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Look Outside: Top 10 Public Spaces

AIA-Detroit's Urban Priorities Committee continues its look at the city’s best architecture with its list of Detroit’s 10 best outdoor public spaces. The group, whose members include prominent architects, planners, educators, designers, construction managers and journalists, reviews, critiques and generates projects for metro Detroit. The group has also brought Model D guides to its top 10 interiors and downtown buildings. Here’s a peek inside their favorite buildings around the city, with their own comments and using their “AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture” as a reference.

1. Eastern Market
Various architects
For more than 200 years, Eastern Market has provided Detroit fresh food for both local and commercial consumption. The market was originally founded in Detroit’s Cadillac Square and moved to its current location just northeast of downtown Detroit in 1841. Today, the site spreads over 43 acres and incorporates several sheds for producer and wholesaler sales. It is further flanked on all sides with historic structures containing permanent private wholesalers. Given the market’s unique fare and array of fresh produce, it remains one of Detroit’s most eclectic and dynamic spaces throughout the week. Saturdays at Eastern Market can draw as many as 45,000 shoppers from around the country and world.
Architecturally, Eastern Market is loaded with history and character. Most of the market’s sheds are over half a century old, and are often coated with vibrant paintings. As the market gets under way, these sheds burst with color and activity and interact fluidly with the surrounding streets. The surrounding structures are equally unique. Customers often have to weave their ways through turn of the century aisle-ways, often discovering little coves and stairways leading to more and more treasures. Truly an experience, Eastern Market is one of Detroit’s everlasting gems.

2. Campus Martius
Rundell Ernstberger Associates
Detroit’s newest park, Campus Martius recharges the center of Downtown with an active and beautiful year-round destination for locals and visitors. The space incorporates a fantastic fountain, three monuments, seasonal gardens, and two collapsible stages. Furthermore, the park has a café, wireless Internet, and, in the winter, an ice-skating rink.
Campus Martius translates as “military grounds,” and is built upon a late 18th century stockade training grounds. Visioning and design of the new park was commissioned by the former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer in the late ’90s, and was approved for construction by the Kilpatrick administration in May 2003. The park was completed and opened in November of 2004, and has become a vibrant, pivotal centerpiece of downtown Detroit’s urban fabric.

3. Belle Isle
Frederick Law Olmstead (with Michael J. Dee)
James Scott Fountain, 1925 – Cass Gilbert
Belle Isle Casino, 1907 – Van Leyen & Schilling
Belle Isle Aquarium, 1904 – Albert Kahn
Belle Isle Conservatory, 1904 – Albert Kahn
Livingstone Light, 1930 – Albert Kahn
Detroit Yacht Club, 1923 – George D. Mason
Belle Isle Police Station, 1893 – Mason & Rice
Two-and-a-half-miles-long and a half-mile-wide, Belle Isle is a low, flat island rising just 2 feet above the level of the Detroit River. Even before the city purchased Belle Isle in 1879, the island was popular with Detroiters for hunting, fishing, bathing, and picnicking. In line with the nation’s mid-19th century interest in urban parks, the city hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of New York’s Central Park, to create a plan for the island. Olmstead’s sketch called for a central road running up the island and a canal crossing one end. This struck many as too minimal. City leaders were more impressed with a scheme proposed by newspaperman Michael J. Dee, who suggested a series of canals covering the island. In the end, both Olmstead’s central drive and some of Dee’s canals were built. The island’s original 700-plus acres were increased through land reclamation to nearly a thousand acres in 1940.
Originally forest and marsh, Belle Isle was populated with a series of individualistic buildings from the late 19th through the mid-20th century. These included two private yacht clubs, a nature conservatory, a maritime museum, a police station, an aquarium, a memorial fountain and two editions of a casino. Also contributing to Belle Isle’s character are the many picnic pavilions, footbridges, and public statues that dot the island. Most of Belle Isle’s facilities are located on the western half, as the island’s eastern end remains mostly forested and in a nearly natural state. The original timber bridge to the island burned in 1915. Daniel Luton designed the graceful replacement in the classicism of the City Beautiful movement. This span was renamed for war hero General Douglas MacArthur early in World War II.

4. Lafayette Park
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Ludwig Hilberseimer
Lafayette Park’s Chicago developers imported modern masters of architecture and planning to design a new community for Detroit. The master plan, one of Hilberseimer’s best, distributes high-and low-rise housing across expansive superblocks – large blocks created by closing streets. The Pavilion Apartments (1958) and Lafayette Towers (1963) exemplify Mies’s trademark attention to form, proportion, and detail. Nearly 200 units of two-story townhouses and one-story courtyard houses were arranged around cul-de-sacs, as the overall development frames a central municipal park. In its now mature landscape context, the modern masters’ formula achieves its most engaging and timeless potential.

