The Modern

The Horace H. Rackham Educational Memorial Building

By Mary Johanna Byrnes

In 2000 the Detroit Area Art Deco Society established an award to promote the education and scholarly research of 20th century Art Deco architecture. Since that time, we have awarded four $1,000 scholarships to graduate students in the Historic Preservation Program at Eastern Michigan University. This article is the winning scholarship paper by Mary Jo Byrnes. We plan to continue the scholarship award, and are looking forward to reading papers submitted by students for 2005.

Designed by the Detroit firm of Harley, Ellington and Day, the Horace H. Rackham Educational Memorial Building is one of three buildings that comprise Detroit's Cultural Center Historic District. The Detroit Public Library and the Detroit Institute of Arts complete the trio. Clustered at the intersection of Woodward Avenue and Farnsworth, the monumental buildings create a majestic public space that embodies the city's noblest vision of itself. But while the library and the art museum are grandly historicist, the Rackham Building represents a bold reinterpretation of classical architecture that breaks with tradition while borrowing heavily from the aesthetic of the late Art Deco period.

On December 20, 1940, dignitaries from all over Michigan gathered to lay the building cornerstone. The ceremony represented the culmination of many years of planning and the impressive result of a unique collaboration between the University of Michigan, the Engineering Society of Detroit, and the Horace H. and Mary A. Rackham Fund. A memorial to the late Detroit attorney and philanthropist Hor ace H. Rackham, the new building would house the Detroit office and Extension Service classes of the University and the facilities of the Engineering Society.

Horace Rackham built his fortune on a small investment he made with borrowed money in the fledgling Ford Motor Company. The story of Rackham's association with Henry Ford beginswith a fortuitous meeting between the two men. Ford had been hustled out of the offices of an established Detroit law firm that was too busy to help him draw up papers for the new automobile company he was forming. He was directed down the hall to the office of Horace H. Rackham, a young and eager attorney. The two men became friends and in 1903, with a loan of $5,000, Rackham bought a stake in the Ford Motor Company. Years later, when the Ford family bought out the other investors, Rackham's investments brought him millions of dollars in return. Rackham quietly supported many charities throughout his lifetime. Upon his death in 1933, his will revealed the creation of a charitable foundation "for the benefit of mankind."

In May of 1936 the Horace H. Rackham and Mary A. Rackham Fund created a $500,000 trust for the benefit of the Engineering Society of Detroit. The Engineering Society traced its lineage back to the Detroit Association of Graduate Engineers of the University of Michigan and the old Detroit Engineering Society founded in the late 1890s. The group was a professional organization that served the technical community of Detroit. The Depression years had made it difficult for the organization to survive and as time went on, area engineers became aware of the need for a new initiative to revitalize the group. Detroit had become a national center of technical innovation and leaders of the engineering community wished to unite its members and provide a prominent place for its many educational and service activities. Members recognized the common goals of the Engineering Society and the Rackham Fund. Rackham's will had stipulated that the fortune he left should be expended, "for public, civic, social, and general welfare: the establishment, ownership, operation, maintenance, and assistance of charitable, educational, benevolent, scientific, religious, and other public activities and institutions already and hereafter established, and study, research, and publication." The group approached the Rackham Foundation and asked for their support. For many months the Engineering Society met with the Foundation to discuss the type and extent of the aid that might be given. From the initial suggestion of a $25,000 grant, the project expanded to include a greater amount of monetary support and the construction of a building in memory of Horace H. Rackham to house Society functions. Reorganized in April of 1936 as the Engineering Society of Detroit, and incorporated under the laws of Michigan as a non-profit organization, the Society renewed its commitment to serve the "material well being of mankind."

In 1938, it was suggested that the Engineering Society of Detroit and the University of Michigan cooperate in planning and building a memorial structure to the late Horace H. Rackham that would accommodate the University Extension Service and the activities of the ESD. After many months of negotiation, an agreement was reached; the plan called for a jointly occupied building with separate facilities for each group and a shared auditorium. Finally, in early 1940, the entire block bounded by Woodward, Farnsworth, John R and East Warren was acquired. In the following months the existing buildings were razed, building plans approved and the contractor chosen. Ground was broken on July 1, 1940. Eighteen months later the Horace H. Rackham Memorial Building was presented to the public in a ceremony that included the governor of Michigan.

The 400 foot long Rackham building is clad in white Georgia marble and symmetrically arranged around the grand central entrance facing Farnsworth Street. With a respectful bow to its more overtly classical neighbors, the building emphatically celebrates modern technology. The reinterpreted temple front defies the structural limits of traditional post and lintel construction and exhibits an aesthetic so austere that only the powerful elemental forms and play of light and dark remain to remind us of its classical roots. The ornamental motifs of the Art Deco are freshly expressed in the stunning marble and bronze bas relief sculptures that decorate the surface. The sculptures are the work of Michigan artist Marshall Fredericks and were made in his studio at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. The sculptures combine classical allusions with images of modern technology to symbolize the activities of the building's inhabitants and extol the virtues of progress.

As one would expect of a building housing an engineering society, the Rackham building was technologically advanced for its time. The latest HVAC system, public address system, lighting controls, and other technical innovations were incorporated in the design. The building had a broadcast studio, banquet hall, and a bowling alley. The University wing included classrooms and a library. The engineering wing also had a library, various conference rooms, a billiard room, and a dining room.

According to the architectural historian David Gebhard, "What separates the Art Deco from other contemporaneous modes is above all, its approach to ornament and surface sheathing." Gebhard sees a contrast set up between the "earthbound" monumentality of the structure and the "fragility and thinness of its exterior surfaces." This tension between monumentality and fragility is present in the Rackham Building. The surface is flat and smooth with no suggestion of depth. On either side of the main entrance, the "temple front," large thin panels are layered on top of each other emphatically demonstrating the sheer thinness of the cladding. At each portal the vertical edges step away from the opening in thin slivers, again exaggerating the shallowness of the cladding. The bands of carved ornament at the cornice are in low relief and do not project beyond the plane of the wall nor do they give much depth to the surface. This crisp, delicate treatment of the building's skin is played against its massive horizontality and creates the sense that the sheathing has been "appliqued."

The stripped down classicism of the Rackham Building is an elegant reinterpretation of traditional architecture. Together with its surface treatment and use of ornamentation, especially Marshall Fredericks's magnificent sculptural reliefs, the building illustrates many of the defining characteristics of the "new classicism" of the late Art Deco period. The inter-war years saw the creation of an incredible variety of architecture that today's scholars catalog as Art Deco. The Guardian Building, the Fisher Building, Elwood Bar, the Rackham Building, (to name just a few), all enliven Detroit's streetscape as fine examples of this exuberant period in American design. Wayne State University occupies the Rackham Building today. The Engineering Society of Detroit has moved to the suburbs and the University of Michigan has moved out. However, the building retains its status as one of the important anchors of Detroit's Cultural Center. The area has grown since Rackham first opened its doors in 1942 to include the Detroit Historical Museum, the International Institute, the College for Creative Studies, the Detroit Science Center, and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The Horace H. Rackham Educational Memorial Building's refined presence continues to harmonize with its neighbors. The building simultaneously honors and demonstrates the best of human achievement, and it remains an enduring example of the power of public architecture to create a significant place, full of meaning and beauty intended to define and sustain community identity.

Copyright © 2005 Detroit Area Art Deco Society. All rights reserved.