The Brodhead Naval Armory on Jefferson Avenue, once one of Detroit's great hidden architectural gems, is vanishing.
Built in 1930, the armory served as a training center and barracks for the state's military reserves until 2004. Often overlooked by people passing by, the armory is remarkable for the attention to detail given the inside, which according to the State of Michigan houses "the largest collection of federally-funded Depression-era artwork in any building in the state."
"The Federal Art Project (FAP) was an agency designed to keep artists working during the Depression by applying their skills to decorate government buildings. Several artists worked in the armory from 1936-1941."
Most notable are painted murals, plaster relief carvings, and elaborate wood designs around doorways, staircases, and on walls.
Rebecca Binno Savage, Vice President of the Detroit Area Art Deco Society tells us "The woodcarvings are by Gustave Hildebrand – he was a Michigan-based artist who was commissioned to work at the Detroit Naval Armory by Captain Thornton Brodhead through the Treasury Department’s Fine Arts Program – FAP – as it was called at the time. They have an Art Deco influenced aquatic theme and are unique works of art commissioned for the site. Descendants of Gustave Hildebrand once toured the building to see the work of their ancestor."
Unfortunately, since the armory closed in 2004, it has been subject to repeated break-ins and theft, mostly by scrappers stealing metal pipes and structural supports. In the last year though, it would appear that a different kind of theft has taken place. The pictures above illustrate that many of the wood carvings have been removed from the building, obviously with some care and thought. Entire staircases are gone, as are most of the doorways.
This is not the first time the Brodhead has been targeted: In 2010, a large bronze war memorial was ripped off the side of the building, probably for it's scrap value. With the recent attempted looting of architectural features from the Van Dyke Mansion by an out-of-town owner and a history of historic items removed from Detroit buildings reappearing in other cities, is this another case of theft for profit? And if so, what is the significance of the loss of the wood carvings?
"(They) are part of Detroit’s naval architectural history, and the theft is a sad situation," says Ms. Binno-Savage. "Unfortunately when the military left the building in 2004, it reverted to the City of Detroit, and in the ensuing years, it has not sold to a new owner. The City does not have the capacity to keep vandals out of all of its properties, especially one like the Brodhead, at over 100,000 square feet in size, it is a very large property to maintain and secure."
The Detroit Area Art Deco Society, as well as several individuals have tried over the years to keep the building secure on their own. We've reached to the City of Detroit to see if they were aware of the theft but have yet to hear back.
Theft is nothing new to the city, as homeowners and businesses struggle to ward off crime. And while the loss of a few carved pieces of wood may seem insignificant in comparison, it isn't. These are parts of Detroit's historical heritage. These pieces are irreplaceable, created over 80 years ago by artisans of quality that would be very difficult to match today. They represent a time when the economy got so bad, the government stepped in to support an entire generation of artists with this sort of work, so as not to lose the creative class to the factories or mills. That theme resonates today, and underscores the value of these pieces of work that are lost.
Credit to Bob for tipping us off.