Central America Influenced Detroit Architecture in the 1920’s

Aztec and Mayan Revival styles beautified the city

By the time Mexican artist Diego Rivera arrived in Detroit to paint on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the architecture and design of societies in Pre-Columbian Central America had already left a big mark on Detroit. Buildings large and small began sporting Aztec and Mayan shapes, color schemes and design details as explorers uncovered those societies’ ancient cities in the 1920s. 

After World War I, designers in the US began seeking a new, non-European language to express ‘American-ness’ in their work. Some architects took to romanticizing American Colonial-era design. Others however began incorporating style elements into their work from other foreign places that hadn’t participated in what was one of the deadliest conflicts in history. 

The 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt gave us buildings like the old Wayne County Morgue, demolished in 1995. The Netherlands having remained neutral in the war, a Dutch Colonial Revival took hold across the US, including countless Detroit houses with gambrel roofs and other Dutch-inspired elements.

Spain also stayed neutral during the war, and Spanish design elements gained favor in the 1920s. Spanish Colonial Revival buildings like the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts began to dot the city. Spain also inspired Moorish Revival structures like several of the beautiful apartment buildings in the Palmer Park neighborhood. 

Interest in Mexico also peaked around the same time. The Mexican government hired Mexican artists like José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siquieros and Diego Rivera to create large murals to help unify the country after the Mexican Revolution, and the indigenous themes and bold forms and colors found new audiences among American patrons. The discovery of Pre-Columbian cities only reinforced that interest.

Detroit is still scattered with Pre-Columbian-styled buildings. The photo above shows a parapet detail atop a 1920s party store on McNichols near Livernois Ave. Curiously, identical details also show up on a small storefront building on W. Vernor, east of Central Ave as well, in the heart of Detroit’s Latino community. 

Two major Aztec- and Mayan-themed entertainment venues opened a year apart in the late 1920s: Charles Agree’s Vanity Ballroom and the Fisher Theater. The Vanity specialized in live music and dancing and featured a spring-loaded dance floor and Pre-Columbian motifs throughout the building. It still stands today, but has been vacant for years. The Fisher is still going strong though. Modernized in 1961, the original Mayan Revival design of the theater by architects Graven & Mayger still shows in photographs like the black and white one above. 

Even public buildings popped up in similar style in Detroit. Smith, Hinchman & Grylls designed the exuberant Mackenzie High School, which opened in 1928. Multi-colored Pewabic tiles trimmed entrances and reinforced the theme, adding vibrancy to the brick façade. The building unfortunately fell victim to declining enrollment and neglect and was closed in 2007 and demolished five years later.

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