The Geo-Ornithology of Detroit
This essay was written for Midwest Architectural Journeys, an excellent collection of essays about buildings and spaces across the center of the United States. Though the essay is about Detroit, the photos in this online version are from other cities. Use the text to find Detroit geo-eagles on your own. Buy the book and support small publishers!
Exploring a city for the first time, one chooses what threads they will pull to understand the architecture of the place and the people who built it. I look to the geo-ornithology: the population of stone and metal eagles that can be found roosting atop columns, occupying the center of pediments, and contributing their decorative splendor to moments of architectural importance. Since the adoption of the Great Seal of the United States featuring a bald eagle in 1782, the big bird has become an adaptable and widely-utilized symbol across the country, adorning numerous structures in seemingly every American city above a certain size. This makes geo-ornithology an accessible hobby, even more so due to the fact that geo-eagles rarely migrate south for winter.
Some hundred years after the bald eagle was officially adopted as a symbol of the country’s might, the midwestern city of Detroit was revving the engines of its economy. Walk around downtown and eagles are everywhere, because projections of power are everywhere. Stand in front of the Buhl Building, completed in 1925, and among an otherwise romanesque decorative scheme you will find a solitary geo-eagle crowning a four story arch that marks the principal entrance. As an office building that was called “the cathedral of finance” in its day, there’s bound to be at least one geo-eagle here. This particular bird was likely sculpted by Corrado Parducci, who worked on many of downtown Detroit’s most famous buildings.
Progress up Griswold one block to the Penobscot Building, completed in 1928, and you will be under the watchful eyes of twelve geometric brass eagles adorning the entry. One each, with wings outstretched, embedded in the brass tracery over the four entry doors, while another eight small geo-eagles take on a quasi-anthropomorphic form and appear to be looking down from a ledge above the doors. The larger decorative thematic of the building is an Art Deco take on Native American iconography and patterning, which means the geo-eagles here are doing double duty as symbols of 20th century American prowess while also giving a nod to the importance of eagles in Native American cultures — a complicated duality to say the least.
The corner of Shelby and West Fort provides a study in how fickle power can be. In 1915 Albert Kahn completed the Detroit Trust Company building with a finely detailed classical facade featuring a run of colossal pilasters that terminate in Corinthian capitals. Taking the place of the fleuron at the top of each capital is an affronté geo-eagle with wings inverted (pointing toward the ground). Like the acanthus leaves of the capital, the geo-eagles are executed with a degree of precision so fine that one can still clearly see the eyes of these sentinel birds despite their diminutive size.
Directly across the street are four eagles carved into the limestone facade of the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse designed by Robert O. Derrick and completed in 1934. Where Kahn’s geo-eagles are surprises hidden amongst the greater decorative scheme of the building, Derrick’s are the most figurative aspects of the original facade (which has since had two additional federal seals carved into it). Here the eagles also sit atop pilasters, seemingly in dialogue with their neighbors across the street, but they replace the capitals altogether instead of adorn them. The bank nestles its markers of power amongst lapidary flora; the federal courthouse makes sure its geo-eagles’ talons are unmistakably on display.
Eagles roost near bodies of water; geo-eagles make their home near centers of power. Beyond downtown that often means Post Office buildings. At the corner of Woodward Avenue and Tyler Street, the Highland Park Post Office features perhaps the largest geo-eagle in the city, sculpted by Erwin Springweiler in 1940. This sculpture in the round features a streamlined form with details carved in low relief and looks like something that would fit comfortably next to a vehicle designed by Raymond Loewy. Six miles away, at a post office on East Jefferson Avenue, highly graphical linework forms a deconstructed interpretation of the great seal. Thirteen stars, a fasces, an olive branch, and a geo-eagle form a strikingly asymmetrical composition superimposed on the square gridlines of the facade’s stonework. It looks nothing like the other geo-eagles in town, but it’s a remarkable and deftly executed specimen.
