Beautiful Architecture Left Crumbling In Detroit

Though Detroit has recently been looking like it was hit by a convoy of  mile-wide firenados, there remain signs of architectural grandeur illustrating  why it was once known as the Paris of the Midwest.
Perhaps nowhere is  this faded beauty more palpable than in the large-format photography of Philip  Jarmain, a Vancouver native who’s spent three years shooting Detroit’s sublime  edifices, sometimes just months before they were wiped out by  bulldozers. Jarmain may be from Canada, but he has century-old family  ties to Detroit and extreme respect for the place.
“At one point this  was probably the most important city in the world in terms of innovation,  craftsmanship, and manufacturing,” he says, adding that one of his childhood  heroes was Henry Ford. “It was just such an incredible city in the early 1900s,  and obviously things went horribly sideways at some point.”

D2.JPGLee Plaza.

When the 41-year-old advertising photographer started hearing disturbing  rumblings in 2008, he decided to venture south to document the city’s Art Deco  and Neo-Classical past before something horrible happened (well, even more  horrible than the riots and urban  decay) . So he hooked up with local historian Sean Doerr of Buildings of  Detroit fame, and set out to locate what he calls the “iconic Detroit  architectural masterpieces” hidden in a crumbling labyrinth of 80,000 to 100,000  abandoned buildings.

The search became more urgent when he realized many of his subjects were  being eliminated by demolition crews trying to reduce the city’s  expensive-to-maintain footprint (not to mention what he thinks were bored  youngsters setting off fires). “It’s just sad because it is so beautiful, it has  some of the best examples of early 1900s architecture of any city in North  America,” he says. “Also, it probably rivals Baghdad in terms of burnt-out  structures.”

While many photographers have rushed to stricken Detroit, lured by the  so-called “ruin porn” that attracts sightseers to the wastelands of Chernobyl  Jarmain’s mission is a bit different. He wants  to preserve these venues with as much accuracy and detail as possible, so that  future generations can look back in wonder about how bright the city shined. For  that reason he lugs around a sophisticated, Dutch Cambo technical camera  and German-engineered Schneider lenses. “These images are 5 feet by 7 feet,” he  says. “It’s the best camera system out there.”

D3.JPGHighland Park Police Station (demolished 2012).

The fruits of his nine trips into Detroit now hang on the walls  of San Francisco’s Meridian  Gallery for the show “American Beauty: The Opulent Pre-Depression  Architecture of Detroit.” The exhibit focuses on the more ghostly and rotted-out  carcasses in his oeuvre, although some of what he photographed has since been  rehabbed into functioning spaces. Jarmain points out that several start-up  companies have also invested in Detroit, including the luxury-watch company  Shinola, a designer of an electric Tesla-like vehicle called the SP01, a  nouveau-vintage bicycle maker, and others. “Despite all the hype about the bankruptcy, for the first time in 50 years Detroit  could come back,” he says. “So I’m an optimist.”


Belle Isle Aquarium.



Woodward Presbyterian.


D6.JPGMichigan Central.



Mackenzie High School (demolished 2012).



The German House.




*Photography-Philip  Jarmain

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