Ficano's Folly, Pt. 1

February, 2011.

600 Randolph, Detroit. The Wayne County Building, sometimes called the Wayne County Courthouse, may be my favorite building downtown, even though it was currently vacant and about to be closed up for good:

When my quarterly newsletter from the Detroit Historical Society arrived, within lay the schedule of “Behind the Scenes Tours” they were offering for the coming season. When I saw the Wayne County Building listed there, I immediately got out my checkbook.

For $25 I figured I could afford to take a shot at glory for this one. God knows that if there is a chance to sneak up into the tall tower of the building—something I had always dreamed about—then this was my only chance at it, and I had absolutely no excuse to miss this tour. It was cheaper than a trespassing ticket, in any case. Even if I didn’t make it into the tower, I would at least be able to see the rest of the building’s interior for the first time.

The scene was electrifying here in the autumn of 1902, as thousands milled about and "cheered lustily" on a crisp October morning...I could almost hear the echoes of 109 years ago as I approached...
A tiny car clattered up the steps leading to the entrance of the magnificent, newly opened Wayne County Courthouse in Detroit. Reaching the Beaux-Arts building's landing, it made a U-turn and descended smartly to the bottom of the stairs on Randolph Street. The crowd mobbed the tiny car. It was the very first Cadillac ever built, and decades later, the area in front of the courthouse would be renamed Cadillac Square in commemoration of its feat.
—Jim Donnelly, Hemmings Classic Car, April 1, 2006
That historic stunt is sometimes regarded as the moment the automobile actually overtook the horse in prowess as a means of conveyance—or at least demonstrated definitively that it could.

It also could be said therefore that it was the moment Detroit officially became the Motor City, showing that it was on the cusp of revolutionizing the way we humans live. The man driving the one-cylinder runabout was native Detroiter Alanson P. Brush, who was responsible for much of the first Cadillac’s design. He later designed Cadillac’s first 4-cylinder, and went on to found the Oakland Motor Co., which in decades after ultimately became known as Pontiac.

The car he drove that fateful day went on to the New York Auto Show and won eternal fame for the fledgling Cadillac nameplate; its popularity was unprecedented. The building whose steps were climbed however—as well as the memory of Brush’s heroic feat—have now both fallen into shadow. How a purpose-built governmental building of this magnitude can become abandoned while the county it once governed remains, is boggling to the mind—especially immediately after investing so much taxpayer money into fully restoring it.

Yet it has.

The tour group was small. The lady who guided the tour explained that this would possibly be the last tour ever, and that in two weeks, the only remaining tenant—a day care center—would be moving out. She also explained that there had been furtive discussions in City Hall over whether to actually board the place up…!

As you can see, the $25 million restoration has just recently been completed—most notably by the re-installation of the giant allegorical quadriga statues “Victory” and “Progress” above the front entrance. When they started, the building had been stained completely black by a century of soot. The renovation dragged on for years (much as the building’s original construction had), and was criticized for having been too expensive, especially in the matter of these two statues, which had lain hidden in some warehouse for so long that some speculated they would never be seen again. This renovation began in 1987 and was not completed until 1997. A couple years later more scaffolding was enclosed around the tower for further repairs, and stayed in place—thanks to more political bungling—until 2006.

I have mentioned that the Detroit “hero” of sorts who piloted the first Cadillac to the top of the Wayne County Building’s steps was named Alanson P. Brush. The astute observer will also note that there is a street in downtown Detroit called Brush Street. In fact, Brush Street is the street that runs along the rear of the Wayne County Building.

If Mr. Brush was still alive, then how can there already be a street be named after him?

Simple. His ancestors were one of the old families of Detroit, who purchased one of the "ribbon" farms laid out in the original platting of the city by the French. The streets that run perpendicular up from the Detroit River naturally took the names of the farmers who owned those narrow plots (though Elijah Brush bought it from a British subject in 1806).

As it turns out, the parcel where the Wayne County Building sits today was originally occupied by a small church and the Brush Family's ancestral burial plot. So it leads one to wonder what might have been going through Alanson Brush’s mind that day in 1902 as he performed that automotive stunt to herald the opening of this brand-new civic structure. In fact, the neighborhood “Brush Park,” which we all know now as the place of endless derelict rotting Victorian mansions just north of the stadiums, was built up in the 1870s by the Brushes, and many of the cross-streets there were subsequently named for members of the Brush Family (Edmund, Alfred, Watson, etc.).

