ELIEL AND EERO SAARINEN DESIGNED THE FENTON COMMUNITY CENTER. Text and photos by Pam VanderPloeg, March 2015. On Saturday, March 14, 2015 Deborah Goldstein, President of the Michigan Chapter of DOCOMOMO-US, welcomed visitors to a lecture and tour of the Fenton Community Center in Fenton just south of Flint. The Michigan Chapter of Docomomo US is dedicated to raising awareness of Michigan’s modern design heritage to encourage recognition, preservation and reuse of these resources (https://www.facebook.com/mi.docomomo). Brian Conway, Director of the State Historic Preservation Office, the guiding force behind the MICHIGAN MODERN project, provided the audience with a slide show detailing the history and principle buildings of Eliel Saarinen and the collaboration between Saarinen and his son Eero.
Eliel Saarinen, a Finnish architect, came to the United States with his family and developed a practice here after he received second place in the 1922 Chicago Tribune design competition. Eliel Saarinen designed the buildings and planned the Cranbrook, where he served as the first President and head of the Architecture Program. Son Eero Saarinen was the designer of the St. Louis Arch, the New York TWA Terminal buildings, and General Motors Technical Center among other notable structures. The Fenton Community Center, was built with funds from Horace H. and Mary A. Rackham. Mary had ties to the area which was primarily a farming community. They believed the community needed a cultural and educational gathering place. Original photos are found on the Cranbrook Archives website including a rendering and model of the original building. http://cdm9024.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/search/searchterm/Fenton
Vince Paris, Director of the Fenton Community Center, led participants on a tour of the facility and described the extensive maintenance and improvements being conducted through a successful partnership between the Center’s Board of Governors and the City of Fenton.
The new addition was designed to bring harmony between old and new. The brick of the fourth side of the historic exterior is now visible as an interior wall in the addition. The adjacent oversized wood doors were the exterior stage doors (seen here through the glass because the addition has not yet been cleared for occupancy). The doors had a removable set of metal stairs to transport scenery and provide access to the backstage area. Infrastructure improvements have uncovered intriguing mechanical systems and an innovative foundation design of concrete piers on what was discovered to be a layer of peat approximately 16 feet below. A tornado hit the building in 2007 and took off the roof. This has since been repaired and the flat roof style maintained. Recently the carpet in the lobby was removed, uncovering the original tile floor. The lower level floor has a duplicate tile floor. The lobby leads to the auditorium and the doors feature the original hardware.
The auditorium includes original stunning floor to ceiling windows, extensive paneling and a performance stage. There is an auditorium photo in the Cranbrook Archives: http://cdm9024.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p9024coll2/id/345/rec/4.
Some future challenges will be restoring the massive folding partition walls that move on a ceiling track. These have sustained water damage and can no longer be opened and closed. There is a clever use of plywood in the building with a beautiful herringbone veneer pattern visible in the screens, the wall panelling and the wainscoting.
The fireplace located in the back of the auditorium has a distinct horizontal prairie style and features decorative brick, wood and metal trim. The wall surface above the fireplace is now a wood frame covered by fabric painted over the years. Hidden underneath is the same panelling seen throughout the auditorium. The original parquet floor will be beautiful when refinished.
Inside the cabinets of the old kitchen adjacent to the auditorium are the remaining pieces of the china commissioned for the Center from Syracuse China who closed its New York manufacturing facility in 2009, after 138 years and moved manufacturing operations oversees.
Walking around the building there are other outstanding features including two floors of windows. The lower level doors that are surrounded by windows were added in a later renovation. The stepped side wall framing the exterior stairs seems like a Saarinen trademark noted in other buildings. With its generous and beautiful grounds, the Center was designed with outdoor functions in mind At one time the Boy Scouts restored the fountain. Now the Center has a plan to raise funds to replace missing parts (some of which have been located at Cranbrook) and restore its beauty.
The Fenton Community Center is located on a prominent and pleasing site. As you walk up the hill from the back and round the corner of the building you have a great view of the new addition and of the Fire Station across the street complete with iconic tower and historic clock. The old Fire Station had been located on the Center’s site and when they moved to their new building they took the clock with them.
The Board of Directors and the City have made an important investment in the future of Fenton by preserving the Fenton Community Center and have insured its lasting value with a critical new addition. For more on the history go to the Fenton Community Center website: http://www.fentoncommunitycenter.org/About-Us.aspx