Historic Detroit

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

Ford Auditorium

Loved by few, reviled by many, ignored by most.

Nevertheless, the Henry & Edsel Ford Memorial Auditorium was an important component of the midcentury modernist cityscape that is the Detroit Civic Center. From its dedication in 1956 until it was razed in 2011, the auditorium anchored the east end of this expansive riverfront complex of park land, plazas, civic buildings, fountains and public art.

Ford Auditorium, as it was commonly known, was an austerely simple building of the International Style popular during the mid-20th century. It was designed by the firms of Odell, Hewlett & Luckenbach and Crane, Kiehler & Kellogg (the successor firm to the architectural practice of renowned architect and theater designer C. Howard Crane). The former designed the exterior; the latter designed the actual auditorium, or theater, portion.

Ford Auditorium was part of Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s original Civic Center plan for downtown Detroit, and was, in the words of Selden H. Daume, co-chairman of Detroit Tomorrow, the realization of “more dreams of beauty and utility for Detroit, and another great step in completion of the tremendous civic project.”

On March 11, 1950, Ford Motor Co. and Lincoln-Mercury dealers donated $2.5 million for the construction of the auditorium.

The auditorium was constructed from 1955-1956 at a cost of $5.7 million ($48.16 million today, when adjusted for inflation. Of that, $1 million ($8.45 million today) was donated by the Ford family, and $1.5 million ($12.67 million today) came from the Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury dealerships of North America.

Clad in white Vermont marble and mica-flecked, blue-black Norwegian granite, the building was controversial from the beginning. Some felt that it possessed an honest elegance and unadorned sophistication; to others, it was a “tar paper shack” and considered to be brutal and ugly.

The east and west façades were faced by large plain white Vermont marble panels. The north and south facades were edged with this same white marble, with the expanse of these facades faced with blue-black granite mica-flecked blocks in a basket weave design, serving as a foil for the adjacent flat white marble. The mica flecks had the pleasing effect of glittering when light hit them, giving the basket-weave portions of the building a sparkly look in either the bright sunlight or at night, when reflecting the city lights. This effect was described in one favorable 1956 review as being “as if it were a black pool of water or a midnight sky full of stars.”

The building, of a simple, functional design adhered closely to the midcentury ethos of form following function. “On the outside, it looks like what it is - an auditorium. Even the tilt of the auditorium floor can be visualized by the slope of the marble on the exterior wall” said architect Elmer Kiehler. “Theater buildings used to be rectangular. Now we build them like a slice of pie, and every seat has a complete view of the stage … and there are no chandeliers to distract you. Lighting is recessed, and there’s plenty of it, so that you can read your program during intermission.”

A sparse but stately interior

The interior was extremely simple, in both the auditorium and the other interior public spaces. The aesthetics of these rooms relied on the sparing use of sculpture and bold colors, textures and patterns. The 2,920 seats in the auditorium (1,850 on the main floor, 1,070 in the balcony) were a bold turquoise, the curtain of the 120-foot stage was of rich gold velvet, and the foyer areas were paneled in a richly grained Paldao wood, polished marble and rough-finished granite. As one writer commented as the building was nearing completion, “its steel and stone and wood and aluminum construction and décor are as “modern” and simple as its camera-like exterior design, but the impression you get is … of modern functionalism warmly moulded to give the public beauty at no sacrifice of comfort of friendliness in surroundings.”

Virtually the only adornment of the interior were three large wall-mounted, bronze, copper and aluminum sculptures in the carpeted foyer area created by renowned sculptor Marshall Fredericks. Fredericks’ best known works include the Spirit of Detroit and the Levi J. Barbour Memorial Fountain. Over the main foyer doors in the north wall hung the monumental, 120-foot “Ford Empire,” the west end of which depicted “the products and forces of God and nature,” the east end of which depicted “the skills and talents of man,” meeting in the middle in a depiction of industrial progress as represented by the Ford empire.

