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John M. Donaldson & Rise of Architecture in Detroit

Rise of Architecture in Detroit
Detroit, Michigan, Dec. 31st, 1900

Standing upon the threshold of the 20th Century, it may not be without interest that we halt a brief moment to look back through the years of the 19th Century, so soon to close its doors forever.

Were it possible for us to be carried back one hundred years and to look upon the village that then occupied the site of our present beautiful city, we should doubtless be filled with astonishment as great, as that of the resident of that then little town were he to awake from a century of sleep to look upon the city of today, and is it not altogether probable that equally great it not greater progress will be made in the work of the next One hundred years? One hundred years ago Detroit occupied a little clearing at the brink of the river, and consisted of some three hundred small houses, most of them within the stockade, a fort of some dimensions and outside of this, nothing but a vast and almost impenetrable forest. Today we have a city of 300,000 souls with gigantic buildings, civil, religious and mercantile, vast manufacturing interests, well paved avenues, electric cars, palatial steam boats with all of the other factors that go to make up the great cities of the New World. At the opening of the 19th Century, the streets of Detroit were but little wider than the alleys of the present day, the houses were of one story with attic dormer windows, most of them being constructed of logs, while the more elegant were covered with clapboards. All being quite simple and if with any pretension to Architectural treatment, of the Colonial type.

A characteristic feature of the Early Architecture of Detroit was the windmills upon the river banks for the grinding of grain. These picturesque structures survived many years, but one by one have disappeared until now none are left, these were not found elsewhere in the North-west, and seemed to be indigenous to this locality. There was at this time a large Roman Catholic Church in the town of Detroit and another on the Canadian side of the river, of their architecture however little can be learned.

On July 1, 1805 four men arrived at Detroit from Washington to organize for the first time a regular Government, Gov. Wm. Hull, Chief Justice Agustus Woodward and two associates, as they sailed up the river, in sight of the town the blackened grounds and burned ruins were discovered, dotted with the white tents that formed the only habitations of the place. A fire three weeks before had swept away the entire settlement and now a destitute community in a canvas city was all that was left of the then Metropolis of the North West.

The first move was to rebuild it, instead of the compact little hamlet which the fire had devoured, with lanes for streets. Judge Woodward, laid out the city on a magnificent scale modeled upon that of the city of Washington which had been designed by Major L'Enfant, a distinguished French Engineer, during President Washington's administration.

The history of the Architecture of the city, parallels that of most of our American cities. In the beginning only the simplest buildings were built to meet practical necessities, and little if any thought was then given to Architectural expression except in the Churches, and in these the traditions of the Old World so far as possible were repeated.

Such building in the city as was at all Architectural was in effect Colonial during the first 30 years of the 19th Century, and until it was displaced by the Greek revival. Of this time there remain a few notable examples such as the Old First National Bank Building, upon the Corner of Jefferson Ave. and Griswold St., the Hiram Walker house at the Corner of Fort and Shelby Sts. And perhaps one or two more upon Jefferson ave. and Woodbridge St.

The Architecture of this period, though simple in character, was still sincere, stately and dignified, and it may be studied even today with pleasure and profit.

The Churches and the Civic buildings built at this time were of the same Architectural type, but were generally build of wood and all have passed away.

Following this and up to about 1870 our Church Architecture as well as our domestic Architecture was of the Gothic style and some admirable examples of the time may still be seen which show artistic ability and deep knowledge of the best works of the Old World. Among these I would name only the Presbyterian Church at Cor. of Fort and 3rd Streets, St. Johns Episcopal Church at Cor. Of Woodward Ave. and High St., Christ Episcopal Church on Jefferson Ave. and a few stone dwelling houses of much charm and individuality. To two of Detroit's early Achitects a Mr. Jordan and Mr. Gordan W. Lloyd, the latter still living, we are indebted for the best work of this period and indeed for some of the best work up to the present time.

Between 1860 and 1870 our Architecture began to show evidences of a French influence particularly in its Civic buildings, with some Italian suggestions in its domestic work. Our present City Hall is a product of this period and many quite important homes and mercantile buildings still stand as evidences of an evolution brought about by the influences of travel and education.

The educating influences of the World's Fair held in 1876 at Philadelphia and later of that in Chicago in 1893 has been potent for good in all of our cities and throughout the land, and most of our best work, comes from about 1880.

