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Fisher Building roof was covered with tar during WWII: fact or urban legend?

One often told story about the Fisher Building is that its “golden tower” was covered with tar or asphalt during World War II to prevent it from being used as a landmark by enemy bombers. The origin of this story is unclear, but there is no evidence to support it and plenty to refute it.

In a February 20, 1929 article in the American Architect on the Fisher Building, Albert Kahn stated, “The roof of the tower is of semi-glazed dull green terra cotta with cresting and finials. Certain details of the roof have been gilded for decorative purposes.” The original architectural drawings show arrows pointing to the ribs on the roof and indicating they were to be “finished with Gold Leaf,” but not the roof itself.

Fisher Building as it looks today (Per Verdonk, flickr)
Enlarged section of 1942 Arthur Siegel photo showing Fisher Building (Library of Congress 2017878613)
Photo taken from Maccabees Building in 1942 by Arthur Siegel (Library of Congress 2017878613)

A color photograph taken from the Maccabees Building July 1942 by Arthur Siegel shows the Fisher building’s roof exactly as it looks today (with the exception of the radio tower). This photo can be seen online at https://www.loc.gov/item/2017878613/.

As the story goes, the Fisher Building would presumably have been used as a landmark to aid enemy bombers in locating automobile plants that were turning out material critical to the American war effort. This, however, ignores the fact that the city’s major auto factories were far easier to spot from the air than the Fisher Building.

Original 1927 architectural drawing showing details of the Fisher Building roof. The comments state “Metal Roof” and “Ribs finished with Gold Leaf.”

Moreover, nobody at the time considered seriously the possibility that enemy bombers would appear over Detroit. Neither Germany nor Japan had any long range aircraft capable of reaching the United States, much less the Midwest.

The Great Hangar Scandal

Keeping with the theme of the last two blog entries, we now turn to the Great Hangar Scandal of 1929. In December 1928, the Detroit city council instructed the city’s commissioner of public works to hire architect Albert Kahn to design for Detroit City Airport “the largest hangar in the country.”

The “Detroit Free Press” front page from January 17, 1929 announcing that the mayor and city council had agreed to a costly $2.5 million hangar, a price $1.5 million more than the originally stipulated price of $1 million.

Kahn was a reasonable choice to do the work as he had built more hangars than anyone else in the country, including more than $100 million worth of aviation buildings for the federal government. Kahn quoted a cost of $1 million for the new hangar and promised it would would be completed by April 1 the following year, in time to host the All American Aircraft Show.

The “Detroit Free Press” front page from February 6, 1929. The article suggested that city council members would receive a bribe if the excessively expensive hangar were to be built.

One month later, on January 17, Mayor John C. Lodge ordered a halt to work on the hangar, the construction of which had already begun. The following day a front page article in the Detroit Free Press reported that two days after the city council had voted to hire Kahn, they reversed their decision and instead hired architect Louis Kamper.

The reason for council’s change was never revealed. Kahn stated that his proposal was rejected by the council “at the recommendation of the city engineer,” Perry Fellows. Councilman Phillip A. Callahan claimed that “members of the council instructed him informally that they would not approve the appointment of Albert Kahn.” Callahan and councilman Sherman Littlefield suggested that some council members were “angry” with Kahn because three years earlier he had built the Maccabees Building right to the edge of Woodward Avenue. He should have set the building back, they claimed, in order to make room for the future widening of that street.

The cost explodes

When Kamper was substituted as architect it was based on his assurance that he could provide plans for a hangar that would cost $1 million. However, when Kamper presented his final plans to the city council, the cost had soared to a whopping $2.5 million. Worse, the council approved the plans without reservation and construction began.

After the enormous increase in cost became a front page story, architect Kamper presented the city council the following day with new plans having an estimated cost of $1.5 million. Given that the cost was still a half-million dollars over the originally anticipated cost, and with the matter being covered on an almost daily basis by the press, debate raged in the chambers of the city council.

Kahn renewed his offer to construct the hangar for $1 million and have it completed by April 1. The city’s department of public works entered the fray arguing that they could handle the job just as well as Kamper and most likely at a lower cost, particularly as the architect’s fee of five percent of the total cost would be eliminated. The department, though, wasn’t willing to promise completion by April 1.

On January 29 the hangar contract was put on ice. Councilman John Kronk sent the project back to committee, effectively killing the Kamper contract. Kronk reported that his action was a response to the citizens of Detroit who were fed up with “the lack of business foresight and irregularities,” and “demanded that the ‘rush act’ be ended.”

