Saturday, July 2, 2011

Diaries from Detroit, vol. 3: Working in a Masterpiece

My internship in Detroit is proving to be just about perfect. With my musical soul thriving, the architect in me is jumping for joy. We hold the Summer Day Camp in Metropolitan UMC, which is a remarkable Neo-Gothic structure in fantastic condition-- and I have the run of the place. Its like a dream come true.

The building is massive. It has a full-size gymnasium, a kitchen and dining room that can feed about 150, a grand parlor (furnished in the original 1920s decor) with two fireplaces, a library, a chapel, an auditorium that seats 1500, a sanctuary that seats about 3000, classrooms and offices to boot, and beautiful vaulted stone corridors with hand-painted plaster walls. The 2nd Floor Corridor has niches in which three murals are painted with scenes integral to the creation of the Methodist Church- "The Dawn of the Reformation," "John Wesley Preaching on His Father's Tomb," and "Francis Asbury, Apostle of the Long Trail," all by artist George Boget.

The South Stairs are contained within the South Tower of the church, situated in the back left corner of the sanctuary. They lead to the small chapel on the second floor, a suite and balcony access on the third floor, and then the tower above. I had a chance to explore the tower the other day with the master key. On the first floor of the tower is a radio broadcast room (long since disused) and the "Buffalo Room." I unlocked the door to the mysterious room and found an incredible double-height room with detailed wood paneling and a full height brick fireplace on which is mounted the head of a buffalo. Above the entrance on the second floor is a balcony looking into the room. All windows are clerestory, so light pours in from above. The room is now used for storage and is slightly eerie. I walked through to the opposite corner and found another door. I slowly opened it and flicked on the light switch to find the attic space between the gothic-vaulted ceiling of the sanctuary and the steel truss and concrete roof over the church. I followed a stair case built directly on the vaulted roof. I was so impressed to discover that it was a true stone vault- not plaster suspended from a steel structure. It was an honest Gothic structure, only replacing traditional wooden trusses with steel (likely a reaction to the fire that destroyed the congregation's previous home in 1916). I climbed out of there and continued up the stairs in the tower-- now a small, winding steel structure between massive stone walls. On the next level is a door leading to the room that overlooks the Buffalo Room. This room also has a door to an outdoor balcony in the tower-- unfortunately I did not have a key for that. One more flight up, and a door to the bell loft and another large classroom that covers the rest of the tower not used by the bell loft. Two more flights up from there and there is a door to the tower's roof-- if only I had the key I'm sure I would discover a 360 view of Detroit.

I have been fascinated by this building and am trying to share my enthusiasm with the children. I created a scavenger hunt for them to find the hidden symbols worked into the paintings, tiles, and woodwork of the walls, ceiling, floor, and furniture. I feel like every day I discover something new about this building. I have never been so excited to go to work every day just to see the place its in. In my enthusiasm, one of the older church ladies gave me a copy of a commemorative book that was given out to the congregation at the building's completion in 1926. In it is a beautiful description of the building that I'd like to share:

Beauty of line, ruggedness, and practical interior arrangements designed to yield a maximum of service in the religious, educational and community work of the church, are combined in the architecture of the Metropolitan edifice.

Its plain but impressive exterior follows the modern English Gothic style. Its deep-set walls of granite are built to stand through centuries. The interior, restful to the eye and the spirit, is laid out to meet effectively every demand made by the widespread activities of the modern city church.

A member of the congregation, Mr. W.E.N. Hunter, is the architect...

Set in the ample grounds, a whole city block in width, the massive walls, buttressed and towered, are of ashlar granite, from quarries near Plymouth, Mass. There the stratification of the rock runs perpendicularly, and the varied coloration has been carried downward into the fiber of the stone by centuries of seepage to the crevices. The stone blocks, of many dimensions and shades-- 52,000 in number, have been laid so as to give ever-changing variety of color.

Grey Ohio sandstone forms the facing and trimming on the deeply recessed doorways and windows. Within, the floors of corridors and the stair treads are of differently colored tile; the floors of aisles in the church and chapel are of slate with insets of tile in traditional or symbolic designs.

The church is without wood or timber or other inflammable material in its construction. Wooden floors are laid in the recreation room and in some of the social rooms, biut these are based on an underflooring of concrete.

From deep concrete foundations the building rises to a height of nine ordinary stories. A fire might rage through the pile, consume furniture, papers, books, and melt some of the metal in the roof and pipes, but it would leave the structure itself, the concrete, the girders, the steel lath, and the slate, intact.

The external mass of the pile, all walls and concrete, centers in the great tower on the south, rising 105 feet, but so massively constructed and so resting on the broader masses beneath that the height is not immediately sensed.

The tower is 40 by 40 feet, there is space for the installation of a carillon-- 45 bells. Yet the tower is not merely a belfry, or a colossal ornamentation. The stories below the belfry are fitted up as classrooms.

Thus throughout the whole construction, the dignity of architectural tradition is maintained while the ends of modern usefulness are faithfully served...

This church was the largest Methodist Church in the world in the 1930s and 40s. Its congregation steeply declined after the Detroit riots of the 1970s, but despite that and the recent depression, the church still thrives with a good size congregation that mixes a range of classes and races. I'm sure I will blog more about it as I learn, discover, and explore more of it.

More pictures can be found in my flickr set for Metro UMC.

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