Iconic Rackham building more than meets the eye - The South End: Arts & Entertainment

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Iconic Rackham building more than meets the eye

Historical landmark has a complex past, uncertain future

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Posted: Friday, December 31, 2010 12:00 am

_Correction: A headline for this story incorrectly called the Rackham building an "unofficial historical landmark." The building is included in the National Register of Historic Places therefore making it officially historic. The South End regrets its mistake._

Perhaps Marshall Fredericks’ most notable creation was the Spirit of Detroit, but many are not familiar with his other designs, especially those on the facing of the Horace H. Rackham Educational Memorial Building.

The Rackham building -- located on Farnsworth Avenue, between Woodward Avenue and John R. Street -- features sculptures that hang above the bronze doorway entrances. From a pair of steel workers to a moving picture projector and a microscope, the sculptures follow a theme of science, education and engineering.

However, the real meaning of the building, which was built as the center for Detroit’s engineering activities and as a social and educational meeting place for Engineering Society of Detroit members, is expressed on the south wall that faces Warren Avenue. Measuring 13 feet high and weighing nearly 15 tons, a trio of figures represent science, education and mankind.

But Fredericks’ designs aren’t the only exterior feature that make the Rackham building stand out.

Built in 1941 by Harley and Ellington Architects and Engineers, the building’s facade and sculptures are made of white Georgia marble. Spandrels – the triangular area between two adjacent arches – of dark granite are found among the bronze windows, and cast bronze decorations lie in the window grilles and trim. Patterned flagstone terraces that extend from the building’s entrances to the sidewalk and American elm trees that surround the perimeter of the property complete the exterior.

“From the outside, the building seems cold because of its size and the marble that it’s made of,” Fran Mahoney, the members’ service associate at ESD, said.

The Rackham building’s exterior beauty is similar to that of the Detroit Institute of Arts and Detroit Public Library, all of which are a part of Detroit’s Cultural Center Historic District. But unlike the DIA and DPL, the Rackham building was built to serve multiple purposes – to act as the headquarters for the ESD and an extension center for the University of Michigan.

Stretching 404 feet in length, with a depth from 150 feet at the center to 65 feet at the ends, the three-story Rackham building is shaped like the letter T. It’s separated into three units – the center unit, U-M’s unit and ESD’s unit.

In the center wing is the Memorial Auditorium, which seats up to 1,000 people. Outside the auditorium, at the heart of the building, is a plaque honoring Horace Rackham. According to Mahoney, nearby universities would hold their graduations, and companies, like the Chrysler Corporation, would host their annual meetings in the auditorium. Beneath it, on the ground floor, is a banquet room that can hold up to 700 people. It also served as a ballroom and was used for public events, like company dinners and weddings.

The western portion of the building is occupied by U-M, and most of the floor space is devoted to classrooms that can hold up to 1,000 students. On the ground floor are three classrooms, a standard lecture hall, a science lecture hall and a studio classroom. On the main floor, half of the space is reserved for the local offices of the Extension Center and the Institute of Public and Social Administration. The other half is comprised of a lounge room, three classrooms and a seminar room. Lastly, the second floor holds nine study rooms, a seminar room and U-M’s extension library.

“(The Rackham building) was built for engineers, but they turned it into a social club,” Mahoney said. “People or a company would have to have a membership and they would come and have lunch or dinner. It was similar the Detroit Athletic Club at the time.”

ESD’s east wing has about 45,000 square feet distributed over its three floors. A large space of the ground floor was devoted to ESD’s junior members, which included a junior members’ room, billiards room, activities room and a bowling alley with six regulation lanes. On the main floor, there’s a lobby, a writing room, a ladies lounge, a dining room, a kitchen and an auditorium, which seats 300. Then the second floor holds ESD’s administration offices, several meeting rooms, a reading room, a research room and ESD’s library.

“When I worked in the Rackham building, the atmosphere, for me, was special,” said Mahoney, who worked there from 1989 up until ESD moved its headquarters in 1994. “It was not like a busy office building, even though at times, there was a lot of activity. It was someplace I enjoyed going to everyday. (It had a) hushed and quiet atmosphere, almost like a church, (and a) storied history, like a museum.”

However, after ESD signed a rental lease with Wayne State, much has changed.

For example, the Memorial Auditorium is in need of major renovations and has been unusable for several years. Beneath it, the banquet hall has been occupied with empty book shelves from when the Vera Shiffman Medical Library used it as storage space.

But not all space has been neglected. WSU’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders uses the main floor of the east wing for therapy sessions and has its offices on the second floor in the west wing. Also, five classrooms on the west wing’s main floor have been transformed into suites for WSU’s psychological clinic.

However, Andrea Phillips, administrative assistant to the CSD, said that the department plans on using another room for their speech and language development sessions after serious renovations, but there is a problem. According to Phillips, the cost to renovate the room would “run upward to $1 million.”

“We recently got grant money from the Marie Caroll Foundation to renovate the library,” she said. “That’s one of the avenues we’re going to take.”

But she said it is uncertain if and when they will receive enough grant money. But if they do it is unclear how long the renovations will take.

Edith Fly, the former executive assistant for three ESD executive vice presidents, hopes the building can be used in many ways in the future.

“I personally wish the building could be preserved as a historical site,” Fly said. “Perhaps it could serve as a face or backdrop for cultural, technical and civic announcements concerning Detroit, the southeast region and even the state of Michigan.”

But no matter who occupies the Rackham building or how it’s used, not many buildings can replicate it.

“Frankly, I don’t know of any other building in Detroit with the varied beauty, background and usage of Rackham,” Fly said. “Not many other places of this caliber remain.”

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