On each end of the foyer were stairways that led to the balcony and gallery, and in each stairwell hung a Fredericks work: In the east stairwell hung the 14-foot-by-14-foot “Ballerina and Orchestral Parade,” and in the west stairwell hung the similarly sized “Harlequins and Circus Parade.” Today, these two works are considered the climax of Frederick’s free-form relief sculptures. They have been restored by Saginaw Valley State University at a cost of $59,000 and can be seen today outside the SVSU Performing Arts Theater & Recital Hall (SVSU is home to the Marshall Fredericks Museum). The epic “Ford Empire” is still in storage, in need of restoration and a new home.

Under the main ground floor foyer/lobby was a marble-floored area of lounges and smoking rooms with a kitchen and service bar for food and beverage service. This area also had doors providing access directly to the auditorium’s garage, an underground garage built concurrently with the auditorium under Jefferson Avenue, the front drive and the auditorium lawn.

Powerful pipes

During the construction of the auditorium, the Ernest Kanzler Fund presented the City of Detroit the funds with which to commission a pipe organ for the new auditorium. The Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company of Boston was commissioned to design and build an organ specifically for the Ford Auditorium. The cost was $100,000 (about $845,000 today). The 4,156-pipe organ was one of only two in the country that was specifically designed to be dual-purposed. That is, it could be used either with an orchestra or as a solo instrument.

Joseph Whiteford, president of Aeolian-Skinner, was closely involved in the project. When sending his team of expert craftsmen to Detroit to install the organ, he gave instruction that he be notified as soon as the organ was operable. As he related, "I told them I wanted to hear the very first sound the organ made in Detroit. In due time, the phone call came through and then I heard a sound so raucous I couldn't believe it could come from a pipe organ."

He was right. It didn't come from a pipe organ.

The first sound Whiteford heard from Detroit was the whistle of one of the Boblo boats at the foot of Woodward, just outside Ford Auditorium.

The organ was dedicated on Oct. 6, 1957, at a glamorous dedication concert played by one of the greatest organists of the time, Marcel Dupre. The Kanzler organ received rave reviews. J. Dorsey Callaghan of the Free Press wrote of the evening: “As the concert continued, the manifold beauties of the organ voices were brought forward in an exciting array of tone color. … Tonally, the organ is magnificent. There is brilliance to the small organ, though, which appears accentuated, possibly by the acoustical properties of the hall.”

A Civic Center centerpiece

Architectural merits and praise or critique aside, Ford Auditorium played an important role in the Saarinens’ design of the Civic Center. Described at its dedication as “the newest jewel in the massive Civic Center showcase,” the auditorium provided not only a civic auditorium for public events, but also a visual definition to the eastern end of the plaza. Detroit’s Civic Center, at West Jefferson Avenue and Woodward Avenue, is a remarkable collection of Mid-Century Modern buildings in a planned landscape.

The development of the Civic Center represented the built expression of a “new Detroit” that emerged in the mid-20th century, the optimism and idealism of which is somewhat captured in then-Mayor Albert Cobo’s remarks at the auditorium’s dedication that “the heart of Detroit beats a little faster and is a little happier. … This is a living memorial at its finest, built by men who believed in giving back to the people some of the proceeds of their hard work.”

An essential part of this vision of a new city borne out of the old was the re-envisioning of the waterfront as the city center, with grand public spaces, inspiring buildings and spacious boulevards. Lower Woodward Avenue and Jefferson Avenue were widened. Hart Plaza was created (designed by Isamu Noguchi, 1979). And a series of buildings were erected: the Ford Auditorium, the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center (originally City-County Building, by Harley, Ellington & Day, 1954); the Ford-UAW Resource Center (originally the Veteran’s Memorial Building, by Harley, Ellington & Day, 1951); and Cobo Center (originally Cobo Hall & Arena, Gino Rossetti, 1960). A commercial building, One Woodward Avenue (originally the Michigan Consolidated Gas Building, Minoru Yamasaki, 1962), was constructed during the same period. While it was never a civic building, it also contributes to the visual unity and harmony of the Civic Center. Isamu Noguchi’s Horace E. Dodge & Son Memorial Fountain (1978) and Pylon (1974) contribute to this remarkable, complete, planned Modernist cityscape, which remained virtually intact until the Ford Auditorium’s demolition in 2011.

