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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.