The Henry and Edsel Ford Memorial Auditorium is a location that meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
To musicians, conductors, singers, and symphony audiences it was an acoustical nightmare. To the city that urged its construction, it was a white elephant. To the people who planned and designed the building, it’s a classic case a good building put to poor use. Nowadays most people under the age of 30 are barely aware that it even existed. But to a few it was a modern curiosity, and to even fewer, an architectural treasure worth saving.
In 1923 architect Eliel Saarinen was first engaged by the city of Detroit to design a downtown civic center. His waterfront design, a striking departure from the traditional circular or radiating layouts common of the time never went beyond the planning stage due to the Great Depression. Saarinen was again approached by the city in 1934, and the first hints of what would eventually become the Ford Auditorium came into concept. This plan stalled as well due to the Second World War, but was later revived by his son Eero in the mid to late 40’s in what was to be the third and final proposal. Unfortunately, several parts of the Saarinen’s original design were never realized, including the landscaped plaza and the physical orientation of what would become the Ford Auditorium, which ended up facing the river instead.
The Ford Auditorium was designed by the firm of Odell, Hewlett and Luckenbach. The building’s style was defined at the time as “movie palace renaissance,” though it fits better in the modernist school of architecture. The auditorium cost approx. $4.9 million dollars (1956), or $38.2 million dollars (2009). The Ford Fund donated $1.5M, the National Association of Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury Dealers donated $1M, and $2.4M was financed by the city of Detroit.
Demolition of the existing structures occupying the land began in March of 1953. Groundbreaking commenced in May, with construction beginning in earnest. In 1955, the cornerstone was laid down in a ceremony by William Clay Ford Sr., and attended by city officials.
The original purpose was for the Ford to be a civic auditorium, designed for public speaking and events. Midway through the construction, however, a significant change in plans for the intended use of the building was made that ultimately contributed to its early demise.
In 1939 the Detroit Symphony Orchestra moved from Orchestra Hall on Woodward to the nearby Masonic Temple, leaving it with no permanent home. Mrs. Eleanor Ford recognized the need for a symphony of such national renown to have its own location, and decided that the auditorium being built should be modified to accommodate the DSO.
This was a task complicated by the fact that the design of the building – wide, flat, barren walls - made it nearly wholly unsuited for the subtle musical nuances of a symphony. To rectify this, the architectural firm of Crane, Kiehler & Kellog was enlisted, but with construction already so far along there was little they could do.
The exterior elements of the building included white marble and over 8,000 blocks of Swedish blue pearl granite arranged in a unique basket-weave style. The u-shaped driveway was later cut in half (along with part of the awning) when Auditorium drive was rerouted down to the riverside.
The auditorium had a terrazzo floor that seated 1,850 people in 34 rows of chairs, with additional balcony seating for 1,070 in 15 rows. The auditorium walls were wood panel and plaster with acoustical treatment. The ceiling was plaster as well. Equally impressive was the modern lobby, a sweeping 140’ crescent of marble, wood and plaster. Stairwells at both ends provided access to the balcony level.
The orchestra pit had an elevating floor that could be raised to stage level. It extended 10’ below stage and could accommodate 90 musicians. Backstage facilities included dressing rooms, green rooms, offices, a freight dock, and plant equipment.
Some of the more notable – and visible – artistic contributions to the Ford Auditorium came in the form of three sculptures created by Marshall Fredricks. According to the Marshal Fredricks Sculpture Museum, “The monumental 120' Ford Empire sculpture was installed on the long, front curved wall while at either end of the foyer there were tall walls above staircases that ascended to a balcony, giving access to the upper-level seats. On the east wall above the staircase, Fredericks's Harlequins (Clown Musicians) and Ballerina, Orchestral Parade was displayed, and Harlequins (Juggler, Acrobat and Lovesick Clown) and Circus Parade was displayed on the west wall. The sculptural reliefs were hammered and welded in copper, nickel, brass, stainless steel, and aluminum, plated with gold, zinc and cadmium. The reliefs were commissioned by Mrs. Edsel (Eleanor) Ford in memory of her father-in-law and husband, Henry and Edsel, and were completed by Fredericks in 1956.” In the central portion of the work, nature and man come together to depict "the might of industrial progress," according to Fredericks.