A riverfront civic center of grand public spaces was first envisioned in the late 19th century by legendary Detroit Mayor Hazen S. Pingree. As the City Beautiful movement was sweeping the country, finding expression in Detroit in such projects as Belle Isle and Grand Boulevard, the “people’s mayor” articulated the vision of clearing the smoky, sooty commercial buildings along Detroit’s riverfront and creating in their place a gracious, open space where the river could be enjoyed and around which the community could relate to as the city’s center. In the years following World War I, this vision was revisited, with the desire to create a war memorial; the American Institute of Architects commissioned Eliel Saarinen, at the time teaching at the University of Michigan, to draw up a plan for a new civic center, and in 1925, the voters of Detroit approved the expenditure of public dollars on the project. However, nothing came of this until following World War II, when the desire for a war memorial again emerged. In 1947, the City of Detroit commissioned the firm of Saarinen, Saarinen & Associates to produce a comprehensive plan for the reconstruction of Detroit’s waterfront in the area around the foot of Woodward in the form of a civic center.

The Saarinen plan for a riverfront civic center for Detroit called for, among other elements, a civic auditorium to be used for public events. As Saarinen envisioned it, this auditorium would be situated at the east end of the civic plaza, orientated parallel to the river and facing the open space of the Civic Center. Unfortunately, when the time came for bringing the auditorium to life, two changes were made that prevented the auditorium from fully contributing to the original vision, and which eventually spelled its doom after only a few decades.

Challenges from the get-go

The first change reoriented the building. The original plans for Ford Auditorium showed it facing the plaza, parallel with the river, but it was built facing the city, its back to the river, perpendicular to, instead of fronting on, the plaza’s open space. This had the effect of not fully integrating the building into the “life” of the civic space, while simultaneously creating a visual and spatial wall between the city and the river.

The second development was the decision, during construction, to use the building as the home for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, rather than simply as a multipurpose civic auditorium as intended. The DSO had been without a permanent home since leaving Orchestra Hall in 1939 because of financial hardships. Mrs. Edsel Ford, during the construction of the auditorium, decided that it would be ideal that the auditorium should be used as a new home for the orchestra, and championed the DSO taking up residence there. Unfortunately, the building was built as a multiuse auditorium, not a music venue - and definitely not as a specialty venue for symphonic performances.

From the outset, the building struggled with acoustics and was blasted in the media and about town. Among the most vocal criticism came from a group of visiting music critics from around the country, who visited the auditorium soon after it opened. This problem was exacerbated by the decision, also mid-construction, to add a pipe organ to the facility and use two areas originally meant to be acoustic chambers to house its pipes.

While all agreed there were challenges, there was little agreement on the severity of the problem.

Eduard Werner, then president of the Detroit Federation of Musicians, speaking “not as an expert” but as a “musician, conductor and concertgoer,” said that there was not much wrong with the auditorium’s acoustics before the organ was installed.

“It was not as bad as was pictured,” he said, but the addition of the organ “did something to the hall.”

Werner went on to say that sometimes, acoustical properties of a building are out of human control. “It’s just like building a violin - you trust the Almighty for its sound.”

He continued saying that expert violin makers “have duplicated the construction of a Stradivarius right down to the minutest detail, but when they played it, the sound still wasn’t the sound of a Stradivarius.”

Despite numerous attempts to fix the acoustics, costing many tens of thousands of dollars, the problem was only improved but never solved. As the Free Press wrote in 1959, following extensive work on the acoustics: “The auditorium’s shortcomings ... have been exaggerated. ... Thus, one should not expect highly dramatic contrast with the former orchestral sound. There is a difference, and a very rewarding one. The strings bring forth a more impressive resonance, and the orchestra as a whole is more vibrant.”

Nevertheless, Ford Auditorium could never shake its reputation of being acoustically inferior, and the DSO left in 1989, returning to Orchestra Hall.

