Detroit Modern

Wayne State University Tour

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This Wayne State University walking tour begins at the intersection of Cass and Warren Avenues and takes about one to two hours to complete. Most of the buildings featured are open to the public during daytime hours.

Wayne University (present-day Wayne State University) was established in 1933 when several Detroit colleges combined to form a single institution. The university was based in the city’s former Central High School building, an 1896 Romanesque Revival structure at Cass and Warren Avenues. The campus quickly grew to include a number of re-purposed residential and commercial buildings in the surrounding neighborhood.

In 1942 several architects competed to create a master plan for the rapidly expanding institution. Suren Pilafian, a young architect from New York who had not yet made a name for himself in the field, won the competition and was hired as the university’s principal planner. Pilafian’s plan envisioned dozens of purpose-built academic buildings concentrated in the area north of Warren Avenue and west of Cass Avenue.

Enrollment at the university increased greatly following the passage of the GI Bill in 1944, and numerous temporary structures were erected to alleviate crowded conditions at the school. A heavy investment by the state of Michigan in higher education after World War II provided funding for the construction of major campus buildings in the postwar years.

State Hall, designed by Pilafian, is the first campus building built specifically for university use and one of his first buildings as an architect. Though constructed at the lowest possible cost, the building is no less innovative for its budget. He quickly followed this first building with the more elaborate Community Arts complex and a building for the College of Engineering.

These Modern structures set the tone for additional contributions in the same vein by other architects. Important works were added by Ralph Calder & Associates; Albert Kahn Associates; Harley, Ellington & Day; Glen Paulsen & Associates; Alden B. Dow Associates; and O’Dell, Hewlett & Luckenbach—all Michigan-based architects or firms. Undoubtedly, the most noteworthy building on campus is Minoru Yamasaki’s 1958 masterpiece, the McGregor Memorial Conference Center. Pilafian continued to add to the campus with his award-winning, Bauhaus-influenced Purdy-Kresge Library.

The transition of Wayne State University from a neighborhood-based campus to an auto-free superblock was envisioned in the earliest master plans. The closing of Second Avenue and its conversion into Gullen Mall was first proposed in Pilafian’s original plan. It was elaborated upon in a 1954 campus plan by Minoru Yamasaki in which the architect advocated a dense yet pedestrian-friendly series of highly differentiated, landscaped public spaces. It was not until 1966 that this plan came to fruition, and many of the features along Gullen Mall—such as Yamasaki’s reflecting pools, and the narrow windows and arcaded first floor of his College of Education—were designed to provide a buffer for building occupants against the bustle and distractions of what was then a busy city street.



Ralph Calder & Associates

A graduate of the University of Michigan, Calder founded Ralph Calder & Associates in 1945. The Detroit-based firm became a leading designer of university buildings and campus complexes in Michigan, including the Kanley Chapel (1953) at Western Michigan University, James Fisher Jr. Hall (1964) at Michigan Technological University and Abrams Planetarium (1964) at Michigan State University.

Alden B. Dow Associates

The son of the founder of the Dow Chemical Company, Alden Dow apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin. He opened his Midland, Michigan, practice in 1934. His home and studio, designed in 1936 with his patented Unit Block system, is a National Historic Landmark. Dow designed over 80 buildings in Midland ranging from residences to public buildings. His work is found throughout the state and nation. Dow remains the only architect to have been named architect laureate of Michigan (1983).

Harley, Ellington & Day (1943–60)

Alvin Harley and Harold Ellington joined forces in 1933 during the Great Depression and found work designing for the Stroh Brewery Company. Clarence Day became a partner in 1943. One of the most prominent Modern architectural firms in Michigan, they designed the south wing addition to the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1966. The firm also designed the International style Department of State Building in Washington, D.C. (1957-60).

Albert Kahn Associates

Albert Kahn began his practice in 1895 and became the architect for automaker Henry Ford, designing dozens of factory buildings. The River Rouge Glass Plant (1922) in Detroit and the Warren Tank Arsenal (1940) are cited as inspiring Modernism. Kahn’s work influenced the architect Le Corbusier and was a foundation for the creation of the International style. After Kahn’s death in 1942 the firm continued designing some of the Detroit area’s outstanding Modern buildings.

Giacomo Manzù

At the request of Minoru Yamasaki, this Italian sculptor and painter created outdoor bronze sculpture for the McGregor Memorial Conference Center at Wayne State University in Detroit in 1958. He is best known for the Portal of Death located at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, Rome.

O’Dell, Hewlett & Luckenbach Associates

Detroit native Augustus O’Dell partnered with Wirt Rowland, the designer of Detroit’s Guardian Building, from 1932 to 1938. Owen Luckenbach once worked for Smith, Hinchman and Grylls. After joining Thomas Hewlett, this Birmingham, Michigan-based firm designed many Modern buildings in the Detroit area including Ford Auditorium (1956; demolished 2011), two Cranbrook gymnasiums (1959 and 1964), and the Pontiac Silverdome (1975).

Glen Paulsen & Associates

Paulsen graduated from the Royal Academy of Art in Sweden in 1948. A designer for Eero Saarinen & Associates from 1953 to 1957, Paulsen became a lecturer at the University of Michigan in 1958. He served as the president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1966 to 1970. Among Paulsen’s best work is his own residence in Birmingham (1955), Our Shepherd Lutheran Church (1966) in Birmingham, and the Ford Life Sciences Building (1967) at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Suren Pilafian

An Armenian immigrant, Suren Pilafian studied architecture at Columbia University and New York University. He worked with the architect Cass Gilbert in New York in 1928 and the industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes in 1938. Pilafian designed the Tehran Stock Exchange (1935) in Iran before coming to Detroit in 1942 to develop Wayne State University’s master plan. He later became principal designer for Albert Kahn Associates.

Minoru Yamasaki & Associates

Minoru Yamasaki, a Japanese immigrant from Seattle, came to Detroit in 1945 to become chief of design for Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. He later co-founded Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth and designed the Lambert-St. Louis Municipal Air Terminal (1956) along with several Detroit buildings before founding his own practice in Troy in 1959. He is most well known for the World Trade Center (1971) in New York City. The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Detroit Branch Annex (1949–51) designed by Yamasaki was Detroit’s first curtain wall building, leading the way for other Modern buildings.

Available at your local book store and online.

Michigan Modern in Print

“Great historical review of the much under- appreciated Detroit/ Midland area Architects and designers. Written by extremely knowledgeable writers.”

The Great Lakes State has always been known for its contributions to twentieth-century manufacturing, but it’s only beginning to receive wide attention for its contributions to Modern design and architecture.