End of an Era: The Fisher Administration Center is coming down

August 07, 2023
An exterior photo of the Fisher Administration Center, with flowers and trees seen in front of it on a sunny day.

In the early 1960s, University of Detroit realized it was past time to centralize all administrative offices into one space. At the time, they were spread among seven separate buildings on the McNichols Campus.

The Fisher family of General Motors fame — Charles Sr., Alfred J. Sr., Edward F. and William A. — led the way with a gift of $750,000 toward the goal of building what became the Fisher Administration Center. William A. Fisher said the family was “happy to play a part in promoting the success of this undertaking by helping the University operate more efficiently and more effectively fulfill its important role in the Detroit community.”

This year, the building, which has become too costly to maintain, will be demolished.

An announcement was made in March 1963 about the new building and the Birmingham, Mich., firm of Gunnar Birkerts and Co. was contracted to design it. At the ceremonial groundbreaking of the five-story, 52,000-square-foot center on Dec. 13, University president Laurence Britt, S.J. said it would be “a true memorial to the Fisher brothers.”

The new center was dedicated Sept. 29, 1966, and the administrative offices slowly moved in afterward, freeing up more than 50,000 square feet in other buildings that could be used for classroom and lab spaces.

The building was much more modern than the Spanish Mission motif conceived for the campus in the 1920s and received some criticism. According to legend, the black slate on the outside of the building was selected to match the black exteriors of the older buildings on campus. In 1990, however, it was discovered that the older buildings were simply covered in years of soot from the smokestack inside the clock tower. Cleaning restored them to their sandstone color, and the Fisher Administration Center looked like an outlier, though it was a landmark on Livernois.

Gunnar Birkerts and Co. received an Award of Merit from the Michigan Society of Architects in 1967 and a similar award from the Detroit Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. In 2003, the Michigan Chapter of the American Institute of Architects honored the iconic building with an award recognizing its “architectural design of enduring significance…that has stood the test of time for at least 25 years.”

In recent years, however, the building has proved to be less than enduring. A balky elevator would occasionally trap students and employees between floors. A design quirk put the restrooms in the stairwells, meaning employees had to walk up or down a flight of stairs to use them; those who couldn’t use stairs needed to take the elevator to the basement restrooms. Single-pane windows shuddered with the wind, one even blowing out during a particularly windy day. Erratic heating and cooling meant offices would be chilly in the morning and hit temperatures in the 80s during the afternoon. Harsh storms would flood the lower level.

“Fisher is obsolete,” said Tamara Batcheller, associate vice president for Facilities Management. “The costs to fix it are far higher than it would be to tear it down. It makes no sense to try to renovate.”

The expected cost of renovations to the Fisher Administration Center was part of the impetus behind the renovation and expansion of the McNichols Campus Student Union. Most of the administrative offices moved to the Student Union last July after construction was complete, creating a one-stop shop for most student-facing services and a more vibrant center of campus.

In the year since the building was closed to the public, Batcheller said the University has realized substantial operational savings. It was not fully idle, though. The University allowed police departments to use Fisher for training to build relationships with federal, state and local agencies.  In some cases, University officers participate in training at no cost.

Demolition permit applications are before the city of Detroit and, once approved, work will begin. Demolition is expected to take several months. When completed, the site will remain greenspace as the University decides the best way to make use of it.

Do you have a memory of the Fisher Administration Center? Did you work there? Let us know and we can share your stories. Send remembrances to marcom@manufacturedconsensus.net. Put Fisher Building in the subject line and check back here to see what others had to say.

An exterior photo of the Fisher Building on a sunny day, with trees, flowers and bushes pictured in the foreground.
A black and white photo of the Fisher Building, with two people in the foreground walking outdoors near a water fountain.
An exterior photo of an entrance sign that reads University of Detroit Mercy McNichols Campus, with the Fisher Building, clock tower and other buildings and trees beyond.
A black and white photo of the Fisher Building being constructed.
An aerial photo of part of the McNichols Campus with the Fisher Building in the foreground and other cars, trees and buildings beyond.
Two people sit inside of an office of the Fisher Building, with University buildings and the clock tower outside of the window.
A fall photo showcases a fruit tree in the foreground and the Fisher Building in the background.
A black and white photo showcases six individuals working inside of the Fisher Administration Center.
A black and white photo shows the Fisher Administration Building with sidewalks and stairs leading up to it.
Seven people work at desks in a black and white photo of an office of the Fisher Building.
A split photo features an aerial shot of the McNichols Campus with the Fisher Building, clock tower and Calihan Hall and on the right, snow flies in front of the Fisher Building.
A black and white photo shows a large crane behind the Fisher Building being constructed.