Between this date and the present the city has build its most important civic, religious, mercantile and domestic buildings some of which take rank with the best that has been done in our land.

I would name only a few, among the many of the most notable buildings of this time some of which we may hope to have stand at the opening of the 21st century, as our contribution to those who shall take our places then, viz., The New County Building, The Majestic Building, The New Chamber of Commerce, The Union Trust Building, The Ste. Claire Hotel Building, The State Savings Bank Building, The Michigan Central Railroad and Union Depot Buildings, besides hundreds of great Churches, costly private dwellings, vast Nanufacturing Buildings, and best of all many thousands of comfortable and charming individual homes, each with its own garden and shaded by great trees, fair to look upon and good to live within, for be it known that Detroit is a city of Homes, and we pray it may ever remain so.

Some of the buildings above named are of great height, built with steel frames or skeletons and encased with stone, brick or terra cotta, or a combination of these. Nearly all show a strong French influence as to Architectural design, but are distinctively original in plan and construction. Indeed the steel frame construction adapted to buildings is purely American, no precedent for them is known and they may perhaps be considered our most important contribution to the architecture of the 19th Century.

Our buildings today are equipped with fast running elevators, heating, lighting and power plants and many are practically fire-proof, without these attributes the high buildings would be impossible.

In cities which grow so rapidly as do our American cities, the use of timber will be gradually discarded. Apart from the risk of fire, the use of the steel frame construction, must supersede it, as where ground becomes valuable, economy of space is essential and increased facility for rapid extension important.

The importance of concentration is another cause of the increased height which steel construction buildings make possible.

The resultant 'Sky-Scraper' is not likely to be a lasting problem in our Architecture. Unless these lofty buildings are restricted in height and locality obvious difficulties and objections must supervene.

While some of these buildings give evidence of artistic skill, they stand rather as monuments of engineering science than Architectural genius and in this they are a true product of the time, for it is true that architecture together with all art is the exact expression of the mental, social and spiritual temper of the times that produce it.

The Art of Architecture is young with us. It is only within a few years that it has become the life work of thousands in our own country, and if in establishing the profession we have made many halting steps as artists; yet we are conscious of constant advance and full of faith for the future.

We are told that the hope of our art lies with a new school to come, that is to encourage indigenous and inventive architecture for America.

Most of us shudder to think of what our land would be if subjected to a liberation of the Creative impulse, unguided by knowledge and tradition.

The chief value of any new movement is to be found in what it produces and when it produces the admirable results we sometimes see today, it will be found that they rest on immutable laws, well known and applicable to other and quite different work.

If any of us shall at the Master's call, in the life to come be set to design a white oak tree, we shall find it must be done with timeworn details, with bark and leaves and twigs and bud and acorn. Yet the gracious adaptation of these to surroundings and circumstances makes every white oak tree an individual with its own character and with a beauty that is ever new and fresh.

The story is told of a farmer who raised grain, and when the grain was ripe one man told him to take it to market by rail, and one by the canal, and still a third by the road. But when he got to market he found that nobody asked him anything but whether the grain was good. And may this clearing and ploughing time of the 19th Century help to make better the grain of the 20th and 21st Centuries to which these words are addressed by one who is proud to be a citizen and an Architect of Detroit, in these last days of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century.

John M. Donaldson
Of Donaldson & Meier
Detroit - Michigan


  1. John M. Donaldson, Rise of Architecture in Detroit, Century Box Letters, Detroit Century Box, time capsule from 1901 opened New Year's Eve 1999, Detroit Historical Museums & Society John M. Donaldson, Rise of Architecture in Detroit, Century Box Letters, Detroit Century Box, Detroit Historical Museums & Society, [http://www.detroithistorical.org/exhibits/index.asp?MID=3&EID=186&ID=204] (10/19/2005).
  2. John M. Donaldson, circa 1904, Men of Michigan: a collection of the portraits of men prominent in business and professional life in Michigan, Michigan Art Co., Detroit, Mich., 1904, p. 79 [http://persi.heritagequestonline.com/ hqoweb/library/do/books/results/fullcitation? urn=urn:proquest:US;glhbooks; Genealogy-glh19219234;8;-1;] (10/24/2006)

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