A site of history

The Ford Auditorium hosted a number of events important not only to Detroit’s history, but the nation’s, particularly in terms of the struggles for civil & labor rights.

The structure was the first public auditorium/performance venue built in post-segregation Detroit, where no one was denied or given alternative seating on the basis of the color of their skin. It was a popular place for high school graduations and local events. It was where the legendary labor leader Walter P. Reuther’s body laid in repose after he died in a plane crash in May 1970, with thousands attending a memorial service in his honor. Civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the auditorium on more than one occasion, and the venue also was where Malcolm X gave his last public speech outside of New York before his death, speaking the morning after his home was firebombed.

The doors close

The departure of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1989 dealt a serious blow to the auditorium’s financial viability. Following the DSO’s departure, it continued for another six years as a multiuse auditorium and performance venue, much as had been originally envisioned. But it struggled to maintain bookings and was more or less shuttered in 1990. Over the next 16 years, it sat largely unused, except for its occasional use as a warming station for the city’s homeless.

Through the years immediately prior to and following its closure, the building and the site were the subjects of various plans and proposals for adaptive reuse or for demolition and use of the site.

For example, during the 1990s, the site was pitched by the city as the site for a new corporate tower for the headquarters of Comerica Bank. However, following concerns over the use of public land for private enterprise, and strong opposition by the Ford family, the plans were withdrawn and the tower built on Woodward between Congress and Larned. Other suggestions included turning it into an aquarium, a jazz museum, a Motown memorial, a riverfront library and a center for Great Lakes studies.

Despite years of not being used, the building remained in largely good condition structurally until its demolition. In terms of its exterior, foyer and lower level public area, the building was, at its end, much as it was from its beginning. These areas underwent relatively little in the way of modification during its 39 years of operation.

The auditorium itself, on the other hand, had undergone a series of attempts at acoustic improvements and cosmetic upgrades that had left the interior of the auditorium performance space considerably different than when it opened.

The Ford Auditorium takes its final bow

Nevertheless, partly because of a deep antipathy toward - and at times hostility to - mid-20th century architecture, and in part because of simple apathy, Ford Auditorium was razed in July 2011 as a part of a vague plan for a rethinking and redesign of Hart Plaza and the civic center. The Ford family finally gave its approval to raze the landmark built as a memorial to its legacy. At the time of demolition, firm plans were yet to be formally announced, though it is hoped that an outdoor concert venue along the riverfront will take its place.

"I think we've got to look to the future; we can't look at the past," Mayor Dave Bing said on July 8, 2011, donning a hard hat outside the auditorium on the first day of demolition. "We respect what has gone on in this building, but if we are going to make Detroit a city that works, we're going to have to make some changes, and part of that change is that we have to demolish and rebuild."

Demolition work was briefly delayed at least a month because the city found more asbestos than expected. The Bing administration had pledged to knock down the building before summer visitors began filling Hart Plaza for concerts and festivals. The contract for razing the landmark went to Adamo Group, which also landed big demolition contracts for such Detroit landmarks as the Lafayette Building, the Madison-Lenox Hotel, Amelia Earhart Middle School, the Fine Arts Building, Adams Theatre and the Hotel Detroiter. Demolition of Ford Auditorium cost $754,000 and wrapped up in late August.

The asbestos was only the first problem to delay the demolition. On July 15, a large excavator toppled after a large part of the building fell. No one was hurt, but two unoccupied police cars near the site had windows smashed during the accident. The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched an investigation to see whether the company or its workers violated safety regulations and whether its workers were properly trained.

Immediately before demolition began on July 8, 2011, a dedicated group of professional musicians and pipe organ enthusiasts led a successful effort to remove the organ from the building for restoration and reinstallation. The organ is to be refurbished at an estimated cost of $250,000 and reinstalled in St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church on Washington Boulevard.

Despite efforts by various parties to salvage costly and valuable materials from the building, such as the marble and granite, none of the materials was saved, and the building simply was sent to a landfill. A dirt plot surrounded by temporary wire fencing marks the site today.