Other architects chime in

The Detroit chapter of the American Institute of Architects also joined the debate. They had sent a letter to the council several days prior, but when council members met, they voted against hearing the letter. The letter stated that the “the architectural profession has been placed in an unfavorable and unmerited position by the controversy” over the hangar contract. The letter explained that the contract had been awarded in a manner that violated the architects’ code of practice. (Louis Kamper had his membership in the Institute briefly suspended due to this affair.)

On February 6 the controversy reached the boiling point as the Free Press ran a front page banner headline “Council Told Rumor of $1,500,000 Hangar ‘Bribe.’” The accompanying article reporting on the previous evening’s council meeting quoted councilman William P. Bradley stating that he had received letters accusing him of being in on “some deal,” an accusation he denied. Kamper was harshly questioned at the council meeting on what type of hangar he could provide for $1.1 million, his latest contract figure. He indicated that the reduced figure would mean a hangar with cheaper flooring, roof, and windows, as well as no lights, heat, water, or fire protection.

Finally on March 12 the city council terminated the contract with Kamper and voted to have John W. Reid, commissioner of public works, design and construct the hangar. The plans were approved the beginning of May for a hangar costing slightly more than $1 million and containing 200,000 square feet—100,000 square feet less than the $1 million hangar previously quoted by Albert Kahn. The hangar was constructed by contractor W. E. Wood and became operational at the end of November 1929.

The massive Detroit City Airport hangar shortly after its completion. This photo was taken on Sunday, April 12, 1931, the first full day of the National Aircraft Show, held at City Airport. (Wayne State University, Virtual Motor City Collection)
Detroit City Airport and the hangar in an aerial photo taken April 16, 1937. (Wayne State University, Virtual Motor City Collection)
A colorized postcard from 1944 showing the hangar at Detroit City Airport.

 

The City Airport hangar in 2020. (Max Ortiz, “Detroit News”)

By Michael G Smith

Kahn’s Hangars, Part One: World War One Training Fields

It is quite rewarding to find well-preserved gems of architectural and historical importance that have been widely overlooked in scholarship but remain beloved in their communities. Such is the case with two Albert Kahn-designed airplane hangars; one in San Antonio, Texas, and the other in the Village of Lansing, Illinois. For Kahn scholars and enthusiasts, they are all the more special as tangible niche entrees in the incredibly diverse portfolio of the renowned architect and his firm. The Lansing hangar will be the topic of a separate blog.

San Antonio’s Hangar 9 is an artifact of the frenzied effort to prepare the United States for its entry into World War I following Woodrow Wilson’s April 2, 1917 declaration of war. By that date, the major combatants in the conflict had been battling since 1914 with newly-devised mechanisms for war while Americans hoped to remain isolated and at peace. One of the new military innovations was the use of airplanes (then also known as aero planes) in combat. Flight was still a novelty in its fledgling stage in the U.S. at the time, so the country had few pilots and very few of them were trained for battle.

A program for training thousands of pilots needed to commence at once, and it would involve the construction, from scratch, of airbase schools around the country. On May 24, 1917 the Army turned to Albert Kahn (then working in association with Ernest Wilby), to create template designs for the bases. They were essentially self-contained communities with school buildings, dormitories, offices, mechanical shops, hospitals, cafeterias and other structures, including airplane hangars—which are designated “aero repair shops” on the Kahn office drawings at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library.

Payne Field, West Point, Mississippi. This circa 1920 photograph shows a portion of the training field with multiple hangars and other structures designed by Kahn and his firm during a 10-day marathon design effort in 1917. (Collection of the author.)

Kahn was given the official title of Architect of the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps of the United States Army, and his staff of around 80 employees worked day and night to fill the order as quickly as possible. The buildings needed to be designed for construction by workers with minimal training in often rural settings with readily available materials (mainly wood and cement). The first was to be Selfridge Field in Macomb County, Michigan, on land initially cleared by former Packard Motor Company president Henry B. Joy for a civilian airfield. Excavation for the training field began within 12 hours of Kahn’s being given his Army assignment. The completed plans were delivered ten days later and soon more training fields were under construction around the country. The structures were identical but the quantities of the buildings varied according to individual base requirements.