The crown jewel of the auditorium was its custom-built Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, also known as the Kanzler organ after its benefactors, Josephine and Ernest Kanzler.
Opus 1324 was constructed in 1957 specifically for the Ford Auditorium at a cost of $88,000 (about $729,000 in 2013). The organ had 4100 pipes, 71 ranks, 76 stops, and 3 manuals. It was installed in Sept. 1957 and dedicated by Marcel Dupre, with the Detroit Symphony and Paul Paray, on October 6th.
The Windsor Daily Star noted “The Auditorium organ is one of the world’s finest instruments. This rare and exquisite organ, designed specifically for the Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium, took more than a year to build. Skilled technicians spent more than four months to install its myriad parts and worked day and night to tune its 4156 pipes – the lowest of which produces a sound of only 16 cycles. The organ is one of a very few in existence designed for use with orchestra and as a solo instrument. The entire installation is comprised of six organs – two at stage level on a movable platform and four above the ceiling of the auditorium. As an item of interest, one of the upper organs is played entirely by the feet. The installation includes a small classic division which is movable. It constitutes a musical instrument in itself, the first in the US designed for auditorium use. The main console has three manuals and four keyboards with a total of 103 controls. Four taxi horns were added in 1958. A large rank of pipes was put on a movable platform and could be positioned anywhere on stage.”
Unfortunately, this splendid organ was dogged by acoustic problems for most of its life. As it came from the factory, the organ simply wasn’t designed to be played in such a large open space like the Ford Auditorium. Significant modifications had to be made to get the organ to the point where it could be adequately heard, including removing and replacing pipes, adding new pipes and horns, and generally cranking the volume of the organ beyond its normal range. In a 1959 review of a Virgill Fox performance by the Windsor Star, the music critic noted “Comparisons, perhaps, are not in order but certainly the… organ can in no way compare to with the huge and authentic pipe organs in the great vaulted cathedrals of the world. The Ford organ is quite mechanical and especially in the treble clef, disturbingly metallic.
Opening night for The Ford Auditorium was a star-studded television event on October the 14th, 1956. That night an Ed Sullivan show broadcast featured Johnny Carson (who impersonated Ed Sullivan and Edward Murrow), an illusionist levitating a woman, appearances by members of the Ford Family and mayor of Detroit Albert Cobo, movie previews, a Japanese aerialist, a ballerina, and a performing monkey named Jinx.
The first symphony concert was held a few days later on October the 19th, with conductor Paul Paray presiding over a well-received performance of the Mass for the 500th Anniversary of the Death of Joan of Arc. Featured performers included the Rackham Symphony Choir, soloists Frances Yeend, soprano; Frances Bible, mezzo-soprano; David Lloyd, tenor; and the Chinese bass Yi-Kwei-Sze.
The auditorium was initially very successful, with Billboard magazine noting that it was booked nearly solid for the first year with musical performances, operas, plays, speaking engagements, and television show tapings. Initial reviews of the acoustics were mostly positive, with the Montreal Gazette noting “ … it was apparent from the first bars that the bare-walled hall with its cement floors is lively acoustically. Not only is everything easy to hear, but the instruments retain their distinctive timbres almost as if they were reproduced in super high fidelity. Sometimes the sound was almost over brilliant in climaxes, but this might have been due to some unfamiliarity with the halls reverberations.”
However, criticism continued to grow as the season progressed. In 1956, the Toledo Blade newspaper wrote “Acoustics… are resonant and often brilliant. The orchestra, playing far out on the stage ‘apron’ and therefore beyond the acoustical reach of the ‘shell’ sounded dry and disparate, sometimes even frosty. The chorus, on the other hand, overwhelmed orchestra and solo singers.”
