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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.

Evolution of the Ford Service Building

At the corner of Woodward Avenue and Grand Boulevard in Detroit stands a rather depressing looking building that appears to date from the 1970s. It may surprise you to learn that the building actually dates from well over a hundred years ago.

The eight-story, Albert Kahn designed building at 7310 Woodward Avenue was first constructed in 1909 as a modest three-story structure by Ford Motor Company. It was called the Ford Service Building and its function was much like the service department at an auto dealership today.

The building was dramatically expanded in size in 1913. It grew from 100 feet along Grand Blvd. to a total of 320 feet, and five floors were added, making it one of the largest in Detroit at the time. For several years the Detroit auto show was held in the building until it outgrew the space available within.

Ford did not remain in the building for long, selling it in 1918 to the Stormfeltz-Loveley realty company and vacating the building the following year. It then became known as the Stormfeltz-Loveley Building.

The large open areas within the structure became home to several interesting tenants. In the 1930s, boxers practiced in the Chevrolet Gym and archers held contests in the indoor range. The Grandwood Golf Club claimed to be the world’s largest indoor facility, with 18 holes, water hazards, sand traps, and even live trees.

In 1939 the building was again sold and renamed the Boulevard Building. Not long after, the advent of WWII brought golf play to a halt as federal agencies moved into the building to conduct the war effort.

In 1965 the state of Michigan, owners of the building, decided the building needed updating. The exterior terra cotta cladding was removed and replaced by the depressing modern façade the building now wears.

The building is currently owned by The Platform and there are plans to clean the exterior and add some metallic ornamentation and a mural.

The Ford Service Building on the corner of Woodward and Grand Blvd. as originally constructed.
The Ford Service Building after the addition of 1913.
The building during 1947. (Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University)
The building as it looks in 2023. (Google)

By Michael G Smith