Saturday, September 26, 2009

Detroit's gilded age

If the 1890s were a Gilded Age in the U.S. then Detroit in that decade might be said to have been a gilded city. In fact it liked to be called the Paris of the West for its architecture and for its own unique street lighting.*

Here are photos of the central part of the city — the Campus Martius — taken in the latter part of the 1890s. They come from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection of the Library of Congress Prints and Photos Division.

I prepared the following three panoramic images from nine photos in the LC collection. As you can see they are made of three photos each. The first two pairs of three were made within minutes of each other; the third was made on another day. They were all from the same elevated location. As usual, click to view full size.

In the left-most images of the three panoramas you can see the plaza called Campus Martius at Woodward and Michigan Avenues. The building on the left is Detroit's first sky scraper, the Hammond Building. The monument in the middle of the intersection, bottom center of the 2nd and 3rd panoramas, is the Bagley Fountain and Statue. The spire in center of the left photo belongs to the Fort Street Presbyterian Church. All the buildings in this photo have been demolished except for this church. The building on the right is City Hall, seen in full in the center photo.

The center images in each of the three panoramas show City Hall.

The images on the right show the Majestic Building on a corner of Woodward & Michigan. In these shots the Opera House is on the right. The Majestic Building was home to the C.A. Shafer department store. In front of the it you can see a tower supporting carbon arc lamps. This was one of the Arc Lighting Towers, also known as Moonlight Towers, which led people to link Detroit in their day with the City of Lights. Below the Opera House is the Soldiers & Sailors Monument, seen most clearly in the 2nd and 3rd panoramas.

The 2nd panorama shows the city's electric streetcars which date from the 1880s, replacing a horsecar system from the Civil War era.

Here are some details from these images.

• Two photos of a busy intersection.

• Three photos of a sunny corner.

• Steps of City Hall.

• A newsboy.

• Pedestrians, a lounger, and a head-scarfed woman.

• Corner by the side of City Hall.

• As you can see, Shafer's is completing some renovations.

• Some buggies and bikes.

• Young men in derby hats; I like this detail a lot.

• Goods wagons with patient, blanketed horses.

• The stanchion of the arc lamp tower.

• The arc lamps themselves.

• The leader of the Salvation Army is coming to town.

Here are the nine large-format images that make up the panoramas.

• The three left-images showing the Hammond Building.

• The three center images showing City Hall.

• The three right-hand images showing the Majestic Building.

LC's collections also include this extreme wide angle shot, taken about a decade later.

{LC caption: Majestic Building and Detroit Opera House, Detroit, Mich.}

Links for further information:

• From the Shorpy blog where two of these photos appeared:
  • Moonlight Tower
  • Austin’s Moonlight Towers
  • Soldiers and Sailors Monument
  • Bagley Fountain: The visible side says FOR THE PEOPLE FROM.
    The four sides say:
    The Bagley fountain is the only existing work of H.H. Richardson in Michigan. Richardson also built an armory in Detroit, but it is long gone. Today the fountain sits in a different location in Cadillac Square.
  • Demolition of City Hall
    In one of the most notorious incidents in the history of Detroit, as preservationists and boosters alike fought to save the old city hall, an injuction was filed to stop the demolition. The contractor snuck a bulldozer into the site at midnight and demolished the portico on the front of the building, compromising the structural integrity of the edifice, and forcing the full demolition.

• From a site called Buildings of Detroit:

Some sources:

* Detroit was the only large city in the US (and in the world) lighted wholly and exclusively by the tower system.

Detroit placed 122 towers (see illustration at left and at right) with a height of 100 to 180 feet, lighting 21 square miles of the city. All towers were installed in the 1880s and remained in use up to the end of the 1910s.

The lighting infrastructure in Detroit was regarded as the future of street lighting, and stood as an example for the rest of the US. The following excerpts are taken from “Municipal lighting”, a practical guide for city lighting that was published in 1888:

“The press of the country has uniformly conceded Detroit to be the best-lighted city in the world. All its streets, yards, backyards and grounds are illuminated as effectually as by the full moon at the zenith. The blending of light from the mass of towers serves to prevent dense shadows.”

“There are 122 towers of 153 feet each. Detroit has about 230,000 inhabitants, and has a dense business section of about one square mile. This section has about 20 towers, which average 1,000 to 1,200 feet apart. The belt immediately contiguous, embracing the closely-built and densely shaded residence section has its towers about 2,000 feet apart. Beyond this the spaces widen to 2,500 feet apart, and in the suburbs they are spaced about 2,500 to 3,000 feet apart.”

Moonlight towers: light pollution in the 1800s

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