BMCR 2006.10.43

Detroit and Rome: Building on the Past. Catalogue of exhibition, October 31-December 2, 2005, Alfred Berkowitz Gallery

, , , , Detroit and Rome : building on the past. Dearborn, MI: Alfred Berkowitz Gallery, The University of Michigan-Dearborn, 2005. xiii, 127 pages : illustrations ; 22 x 28 cm. ISBN 0933691092 $15.00 (pb).

In the exhibition Detroit and Rome: Building on The Past 1 and the catalog that accompanies it, M. G. Sobocinski and her collaborators pose a very provocative and audacious question: What do Detroit and Rome have in common? At first glance, comparing the ‘Motor City’, center of one of the most important industrial areas in the United States, to the Eternal City and cradle of Roman civilization, could appear implausible or bizarre. Nevertheless, Sobocinski asserts that there are clear parallels and that the surviving ancient Roman monuments can be an instructive paradigm for contemporary Detroit, a city that has experienced population decline and urban abandonment since the 1960s.

In museum practice seminars taught by Sobocinski at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, students researched and assisted in the completion of this project, whose conceptualization and planning took three years. The exhibition displayed reproductions of historic images and drawings, recent photographs, watercolors of both cities, models, and a video, Modern City, Ancient Past, exploring the classical elements in Augustus Woodward’s plan for the renovation of Detroit.2

This book and the exhibition, as Sobocinski asserts, are a plea for the preservation of Detroit’s historic urban landscape, celebrating some of the successes achieved with urban renewal and redevelopment. The book is divided in two sections: the first contains three essays, while the second is the actual catalogue in which single monuments, both from Rome and Detroit, are presented as case studies. In addition, at the end of the work the editor offers a list of bibliographical references for further readings about Rome, Detroit, and historic landmarks preservation.

After acknowledgments and the University Chancellor’s statement the book opens with an introduction by Sobocinski. In this first essay Sobocinski explains the rationale for the exhibition and underlines the similarities between Rome and Detroit in three different sections: <"Introduction: Comparing Adaptation and Reuse of Architecture in Detroit and Rome"; "The Demographic Roller Coaster"; and "Hope for the Future".

As her primary comparisons, Sobocinski shows that both of the cities are located at strategic waterways, that they had a profound importance in terms of world history and that they were the place of progressive and innovative experimentation in engineering. In addition, many decorative elements of Detroit’s buildings resemble classical architecture. Even one of its recreational areas, the Campus Martius Park, bears the same name as one of the ancient Roman districts. These similarities, as Sobocinski points out, did not happen by chance, but were the result of mindful borrowings from the heritage of ancient Roman and Greek civilizations.

Besides these marked parallels, Sobocinski emphasizes the expansion and contractions of urban populations that both cities have faced, focusing on the effect on the architectural heritage of Rome in particular. Rome, like Detroit in recent history, once struggled to survive. During the Middle Ages, the Eternal City experienced a significant decline in population as well as urban decay. Buildings were left to degrade and crumble through fires, floods, and earthquakes, as well as neglect and vandalism.

Reviewing the factors crucial for the preservation of a building, Sobocinski lists the three principles stated by Vitruvius in his treatise De Architectura : firmitas (sturdiness), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (charm and attractiveness).3 Sobocinski adds to these her belief that continual occupation and reuse are the most important factors in the durability and preservation of urban landmarks and buildings. In particular, since restoration efforts are usually very challenging and expensive, the presence of significant institutions, private or public, has a strong influence on successful building conversions. Bearing this in mind, Sobocinski clarifies that the exhibition, as well as the book, is meant to emphasize the later uses and adaptations of buildings over time, illustrating especially those structures with interesting conversions to new functions, and using Rome as an example to suggest better ways of supporting Detroit’s urban revival.