The land where this building stands today was originally fairly swampy, as was much of Detroit in the 1700s and 1800s. By 1896 when excavation started for this building, downtown Detroit was already quite built up, but again it was all built on top of fairly swampy land underneath. To ensure the county building would be built correctly and stand as mightily as it should, excavators had to dig down several stories through the swampiness, then drive white oak and hickory pilings up to 100 feet to the bedrock. The tops were cut off at the level of the Detroit River, and finally an incredibly thick cement cap was poured over the pilings. Next, a layer of 20-inch thick dimension stones were laid, and the brick and limestone brick walls were laid on top of that. Thus, the building sits above grade on a slight rise, and in fact was oriented so as to serve as a visual foil to the equally gaudily-designed Old City Hall, which faced it from across Woodward (until 1961 when it was demolished).

This gaudy, baroque styling “is the architecture the moderns loved to hate,” as the American Institute of Architects wrote in their Guide to Detroit Architecture. It could be said with some humor that it took them so long to finish construction on this behemoth that by the time it was opened for business, its architecture had long gone out of style. It took a year and a month to complete the excavating and laying of the titanic foundation alone. The cornerstone was laid 1897, but the structure was not complete until 1902, plagued with scandal in the financing and contracting of its construction, much like Philadelphia's infamously lavish city hall. A time capsule was also built into the wall, containing the usual contemporary sorts of items, but also Masonic paraphernalia of the Knights Templar and Order of the Mystic Shrine.

Until the time that this magnificent edifice was erected at the dawn of the 20th century, Wayne County’s governmental offices were either housed inside Detroit City Hall, or in a very small unremarkable building at Griswold and Congress. It almost seems as though county government was little-important in comparison to the other levels of government for a long time. That is, until the dawn of the automobile—the erection of this monumental building seems to coincide precisely with the beginning of the automobile age. And what is seemingly the primary function of a county, or indeed the county system of government in America, at least as we taxpayers see it on a daily basis?

The building and maintaining of roads.

It could perhaps be said that the enlargement of the county governments and the success of the automobile went hand-in-hand, or were symbiotic. It was county governments who cooperated in the planning and laying of something called “super-highways” that would decades later become the basis of our present day expressway systems. It was a proud, optimistic time period in American history where the birth of the automobile was spurring infrastructure-building, and the outward expansion of road systems that would ultimately give birth to the interstates we drive on today. Back in 1925, the Michigan legislature passed the Super-Highway Act, which provided for two or more counties to enter into contract for the purpose of establishing a greater system of "superhighways"...was this the genesis of the Interstate Highway System later fostered by Eisenhower?

Wayne County Road Commissioner Edward Hines was a major player in the Super-Highway Commissions. This is how the groundwork was laid for the integration of the automobile into society; with the realization of increased auto traffic came the realization that methods must be adopted to reduce conflict with other modes of transportation and natural land features...the auto became so popular so quickly that its development and sales soon surpassed the rest of the world's ability to cope with the burgeoning number of them beginning to clog thoroughfares once dominated by horsewagons and trains. Bay County, Michigan enacted the County Road Law of 1893, and soon other Michigan counties followed suit by establishing road commissions of their own.

County government has its roots in the English shire (hence “sheriff”), and were created as smaller local governments designed to execute the laws of the Crown. Shires were called counties after the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD, I assume being ruled over by a count or countess; hence the word “county.” In American history, the logic of a county seat was that it be located no further than a day’s travel from anywhere within the area governed. The first American counties were formed in the 1600s in Virginia, and those served as the model for the southern colonies.

The northern colonies however (most notably Pennsylvania) formed counties with lessened capacity due to being hybridded with existing municipal governments, and in fact were the first to elect county officials as opposed to appointing them, going against the aristocratic tradition. The new territories west of the Appalachians used a hybrid of the northern and southern systems, and in fact the county was the first form of U.S. government to come to these untamed frontierlands, prior to state governments being established. The main purpose was to begin the process of subdividing land for eventual sale and settlement. Allegedly the Irish settling northern Michigan so readily adapted to the county system of government here that they named their Michigan counties after counterpart counties of Ireland; hence Wexford, Antrim, Roscommon, and Clare counties.

The old carriage entrance:

Wayne County was established by proclamation on August 15th, 1796, with Detroit, "the oldest city in the Midwest," as its seat. At that time Wayne County embraced within its boundaries all of Michigan, huge swaths of northern Ohio and Indiana, and the entire coast of Lake Michigan, including Chicago, Wisconsin, and the Yoopee. This general area was part of what at the time was called the Northwest Territory, and none of these states I just mentioned had been established yet. Its size was whittled down for a century as the wild Northwest was slowly organized. With the formation of Northville Township in 1897 Wayne County took on its final shape, and its boundaries have remained unchanged since that time.

