Art Deco in Architecture
Introductory Essay
by Heidi Dressler

Art Deco, like any other architectural style name, has a range of definitions. Some people would call 1950s streamlines an Art Deco characteristic, while others restrict the style strictly to its 1920s and 30s urban incarnations. Always, it is a style that marks the bold transition to modernism in America. No more hand-crafted, earthy details; Art Deco is all about machines, mass-production, metal and concrete. The earliest forms of Art Deco do exhibit a slight reminder of the previous Art Nouveau movement's graceful nature motifs, while in later years geometry and mass take over to create what is sometimes referred to as Art Moderne or Streamline.

Throughout Kalamazoo County, there are several examples of Art Deco architecture, from the early, elaborate skyscraper shape of the American National Bank to the boxlike, brick and concrete pump stations scattered about. All of the examples, with the exception of a few pump stations, a garage and two unique homes, (1) - (2) are located in the heart of the city or along much-traveled commercial or manufacturing strips. American Art Deco has typically been a commercial-use form of architecture, because of its association with the change to urban life and the industrialism of the surrounding decades.

Kalamazoo' s earliest example of Art Deco is the spectacular American National Bank, in the center of town. Dating to 1929-30, it was for a long time the tallest building in the county at fifteen stories. From there came four 1930s examples of a more traditional or "civic" Art Deco: City Hall, the County Building, the Federal Building/former Post Office, and the Upjohn Company's Henrietta Street offices. These are all of limestone in varying shades of gray or yellow, and they all feature applied metal ornamentation. The most elaborate is City Hall, with its ornate aluminum door trim, flagpole bases and colored-glass torchieres. Each of the four have bold lines and geometric details that place them firmly in the Art Deco era.

After the 1930s, the Art Deco movement began to diffuse somewhat, both in Kalamazoo County and across America. In the Midwest, Art Deco lingered somewhat longer than out east, although grand skyscrapers of the style rarely appeared again. Particularly in Kalamazoo, smaller and more subtle examples were constructed, and they began to move outside the city limits. In 1940, the Shakespeare Company erected Building 10 on Kalamazoo Avenue, a stylish office structure amidst their city block of manufacturing facilities. Pump stations appeared around town, keeping city water flowing to every household and business. And a few simple structures like Mihaly Tolmacs' shop on Mills Street were built on the edge of town.

By 1950 Art Deco style remained in the minds of area designers but was beginning to fade. The Devere Company garage was constructed in 1950, as was the Spring Tools plant on Portage Road. The Paris Cleaners, one of our most noticeable examples of later Art Deco/Streamline design, went up in 1954. These structures were Kalamazoo' s final incarnations of Art Deco, hinting at things to come in the later 1950s and beyond, while retaining the geometry, mass, and even a little ornament characteristic of earlier Art Deco.

All of the Art Deco architecture in Kalamazoo County, regardless of how true to the "standard" they may be, are our area' s proof of the sharp change between the "old" way and modernism. Our Art Deco tells us that Kalamazoo was not always an isolated, sleepy Midwestern town but in fact has always been a little cosmopolitan. In the 1930s and 40s, Art Deco was bold and daring, and the architects hoped to leave their mark on the world with such brash designing. They certainly did in Kalamazoo. We are lucky, in a small Midwest town, to have been graced with such a range of examples of Art Deco architecture.


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