Midcentury Modern Building in Downtown Royal Oak is 'Architectural Gem'
Originally designed as a showroom for Grinnell Music, architect Glen Pausen's building at Washington and Fifth merits a closer look.
Tucked away comfortably on the southeast corner of Washington Avenue and Fifth Street sits an architectural gem designed by one of the most talented Michigan architects of the twentieth century.
The fact that you may not have ever paid much attention to the building does not detract from it’s essential quality; the building is in fact very understated, a reflection of the modesty of the architect, and of his goal to make the building “feel” a natural part of the streetscape.
Glen Paulsen designed the Grinnell Music building in 1961 to be the showroom and offices for the Michigan-based retailer of musical instruments.
Paulsen had a very impressive pedigree, having worked as a young man for both Eliel and Eero Saarinen on some of the most significant American buildings of the first half of the twentieth century. The presence of the Saarinens made Detroit one of the absolute hotbeds of modern architecture in the post World War II period. The most talented young architects from all over the world came to work in the Saarinen office. Among the notables were Ceasar Pelli, Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo, Chuck Bassett, Robert Venturi and Gunnar Birkerts.
In Paulsen’s words “this was the place to be if you were an architect. The work being done in the Saarinen office would help shape American architecture for many years to come.”
One of the most significant projects the young Paulsen worked on was the General Motors Technical Center. In fact, Paulsen worked on two GM Tech Center projects. GM had originally hired the elder Saarinen to design the campus, but the project was put on hold and, during the delay, Eliel passed away. GM hired Eero to completely re-design the project, which took on a radically different character in Eero’s hands.
It was in the design of the younger Saarinen’s GM scheme that a new material was conceived, a glazed brick that could be produced in any number of rich and vibrant colors. The new material would be put to excellent use in Paulsen’s design for downtown Royal Oak. The green brick forms the only solid masses on the street, creating planes of color that enhance the transparent nature of the glass that envelops most of the façade.
Perhaps the first thing you would notice would be the broad overhanging canopy on both the Fifth Street and Washington sides of the building. The canopies and colonnades that support them provide shading on the Washington façade and give the building a wonderful rhythm, but perhaps more importantly, create a covered walk for pedestrians; a very “urban” solution that has a rich tradition in European architecture and could have pointed the way for future design in Royal Oak. The canopies also bring the scale of the building down to a much more human level at the point people first interact with the building, a scale that expands into a tall central space once one enters the building.
Any great piece of architecture has quality on a variety of scales, from the overall massing and siting of a building to the smallest details. One of the most interesting details of Paulsen’s building is the use of some of the structural steel columns that form the colonnade as downspouts. Gutters and downspouts can create an unsightly mess on any building, fighting the rigorous proportions and rhythms created by thoughtful design, Paulsen’s solution was simple and elegant- on each of the colonnades a column has been provided with an outlet down at street level and connected to roof drains to direct roof drainage to the curb. Another thoughtful and useful detail is the inclusion of lights under the canopy, lights that would not only be useful for pedestrians, but would give the entire façade a glow after dark.
Next time you find yourself near Washington and Fifth, give this little gem a closer look - you will appreciate the gift Paulsen gave Royal Oak some 51 years ago.
John Davids is a Royal Oak architect. His mentor at the University of Michigan was Glen Paulsen, who has continued to give Davids guidance in the 28 years since he graduated. Paulsen currently lives in Chelsea. Davids and Paulsen’s most recent visit occurred on Aug. 3, when they were joined by Alan Hess, a Los Angeles architect and writer who is studying the development of modern architecture in Detroit and Southern California.