Historic Detroit

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

Water Board Building

HistoricDetroit.org is in the process of writing its own history on the Water Board Building. While we wrap it up, here is the history from the Water Department's Web site:

The Art Moderne-styled Water Board Building has been a familiar part of Detroit's skyline since October 1928. The Common council provided $1 million in the 1927-28 city budget for a triangular-shaped building on a site bounded by Randolph, Farmer, and Bates Streets. Louis Kamper - a Detroit-based architect known for his work on the houses of prominent Detroiters, as well as Detroit landmarks like the Book Building (1917), the Washington Boulevard Building (1923), and the Book-Cadillac Hotel (1924) - originally planned for a 14-story building. But, "because of the high value of the site, the Board decided that ... it would build a twenty story building."

The completed building reflects the trend toward simplification of forms typical of the Jazz Age. Standing 23 stories, it is comprised of a five-story base, a 15-story shaft, and a three-story penthouse. The total cost - including the $250,000 paid for the site, and the architect's five-percent commission - was $1,768,760.20. It was one of the last buildings designed by Kamper, who was in his late sixties during its design and construction.

The site was originally part of East Grand Circus Park, which was first designated for use as park land in 1806. On April 3, 1855, the Common Council affirmed that it would continue to be used as such and not "for any other purposes." Less than 30 years later, Council reversed itself when, in 1883, it approved a petition submitted by the Metropolitan Police Commission to build a headquarters there.

Following the Police Commission's move to new digs at Beaubien and Clinton in 1923, the vacated building was used to temporarily house what would later become the Downtown branch of the Detroit Public Library.

The BOWC's new building was constructed in a record-breaking seven months. It was considered state-of-the-art and fireproof by 1928 standards. The Department initially occupied only the first eight floors, while the upper floors housed other city departments. DWSD did not become the building's sole occupant until the 1990s.

Board members were proud of their new headquarters. The fifth floor boardroom remains a study in opulence. The room features floor-to-ceiling walnut paneling. Two huge, mahogany pillars on dark green marble bases support paneled beams, and serve to frame the conference table in the middle. Small ceiling murals help to enhance the quiet dignified aura.

Above the conference table is a bald eagle, the symbol of the United States. To its left is a lion, a symbol of strength and courage. To the eagle's right is a stylized, heraldic bear, symbolizing ferocity and strength. On the ceiling above the visitors' gallery is a rendering of the seal of the City of Detroit, the Latin on which means, "We hope for better things... it shall arise from the ashes."

Once upon a time, the building's staff included an employee, whose sole function was to polish bright work located throughout the building. Included were elaborate sconces on the second floor, brass elevator doors, and Art Deco trimming rendered in silver metal within the interior of the cherry-paneled elevator cars.

Beyond the first floor lobby, the customer service center is awash in cream-colored marble on the walls and pillars that frame the inner entrance. On the room's ceiling, two stories above the floor, is a large, elaborate mural that depicts symbols and events of significance to the City of Detroit and DWSD.

Neptune, the mythological god of water, dominates the center. He is surrounded by various scenes: Cadillac's landing in 1701, the arrival of Col. Hamtramck in 1796, Chief Tecumseh convening a war council, the Battle of Lake Erie, and the development of Detroit's first water works.

The building's triangular shape (not a perfect equilateral triangle, however) is not its only unique feature. The structure's hydraulic freight elevator was originally connected to the City's water mains. It was upgraded in 1982 and now uses a more contemporary, hydraulic mechanism. The Randolph side of the basement parking area extends 30-feet beyond the building's exterior to the middle of the street.

The building's Randolph Street entrance is surrounded in marble, and a three-foot band of polished pink and grey granite completely surrounds the base of the building. The exterior of the penthouse - the building's top three floors - is painted terra cotta, setting it off from the Bedford Limestone walls that enclose the building's first through 20th floors. The building's two-tone appearance gives it a distinctive air in a Detroit skyline increasingly dominated by even taller and more modern buildings.