Nov. 19 2008 12:00 AM

All-star architecture New book picks Michigan’s best buildings

In 1860, a former American ambassador to the Sandwich Islands wanted to bring a little bit of Polynesia to central Michigan, and the result was the Honolulu House in Marshall. (Photo from
For more than 150 years, huge fortunes have been made and lost in Michigan, leaving a legacy of hundreds of great buildings: copper mines and courthouses, churches and concert halls, skyscrapers and cottages, rustic barns and modern homes.

The authors of “Great Architecture of Michigan,” new from Wayne State University Press, held themselves to the top 150, and it wasn’t easy.

John Gallagher, architecture critic for the Detroit Free Press, wrote the book’s text and sat on the five-member jury that selected the buildings. The Michigan Architectural Foundation sponsored the project to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Gallagher said the book is already sparking a lot of discussions.

“It’s like arguing about the All-Star team,” he said.

Only two Lansing-area buildings made the cut: the state Capitol and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Goetsch-Winckler house in Okemos. (For a few of Lansing’s forsaken favorites, see box on this page.)

“I guess I could blame my fellow jurors,” Gallagher said. “But we don’t claim it’s the definitive list, just a representative sample of styles, functions and periods.”

The book’s greatest asset is its penetrating, high-contrast photography. Instead of gathering a showy album, photographer Balthazar Korab chisels deep into his subject, reveling in the chiaroscuro of wood, masonry, steel and concrete. Roofs, towers and spires cut deeply into indigo Michigan skies. Korab, a specialist in architectural photography, has collaborated with top architects like Ludwig Mies van de Rohe, Louis Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright. The photographs he has gathered in a 40-year career show a keen sensitivity to each building’s personality and surroundings. “He’ll wait months for the right light or the right weather,” Gallagher said.

Eric Hill, architecture professor at the University of Michigan and board member of the Michigan Architectural Foundation, headed the jury. The other jurors were former state historic preservation officer Kathryn Bishop Eckert, architecture professor Tony Martinico, of the University of Detroit Mercy, Gallagher and Korab.

The panel started with a list of 450 buildings. Gallagher said about 50 “greatest hits,” such as the Fisher Building, Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel and the state Capitol, were voted in unanimously.

There are many delightful surprises in the book, including the Octagon Barn in the Thumb, the exotic Honolulu House in Marshall — built by a former United States ambassador to the Sandwich Islands— and the storybook Houghton County courthouse, the cheeriest Gothic dungeon you’ll ever see.

As he annotated each photograph, Gallagher was surprised at how many of the buildings were threatened with demolition before they were saved. “The Bay City Hall is one of my favorites — great Romanesque Revival, with these great interior stairways and atriums,” he said. “Somewhere in the ‘60s or ‘70s, some commission studied it and said, ‘Oh, we ought to tear it down and get something more modern.’”

A coalition of citizens and architecture experts blocked the plan.

Detroit’s Orchestra Hall is another example. “It was once slated for demolition, and now it’s one of the centerpieces of the whole midtown revival,” Gallagher said.

To Gallagher, the lesson is clear. “Even though people acknowledge there are some great buildings, you have to work to save them.”

Great Architecture of Michigan

Text by John Gallagher, photos by Balthazar Korab Michigan Architectural Foundation and Wayne State University Press