Collection Highlight: Walter Hickey Papers

Cranbrook Archives is pleased to announce a new collection available for research. An intriguing collection, it comprises the personal and professional papers, photographs, realia, and architectural drawings of Walter Preston Hickey, a student of Eliel Saarinen. Yet, while traces of key life events and relationships—birth, parentage, education, marriage, friends, and employers—can be found in the collection, Hickey’s life after Cranbrook remains largely a mystery.

Walter Hickey working in the Architecture Studio, 1935. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

A native of Detroit, Hickey attended the University of Michigan School of Architecture (1926-1930), during which time he worked with architects Albert Kahn (1928) and Thomas Tanner, as well as being one of the first staff members of the Cranbrook Architectural Office.

A Transportation Building for a World’s Fair, circa 1926-1930. A University of Michigan Class Project by Walter Hickey. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

He applied to study architectural design with instruction in city planning at Cranbrook Academy of Art, starting in September of 1932. He became especially interested in highway traffic control, which formed the topic of his 1935 thesis on the Waterfront Development for the City of Detroit. Hickey submitted designs to various Academy competitions and won a $10 prize from Loja Saarinen for design No. 13 in the Cranbrook Academy of Art Rug Competition in 1934.

Drawing by Walter Hickey, undated. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

After leaving Cranbrook, Hickey worked for various architecture firms, including Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls, and Clair W. Ditchy. After a short time with the Federal Housing Administration, he returned to work with Eliel and Eero Saarinen on the Kleinhans Music Hall project. He also completed private architectural designs for residences, including work on Ralph Rapson’s Hoey vacation home, Longshadows, in Metamora, MI. Around this time, he went to work at the General Motors Technical Center and continued to live in Birmingham, Michigan. And here is where his story ends in the collection.

Jane Viola Shepherd. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Although this is a very small collection, the diversity of content is rewarding for its ability to convey snapshots of his life in individual and unique items. It includes Christmas cards, such as one from “the Lorches” (Emil Lorch was the President of the University of Michigan Architecture School), a few letters from friends, and something of a typed love letter (on Cranbrook Academy of Art letterhead!) from Zoltan Sepeshy’s Secretary Jane Viola Shepherd to whom he was married on April 22, 1937.

A small series of photographs hold moments of his life and some of the people with whom he shared it, including his father, eminent roentgenologist (radiography) Dr. Preston Hickey; his wife, Jane; his teacher, Eliel; and his fellow Academy students. A series of snowy scenes of Cranbrook campus beautifully capture the quietness of falling snow with hints of sunlight upon the architecture and sculptures that were then in their infancy and are now historic.

The Walter Hickey Papers give insight into a short period in Hickey’s life and the Cranbrook of his time. It also gives us a lovely look into a life that was surely shaped by his experience at Cranbrook, but one that remains yet to be fully discovered.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

6 thoughts on “Collection Highlight: Walter Hickey Papers

  1. Wonderful, interesting article on Walter. Thank you. Walter P. Hickey is my great-uncle, my mom’s uncle. Aunt Jane, or his widow, Jane, stayed in that same area of Michigan until her passing. My mom was born in Grosse Point, but grew up in Birmingham. The house she grew up in, Walter drew up and designed the plans for that house. And he and my Grandpa Shepherd found a way to build it themselves. That house is still there today. Not many people know this about Walter. While at Cranbrook, he would befriend Detroit’s and Michigan’s most esteemed sculptor and artist, Marshall Fredericks. It may have been a favor ,a gift, a fun project, something to do…but in 1933, Fredericks sculpted a bust of Walter. I contacted the Marshall Fredericks Museum in Saginaw, Michigan about it. They had records that showed the bust existed, and may still have to original mold. But, I provided them some photos of the bust, so they could account for another one of Marshall’s works. Walter was an architect by trade, but he had a passion or hobby of painting, mostly in watercolors. One of paintings, and of Cranbrook, currently resides in Yale University’s Art Gallery. We still have the bust of Walter in the family…along with an original watercolor painting that Walter had done at some point. It’s so interesting to see the mark Walter Hickey made on the world, or his little part of it in Michigan. But it means so much more when it’s family that’s being recognized for their work. That makes it personal. Special. Thank you so much.

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      • My Uncle Walter and Aunt Jane were wonderful people and I was lucky to grow up around them in Birmingham where my dad was raised with his 5 siblings on Bates St. I was born in 1941 and Walter and dad(John L. Shepherd) built our house at 19546 Warwick Dr. in Beverly Hills, MI It’s a lovely home and still there.I went to Brookside Elementary K-6 before our move to Grosse Pointe .

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