Within eight months of entering the war, the Army had 13 new and operating training airfields using Kahn’s design, with more on their way. They became part of a network of 31 flying fields across the country by war’s end. Between June 30, 1917 and November 11, 1918, 16,857 men graduated basic training as aviators, with others being trained in mechanical, photographic, radio and other programs at the fields.

Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illinois. This circa 1918 postcard view was rather clumsily enhanced to illustrate the flurry of activity attending these training fields during WW I. (Collection of the author.)

Conceived as temporary buildings for the duration of the war, only one structure of this remarkable, historic effort remains today. (Kahn also designed permanent WW I era airbases at Langley, Virginia, and San Diego, California, with extant structures.) Hangar 9 was one of 16 built for San Antonio’s Kelly Field, which later became Brooks Airbase and the area has now been redeveloped as the Brooks City-Base development. The hangar, constructed to house eight Curtiss JN-4 bi-planes (the famed “Jennys”) was spared from demolition more than once over the years and remains today on its original site although the surrounding airfield is long gone.

Hangar 9, San Antonio, Texas. Albert Kahn, architect, Ernest Wilby, associate. Exterior as photographed in 2021. (Photo by the author.)

The wood frame structure received a loving $2.8 million restoration and was rededicated in 2017 as a special events venue. The structure exhibits Albert Kahn’s trademark use of natural lighting for work areas, illuminating a 15-foot high, unobstructed interior expanse of 7,800 square feet. Large, hanging wood door sections, that once slid to open the entire 65-foot width of the building’s end as Jennys were swiftly ushered in and out during training exercises, still function.

Hangar 9, San Antonio, Texas. Albert Kahn, architect, Ernest Wilby, associate. Interior as photographed in 2021. (Photo by the author.)

By Chris Meister
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The author wishes to thank Tara Hernandez, Lt. Col. Louis J. Nigro (Ret.), Lori Nye, Maria Pfeiffer and the staffs of the Bentley Historical Library and the Selfridge Military Air Museum for their assistance in my research for this blog.

Construction and Demise of the Packard Plant

Detroit’s Packard automobile plant is slowly yielding to the wreckers in preparation for a new use for the land. The Detroit Packard factory was first constructed in 1903 as a complex of one- and two-story brick and timber buildings, designed by brothers Albert and Julius Kahn. At the time, the brothers were in a partnership that combined architecture and engineering in a single firm, a highly unusual arrangement for the era. Albert provided the architecture skills and Julius, a civil engineering graduate of the University of Michigan, the engineering skills.

In 1906 Packard added a tenth building to the complex, designed by Albert Kahn. This structure was constructed of reinforced concrete, being the world’s second concrete auto factory. (The Cadillac Motor Car Co. factory at 450 Amsterdam St. in Detroit was the first.) All subsequent multi-story buildings were constructed of reinforced concrete, while most single-story buildings were of steel. Nearly all buildings within the complex were designed by Albert Kahn’s firm.

Packard Motor Car company sales grew and the company continued adding buildings and adding floors to existing buildings to increase production capacity. The size of the plant expanded from two acres of floor space in 1905 to over 33 acres by 1910 and nearly 60 acres by 1916. Also in 1916 the last of the original brick and timber factory buildings, dating from 1903, were demolished.

In 1909 the company expanded on the south side of Grand Blvd, constructing a power plant and a two-story service building that manufactured and stored spare parts for Packard cars (building #27 on the southeast corner of E. Grand Blvd. and Concord Avenue). An addition to the service building the following year (known as building #28) changed it from an “L” shape to a “U” shaped structure. In 1911 a third story was added and then a fourth story in 1917.

 

Looking west along E. Grand Blvd. in 1909, the service building (on the left) as a two-story building. On the right two stories are being added to the original two-story Packard office building. (Library of Congress)

 

This 1910 photo shows the service building after the addition of a wing to the south side. (Library of Congress)

 

The building received a third story in 1911. This view is looking southeast from Grand Blvd. The photo and caption appeared in the February-March issue of “The Packard,” the company’s internal magazine.

 

Packard added a fourth story to the building in 1912. This is how the service building appeared in 1917. Note that the first three floors had double-hung windows that were standard for factories at the time. In 1910 steel sash windows were first used on the Kahn-designed Ford Highland Park factory and quickly became preferred over the older style. Steel sash windows were used here on the fourth floor of the building. (Detroit Public Library)

Bridge over Grand Blvd.

Continued growth and the introduction of the moving assembly line eventually forced Packard to convert the service building to the assembly of car bodies. In 1939 a bridge was built across Grand Blvd. to allow completed car bodies to be transported along the assembly line from the former service building to the main plant where they were joined with automobile frames.

