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

A Michigan Mural

Metro Detroiters, out-of-town visitors, and architectural aficionados worldwide have long admired the Penobscot Building in Detroit’s Financial District. Like its close neighbor, the Guardian Building, and the Fisher Building further north in Midtown, it is one of the city’s finest examples of art deco architecture and one of the iconic structures that still make up Detroit’s skyline today. Designed by Wirt C. Rowland of Smith, Hinchman, & Grylls, when its 47 stories were built in 1928, it was the tallest building in the city and the fourth tallest in the nation.

The Penobscot, on the National Register of Historic Places, is perhaps best known architecturally for its tiered upper seventeen floors and the exterior ornament by sculptor Corrado Parducci, whose work can be seen on many other Detroit buildings. It’s also known to locals for the red-lit globe at the top (originally designed as an aviation beacon), the legendary Caucus Club (Barbara Streisand reportedly launched her singing career here), or the famed roof observation deck which offered an excellent panorama of the city.

But, what about the interior of the Penobscot? Well it just so happens there’s a Cranbrook connection!

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The original bank lobby. Courtesy Detroit Free Press Archives.

The Guardian Detroit Group was the first tenant of the two-story bank hall at 635 Griswold St. before they had their own skyscraper commissioned just a block away. A later occupant, Detroit City Bank, opened in the same space in February 1949. When they did, adorning one wall was a mural painted by Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate and Head of Kingswood School Art Department (1940-1956), Clifford B. West. Known as the “Mural of Michigan” the twenty-six-foot painting depicts scenes representing state commerce and industry. West, who studied under Zoltan Sepeshy, and with fellow muralist David Fredenthal, had already completed a bank mural in Alamosa, Colorado, as well as Detroit-area murals in the Rackham Building, Stockholm Restaurant, and Fox & Hounds Restaurant.

Following a meticulous process that involved a series of sketches at different scales, cartoons plotted to a numbered grid and traced on the wall, and painting in two steps (large blocks of color followed by detail work), the scenes were applied in casein tempera on canvas cemented to the wall. Joining in this process was West’s wife and fellow artist, Joy Griffin West, and several academy students. Fortuitously, each stage of work was captured in a series of photographs by Cranbrook photographer, Harvey Croze.

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Upon completion of the mural, West mounted an exhibit at Cranbrook Art Museum titled, Progress of a Mural in April 1949, detailing his process for the Penobscot mural, and featuring many of the preliminary sketches and cartoons.

It’s largely unknown whether the Penobscot mural exists today, since a drop ceiling was installed many years ago, completely obscuring West’s creation.

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist

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