Step back to consider the entire flock of geo-eagles across a single city like Detroit and you start to see the individuals as variations on a theme. The logic of the geo-eagle population is reminiscent of a certain union of fifty independent states. Each geo-eagle is an opportunity to express the creativity of one particular building and the time in which it was built, and yet the flock as a whole reminds us that there is no singular truth to be found.
The surprisingly diverse array of forms assumed by bald eagles when executed in stone or metal reflects the challenges of translating the vitality of such a dynamic creature into a fixed medium. The bird’s organic curves and the strong patterning created by its feathers conspire to make the sentinel eagle a surprisingly intricate form when captured as a decorative object. The sculptor has choices to make. To carve individual feathers at accurate scale and attempt to mimic the patterning of the plumage, like the geo-eagles on Kahn’s Detroit Trust Company building; to simplify this busy pattern to some more abstract level, like the Penobscot birds; or to ignore feathers altogether and favor the silhouette, as the anonymous New Deal sculptors did on East Jefferson Avenue? Does one obsess over the curves of wing, head, and iconic beak, or allow the shapes of the bird to be interpreted in a more apparently ‘architectural’ geometric configuration favoring right angles, as did the sculptors responsible for the federal courthouse on Fort Street? Shall the wings be shown rousant, presenting a bold and imposing profile with wings outspread, or is it more appropriate for the bird’s wings to be affronté, pointing down towards the earth with unruffled confidence?
The widest variety of interpretations is to be seen in how the feathered tibia is portrayed. Whereas live eagles exhibit a continuity from breast to leg, geo-eagles are generally depicted with a high degree of prominence given to the silhouette of the leg, which makes it look as though the bird is wearing britches. If the sculptor emphasizes the metatarsus, which is the lower portion of an eagle’s leg clad in yellow skin, those britches may appear more like capris. Based on a study of geo-eagles in countless cities documented on Instagram via the hashtag #eaglepants, it appears that identifying the type of pants that the geo-eagle will sport is among the primary considerations one must make while executing such a sculpture. Even the most potent of power symbols is the subject to delicate deliberations of decoration.
If ornithology is the pursuit of observing and tracking migratory birds, geo-ornithology is the study of power, how it moves through cities, and the role that architecture plays in this ebb and flow. Spotting the location and the size of the local geo-eagle population tells you where power is or was to be found, while the style and specific artistic choices of geo-eagles mark a moment in time. Compared to two dimensional representations of eagles, the expanded set of choices that go into the composition and manufacture of a geo-eagle means that they resist the flat symbolism of their printed cousins. Even the most shallow of bas reliefs generally have a symbolic depth to them when read in conjunction with the full details of the structure they embellish. It may be an unlikely tool, but the geo-eagle is a tender lens through which to analyze the subject of real or projected power.
Because of the era in which the geo-eagle population peaked nationally, this is a pastime that is particularly rewarding in Midwestern capitals such as Detroit. This city grew wildly in an era when decoration was expected and geo-eagles were prevalent. As Detroit’s economy trends upwards and construction cranes — a different kind of geo-fowl — are starting to grace the skyline once again, one is left to wonder what markers will identify our time to future generations. When the awkwardly named “Hudson’s Site Building,” designed by SHoP architects, rises to become the second tallest building in the city, what details will onlookers spot to interpret the vision of the world that is implied by this architecture?
Contemporary architecture, like the structures of power that finance and own it, is abstract to the point of carefully arranged ambiguity. These buildings often present complexity without the possibility of contradiction. Will particular curves, faceted geometries, or curtain wall details come to imply a specific power dynamic to future generations, or will that be left to the spherical inky eyes of security cameras, dangled haphazardly off parapets? Traditionalist, richly decorated buildings thankfully do not appear to have any shot at regaining the vanguard in contemporary architecture, but once the geo-eagles have gone for good, what markers will we use to trace the migrations of power?
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