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.
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:
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 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:
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 flashlight...it was on.
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:
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.
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:
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…
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.
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 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