lawrence Fisher died about a month before the theater reopened to the public on Oct. 2, 1961.
Ferry wrote in "The Buildings of Detroit" that “the Fisher Theater was the last of the great movie palaces to be built in Detroit. These great temples of amusement were the product of the prosperity and ebullience of the period that immediately preceded the Great Depression." Speaking of the remodeling job of 1961, Ferry wrote that thanks to the Fisher brothers’ “enterprise and civic pride, it became the most elegant and luxurious legitimate theater ever seen in Detroit. Thus an old era had ended and a new one begun."
The Fisher's mighty Wurlitzer, which had been used before shows until the end, was removed ahead of the makeover in 1960 by buyer George Orbits and friends. It was first installed in the Iris Theatre on East Grand Boulevard, where it remained playable by the Detroit Theater Organ Society into late 1961. In 1963, the group bought the vacant Senate Theatre on Michigan Avenue in Southwest Detroit at tax auction for $1,000, and spent $25,000 and a year renovating the building and installing the organ. The Fisher's Wurlitzer premiered in its new digs in April 1964, where it remains in use today.
The Fisher brothers let her go
On Dec. 7, 1962, it was announced that the Fisher and the 11-story New Center Building – now known as the Albert Kahn Building – were sold for about $15 million ($106.9 million today) by the four surviving Fisher brothers to a Detroit real estate partnership headed by prominent investors Louis Berry and George D. Seyburn. It was one of the biggest real estate transactions in Detroit history at the time. The two also owned the David Stott Building and a number of hotels from New York to Wisconsin to Florida, including, up until 1955, the Wolverine Hotel in Detroit. Berry was a 59-year-old hotel magnate and philanthropist. Seyburn was a 52-year-old builder. The two men were partners in the International Hotel Corp. of Detroit. Detroit financier and philanthropist Max M. Fisher had a 25% stake in what became known as the Fisher-New Center Co.
"Our first consideration in this endeavor will be to perpetuate the prestige and character of those properties which the Fisher family so nobly created," Berry told the News.
There had been buzz for months about the Fisher being sold, but the inclusion of the New Center Building was a surprise. At the time of the sale, the buildings housed hundreds of businesses and professional offices, shops and, in the Fisher, the studios of WJR-AM (760). Also included in the sale were parking lots and other Fisher properties in the area.
Some sources said at the time that the brothers sold the buildings because of a "depreciation problem. … They can see the end of the road," the Free Press wrote in November 1962.
Part of the reason for that was the fact that the Fisher Building is more expensive to operate than a small city. In 1970, the Free Press wrote that the operating costs of the Fisher and New Center buildings were more than $3.1 million a year – seven times the cost of running the 3,000-person town of Utica. The Fisher had 18 full-time security guards compared with Utica's eight police officers. Also on the building's payroll at the time: 100 cleaning workers, 30 garage attendants, 15 painters, 12 electricians, 12 utility workers, four carpenters, three plumbers and one locksmith. The building's annual payroll alone as more than $1.25 million (about $7.2 million today).
"We like to think of the Fisher Building as a city within a city," Jack Caminker, the vice president and general manager of the Fisher-New Center Co., told the Free Press at that time. The services offered within let a person "spend a full, satisfying day, week and life" within the building's confines, the Detroit News wrote in August 1970.
At the time, the Fisher had 385 tenants, 20 shops, the Recess Club, two art galleries, the theater and WJR. More than 5,000 people worked there, and 21,000 came through the building's doors every day.
In 1974, the Fisher was sold again, this time to the Canada-based real estate company Trizec. The Fisher and Albert Kahn buildings (still known then as the New Center Building) were placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Oct. 14, 1980
On July 1, 2001, the Farbman Group of Southfield, Mich., bought the Fisher and Albert Kahn Building for about $30 million. The company’s president and chief executive officer, David Farbman, has a special tie to the buildings: Albert Kahn was his great-granduncle. "It is certainly, by far, our most impressive acquisition and is the jewel in our portfolio," Farbman told the Free Press in August 2001.
The Fisher and Kahn buildings’ fortunes had changed. Not only had the Detroit real estate market gone soft as the city’s population dwindled and companies moved their headquarters into the suburbs, but GM left its longtime headquarters and moved thousands of employees to the Renaissance Center in the late 1990s.
Gripped with declining occupancy, further fueled by mounting neglected maintenance, Farbman lost the Fisher and the Albert Kahn buildings in foreclosure. In the summer of 2015, an ownership group led by The Platform (and also including Southfield, Mich.-based Redico and New York-based Rheal Capital Management LLC and HFZ Capital Group) bought the pair, along with a parking garage and a large parking lot, for $12.2 million at auction. Redico would be bought out along the way, though remained property manager.
The Platform set out to reverse the decades of decline and lure new tenants into the building, including extensive restoration of the Arcade ceiling by the renowned EverGreene Architectural Arts in 2017. Over the first eight years of the ownership group's stewardship of the Fisher, the building saw more than $30 million in improvements.
Unfortunately, the majority partner in that ownership group was HFZ Capital, which amid the COVID pandemic, nearly collapsed in 2021. This led to almost no investment in the building and effectively tied the group's hands in continuing the ongoing work, in turn leading to the building being put up for sale in the summer of 2021. The Platform then bought out HFZ's stake in July 2022, with Rheal Capital remaining a minority partner.
The Golden Tower 'goes Green'
On June 13, 2023, it was announced that Michigan State University's endowment had bought a majority interest in the Fisher Building, as well as the two surface parking lots adjacent to the landmark (representing a combined 3 acres of land), and the parking garage on Baltimore Street.
Phillip Zecher, the chief investment officer for Michigan State who oversees the school's $4.2 billion endowment, told Crain's Detroit Business at the time that that the endowment paid $21 million for a 79 percent ownership of an entity that now owns the four properties. The remaining 21% is now owned about 50/50 by The Platform and Michigan State University Federal Credit Union. Crain's reported that "the new joint venture between the endowment, The Platform and the credit union is taking out a loan from the credit union to retire existing debt and pay for exterior restorations, building operations and leasing activities like tenant improvements."
Under the deal, The Platform continues to oversee the day-to-day operations of the building. Meanwhile, MSU did not plan to move into building itself outside of some programming.
"This was never an investment that was evaluated with the expectation that MSU would occupy it," Zecher told Crain's. "But that said, now that the leaders on campus now know about this and know about this opportunity and the location and the proximity to Henry Ford, all of that is creating a lot of interest inside the university for directing our activities more towards the Fisher Building. And I think we will be announcing some things in the not-too-distant future, but at the moment, those are still works in progress."
The deal took more than a year to complete and officially closed June 12, 2023. The move by MSU followed five months after the university and Henry Ford Health System laid out detailed plans for a $100 million-$150 million research center, a key component of a $2.5 billion planned investment by Henry Ford Health, MSU and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores to build a new hospital tower across from the existing hospital on West Grand Boulevard, as well as 500-plus residential units in the surrounding area. It also came a few months after MSU's endowment invested in The Platform's $38.2 million redevelopment of the former Studebaker Sales and Service Building at 411 Piquette - just down the road from the Fisher Building - into market rate and affordable housing.