The bridge differed in appearance from numerous other bridges connecting buildings within the complex in that it had a decorative façade. This was due to a city requirement that, as the bridge passed over a major thoroughfare and was highly visible, it must have an attractive appearance.

The bridge spanning Grand Blvd. was completed in 1939. It was a steel truss structure with brick facades. (Detroit Public Library)

 

The bridge contained the assembly line which carried car bodies from the service building north to the main plant where the bodies were joined to the frames.

The bridge over Grand Blvd. represented a reconfiguration of the interior arrangement of the Packard complex; construction of multi-story factory buildings had largely ended by 1918. The last major addition to the plant designed by the Kahn firm was the 1940 construction of a large one- and two-story building for Packard’s aviation division, (located adjacent to the railroad tracks west of the main complex and south of the Edsel Ford Freeway).

Packard Shuts Down

Packard ceased operations in the factory on Grand Blvd. in 1956, idling 11,000 workers in the process. About half of the now empty plant was leased out to various corporations for manufacturing and warehousing. In 1999 the city, believing that it owned the property, evicted the tenants in preparation for demolition of the plant by the state. A subsequent legal battle resulted in the city losing its claim to ownership of the plant. With no tenants and legal title to the facility in question, the abandoned structure continued to deteriorate.

In 2022 the city finally seized the property and completed demolition of one building on the north side of the plant complex. Beginning in January of 2023 the city demolished building #28, the 1910 addition to the service building. Unlike most of the complex, buildings #27 and #28 are owned by the city. It is believed that building #27 will be kept intact for historical reasons, along with the former Packard offices facing it on the north side of Grand Blvd (also owned by the city).

The service building and bridge in 2015. Scrappers made off with the steel sash of the fourth floor windows but left the wooden double-hung windows. (Google)

Demolition

In a May 2, 2008 article in the Free Press, the photo caption states: “Firefighters say scrappers have cut out some of [the bridge’s] support beams and fear it will collapse.” In January 2019 it did just that.
Two views of the former service building before and after the addition was demolished in 2023. (Google)

 

A view of the service building (#27) and the addition (#28) prior to demolition. (Bing)

 

The former Packard service building after demolition of the south wing. (Google)

Final Days of Building #28

Below are photos taken of the 1910 addition to the Packard service building prior to its demolition

The service building was of reinforced concrete construction with wooden wearing surfaces on the floor.

 

A view from the service building addition to the original service building. The metal pieces that are visible in the ceiling are channels into which brackets could be inserted from which equipment could be suspended.

 

The 1911 service building addition (on the left) as seen from the original 1910 structure. The structure on the right protrudes from the building and contains a large elevator and stairway. The elevator and stairway were built on the exterior of buildings so they could be better enclosed to prevent a fire on one floor from spreading to other floors.

 

A wonderful mural on the wall of the addition with a fine aspirational statement: “Hard work and dedication leads to success”. The reason for a door on an upper floor is that it opens to a bridge to the adjoining building.

 

The service building addition is on the far right here. One of the bridges that connected each floor of the building across the courtyard to the other section of the service building remains, the others having collapsed. The bridges, being constructed of steel rather than reinforced concrete, were more susceptible to the ravages of time. In the distance is Grand Blvd. and the former Packard office building.

 

The courtyard between the original service building on the left and the wing added in 1910 on the right. Courtyards were necessary at the time of construction because work areas were illuminated by natural light. Courtyards permitted light to enter interior facing sections of the building. The outline of a later addition to the factory of a single-story structure can be seen on the far wall.

Below are photos taken during the demolition of the service building addition on January 31, 2023

Demolition of the east half is underway while the western half of the building (on the left) has yet to begin.

 

One section or bay of the building has been torn off.

 

This close up photo of a column shows the various steel reinforcement bars protruding from the crumbled concrete. To its left is another column with the vertical reinforcement bars and the circular “hooped” bars that held the column together.

 

In this photo the construction of the Kahn System floor (invented by Albert Kahn’s brother Julius) is clearly visible. The hollow terra cotta blocks served no structural purpose, they just filled the space between beams. This made the floor much easier to construct as forms did not have to be built to shape each individual beam. It also resulted in a flat ceiling for the floor below which allowed light coming in through the windows to be reflected further into the building.

 

This section of the building contains the elevator and stairway.

By Michael G Smith. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.