Another Blade article on October 14th, 1957 reported that a group of music critics attending a workshop there described the acoustics as being “dead,” “harsh,” and “strident.” Even the manager of the DSO Howard Harrington agreed that “it sounded as if a blotter had been put over the whole orchestra.” The Ludington Daily News labeled the Ford Auditorium a “white elephant,” taking care not blame the orchestra. Regarding a January 1986 cello performance, the Windsor Star wrote “It was obvious right away that it (a Stradivarius cello) was never designed to be heard in a big barn like Ford Auditorium.”
As early as 1959 efforts were being undertaken to improve the acoustic issues that plagued Ford Auditorium. A paper presented to the Acoustical Society of America noted “The… Auditorium exhibited certain acoustical deficiencies when used as a concert hall. The reverberation time was considerably below the optimal range for orchestral music; potentially useful sound energy was dissipated in a very large stage house which had little separation from the orchestra; the organ grille of (undamped) aluminum bars resonated at note "d'; and further problems were created by the location of the fixed organ. Steps were taken in 1959 to improve the characteristics of the hall for music. A mechanically alemountable, plywood enclosure was designed with surfaces oriented to diffuse sound and distribute it to the performers and the audience. Other measures included damping of the bars in the organ grille and elimination of a large fraction of the sound-absorptive material that was in the hall.”
As the years went by, the criticism continued, despite repeated investments by the Ford family to improve the acoustics. The New York Times noted in a 1987 article that “To overcome the flaws, musicians played from raised platforms, the shell was restructured, the orchestra moved from the front to the back to the middle of the stage - and still, as Marcy Chanteaux, a cellist, put it, the ‘sound clashes against itself.’ Lyell Lindsey, a contrabassoonist, called the Ford hall ‘an acoustical nightmare even with the improvements,’ and added, ‘We have to blow very hard at Ford.’ The stage is so wide that musicians in one section of the orchestra cannot hear those on the other side.’”
The auditorium proved to be more popular as a speaking venue, its original planned use. Notable speaking engagements included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who addressed 2,500 persons on “the new Negro of the South” as a guest speaker at the Delta Sigma Theta sorority’s annual national convention on Dec. 28, 1956. He would appear again in July of 1957 to receive a medal from the NAACP. Malcolm X addressed the First Annual Dignity Projection and Scholarship Awards ceremony at Ford Auditorium on Feb. 14, 1965, sponsored by the Afro-American Broadcasting and Recording Co. Earlier that morning, Malcolm X’s home at Queens, NY, was firebombed by Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (NOI), an attack that just missed incinerating Malcolm X, his wife and their six young daughters, including a six-month-old baby.
As well as being the home of the symphony, it was also host to many concerts and social functions, such as Ford Company shareholder meetings, high school graduations, and rock concerts. Acts included King Crimson, Roxy Music, Queen, Kansas, Jefferson Airplane, Peter Frampton, Tommy Tune, Rodney Dangerfield, and Lynrd Skynyrd. Comedian Lily Tomlin worked at the auditorium as an usher to see the shows, and then performed there in 1972. Pope John Paul ended his tour of the US at the Ford on Sept 20th, 1987.
By 1986 – a scant 30 years after it opened - there was talk of closing Ford Auditorium. Mayor Coleman Young wanted to tear down the auditorium and replace it with an aquarium. “That’s our site for the aquarium,” said Emmett Moten, director of the community & economic development department. “We’re going to build this thing come next year,” and that the orchestra would “have to find a new home.” The plan quietly fizzled out less than a year later. Another proposal from the Young administration to level the auditorium in 1990 to make way for a new skyscraper for Comerica Bank was met with hostility from preservationists, as well as an infuriated Ford family, upset that their significant donation was to be so hastily disposed of. Lawsuits were filed, and that plan was dropped too.