In the second essay “From Rome to Detroit: Augustus Woodward and the Campus Martius”, M. V. Ronnick analyzes the prominent role that Elias Woodward, the first Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory, played in the reconstruction and urban planning of modern Detroit. Ronnick draws attention to Woodward’s formal training in the Classics and his immense enthusiasm for Greek and Roman civilization. So complete was his admiration for the Romans that in his early twenties he changed his first name from Elias to Augustus. The devastating fire that struck Detroit in 1805 gave Woodward the unique opportunity to rebuild the entire city from the ground up, applying the precepts of ancient Roman architecture. As Ronnick points out, Woodward’s profound knowledge of the work of Vitruvius, and his familiarity with the urban plan of Washington, DC are clearly evident in his plan for Detroit. This is evident in his use of a road pattern based on Vitruvius’s precepts,4 and his decision to place the center of Detroit in an area to which he gave the name Campus Martius. In his own words Woodward wanted to create “a great interior emporium” and a “new metropolis,”5 envisioning Detroit as an enduring monument to civilization and as a city of consequence.

The third and last essay, “Adaptation, Synthesis, and Survival: The Ancient and Renaissance Antecedents of Albert Kahn’s Temple Beth El”, is dedicated to two similar and related buildings still standing and functioning: Rome’s celebrated Pantheon and Detroit’s Temple Beth El, today known as the Bonstelle Theatre, whose design is a free interpretation of the Pantheon.. The author of this essay, M. Beaudoen, examines the history of these two structures in separate sections: The Pantheon; The Pantheon and the Catholic Church; “The Most Celebrated Edifice” — Das Nachleben des Pantheon; Adaptation, Synthesis, and Transformation; Jessie Bonstelle and the Bonstelle Playhouse — A New Era Begins; The saga continues — The Mayfair; and Wayne State University’s Theater Department Finds a Home; A Legacy of Innovation.

Beaudoen shows that both The Pantheon and Beth El Temple meet Vitruvius’s principles of firmitas, utilitas and venustas. According to Beaudoen, the use of the most advanced engineering techniques and the ability to adapt seem largely to account for the survival of these two buildings. The Pantheon, erected by the emperor Hadrian, was a temple dedicated to all gods that was converted in 609 A.D. to the church of St. Mary of the Martyrs. Although it has encountered a number of modifications and adaptations, it remains one of the few ancient Roman monuments that survived relatively intact through the centuries. As Beaudoen highlights, the juxtaposition of linear and circular features in its structure (a traditional columnar porch and a rotunda), together with its excellent preservation, are perhaps the reasons why the Pantheon deeply influenced European and American architecture since the Renaissance.

Albert Kahn’s Temple Beth El has gone through a series of adaptations and renovations too. Built in 1903 as a synagogue, it became a repertory theater for the Bonstelle Company in 1924, and a movie theater in the 1930s with the name of Mayfair Theater, until 1956, when Wayne State University purchased it and transformed it into a stage theater. During its more than a century of existence, the Temple Beth El/Bonstelle Theater underwent a number of major structural transformations like the one in 1924, that make it significantly different today from its original design.

Nevertheless, despite maintenance problems and improvement needs, Beaudoen points out how both buildings, with numerous structural and aesthetic similarities, have successfully adapted to new functions, emphasizing one of the more important lessons Kahn claims the Renaissance taught us: adaptation and appropriation.

The catalogue presents twenty-five examples of buildings and recreational areas still functioning and readapted to the new needs of the population. The first thirteen are from Rome, including the Colosseum, the Mausoleum of Hadrian/Castel Sant’Angelo, the Stadium of Domitian/Piazza Navona, and St. Peter’s Basilica. The remaining complexes are from Detroit, among which are Detroit’s Campus Martius, the (other) Temple Beth El/Lighthouse Tabernacle Church, and Hitsville USA/Motown Historical Museum.6 Each of these buildings, according to the editor and her collaborators, represents an example of successful survival.

The captivating title and uncommon comparison between Rome and Detroit make the work unique and attractive to the readers. The book and the exhibition were clearly not conceived exclusively for academic circles, but were arranged to appeal to a wider audience with different backgrounds and interests, including Detroit residents. Sobocinski, using Rome as a model, gives tangible and perceptible hope to those Detroiters devoted to the restoration of urban historical landmarks and the revitalization of the city. As Rome took centuries for its revitalization, likewise, Detroit needs time — perhaps decades — to reach this goal.

