January 17, 2023
Louis Aguilar | The Detroit News
Detroit — After more than three decades of sitting empty, Wayne State University will restore a reflecting pool on campus designed by famed architect Minoru Yamasaki, who later created the original World Trade Center in New York City. The shallow pool surrounding the Helen L. DeRoy Auditorium will be repaired and refilled with water as part of a $2 million restoration of the modernist-style building in Detroit. If things go as planned, the pool will be operational by the time Wayne State President M. Roy Wilson retires on July 31. Wilson is among many who advocated to restore the major design element of the building.
“It’s a masterpiece. It’s a little tarnished, but we are bringing it back,” said architect Ashley Flintoff, Wayne State’s director of planning and space management.
Yamasaki created four buildings at Wayne State, including one that helped the Detroit-based architect achieve international acclaim: the McGregor Memorial Conference Center. The McGregor also has a reflecting pool. Like the DeRoy, McGregor’s reflecting pool was drained and lay dormant for years because of leakage issues. McGregor’s pool was restored in 2013 after a $1.8 million campaign after being empty for about 15 years.
That means for the first time in decades, both Yamasaki’s reflecting pools on the WSU campus could be working this summer.
The reflecting pools are only filled during warm months and drained during the cold months.
First-year student Jeni Dylans said she wondered why the DeRoy reflecting pool was empty.
“If someone that talented had a vision they created for all of us to enjoy, then we should definitely respect that,” Dylans said as she walked by the space this past week. “I love the McGregor pool, it gives a relaxing vibe that I appreciate.”
‘Serenity, surprise and delight’
The reflecting pools are crucial elements of Yamasaki’s designs for WSU’s urban environment, said Jerry Herron, chair of the Yamasaki Advisory Board.
The board is made up of Wayne State academics and staff, along with other academics and historic preservationists who have raised awareness of Yamasaki’s buildings at the Detroit university. Herron is also founding dean of WSU’s Irvin D. Reid Honors College and a professor of English emeritus.
The reflecting pools promote the goals “Yamasaki often associated with his architecture: serenity, surprise and delight,” Herron said.
“The buildings are wonderful as objects to look at and contemplate. They are also functional. Every day, people are inside using those beautifully thought-out spaces and then the spaces around them. He was thinking very carefully how the buildings relate to each other and especially to create spaces around them to promote these notions of serenity, surprise and delight.”
Empty since the 1980s
No one at Wayne State could recall the last time DeRoy’s reflecting pool actually held water. The general consensus is the pool, 22 feet wide and 3 feet deep, was drained sometime in the mid- to late 1980s, according to WSU officials. Water began to seep into part of the building that is underneath the ground-level pool.
The pool may have dried up, but DeRoy’s lecture halls and other classrooms have been in use since the building opened in March 1964.
The DeRoy and the neighboring Meyer L. and Anna Prentis Building, which are connected by an underground tunnel, were the last of four buildings designed by Yamasaki on WSU’s main campus. Between 1957 and 1964, he created the McGregor, the College of Education Building, the Prentis and DeRoy buildings.
The McGregor was the first to be built. As the DeRoy and Prentis were being constructed in 1963, Yamasaki was the subject of a cover story in Time magazine. The architect said he wanted his Wayne State University buildings to incorporate the “joy of surprise,” according to a document that placed the DeRoy and Prentis onto the National Register of Historic Places.
The DeRoy contains elements of Yamasaki’s style that made him a prominent architect in the late 20th century. The two-story building is narrow, and its cement facade has design features inspired by Gothic, Asian and Arabic influences, Flintoff said.
“I would say he really found his voice in the buildings he designed for Wayne State,” Flintoff said. “He really celebrated motion and materiality and serenity in his work.”
Other Metro Detroit buildings designed by the Japanese-American architect include the Yamasaki Building at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, the Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. building downtown (now called One Woodward Avenue) and Temple Beth El in Birmingham.
Yamasaki designed the World Trade Center in New York in the 1960s. The buildings, known as the Twin Towers and once the tallest building in the world, were destroyed during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, 15 years after Yamasaki’s death.
WSU’s McGregor, Prentis and DeRoy buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The federal designation means the structures are officially recognized by the federal government as historic places worthy of preservation. Pragmatically, the designation helps advocates fight to save the original design of a building or space.
Wayne State officials and others used the federal designation in the years-long effort to secure funding to repair the McGregor and now the DeRoy. The university performed two separate studies through the years that advocated for the DeRoy reflecting pool to be restored as well as showed that the work could be achieved.
In December, the Wayne State Board of Governors approved up to $2 million for the DeRoy renovation. Funding will be provided by the public university’s “deferred maintenance reserve” and an expected contribution from philanthropic sources, according to the Wayne State board’s December meeting agenda. That means it may be a mix of public and private funding.
Why reflecting pool took years to repair
The Yamasaki reflecting pools took years to restore because WSU officials had to be convinced the repairs were economically feasible and that they were important enough to be saved, said Dale Gyure, a longtime member of the WSU Yamasaki Advisory Board.
“I don’t remember anyone sort of outright resisting us,” said Gyure, chair of architecture at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield and the author of “Minoru Yamasaki: Humanist Architecture for a Modernist World” (Yale University Press). “It was more a case that nobody was thinking about them, and they didn’t really realize what these buildings and spaces meant in the architectural community and folks interested in architecture.”
The reflecting pool could soon be enjoyed by more members of the public beyond WSU students and staff, Flintoff said. WSU’s master plan calls for the Prentis building, a few yards from the DeRoy, to become more of a “community-oriented gateway” that will make parts of the WSU campus more accessible to the public and civic events. Two local nonprofits, Inside|Out Literary Arts and the Courageous Foundation, currently have office space in the Prentis.
The reflecting pools serve a public purpose by offering an inviting, calming space for everyone to enjoy, Flintoff said.
“Yamasaki believed people needed these moments of respite to get away from an industrialized environment, to breathe and take a moment of serenity,” Flintoff said.
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