Mid-Century Southfield

13 Nov

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The metropolitan Detroit area is home to an extensive variety of 20th Century architecture. Today we are meeting up with the Southfield Historical Society and DoCoMoMo for the Mid-Century Modern Southfield Tour. In 1954 Northland Mall opened in the city of Southfield, it was one of the first shopping malls in the nation; with the mall in place and easy access to major freeways the city became very attractive to corporations and residents alike. Between 1940 and 1950 the population of the area had increased 200%, during the 1960′s Southfield was Michigan’s fastest growing city. It was post WWII, people were feeling adventurous, architecture had taken on a new look, buildings were designed in new shapes, using new materials such as glass, aluminum and concrete, natural light filled open spaces. Come along as we discover Southfield’s amazing collection of Mid-Century Modern buildings.

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Our tour begins at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue on Bell Rd. Built in 1961-62, the congregation hired Percival Goodman of New York to partner with Albert Kahn Associates of Detroit to design the synagogue; now considered a masterpiece of Modern design. We are led into the sanctuary, it is a large space that seats 1,100; the triangular shape is symbolic of Mt. Sinai, behind the altar stained glass forms an inner triangle, the sun shines directly on the glass; rich red, deep blues, yellow and brown are aglow. Central to the altar a metal sculpture of the burning bush hangs on a tall marble tower, letter blocks on each side represent the tablets. A representative of the church explains the symbolism of what we are seeing, she then opens the door of the Ark revealing the Torah; dressed with a sash, ornaments and a Keter (crown) they are beautiful, magnificent and to me, mysterious. Modern nuances are found throughout, gone is the blonde wood of the 1950′s, deeper brown has taken its place, rectangular cut-outs in the walls are filled with blue glass panels. The walls of the sanctuary are retractable, when opened it creates one large room that can seat 4,000 people. We exit the sanctuary and pass through the inner court, glass showcases display religious items belonging to the congregation, the pieces are lovely. The Chapel is a much more intimate space, also triangular-shaped, the ceiling is made up of exposed wood beams, walls are brick, windows are stained glass and triangular in shape, it feels a bit more private, cozy. It is time to load the bus for the rest of the tour.

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Traveling down Northwestern Hwy we pass a number of Modern structures built between the late 1950′s and mid 1960′s. The driver pulls over to give us an up-close view of the Federal Mogul World Headquarters building, built in 1965 it is designed in the International style, large glass walls are encased in an open white frame. Originally the third and fourth floors appeared to ‘float’ above the ground level of the building, through the years multiple changes and additions have altered the original design. Further on, the Eaton Automotive building, built in 1965 screams mid-century design with its recessed first level and large front portico. The bus parks, we are at the former Northland Theater, built in 1966, it is one of the last theaters in Michigan to be built to seat 1,500 patrons in a single auditorium. Looking at the front entrance I can totally imagine it when it was still a theater. As we approach the building, dozens of folks are exiting, currently the home of the Southfield branch of Triumph Church, the service has just ended. Going against the flow of people we eventually make our way inside, the lobby and auditorium have changed very little; the concession stand now sells cd’s and other items related to the church, a new paint job, a few updates, but still clearly evident it was once a thriving movie theater.

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We arrive at 16200 Northland Drive, the Minoru Yamasaki designed Reynolds Aluminum Regional Office. Built in 1959, it was said to be “an ode to aluminum”. One look at the exterior and there is no doubt it is a Yamasaki, three stories tall, the second and third floor float atop a terrazzo pedestal, gold anodized aluminum grills in the shape of circles wrap the upper floors. The building is sitting vacant, in 1984 Vic Tanny Health Clubs purchased the building; the walls of the first floor were pushed out to the perimeter and a swimming pool was installed, reflecting ponds were filled in, exercise equipment was set up on the upper floors. The exterior of the building looks to be in good condition, inside I am taken aback at what has transpired; the indoor pool sits empty, a drop ceiling directly above, cubicles have been set up and are now vacant. We take the stairs to the third floor, it appears a running track traces the perimeter of the building, the space is divided, by the looks of the color and design, many of the walls are original. We enter a large empty room, here we have a wonderful view of the aluminum grills; the top two rows are thicker circles, the rest are narrow and overlap. The central atrium remains, at the top a large skylight made of a series of pyramids is intact, it must have been a showstopper when the building was new. We spend our remaining time in the building noticing some of the small details that remain. The building has been vacant since 2012 and is currently for sale; as someone who admires Yamasaki’s work, it is tough to see what has become of this once graceful embodiment of Mid-Century design.

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Our route continues past many more Modern buildings, Sphinx Petroleum, Abrecht, Chand and Trowell. We travel Northwestern Hwy, Evergreen and Southfield Rd before arriving in the Cranbrook Neighborhood. The Lockwood Company of Detroit constructed homes in the California Modern Style, modest ranch homes usually between 1,450 and 1,650 sq ft. The bus parks on Lone Elm, three homeowners have given permission for us to wander around the outside of their homes, these are iconic examples of Modern design; low sloping roofs, large front windows, planter boxes, courtyards and see-through garden walls. The owners have done a marvelous job maintaining the home’s character and design. This is the end of the tour; the bus drops us off at the Synagogue, we are long overdue for lunch.

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Jerusalem Pizza has been serving the finest kosher pizza for over 14 years, this is our first visit. We stand inside reading the pizza selections off a menu posted high behind the counter, nothing is harder then deciding what to order when you are starving! With help from the man behind the register we choose a Cholent pizza, a salad and a salt bagel to eat immediately. With our jackets on it is still warm enough to eat outdoors; we have a seat at a wrought iron table on the sidewalk and tear into the bagel, slightly crispy, tender inside, salty and flavorful, we agree it is the best bagel we have ever eaten. The pizza arrives, cheese is bubbly and browned on the edges, toppings consist of Dijon mustard, beans, vegetarian ground beef, potato and kishke, everything works in combination to create a crispy, chewy, tasty pizza. When we have finished, we go back inside, grab a few more bagels and hit the road.

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One Response to “Mid-Century Southfield”

  1. Kenson Siver November 13, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    Very nice summary of our Southfield Mid-Century Modern bus trip.

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