Ficano's Folly, Pt. 2

February, 2011.

RETURN to part 1

For the past decade or so this building has sat mostly vacant, while Wayne County’s offices were housed back with Detroit city offices again. The county seat moved into new City-County Building in 1955 (now the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, another 1950s glass & steel exercise in boredom), while this building was used to house the Friend of the Court and the Detroit Traffic Court. As time went on, the old building's condition continued to decline (read: its decor was too old-fashioned for the snooty politicians' palates, and it did not offer views of the river, so they grew tired of it and let it go). The building was saved from demolition allegedly only by the fact that it was estimated it would cost too much to tear down. Gee, you think that might be a reason to take better care of a place?

Today the county leases space in the Guardian Building, which is perhaps equally as beautiful as this old courthouse, but is still merely an office tower designed for big business. This move was met with much criticism and debate, especially since the Guardian needed another $39 million taxpayer-funded restoration before the politicians could move in! By the time the fiasco was completed with all the bickering and flip-flopping on how to carry out the move to the Guardian, the county could have bought back their old historic building that was purpose-built for them here at 600 Randolph. A brilliant waste of taxpayer money. Oh well, anybody want a loft?  Great views, historic ambiance, close to the stadiums--cheap, cheap, cheap!

Anyway, enough of that--let's get to it. Inside the carriage entrance vestibule:

I had stepped into this grand edifice many years before, only to be turned away at the front desk when the guard said that the office I was looking for had recently moved to the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. But what I saw of the magnificent interior from that momentary trip inside was enough to make me hunger for the chance to see it more intimately.

Shoeshine shop in the nook to the left:

I milled around in the lower entranceway waiting for the tour to start, and snapped some pics. Obviously this is not the main lobby; the true lobby is upstairs and is far grander. However they closed off the main entrance years ago for some stupid reason and now the carriage entrance is the only entrance. Maybe it was to protect Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano by slowing down the mobs of people that constantly swarm the building to get a glimpse of the legendary former “stand out” baseball player at Livonia Stevenson High School.

The building is five stories tall, but used to be numbered according to the European system (Ground, 1st, 2nd, 3rd…), meaning that the second floor is actually the first floor, and the bottom floor is called “Ground” level. Again, this hearkens back to the ancient Romans and their systems of architecture and government. Today however the signs have been changed to reflect the American style of floor numbering, which I’m sure cost the taxpayer a pretty penny. But the room numbers stenciled on the ornate Arts & Crafts style transom-windows over all the offices retain their original numbering, so yeah…it was a ham-handed and pointless move anyway:

As it turns out, one other interesting tidbit I learned is that the signage in the building was originally printed in three different languages--English, Polish, and German, because those were the three main languages spoken in Detroit at the time.

The grand staircase leading into the main lobby:

But we wouldn’t be going there yet.

First we were shown into one of the two atriums or courtyards, and blabbed at for a minute:

The building takes after Roman civic architecture with its strong central axis, balanced by two flanking pavilions, with open courtyards. But alas, Michigan weather is not like Roman weather, and the courtyards were covered by skylights, much like the Kresge Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

And once again, these were the areas that had been once covered over and made into regular floors of the building by adding wooden floors over the open space. This was done in the 1940s to help house the old Traffic Court when they were hurting for space.

This was the only part of the building's restoration where they had to actually reconstruct parts of it using non-original materials, though you can hardly tell.

Here you can also see a couple of the Tiffany windows that grace the building:

I’ll show these in better detail later.

Then it was off to the elevator to go up to the 4th floor (according to the American numbering). We skipped the 5th because the lady said there was nothing much up there…

Uh, we’ll just see about that.

The building was called by W. Hawkins Ferry “the most sumptuous in all of Michigan,” who also noted that, in its construction, "cost does not seem to have been a consideration." Its lavish interior wood furnishings included mahogany, curly birch, oak, curly maple, and sycamore. For marbles, the interior boasted Sienna, English vein, white Italian, Alps green, Verona, red and yellow Numidian, and several more domestic varieties. The Numidian is an African marble that is very rare now, and found in quarries originally worked by the ancient Romans. Final cost of construction in 1902 was $1.6 million. Indeed it was among the most sumptuous in all of North America.

The doors to the left lead into the Wayne County Board of Commissioners chambers:

The central corridor of the building, between the two courtyards and below the tower is where all the main chambers are located, and this was the top--and thus most opulent--chamber.

The lady explained that level of decoration on the floors became successively more and more ornate as one moved up in the building; though the coffered ceilings on the top floors were left painted white in the end to keep the building from looking too expensive. It was feared that when it was opened to the public, people would see a colossal waste of taxpayer money spent on opulence for politicians and judges. Originally the coffered ceilings were to have been painted in beautiful, deep colors and goldleaf. Today, with the restoration, some of them have been painted more along the lines of what the architect would’ve intended, using shades historically known to be used in buildings of this vintage.

Ostensibly, because the Commissioners were the top level in county government, they were on the top. Directly below this room on the next floor down was the Board of Supervisors, below that was the Board of Auditors, and below that was the Probate Court. If I am not mistaken.

While I waited for the rest of the group to arrive on the elevators, I poked my head into the Commissioners’ chambers, and my jaw dropped. I had not seen opulence on this scale since visiting the Masonic Temple. It was even harder now to envision this place sitting abandoned.

