As you head into Detroit from the John C. Lodge Freeway, a giant Black fist confronts you. This sculpture, depicting the late boxer Joe Louis’ fist hanging from a tripod, has an attitude that seems to say, “I’m Detroit. I’m tough. I’m resilient. Don’t mess with me.”
Just down the street is another substantial piece created by the late sculptor Marshall Fredericks. It emanates a certain power and dignity and has become a defining symbol of the city and its people since it was installed in 1958, during Detroit’s heyday as one of the largest cities in the United States.
The 26-foot-tall bronze-cast sculpture sits in front of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, rising from a massive 60-ton marble base. It dominates the plaza and overlooks Woodward Avenue. At one time, it was the largest cast statue made anywhere in the world since the Renaissance.
It originally wasn’t named, but Fredericks referred to it as “The Spirit of Detroit,” and that moniker stuck.
“The Spirit of Detroit” is one of the many works Janna Jones, an author and professor of creative media and film at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, writes about in her new book, “The Spirit of the City: Marshall Fredericks Sculptures in Detroit.” The book was published in June by Michigan State University Press.
Throughout the book, Jones covers eight of Fredericks’ sculptures that at one time symbolized the city’s fall and rebirth.
“There are many sad stories in ‘The Spirit of the City’ that tell the stories of the rise and fall of the city,” Jones said. “Marshall wasn’t a critics’ sculptor. He was making sculptures for the people.”
Jones first “fell in love” with Fredericks’ sculptures as a Dow Visiting Scholar at Saginaw Valley State University, which is home to Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum, a story in itself.
“I was blown away with how beautiful the museum is,” she said.
Not all of Fredericks’ works are as massive and serious as “The Spirit of Detroit.” Take, for example, the sculpture he completed for the 1954 opening of the Northland Center in Southfield, the whimsical “The Boy and Bear,” which was almost abandoned when the shopping center closed in 2015. The sculpture, installed outside the venerable Hudson’s department store, now resides in the Southfield Public Library. You can also see similar renditions of the sculpture at the Grosse Pointe Public Library’s Central Branch and the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids.
Although Jones never met Fredericks, who died in 1998, she writes about him and his work as if he were a good friend.
“Marshall’s sculptures tell the story of metro Detroit, and they are very compelling,” she said.
Fredericks was not a native Detroiter, but he moved to the area in 1932 to teach at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills. One of his first commissions was to create the Levi L. Barbour Memorial Fountain on Belle Isle.
In addition to designing monumental sculptures, Fredericks also worked on a human scale, creating children-friendly sculptures like “The Lion and Mouse” and “The Thinker,” installed at the entrance to the Detroit Institute of Arts, which will bring an existential chuckle to your visit.
“I find it interesting that it’s likely more people have seen Fredericks’ sculptures than have seen the ‘Mona Lisa,’” Jones said.
Other sculptures Fredericks designed include the “Victory Eagle” at the UAW-Ford National Programs Center in Detroit; “Freedom of the Human Spirit” in Birmingham, Michigan; “Romance of Transportation” in Baltimore; “Harlequins, Ballerina, and Orchestral Parade” at the Fredericks Sculpture Museum; and “The Ford Empire,” a 145-foot aluminum mural completed for the now-defunct Ford Auditorium in Detroit.
For a number of years, Detroiters and visitors clamored for a souvenir of “The Spirit of Detroit,” but it wasn’t until decades later that the statue began showing up on T-shirts, key rings and even snow globes.
And then there was that night in 1965 when pranksters created large green footprints leading from “The Spirit of Detroit” to “Step of the Dance,” a sculpture of a nude ballerina by Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzu, located across Woodward Avenue. Oh, what a night.
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