Ficano's Folly, Pt. 4

February, 2011.

RETURN to part 3

Back on the ground floor, it became apparent that the tour was slowly wrapping up. The lady was now talking quite profusely, in fact it didn’t seem like she could be stopped, haha. She began telling the story of how the men’s room we were currently standing near had almost been dynamited once by the infamous Purple Gang.

I obviously couldn’t miss out on this, so I milled about within earshot, though feeling a little bummed that I had not been able to make a go of the tower. She said that in the 1920s one of the members was on trial for murder or something along those lines, and on the day of the trial they planned to bomb the joint and come in shooting to abscond with the captive member. Either that or it was just to disrupt the place for the purpose of delaying the trial so they could have time to bust him out of the clink.

They had someone sneak in a bundle of TNT, then light it in the bathroom, and leave. This plan would have worked brilliantly if it had been performed inside the correct building—the actual trial took place at the federal courthouse, down the street. And as it so happened, there was a Sherriff’s deputy walking the corridor that day who happened to notice the smell of something burning.  He went into the bathroom only to find a huge pile of dynamite sitting on a toilet, with the fuse lit!

According to the story, the cop seized the dynamite, ran outside with it and tossed it into an open area where it exploded harmlessly. Or maybe he tossed it into the courtyard? Or at least that’s what I vaguely remember, since I had already begun to get restless…I once again wrestled with the idea of doing something untoward before the tour ended. The lady kept blabbing and blabbing, and this time it was about nothing very interesting, so I started wandering a bit more, cursing the fact that I was far too overdressed to be indoors today—I was starting to sweat. I was also antsy because I needed to get on the road to meet up with someone in Kalamazoo in two hours.

As I was wandering in a room immediately nearby, I saw this discarded placard outlining the hierarchy of Wayne County governmental structure:

This was already so much like being in an abandoned building, even though it wasn't abandoned yet. I started to think about how great it had been to see the inside of this place finally (it had in fact quite exceeded my expectations), about how I would probably never get the chance to come back in here again, and that it was about to come to an end in just a few minutes. I went back to the marble stairs with the Tiffany window just to make sure I had the best possible photo of it.

Then I saw a woman (who obviously worked here) come up from the stairs to the basement, and I was reminded of the old morgue, and jail tunnel down there. She disappeared down the hall, and I noticed that the tour lady was still talking and that everyone was still there paying attention to her with no indication of stopping, and that my absence again had gone totally unnoticed. I peered through the window into the basement…

I was seized with the urge to do something naughty, something tip-toed. I knew I had to at least do something clandestine, or risk being held as a cheap wimp of an explorer and live the rest of my life with the regret. I waited and listened and I could tell there were other people in the basement, though they were further off. I prepared to make a go of it just to see how far I could get, but then I thought if I am going to take a risk, then why not just go for the tower? Anyway, the morgue was most likely remodeled away long ago, and the jail tunnel—if I can find it without being stopped by whoever was down there—is probably locked, and after all…it’s just a tunnel. Besides—I knew nobody was upstairs, and by the time anyone came looking for me I will already have seen the tower (assuming it could be done).

I silently crept up the marble stairs making sure to check down the hall again to verify that the group was still standing there, oblivious to me, and ran up to the next floor. Then I crossed over and made straight for the central stairwell (a modern fire code addition), which I had scouted earlier when I had snooped to the 5th floor. By the time I reached the 5th floor again I was lightheaded, sweating madly, and sucking wind. I could not waste a single minute because not only was there a chance that the lady may notice me missing and begin searching, but I was already going to be late meeting David in Kzoo. Chances were however that they would just assume I had already left the building, if they noticed me gone at all.

By the way, in this shot you can see the remnant of the old copper gutter, from before the courtyard was covered by the skylight:

To my dismay the stairs ended at the 5th floor, and I knew that I would have to begin searching elsewhere for the tower access. I had no idea really how well hidden this entrance would be. I started by moving to the windows overlooking the atrium to get my bearings.

Okay, here was the County Commissioners’ chambers once again, which meant the front of the building was behind me, and the base of the tower must be immediately to my left, not far off:

It didn’t take me long to figure out that the slightly larger office corridor area with the extra wall I had just moved through must be my quarry. I retraced my steps, peeked around a poorly lit corner, and saw a wide, graceful, tarnished brass banister to a very important-looking spiral staircase. That familiar warmth of adrenaline flooded my whole body, starting at my toes and quickly swooshing up past my forehead, bringing that undeniable smile to my face. I pulled out my mini was on.