In the meantime, musicians and supporters of the symphony were actively working on a plan to return to their old home, Orchestra Hall. The building had been abandoned since 1958 and had fallen into serious disrepair. In 1970 the property was slated for demolition to make way for a Gino's Hamburgers restaurant until members of the symphony stepped in. Not realizing the significance of the building, Gino’s actively worked with the symphony and eventually sold the property back to them. Restoration efforts began in earnest in 1970, with members of the symphony playing for investors inside the ruined hall and atop its roof for to raise awareness. Ten years and one hundred tons of debris later, the hall was ready to entertain once more.
Though the restored Orchestra Hall was smaller than the Ford Theater, the acoustics were vastly superior in all aspects. The decision was made to move the Symphony back to its original home in 1989, though concerts were held in both venues for several years. Without its main tenant, bookings at the Ford Auditorium declined. Though the venue still hosted high school graduations, plays, and Ford stockholder meetings, it struggled financially. By 1990 the auditorium was losing $600,000 a year. The last bookings took place in 1995, after which the auditorium closed for good.
For 16 years the building sat vacant. Maintenance performed by the city was limited to making sure the basement didn’t flood. When Kwame Kilpatrick was elected mayor in 2001, he made the disposition of the Ford Auditorium one of his top priorities. In 2003 he announced plans to demolish the auditorium, and maintenance was discontinued. In May of 2006, the Detroit News reported “…Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has set a goal of razing the shuttered Ford Auditorium on downtown's Hart Plaza and building a Chene Park-type music amphitheater in its place.” Another announcement in June of 2007 outlined a $35-$50M makeover for Hart Plaza that included demolishing the Ford Auditorium to make way for an expanded open air auditorium. A slightly adjusted version of the plan surfaced again in November of 2010 under new mayor Dave Bing.
Throughout February and March of 2011 the future of the Ford Auditorium became a hotly debated topic. Mayor Dave Bing pushed hard to have the auditorium demolished to make way for an improved Hart Plaza, with the goal that it be razed before summer. Preservationists maintained that despite its flaws, the acoustics could be fixed using modern technology, and the building – an excellent, if unappreciated work of mid-modern architecture - could find a new lease on life.
In the end, though, there was little support for saving the auditorium. Preparation for demolition started in March of 2011, with asbestos abatement and removal of debris. Heavy equipment arrived on the site in June, and on July 8th, excavators began clawing into the backstage area. The Ford Auditorium didn’t come down without a fight. Just a few hours after demolition started, work was halted when hazardous chemicals were found on the site. A week later, work stopped again after part of the roof over the stage collapsed unexpectedly, causing an excavator to tip over on its side.
Major demolition work wrapped up in October of 2011. Today the site remains in limbo, along with the rest of Hart Plaza, as development plans are halted by the city’s bankruptcy proceedings.
Not everything was lost when the Ford Auditorium came down, though. The three Marshall Fredericks sculptures that adorned the lobby were removed in 2003 for preservation. After being carefully dismantled, they were placed in storage in anticipation of later use in other city buildings. When the plans did not come to fruition, the Fredericks estate approached the city in 2007 about relocating the two harlequins to the Saginaw Valley State University, home of the Marshall Fredericks Sculpture Museum. An extensive cleaning and restoration effort included repairing broken parts of the sculpture and fabricating replacement parts for pieces that had gone missing. After restoration, the two 14’x14’ sculptures were installed outside the arts theater and recital hall of Saginaw Valley State University. They were unveiled to the general public at a special ceremony in May of 2008. The massive 120’ “Ford Empire” is still in storage, awaiting a new home.
The Kanzler pipe organ had a happy ending as well. Just two weeks before demolition was scheduled to begin, a group of preservationists and musicians were given permission to remove the organ console and its pipes from the hall. Volunteers worked 14-hour days carefully dismantling the massive ranks of pipes and lowering them through a hole in the ceiling, completing the job in just 10 days. The organ will be restored and installed at St. Aloysius Catholic Church in downtown Detroit.