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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.

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
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.