by Rebecca Binno
On Jefferson Avenue just past the Belle Isle Bridge is one of the most unrecognized and unappreciated Art Deco treasures in Detroit. The Brodhead Armory is significant for its architectural design and the fabulous collection of WPA murals within.
The Brodhead Armory was designed in 1930 by the firm of Stratton & Hyde, and William B. Stratton was the principal designer. The structure is a testament to the Modernistic style of the '30s. Its streamline styling and stripped linearity emphasize the building's horizontality. In a sense, the structure refers to the Egyptian Tombs in the Nile Valley being excavated in the 1920s. It is important to note that William Stratton was the husband of Mary Chase Stratton, founder of Pewabic Pottery. Pewabic Pottery executed three plaques for the exterior of the Brodhead Armory.
Here are just some of the fun facts about the Brodhead Armory:
- It was the site of the very first fight of a promising young boxer, Joe Louis.
- Its dedication ceremonies were attended by screen legend Jean Harlow.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to Detroiters at the Armory during his first run for the White House.
- It has been home to marathon dance contests, coin shows, auto shows, flower shows, and political rallies.
All of the Brodhead Armory's fascinating history has been recorded in the extensive, well-written historic designation report by Hospital Corpsman First Class Mark T. Hacala, USNR.
What's an Armory? In this case, it is the place where the Navy drilled and trained its recruits. The staff also recruited enlisted and reserve personnel to serve and protect the United States. The Brodhead Armory is still serving its original use, but currently as a Marine training center.
The programmatic use of the armory was quite varied: a gymnasium, classrooms, offices, and dining rooms with a kitchen. The assemblage of these rooms and spaces required an architect with the skill of Stratton to make them utilitarian and to fit the needs of the Navy.
It was in 1936 that Captain Brodhead decided to commission the Federal Art Projects program of the Works Progress Administration to embellish the Ward Room with murals. The artist chosen was the local muralist David Fredenthal. Fredenthal was at the beginning of his career and the murals on the walls of the Armory are an important step in the development in Fredenthal's career. Unfortunately, these murals have had serious water damage due to roof problems. The roof has been repaired at a cost of $375,000, but the murals remain damaged.
The most outstanding artwork in the Brodhead Armory is the wood carvings. The officer's staircase balusters were carved by Gustave Hildebrand in 1941 in an undersea fantasy theme including mermaids, seahorses, fish, and flowing water plants. Additionally, Hildebrand carved stylized scenes from Navy life into the white walls of the lower level of the Armory.
Because the Brodhead Armory is underutilized, approximately 28 Marine and Navy personnel work in the building, its future is questionable. While the personnel working in the Armory are very dedicated and strive to continue working there, the building is in a precarious state. The original steel casement windows need to be replaced, as well as the heating and cooling systems and the elevator. The deteriorated murals are low on the priority list for the building's restoration, but, nevertheless, are at a critical state.
The Detroit Area Art Deco Society (DAADS) has joined the newly organized non-profit Brodhead Armory Preservation Society and is interested in helping with the Fredenthal mural restoration. The Brodhead Society has just recently been set up to raise funds for the heating and cooling systems, elevator, and window replacements. DAADS hopes to fund the mural restoration once the building's systems have been stabilized and the building's future is more clearly mapped. In the meantime, one of Detroit's Art Deco gems lies undiscovered by the average citizen and Decophile.
The Brodhead Armory is adorned with a priceless collection of WPA murals and carvings and has an important part in the history of Detroit's Naval service. It is deserving of a significant restoration and recognition of its value in enhancing Detroit's collection of Art Deco architecture.
This building needs our help. If you would like to donate toward the restoration of the Brodhead Armory, please send your contribution to:
Brodhead Armory Preservation Society
C/O The Detroit Area Art Deco Society
P.O. Box 1393
Royal Oak, MI 48068-1393
Make Checks payable to Detroit Area Art Deco Society
For more information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org