There are, however, some flaws in the work. While the author makes many valid, fact-based comparisons between Rome and Detroit, the book sometimes stretches in its attempt to connect the two cities. First of all, it is true that both cities are located at important crossing points of major waterways, but that is a common pattern in the topography of most important metropoleis (e.g. London, Paris, New York or Tokyo), since water and waterways have always been essential for a city to flourish. Moreover, Sobocinski declares in her introduction that the buildings chosen for the catalog were meant to illustrate “interesting adaptations to new functions” (p. 7) and the transformations they have gone through “to accommodate different activities than when they were first built” (p. 8). However, in the catalog one of the buildings used is St. Peter’s Basilica. Although it was built on the tomb of St. Peter, it has never changed its function, and remains one of the most important places of worship for the Catholic Church. Another example can be found in Detroit’s Campus Martius. Gouin writes: “just as Roman city squares are often sites for public sculptural display … Detroit’s Campus Martius was graced by the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument”. Adorning public spaces with statues and monuments is not distinctly Roman, but exists across many cultures throughout history. An additional clarifying point which would have been useful, would be to have placed comparisons between Rome and Detroit into the context of wider historical trends. The use of classical heritage in nineteenth and early twentieth buildings in Detroit was an extension of movements that took place in Europe, and in particular in the United States after 1785 when Jefferson’s Virginia State Capitol was built on the model of the Roman temple in Nîmes.

Since the book positions itself as a collection of essays for a broad audience rather than a conventional treatise on the architecture of ancient Rome or modern Detroit, the essays, as well as the catalog, do not enter into detailed descriptions or excessively scholarly accounts. The quality of the essays in the catalog varies and some of them contain inaccuracies. A significant example of this is in the section dedicated to the Stadium of Domitian, the present day Piazza Navona. Gouin asserts that the etymology of the word “Navona” could derive either from a corruption of the word agone, referring to the martyrdom of Sta. Agnese (which allegedly occurred on the site) or the Italian word nave (= boat). As a matter of fact, the square’s name, like two of the streets that lead to the square (Via Agonale and Corsia Agonale), derives from the corruption of the words in agone, where agone has nothing to do with the agony of Sta. Agnese. It is actually the ablative case of the Latin agon, i.e. contest, in memory of the games that were performed in that place. A final flaw is the lack of maps of Detroit and of ancient Rome.

Overall, however, the objective of the book and the exhibition of encouraging Detroit’s architectural preservation is strongly persuasive. Sobocinski succeeds in offering a unique perspective. The book is pleasantly readable, well structured, and makes generous use of credible Internet websites and the latest scholarly publications on the subject. It is a welcome addition to both the study of Roman and American urban design, planning, and architecture.


1. The exhibition took place in Detroit from October 31 to December 2, 2005 at the Alfred Berkowitz Gallery, on the campus of The University of Michigan-Dearborn.

2. The video is available online.

3. Vitr. De arch. 1.3.2.

4. Vitr. De arch. 1.6.6-8.

5. Ronnick’s quote (p. 13) from A. B. Woodward, “Protest against the Sale of Certain Lands in Detroit, June 1, 1818”, Woodward papers, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

6. The entire catalog listing is as follow: the Curia Julia (1); the Mausoleum of Augustus (2); the Theatre of Marcellus (3); the Theatre and Porticus of Balbus/Museo Nazionale Romano Crypta Balbi (4); the Forum of Peace/Church of Santi Cosma e Damiano (5); the Colosseum (6); the Stadium of Domitian/Piazza Navona (7); the Mausoleum of Hadrian/Castel Sant’Angelo (8); Church of Saints Giovanni e Paolo (9); the Baths of Caracalla (10); the Baths of Diocletian/Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e Museo Nazionale Romano-Terme di Diocleziano (11); Church of Santa Costanza (12); St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican City (13); the Detroit’s Campus Martius (14); the John Mason House (15); Trapper’s Alley (16); Stroh River Place (17); the Thompson Home for Old Ladies/Wayne State University of Social Work (18); the David Whitney Jr. House (19); the Detroit Cornice and Slate Company/Detroit Metro Times (20); the Michigan Railroad Station (21); the First Church of Christ Scientist/Wayne State University Hilberry Theatre (22); Temple Beth El/Lighthouse Tabernacle Church (23); the Capitol Theater/Detroit Opera House (24); Hitsville USA/Motown Historical Museum (25).