Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts

Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts

47 Watson near the intersection with Woodward in Detroit's Brush Park

In the late Nineteenth Century, an arts and crafts movement developed in England. It exerted a considerable influence upon art and architecture in the latter decades of that century and in the first three decades of the next. The mass production of industrial goods was developing in Europe and North America throughout the Nineteenth Century. Hand-made objects seemed to be disappearing from the market place, replaced by products made by machines.

Social critics and those who philosophized about the human capabilities saw great virtue in the innovative creations of the individual workers in medieval guilds. They feared that the skills of craftsmen might be lost forever. William Morris founded an Arts and Crafts movement to protect the medieval arts and the ingenuity of individual crafts workers. He sought to promote the standards and spirit of medieval guilds and emphasized the use of natural objects—not man-made objects—in art and architecture. In 1862, the British ascetic critic, John Ruskin, found a Guild of St. George to encourage the retention of the skills of medieval crafts workers.

The Arts and Crafts movement spread in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century in England and the United States. The first United States organization of this type occurred with the formation of the Arts and Crafts Society in Boston in 1897. The Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts may have been the second such organization in the US. It was founded in 1906 with George Booth—managing editor of the Detroit News—as president. Albert Kahn was among the founding members. In 1916, this organization became the first Arts and Crafts society in the US to construct its own building. This is the stucco cottage whose dilapidated remains you see on Watson Street. William Stratton, an active member of the society, cooperated with Maxwell Grylls on the design of this building. They were strongly influenced by the Arts and Crafts ideal that called for the use of natural materials. Their design also reflects the inspiration of Charles Francis Voysey who was the leading English architect working in the Arts and Crafts style. The building provided studios for artists, sculptors and ceramicists. In 1926, the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts founded a school of art and design that evolved into the College of Creative Studies now located at East Kirby and John R. By 1933, the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts succeeded in encouraging the auto manufactures to develop design studios and employ professional designers.

By the 1960s, most of the activities of this Society had moved to the newly completed buildings at East Kirby and John R. At some point thereafter, the building on Watson was sold to a fraternal order that intended to build condos or apartments on the site. Apparently those plans are still developing.

It is interesting that the Arts and Crafts movement thrived in Detroit at the very time the city became the world's leading center for modern industrial production. The Arts and Crafts movement was the antithesis of assembly line production. Several buildings in Detroit illustrate facets of the Arts and Crafts movement. Carving stones for buildings is very costly because of the materials, their transportation and then the high wages commanded by skilled carvers. One possible solution was to use pressed steel which, at first glance, appears to be impressive stonework. This was attempted in the attractive Detroit Cornice and Slate Building on St. Antoine near Greektown. Trinity Episcopal at the intersection of Martin Luther King and Trumbell is a Gothic church built in the style of the early Medieval period. Insofar as possible, the work on that church was done by crafts workers whose skills resembled those of their predecessors who lived four or five centuries earlier. Perhaps the single home in Detroit that reflects the architectural style of the Arts and Crafts movement is the William Van Moore/Robert B. Tanahill House at 67 Peterboro in the Peterboro-Charlotte Local Historic District.

Architects; William Stratton and Maxwell Gyrlls
Date of construction: 1916
Architectural style: Stucco cottage influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Sites: Not Listed
Use in 2003: Abandoned building falling into a ruin after a fire
Photo: Ren Farley July, 2003

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