Coincidentally enough, that was also when construction began on this building. Wayne County was named for General “Mad Anthony” Wayne, hero of the Northwest Indian War, who is explained on this plaque:

I believe this is also him here on the Seal of Wayne County, accepting this land from the Indians in exchange for basically kicking their asses the hell out:

The Wayne County Building was designed by the Detroit firm of John and Arthur Scott in a style that is usually described as either English Baroque, Roman Baroque, or Beaux-Arts Classical (it is thought that Max Grylls of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls may have been the actual designer of the building, as he was a partner and chief designer for John Scott & Co. at that time). The building’s base is hewn of grey Vermont granite and is rusticated, giving it an appearance of immense weight and permanence. The Scott firm also designed the old Michigan Mining School (later Michigan Tech) in Houghton, as well as many other red sandstone buildings across the Upper Peninsula, including Marquette Prison.

The upper stories are done in buff Berea sandstone from Ohio, though originally this was supposed to have been red Lake Superior sandstone from the Jacobsville quarry in the Keweenaw Peninsula of the Yoopee. This disappointed the owner of the quarries, John H. Jacobs, who counted on John Scott to promote the use of their unique stone; he said in a letter to his treasurer prior to construction of the Marquette Prison that "[Scott] is the best friend our Portage Entry Red Stone has got," and that "the sale of the stone depends on the success of the quarry." Jacobs also commented that Scott's firm was the "oldest and most reliable" that he knew of, and cited the fact that they had recently executed the "Pontiac jail" in their sandstone.

But the Wayne County Commissioners chose the Berean instead; the reason for the last-minute change was attributed to a shift in architectural taste that called for lighter-colored stone in classical architecture. I have also heard an alternate version of the story, that some labor difficulty at the Jacobsville quarry at that time was what attributed to the decision, but I think the sudden change could have also been as likely due to certain shady politicians' paternalistic schemes interceding. The choice certainly didn't save the taxpayers any money, who were already allegedly fuming over the fact that Ohio products were going to be used instead of Michigan-based products.

Again, the two massive rooftop statues are allegorically entitled, “Progress” and “Victory” and were executed in hammered copper—not bronze—by New York sculptor J. Massey Rhind. He also did the four smaller allegorical statues on the corners of the tower, “Law,” “Commerce,” “Agriculture,” and “Mechanics,” all attributes that characterized Wayne County at the time. The fancy stone carvings, including this incredible pediment were done by Detroiter Edward Wagner, a German immigrant who studied under Julius Melchers:

Again, the scene depicted here is of General Anthony Wayne parlaying with the Indian “savages.” I took this picture and the similar exterior shots from the vacant Lawyers’ Building across the street back when I infiltrated it in 2006.

The County Building’s tower is 247 feet tall, but in 1959 the decorative colonnaded spire at the summit, which supported a golden dome and a bronze lantern, was damaged in a windstorm and was replaced (or covered?) by these plain panels, as an alternative to the exorbitant cost of restoring it. My ultimate hope was to be able to perhaps poke my head up into that spire, but alas, it turns out that that is not possible.

The original spire is visible in this large-size historic photo taken from Shorpy and looks big enough for a man to stand up inside of. That image was probably taken around 1910.

Small balconies can be seen on every corner of the building.

It was here at this building that Henry Ford reported in 1906 while he was a member of the Wayne County Road Commission (he was in fact an original member of that body). Ford was involved in the effort to establish a State Highway Commission during the “Good Roads Movement,” and by 1908 was responsible for the first mile of concrete highway in the world (Woodward Avenue in front of his Highland Park Model T Plant).

The road-building campaign that was launched by Wayne County during Henry’s term revolutionized the way roads were built around the world, even to the present day. It was also where Adolf Hitler got the idea for the Autobahn.

Though Ford soon fatigued of the political process (he never was cut out to be a politician), he was replaced on the Road Commission by a friend, John S. Haggerty, who in fact owned the brick company that manufactured the bricks for the Wayne County Building. Despite this, and in opposition to the other commissioners, he bucked the trend toward building roads out of brick pavers and argued for concrete, which was much more economical in terms of labor cost per mile of road. Edward Hines was another of the original Wayne County Road Commissioners, and remained on it until his death 32 years later, but he left an equally important legacy on the culture of our roads, as is told in earlier episode.

Admired from afar during the 4th of July fireworks a couple years ago:

I lusted powerfully for the chance to someday enjoy the rare view from this lofty and colonnaded perch:

CLICK for part two

Wayne County Manual, 1926 and 1930.
How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital, by Robert Szudarek
The Renaissance of the Wayne County Building, by Suzy Farbman and James P. Gallagher
American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture, by Eric Hill and John Gallagher
Buildings of Michigan, by Kathryn Bishop Eckert
The Sandstone Architecture of the Lake Superior Region, by Kathryn Bishop Eckert
The Buildings of Detroit, W. Hawkins Ferry

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