Detroit leaders realized that the waterfront was one of the city’s most valuable assets. Various efforts were made throughout the last century to revitalize the area. In the decade after World War II, four major buildings were erected near the foot of Woodward: the City-County Building now known as the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center(Harley, Ellington & Day, 1955); Cobo Hall (Giffels & Rossetti, 1960); the Veterans Memorial Building (Harley, Ellington & Day, 1951) and the Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium. The various architects designed these buildings to be compatible and equally attractive.
The Ford Family and the Ford and Mercury dealers of the metropolitan Detroit area raised about 2.5 million in the early 1950s for the construction of a civic auditorium. This is the building you see pictured here. At some point during its construction, Mrs. Edsel Ford realized that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra lacked a suitable home and decided that Ford Auditorium should be redesigned for use as a music hall as well as an auditorium where public meetings might be held. The firm of O’Dell, Hewlett and Luckenbach designed the auditorium but had not engineered it for the performance of symphonic music. When the Ford family decided to turn their contribution into a home for the orchestra, another architectural firm was contracted to redesign and refit the structure for music. Those architects apparently immediately recognized problems that made the auditorium was poorly suited for classical music. Nevertheless, they made changes to satisfy the patron who was paying for the hall. It is appropriate that the Fords supported this improvement to Detroit’s riverfront since this auditorium stands not more than 200 yeards from the location where the successful Ford Motor Company was chartered, a site commemorated with a State of Michigan Historical Marker.
This auditorium opened in 1955 and the next year the Detroit Symphony began playing their concerts there. It served as their home for 33 years. Many efforts were made to create an attractive building suitable for classical music. An Aeolian-Skinner Pipe organ was installed. Michigan’s most accomplished sculptor, Marshall Fredericks, was engaged to create three pieces for the foyer: a 120-foot mural commemorating the Ford Empire and two smaller pieces portraying the arts that might be performed in the auditorium.
Musicians and their audiences quickly realized what the architects knew—Ford Auditorium was not a good place for performing or listening to music. In 1976, the auditorium was rebuilt, but the improvements were not sufficient to overcome the persisting problems. In 1989, the Detroit Symphony moved out of Ford Auditorium and into the Orchestra Hall that had been constructed seventy years earlier.
When completed in the mid-1950s, this was a fifth largest theater in the city of Detroit:
Fox Theater (C. Howard Crane) 5,174 seats
Masonic Hall (George Mason) 4,044 seats
Detroit Opera House (C. Howard Crane) 3,384 reduced later to: 2,765
Fisher Theater (Albert Kahn) 2,975 reduced later to: 2,089
Palm or State Theater (C. Howard Crane) 2,961 reduced later to: 2,200
Ford Auditorium 2,830
Orchestra Hall (C. Howard Crane) 2.286
Detroit’s C. Howard Crane was the nations most imaginative and productive theater architect in the years before the Depression. He has a remote—but certainly not a direct—link to the Ford Auditorium and the Detroit Symphony. The Chopin expert, Ossip Grabrilowitsch, Samuel Clemens son-in-law, spent a year as guest conductor of the city’s orchestra around the time of World War I. He was viewed as the ideal conductor for a major sympathy so he got offers from orchestras in several cities. He said he would accept the offer from the city that would build a new symphony hall for his orchestra within one year. Detroit philantropists and music fans decided to move quickly. The planning group that created Detroit’s Cultural Center wished to build a Symphony Hall near the Detroit Public Library and the Detroit Institute of Art there but knew they could not move fast enough to satisfy the demands of Conductor Ossip Grabrilowitsch. They decided to recruit C. Howard Crane. The located a church near the corner of Woodward and Myrtle (now known as Martin Luther King). They razed that church but used the foundation to support the Orchestra Hall that you see there today. Crane had designed the Madison Theater located at 20 Witherell, a movie theater than opened in 1917 and is in a building purchased for office space, by Quicken Loans' Dan Gilbert in 2010. Crane used some of his plans for the Madison Theater to hasten the construction of Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, a building that was completed rapidly enough to recruit Grabrilowitsch as conductor. The Detroit Symphony went out of operation during the Depression and Orchestra Hall was abandoned.
Because of the Depression, C. Howard Crane found himself without work in the United States despite his tremendous accomplishments. There was no call for new movie palaces when one-quarter of the labor force was unemployed. In 1932, Crane moved to England where he designed industrial buildings until his death in 1952. When Mrs. Edsel Ford decided that Ford Auditorium should be the home of the city’s reconstituted orchestra, the contracting architect turned to the Crane’s former Detroit firm, then known as Crane, Kiehler and Kellogg. I believe that Kellogg was the acoustical architect who attempted to make Ford Auditorium useful for classical music. That firm is no longer in business so Crane’s name eventually disappeared from the list of Detroit architectural firms. Albert Kahn’s firm remains in business.
Orchestra Hall was used briefly as a church after the Symphony abandoned it, but fell into disrepair in the 1960s and 1970s. Realizing that they were playing in an acoustically challenged Ford Auditorium, members of the Detroit Symphony raised the issue of remodeling the Orchestra Hall that Crane had designed. Their efforts were successful and the Symphony moved back to its previous home in 1989.
Ford Auditorium remained open for rentals through about 1995, but was empty and unused. No classical music has been performed here since 1989. Two of Marshall Frederick’s pieces, Harlequins, Ballerina and Orchestral Parade and Harlequins and Circus Parade were moved to the Marshall Fredericks museum on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University. In 2006, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced plans for a major renovation of Hart Plaza, including the razing of Ford Auditorium. He completed his term as mayor without being able to accomplish that plan. In November, 2010; Mayor David Bing announced that money was available to raze Ford Auditorium. Presumably, bids for its descruction will be sought early in 2011. Plans call for the construction of a 5,000 seat outdoor amphitheatre on its site.
Architects for building: O’Dell, Hewlett and Luckenbach
Architects of acoustical redesign during original construction: Crane, Kiehler and Kellogg
Date of completion: 1955
Use in 2014: Empty space on the Detroit riverfront awaiting reuse.
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; May, 2009
Description updated: January, 2014
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