Friday, August 19, 2016

Detroit's Mythical Mayan-Themed Fisher Theatre

By Gretchen Sawatzki

Affectionately called, "Detroit's largest art object," the Fisher Building has drawn architecture fanatics to its doors since 1928. Built by Frederick and Charles Fisher (a.k.a. the "Fisher Brothers" founders of the Fisher Body Company in 1908),  this monumental structure was to rival the planned Rockefeller Center in New York. The Fisher Brothers hired Detroit-based architect Albert Kahn to design the structure. Kahn was given a budget of $35 million dollars to build a majestic building worthy of the Detroit skyline, sparing no expense. While Kahn preferred to stay on budget, he selected over 40 different types of marble for the lobby, over 400 tons of bronze for decoration, and sub-contracted artists including Hungarian artist Geza Maroti to design frescoes, and other designers for the creation of a 4,000 seat Mayan-themed theater.

Interior of the original "Mayan Theatre."
Image credit, Andrew Schneider, Curbed Detroit
The Fisher Theatre was the crown jewel to an already breathtaking building. Designed by Chicago-based architects Anker S. Graven and Arthur G. Mayger, the design for the theatre was selected by Kahn through competition. Graven and Mayger wanted to design something different from popular design trends of the time and embraced the motifs of ancient Mayan culture for their theatre. Their unique, over-the-top design was meant to invite a sense of wonder and enjoyment for theatre-goers which included gold and ivory accents, banana trees, and even macaws to greet guests in the lobby.

Fisher Theatre post-renovation. Image credit
By 1961, the charm of the Mayan-themed theatre seemed to wane as the space age ushered in streamline, futuristic, and minimalist designs, ultimately leading to the theatre's remodel that removed the original Mayan motifs.

For many Detroiters, the "Mayan Theatre" as it has often been called, has lived on as a sort of urban legend. While many locals have heard stories of the theatre's past life, it's hard to believe that a Mayan Temple once graced the corner of Second Avenue and Grand Boulevard. And, if belief wasn't enough, until only recently have few photographs survived showing the theatre's former glory.

Thank goodness for writer/contributor Andrew Schneider of Curbed Detroit, an online blog dedicated to sharing the stories of Detroit's homes, neighborhoods, and architecture. Schneider recently stumbled upon a series of original photographs of the Fisher Theatre shortly after its completion in the basement of a Chicagoland home. His find of 32 photographs show the true beauty of the so-called, "Mayan Theatre." These photographs are a rare look at the Graven and Mayger theatre that so many of us locals have tried to get our hands on for years - proving that this urban legend really did exist in the heart of The D.

View of the 4,000 seat "Mayan Theatre." Image credit, Andrew Schneider, Curbed Detroit

      Curbed Detroit
      Detroit Free Press
      Wikipedia: National Register of Historic Places Listings in Detroit

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