The windows on either side look out to the two courtyards. Natural light of course was still important in those days, as was ventilation. This room was used for the courtroom scene in the movie Hoffa, and I think it may have also been used for a similar scene in the movie about Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

Turning on the lights, the red Numidian marble becomes strikingly apparent.

These stunning clocks I would soon find out were actually installed throughout the building:

Back in the 1970s, the county had actually seriously considered demolishing this building because it had become so run down and had suffered some “poorly considered” alterations. I’m thinking that means drop ceilings.

Now that the group had amassed in the main chamber, I took that opportunity to wander off again and see what else I could find…

Just around the corner, I could look out over the courtyard and see the exterior of the Commissioners’ chambers I had just left:

It was a bit eerie wandering these halls with the lights out and all the desks and cubicles cleaned out. It already was starting to feel abandoned.

The lady said that the move-out was done in such haste and with such clumsiness and carelessness that most of the bran-new network wiring would have to be redone because of damage caused while removing equipment. Who cares, when it's just taxpayer money?

Wandering back out toward the elevator lobby, I gazed upon the colonnaded portico at the front of the building:

The Corinthian column capitals were about as big as my car. Here once upon a time was the Central Market:

You can see the aforementioned Lawyers' Building here directly across the street, which I had explored several years back:

I wandered some more:

View out a window towards the river. Sweetwater Tavern:

Jacoby’s German Biergarten:

I think Jacoby’s is the original tenant of that building…they have been in business since 1904. This was the old German part of town, and though Jacoby’s is no longer a true "biergarten," it is where all the judges and politicians would hang out, being so close to the county building.

One of the stories the lady told us was of a murder that occurred here on the first floor of the county building. A judge shot four people he had been in a real estate venture with. They were all longtime acquaintances, and I suppose when this deal went sour for him (it was riskier than he was led to believe, and he lost big money on it), tensions arose between the men. One day he called for a truce and summoned them all into his chambers at the county building to discuss the matter. Once they were all seated, he produced a revolver from his desk, and shot all four in cold blood. According to the subsequent investigation, the judge then calmly went directly across the street to Jacoby’s, had a drink, and left. He then walked down to the river, shot himself, and was found washed up on Mud Island across from Ecorse the next morning.

I have since verified this tale in a 1940 article from the Detroit Free Press archives, which calls it "one of the strangest criminal cases in Detroit's history." The killer was Judge Robert E. Sage, and his victims were attorney Maurice Smilay, and promoters Ralph and Albert Nadell--Smilay survived his shot to the chest. The four men had planned to create a sports park at Livernois & Elmhurst for use by amateur athletes, but when the venture failed, Sage killed them and then himself. In Judge Sage's pocket was a key to Room 635 of the Strathmore Hotel, residence of Walter Priebe, a close friend from who the revolver was taken. Today the corner of Livernois & Elmhurst is a commercial strip, but there are two small city parks within a block of there: Knox Court Park, and Russell Woods Park.

Out the window here, you can see the corner of the base of the tower, rising up through the skylight:

I continued wandering.

The door on the left in this next one is actually a vault door:

Every so often I would reappear in the area of the group so as not to be missed. Pretty soon, other people were wandering a little bit too, heh.

The tour began to retread areas I had already seen, and once again I saw my chance to sneak off.

I ran up to the 5th floor real quick, if for no other reason than to say I was there. I really wanted to sneak off and find the tower…problem was, I also didn’t want to miss any of the eye-popping goodness of the actual tour. Plus a lot of the stuff the lady was talking about was pretty interesting. Neither did I want to get kicked out of here yet for being mischievous; if I was gonna get booted, I wanted to wait until the end so I at least got to see the whole place.

But yeah, the 5th floor was pretty boring as it turned out. I only spent a minute or two, then ran back down and caught up with the group again, because they were moving down to the next floor.

The stairs in here reminded me of the grand staircase in Norwich State Hospital’s admin building when Syd and I had swung through Connecticut in 2005:

We entered one of the corner offices with the balconies. I was of course determined to get out on one of the balconies from this office, if not both. I stood in a corner with my camera out, and acted like I was waiting for everyone to get out of my frame so I could photograph the room.

This was a trick that I had employed a couple times already; not only did it allow me the privacy to sneak off, but it also showed the two tour guides that I was commonly going to be the person in the group “bringing up the rear” as it were, so that I could “get my shots.”

The added effect of this of course is that the more they became acclimated to it, the more comfortable they would become with my absence.

Once the second lady poked her head back in the room to check for stragglers, saw me framing up a shot, and smiled at me before smartly turning on her heel to catch up to the group, I knew I had their trust. I was golden. All I had to do was pick my moment to assault the tower. But first, I was going to check out this balcony. The instant the lady was gone I began undoing the latches on the French doors. Piece-a-cake.

View up Congress:

You must have to be pretty important to have an office with two walk-out balconies high up above the street. Unfortunately the other one in the room was locked.

View west on Congress:

So far so good. I had been doubtful before of my chances of actually sneaking into the tower, but now I was full of courage. I caught up to the group again to make another gracefully-timed appearance.

CLICK for part three

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
"Wound Shows Sage Shot Self," Detroit Free Press, October 13, 1940, p. 1

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.