The Detroit I Remember
The Detroit that I knew, in the mid-1960s, still looks the same in my
mind, as I have not seen it since 1970. Downtown was an hour drive from
the suburban development where I lived: Westland, which had been farmland
until 1950. In Westland, everything was brand new, all buildings were
two stories or less, sidewalks were crack-free, and trees were identically
sized. And tiny.
My sense of place was defined by Westland, until the day grandpa MacTaggart
took me to his downtown office, the day that relentless newness and banality
were swept away by breathtaking grandeur. Buildings jostled for space
and leapt toward the heavens, unbelievably tall walls of marble and stone
and brick appeared impenetrable, bronze statues abounded (from ancient
Rome?), grand fountains were bursting with water - surely magic - majestic
trees arched impossibly over busy avenues, and masses of flowers were
low-rise riots of color.
My most vivid awareness was of intense solidity. Downtown seemed like
it would last for thousands of years. Quite unlike Westland.
Grandpa and I walked into his office building and through immense doors
of molded bronze and beveled glass. We entered a cool oasis: the lobby.
Marble walls and fluted columns accentuated its height, and, as we progressed,
an intricate mosaic floor magnified the sounds of our steps. This music
accompanied us as we approached a most extraordinary bank of elevators:
a colossal sweeping curve made entirely of filigreed bronze - wall, elevator
doors and all. Behind this transparent screen - both substantial and ephemeral
at the same time - rose the vertical channel for the elevators, and behind
all this were huge windows through which natural light poured. The attendant
animation was thrilling: the noise of ringing bells and lights that flashed
on and off (announcing the readiness of another cab), and the play of
light and shadow as the elevators took flight in their vertical raceways.
Surrounding us were many people-in-a-hurry, and their every footstep and
voice reverberated off the marble walls and mosaic floors. This half-circle
throbbed with vitality, and seemed - to an 8-year-old - the very epicenter
of the universe.
We entered a cab and grandpa said hello to the elderly attendant before
we were whisked up, up, and up. My stomach felt like it remained on the
main floor - a giddy and unsettling feeling. We exited into a Roman temple.
The huge half-circle was behind us, and, at a right angle, lay a hall
of imposing dimensions that extended for a seeming mile. It was solidly
formed from yet more mosaic tile and marble and accentuated by a long
line of hanging bronze lanterns. I followed grandpa to his office and
was transported to yet another aesthetic reality: an homage to the 1950s.
The office was enveloped in blond wood, and low ceilings were punctuated
by round, dramatically sized heating ducts. The distinguishing feature
was acres of opaque glass (with horizontal fluting) dividing the offices.
Very Perry Mason. A conference room stood aloof in the center of the office,
and its walls were made entirely from the same fluted glass. Sitting inside
this glass container was like being inside a square version of the spaceship
interior from "The Day the Earth Stood Still."
As grandpa took care of whatever, I wandered. Going to the bathroom was
a special treat, as it was fully encased in massive sheets of white marble,
as were the stalls, which also rested on gracefully curved bronze legs.
The windows were of stained glass, the mirrors beveled, the toilet seats
varnished oak, and the lights bronze and porcelain. Well, could you pee
in such a palace?
During the ensuing years, I walked miles in the public corridors, repeatedly
caressed the cool marble walls, watched the elevators race up and down
their magical filigree channel, and drank from a porcelain drinking fountain
sitting on an elegant pedestal. I would take my shoes off and, with a
mad dash, go flying across floors so highly waxed that they seemed covered
with molten glass. As a special treat, grandpa would always let me put
the mail into the glass and bronze mail chute that mysteriously burst
from the hall ceiling and disappeared into the floor.
Downtown Detroit was a magical wonderland. In my mind, it still is.
What strikes me all these years later is the fact that my three brothers
and sisters have utterly no such memories, even though they went downtown
as often as I did. Why did these experiences imprint upon me so heavily?
Some sort of urbanism and architecture gene? What else could predispose
a person to be so aware of their surroundings?
Ross MacTaggart is an author, researcher, carpenter, architectural
designer and urban observer. His websites are www.thegoldencentury.com
(classic motor yachts) and www.AnAlternative.org
(rebuilding the site of the World Trade Center).