I ascended into total darkness, and came to a door that had been boarded up, and had a hasp on it where a padlock used to be, but showed signs of having been forced. There was also a NO TRESPASSING sign posted saying it was a restricted area and only authorized personnel were to go beyond this point. After checking for alarms, I pushed, nudged, then barged, and finally it squeaked open. Clearly someone else—perhaps the guards—had at some point decided they were entitled to the glories that lay above, be it for viewing 4th of July fireworks, or just a place to smoke while on break. This was a good sign—it meant I was probably going to get everywhere I wanted. I was now inside a very large, cube-shaped room—essentially the 6th story of the building. Again it was total darkness, though I could see a few slits of light from a small 2’x3’ door, presumably leading outside onto the main roof.

There was also a raised platform near the back of the room and large steel I-beams crisscrossed only a few inches off the floor. It was an interesting room, but I didn't want to waste any time or battery power setting up shots in total dark when I could be forging ahead into the heights; when I saw the spiral metal staircase, I knew I had my goal within reach.

Rising one more level on the spiral stairs, I came into a fully lit room. We shall call this the 7th level:

The warning here says “A MAX OF TWO SCAFFOLD LEVELS MY BE LOADED AT ONE TIME, LIGHT DUTY LOADING, blah blah blah.” This undoubtedly was a leftover from when the neverending restoration of the tower had it clad in scaffolds for years. Here also you can see the narrow slit windows that were visible in my exterior shots of the tower.

Up, up, up, and up I went. It really seemed endless. Once I left the 7th level the spiral staircase went into a black, corrugated metal sheath or tube that surrounded it, and had burned-out (or weakly flickering) fluorescent lights in it at intervals. Finally, I could feel a blast of frigid snowy air coming from above, followed by daylight.

I knew I had done it, but I just couldn’t believe it. I had made it up to what I fancied as one of the sweetest chill spots in all of Detroit. This was the colonnaded level with the huge pillars surrounding it all along the outside.

As a kid, before I understood the gaudy flourishes that architects designed into buildings once upon a time, I thought surely these heavenly-seeming places must be reserved for kings and great, influential men to look out from the lofty heights, and, perhaps, feel their own importance welling up within them, or whatever powerful people do when they're up there...survey their kingdom, or whathaveyou.

Unfortunately the truth is that no one really comes up here at all, except for the pigeons. Furthermore, the views from here were slightly less glamorous than hoped for—i.e., the RenCen is mostly hidden from view behind Millender Center, and it seemed like I was looking at the backs of the rest of the buildings. The columns themselves obstruct a lot too. Nevertheless, I was loving this.

Here’s the steel sheathing around the stairs I mentioned:

I really needed a wider-angle lens for this...

Water Board Building again (behind which, the Broderick Tower is hidden):

Looking north toward the stadiums:

Toward the river:

Knowing I could not linger, I forced myself to continue up the tower—I had a couple more levels to conquer before I could consider myself finished:

Reaching the 9th level, the spiral stairs dead-ended in a Danvers-style tower room with four balconies, one looking out from each side. The one directly ahead was already sitting open.

If there’s anything I like more than a balcony to chill on, I’m not sure what it is. I really wished it were summer though, so I could fully enjoy this the way it was meant to be.

The view down was impressive. Here is the old Globe Tobacco Building, and behind it, Greektown:

Back toward Woodward:

Here, you can see the Mariners’ Church, and the Windsor Tunnel to Canada:

Again, the hammered copper statues on the corners of the parapet of this level were entitled, “Law,” “Commerce,” “Agriculture,” and “Mechanics,” but due to their facing out away from the tower's corners, it was hard to get a proper photo of them.

Toward Campus Martius, the large grey building at center is Albert Kahn’s mammoth National Bank of Detroit (which doesn’t exist anymore, but that was the original name):

It also sits precisely atop the footprint of the venerable Pontchartrain Hotel, whose lounge was where most of Detroit’s early auto industry leaders hung out, before the Detroit Athletic Club was built.

I closed the door to the balcony that had been ajar, to keep the snow from drifting inside the building. I had no choice but to leave footprints in it, but oh well. The last of the three balconies was locked, but that was okay—I still had another level to climb up to.

The 10th:

Fighting the fact that my camera was starting to tell me the batteries were dead, and reaching the limits of my memory card, I nonetheless soldiered on, making sure I documented as much as humanly possible. Here I was now in the level with the cute little arched windows. Once again, not really being designed for human occupancy, the interior of this part of the building didn’t quite live up to the hopes I had for it while viewing it from afar, but I was still ecstatic to be here seeing it. 

I could feel quite a draft of warm air rushing up through the building the whole time I was in the tower. I wondered if this was as a result of my having left the door open on the 6th level when I entered, and whether this sudden draft would alert anyone that something was amiss…?