5. Washington Boulevard
Hamilton Anderson Associates
From the 1807 Woodward plan, Washington Boulevard was to be developed as an upper-class residential area. Up until the early 1900s, Washington Boulevard was primarily residential in character with a wide landscaped median that divided the two directions of traffic.
The Washington Boulevard district, like most other districts in the Lower Woodward area of Detroit during the early 20th century experienced an unprecedented building boom. Unlike other areas in the city, Washington Boulevard’s development was dominated by one private entity and one vision, that of J. Burgess Book Jr. and his architect Louis Kamper. It was Book’s dream to turn Washington Boulevard into Detroit’s most exclusive address playing host to the most lavish commercial and residential spaces in addition to creating the most fashionable shopping district. Washington Boulevard was clearly inspired by both the City Beautiful movement and the many grand boulevards that Book admired in New York City and throughout Europe. Today, the boulevard is relatively similar in composition as it was when it was developed in the 1920s.
The eclectic stock of buildings and sizes that make up the extent Washington Boulevard historic district individually represent examples of some of the finest American commercial architecture of the early 20th century. Reaffirming the boulevard’s historical significance is the fact that Washington Boulevard today is a product of “the Roaring Twenties,” a large-scale planned real estate development carried out primarily as an endeavor by one family and their architect.

6. Civic Center Riverfront Promenade (Riverfront from Hart Plaza to Joe Louis Arena)
Albert Kahn Associates and Sasaki Associates
This linear park provides public connection to and along the waterfront as it dresses up Downtown’s front door – to the river and to Canada. The design includes figurative quotations from Detroit’s maritime and industrial heritage. The serpentine seat wall resembles a giant rope uncoiling along the metaphorical boardwalk. The coiled rope source at the west end was designed for a future civic sculpture of monumental proportions. The nearby mini-park is laid out to recall the geometry of Detroit’s 18th century ribbon farms. A powerful new figurative sculpture by artist Ed Dwight is dedicated to the Underground Railroad at the stairs from Hart Plaza.

7. Grand Circus Park
Judge Woodward 1805; The Albert Kahn Collaborative, 1998
The elegant semicircle of Grand Circus Park is a centering piece of the baroque plan drawn by Judge Woodward after fire destroyed the city in 1805. Woodward intended for the city to be dotted by such open spaces, in turn connected by broad thoroughfares. Woodward’s plan was thus a more complex version of L’Enfant’s Washington, D.C., plan, with which the judge was professional quite familiar.
In the mid to late 19th century the park was lined with elegant mansions. Gordon Lloyd’s 1867 Central United Methodist Church at Adams and Woodward remains from this era. Between 1890 and 1930, the park and surrounding streets were built up with high-rise commercial towers. Holding the corner at Adams and Park is the first Kresge headquarters (now Kales Apartments), designed by Albert Kahn in 1914 and later renamed the Kales Building. The relative uniformity of height and massing of the surrounding buildings created an urban space comparable to Philadelphia’s famed Rittenhouse Square.
The park itself features statues of prominent citizens, including Detroit Mayor and Michigan Gov. Hazen Pingree (1840-1901). The fountain to the west was named for and dedicated by Thomas Edison. The fountain statue in the east park is by Daniel Chester French, creator of the Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, and the preeminent American sculptor of his day. An underground parking garage was built in 1956, and the People Mover station opened in 1987. Although an exodus marked the final decades of the 20th century, Grand Circus has benefited from the reemergence of the Theater District and a renewed interest in urban living. The park was renovated in the late 1990s in a classical manner consistent with the spirit of the original Woodward plan.

8. C.L. Franklin Park (formerly La Salle Park)
Architect unknown
Nestled in one of Detroit’s early suburban middle-class neighborhoods, the LaSalle Gardens Historic District rests one of the city’s few unique neighborhood parks. It is rare these days to find a neighborhood park that is well intact with a defined street-wall within the city limits. The square, one-acre park is tightly abutted by an eclectic collection of 1920s period homes and is ideal for neighborhood scale activities.

9. Monroe Street
Various architects
Greektown has been a traditional center of ethnic retailing in Detroit throughout its 140-year history. It evolved from the farm of a French pioneer settler to a German residential and commercial area, and presently is a flourishing Greek commercial zone. It is also one of the last viable Victorian commercial streetscapes in downtown.
Greektown was originally part of the Beaubien Farm, beginning in 1758. With successive generations, the land was subdivided and sold in the 1830s, a time of German immigration. Germans dominated this area for 70 years. During this period, they shared the area with other ethnic groups. The first Jewish synagogue was located here, and blacks settled the area as well.
As the German community became more prosperous, between 1905 and 1910, they moved out and were quickly replaced by Greeks. The first known Greek settler arrived in the city in 1890 and was able to foster Greek prosperity in the early part of the 20th century by helping others start businesses. Gaining affluence, Greeks began to move their residences. By the 1920s Greektown was predominately commercial. Commercial and institutional development replaced the last residences in the 1950s and 1960s, and the transition from residentially oriented businesses to restaurants and entertainment was accelerated. Greektown, once a four-block area, was reduced to one block as all the surrounding structures became parking sites or institutional buildings.

10. Hart Plaza
Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls, with Isamu Noguchi
At the center of Downtown’s waterfront, Hart Plaza was designed to serve many purposes, including the city’s festivals, Independence Day and less predictable Stanley Cup and NBA Championship celebrations. Noguchi’s fountain, the focal point of the plaza, is impressive when wet, and even more when lighted and wet at night.

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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