Kris and I consider the campus of Wayne State University to be one of Detroit’s hidden gems. You may have driven by Old Main on Cass Ave, remarked on the attractive building as you passed and not given it a second thought. Most do not realize that a walk through WSU’s campus is a study in Modern architecture. Present day WSU began its existence as a university in 1933 when a combination of Detroit colleges came together to form a single institution. The former Central High School building at Cass and Warren became what is now Old Main; other residential and commercial buildings in the surrounding neighborhood were re-purposed to fill the needs of the college. A master plan for the campus was created in 1942 by yet unknown architect Suren Pilafian; the GI Bill passed in 1944 and enrollment swelled; buildings had to be built. The end of the 1940’s were just the beginning of the Modern architectural style; the tone was set.
In 1948 State Hall, designed by Pilafian was the first building built specifically for the university, followed up by the Community Arts Complex and College of Engineering, all were designed in the Modern style. The names of other contributing architects is pretty much a who’s who list of Modern design; Alden B Dow, Harley, Ellington and Day, Glen Paulson, Albert Kahn, Giacomo Manzu and Minoru Yamasaki. It doesn’t matter if you recognize these names or not; what I want you to know, or, what I’d like you to appreciate, is what an important place Detroit has always been. This city was prominent, wealthy and proud; buildings were designed by the best in the business —– many lived here in metro Detroit. The money was here to attract the best of the best whether in business, music, art or design. Let’s go for a walk…………
Our main agenda for the day is to spend some time at the McGregor Conference Center’s newly restored reflecting pool, designed by none other than Minoru Yamasaki. The building was the first of four that Yamasaki would design for WSU between 1957 and 1964, in my opinion it is one of his best. Finished in 1958, the pool had suffered much damage to its foundation through the years, it was drained in the late 90’s; repaired and restored, it received much attention when it was again filled with water in 2013. I knew it would be lovely, but I really wasn’t prepared for just how wonderful it is. It’s large L-shape design and shallow pool project peace and tranquility; large boulders are scattered about the onyx colored bottom, rectangular concrete islands are connected by dark planks. On one end a single figure on a pedestal gazes into the water thoughtfully; Giacomo Manzu’s The Nymph and The Faun bronze sculptures look perfectly at ease on one of the islands; the nymph reclines in the sunshine as she lifts her head to study the crouching faun; this piece was added in 1968. The water is perfectly still, the clouds and blue sky are mirrored on the surface. Large circular white planters add a pop of green to the black and white background. I love the floating staircase that leads from the McGregor to the center island. The College of Education, another Yamasaki building is seen in the distance.
We continue our walk through the urban campus on sidewalks, under porticos and through grassy expanses intermixed with concrete plazas, sculptures and sitting areas. The Community Arts Center and Music Building has a very 50’s feel to it, The Shapero Hall of Pharmacy starts out small at ground level and gets bigger with each story; elongated windows look out over raised planters and lush lawn. Alumni House with its smoke colored glass becomes part of the surrounding landscape. Newer buildings have been integrated and seem to fall into place with original structures, it all works together. The Jacob House, built in 1915 in the Mediterranean style is now the residence of the President of WSU, the Chatsworth Tower apartment building is an elegant 9-story building built in 1929, not far from that is the new Mort Harris Recreation and Fitness Center. After the McGregor, the Helen L DeRoy Auditorium is my favorite building here, also a Yamasaki, it has such great lines; the ribs and eaves create an almost floral design; I hope one day the reflecting pool will be restored. Walking back toward Cass we cross the Meyer and Anna Prentis Building, designed by Yamasaki and built at the same time (1964) as the auditorium, it is distinctly Modern. We pass the former William C Rands residence, a huge stone house designed by George Mason, built in 1913, now used by the university, the Music Annex and finally our car……time for lunch.
Northern Lights Lounge has a new patio; just a short ride from WSU, we are there in no time. It is mid-afternoon and we have the brick patio all to ourselves; newly planted trees take up residence along with pots of colorful annuals. Sandwiched between two buildings and closed off in back by a bright orange fence, the space feels secluded from the rush of the city. We are no strangers to the menu here, so ordering was quick and easy. We relax under the comfort of a large umbrella, sipping our drinks and watching pedestrians pass on Baltimore when our server arrives with lunch. The veggie nachos here are outstanding; white corn tortilla chips covered with two kinds of melted cheese, piled with black beans, tomato, onion, green pepper, black olives and pickled jalapeno, yum! The Julienne Salad is loaded with ham, turkey, swiss, american and a hard-boiled egg scattered over salad greens, we like the homemade ranch dressing.
Dessert is a great way to end such a nice afternoon, we head over to Avalon Breads, they always have an excellent selection of sweet treats. We stare at cookies, brownies, sticky buns and scones, then we see the sign: Ice Cream Sandwiches! Choose either Sea Salt Chocolate Chip or Oatmeal Raisin cookies, a scoop of Ashby’s Vanilla in the middle and there you have it. Without hesitation we go with the chocolate chip; as the sandwich is being assembled I order an iced coffee and meet Kris back at a table. The cookie is soft and chewy, the vanilla ice cream a perfect complement to the salty and sweet flavor of the cookie….add iced coffee to the mix and you have perfection!