Again, the 10th level had balconies on all four sides, and doors leading out onto them. 

What I wouldn’t do for the chance to fix up one of these tower rooms for use as a personal part-time residence, and live here like Quasimodo. 

The sandstone balustrades outside bore quite a bit of graffiti, incidentally most of it from 1997 while the building was undergoing renovation. There’s one here at the bottom from 1953, however:

And here, from 1939 at the bottom, and 2002 at the top:

Of course, 1997 was the big year the Wings won the Stanley Cup:

Looking straight down to the portico main entrance. Note the two large copper statues again, on either side of the roof:

Looking left:

Looking right (Fisher Building in the distance):

One more level to go…the dome! I climbed the narrow ladder, and came up inside it only to find that that was the end of the road. I couldn’t manage to get a decently framed-up pic, not that there was anything of note here to see anyway. Other than the fact that the needle on top of the dome is not accessible. Still I wish I at least had one picture of inside the dome. Oh well. I headed back down, reluctant to leave but knew that I had to make tracks. I lingered one more time on the colonnaded 8th level:

You’ll notice that I said the last level of the tower I was on prior to the dome was the 10th level of the building. However, if you look back several photos, you’ll see one where we are clearly looking down on the roof of the Lawyers’ Building across the street. That building is officially listed at a full 10 stories; however, it is obvious we are sitting well above it.

It’s amazing to think how tall this tower is when compared to other buildings I have explored downtown. The Wayne County Building is no slouch in terms of height—considering that it was listed at 247 feet tall, that’s roughly equivalent to 24 floors…! Which would make it taller than the train station, which is mind-boggling…

Above, you can see flood lights meant to illuminate the inside of this level. I don’t think they have worked in quite some time.

Returning to the 7th level, I prepared to go back down into the total darkness. Once on the 6th however, I stopped myself, and decided that for chrissakes, I was here after all—I might as well pop out on the main roof as well for a minute, to get shots of the outside of the tower. If indeed trouble was waiting for me below, I at least wanted to be able to say I had partaken in the fullest possible amount of indulgence.


Last spring some of my friends were sneaking around the Russell Industrial Lofts, and snooped their way into part that seemed vacant, a big room with the lights off. Suddenly they came across two gigantic metal statues in the darkness, chariots that were so huge that they were absolutely larger than life. At the time they had no idea what the statues were, or what they belonged to, but the fact is they were still being restored by the man who owned Venus Bronze Works. 

Coincidentally enough, they planned to return to see these statues again a couple days later, but they were gone. The newspaper the next morning carried a story that the two much-vaunted and long-absent quadriga statues that once adorned the proud Wayne County Building had at long last been completed, and were ready to be reinstalled on the building.

They were brought on a tractor-trailer and raised into place by a huge crane with much fanfare in the local media and architectural circles. Coincidentally enough, the papers also talked about the fact that the lease on the old County Building had just expired, and it would be on the market with no current tenants—essentially having completed its renovation on the same day it became a vacant building. Welcome to Detroit.

A little note of trivia...the figures used to hold pennants as well, but a severe storm damaged those parts of the statues decades ago, and they were never replaced.

This shot was taken by leaning way out next to one of those black-tinted surveillance camera globes:

If security didn’t know where I was before, there was a very good chance they did now, hahaha!

I now raced back down the stairs because I was way behind schedule. However, when I reached the ground floor, I was alarmed to see the tour guide lady standing there by the security desk talking to the guard, who was also standing in the hallway and resting his hand on his radio. “Oh phew—there he is,” she immediately said when she saw me coming. I was walking fairly quickly, and had no intentions of stopping to chitchat or answer any questions—I merely put a big harmless smile on my face and interrupted her to say, “Oh I’m sorry, I just ran back upstairs for a minute to retake a few pictures…” and kept making my way right past her while profusely thanking her and the guard at the same time.

I let myself outside into the snow and cold again, almost breaking into a jog in case they suddenly felt they needed to question me some more.

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

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic; google didn’t give me many pics of the interior, then boom ! All I could hope gir, though a little dark. And surprisingly no big grand courtrooms, in fact few really grand rooms except the top floor commissioners office. Architecturally it reminds me of our own Victorian Parliament House (1850s-18880s), same ‘Roman’ use of lots of Doric columns, allgeberally square and relatively plain but sumptuous materials, same mosaic floor. Also the overall form similar though our tower never built, and ours inspired by Leeds Town Hall, which has a big square tower like yours. And finally yes what a stupid thing that the county moved out rather than restoring ! Because they were in dispute with the landlord which was some quasi county entity ! At least someone else liked it enough to do the right thing - but honestly this must be the only grand city or county building in the country that’s been sold off !


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