Detroit – April 2019 – Diego Rivera Murals

In 1932 famed artist Diego Rivera was commissioned by Edsel Ford and the Director of the Detroit Institute of Art Wilhelm Valentine to produce 27 fresco murals depicting the industry of Detroit, specifically the automotive industry.

The timing and subjects continue to this day to be controversial. Rivera had a socialist view towards society, while he was commissioned by one of the great capitalists of all time, the Ford family. In addition just before Rivera arrived there had been a protest at Ford by workers, who were fired upon with gunshots resulting in the deaths of six marchers.

The courtyard that contains the murals is oriented on a north-south-east-west orientation. Starting with the east wall (where the sun rises each day), there are symbolism of birth. A close look at the wider fresco shows a baby in the bulb of a plant. The two nudes hold grain and fruit, symbolizing a bountiful harvest of America, and show some of the earliest technology in agriculture.

The west wall, sunset, represents endings and last judgement. It shows both the good and bad of technology, as represented by airplanes that can transport people but also be used as an instrument of war.

The large narrow middle panel is tying together the agricultural south and industrial north, as well as the shipping industry present in Detroit to bring the two together.

The top panel of the north and south walls are known as the ‘four races’. The faces represent African, European, Asian and Native Americans, in a look of deities. Beneath this panel geological requirements for the production, associating it with the races above (which I am certain would be met with disdain today)

The panel on the upper right was the most controversial of all. It’s interpretation of a Renaissance view of Jesus’s birth, only the figures include actress Jean Harlow (making a second appearance) as the nurse and the Lindbergh baby as the infant. Most of Detroit religious community wanted the entire work destroyed because of this panel but Edsel and Wilhelm held firm.

The main panel on the north and south walls represent the production of a 1932 Ford V8.

As with the north wall, the south wall has a number of panels. The top center are figures holding raw materials used in the production of the automobile, continuing with the various races of mankind.

Below them are limestone, and various fossils used in glass manufacturing.

As with the north wall there are other smaller panels depicting other Detroit industry, as well as a continuation of the small monochrome panels of ‘a day in the life of the worker’.

A closer look at the north wall panel shows the workers with green skin, as a result of the formaldehyde used in the manufacturing process. It was in this type of symbolism that Rivera is showing what the workers ultimately have to pay to have jobs.

Ford Motors had long been ahead of the industry in employment of all races, and it is represented in the mural where the white and black workers are working for the common cause (capitalism, not for themselves).

The assembly of the chassis is coming together, with the steering columns and other components. Nearly every item had symbolism.

A notorious floor supervisor, who made life difficult for the workers was represented as a stern manager in this panel. This real life person was M.L. Bricke.

Also on this wall is a panel of the door manufacturing.

In this panel you see a number of visitors to the factory floor including religious leaders. The women in the brown plaid dress was done in the image of an actress of the time, Jean Harlow.

The small red car in the middle of this photo is the only fully assembled automobile in all of the 27 panels. Rivera was more interested in the process, rather than the result.

The stamping machine was chosen to represent the Aztec deity Coatlicue, a goddess of creation and war that required much human sacrifice. In this panel Rivera is clearly stating the workers have to sacrifice much for the company.

This panel on the west wall features the boss, who is an amalgamation of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

In one of the ‘day in the life’ panels, it shows Henry Ford teaching the workers (including the famed ‘The Thinker’) how an engine works.

Note the engine is actually a dog, with the gear shift knob being his tail.

A close up of the west wall shows the aforementioned airplanes, as well as the shipping panel.

A close up of a north wall panel depicts insect like figures in gas masks making gas weapons. Given that this was completed less than 20 years after World War I where gas warfare became common, it is clearly a statement on the evil of such an en devour.

With an accurate rendering of the Rouge Factory powerhouse, it is a symbol that the worker too has some level of power.

River even worked himself into the piece. He is the worker in the bowler hat.

While his spouse Freida Kahlo assisted him in the drawings to prepare for the commission, Rivera did all of the painting. He was known as a task master who overworked his underpaid assistants, and eventually drove Freida away as well, but for this series of murals Rivera was at his finest artistically.

Detroit – April 2019 – The Fisher Building

A weekend in Detroit touched on a significant amount of the auto industry history without really seeing an actual car (except the obvious high percent of American made cars on the streets and freeways of the city).

An organization called ‘Pure Detroit’ offers tours of historic structures, including the Fisher Building. Completed in 1928 as an Art Deco masterpiece, the Fisher was designed by noted Detroit architect Albert Kahn.

Despite being one of the tallest buildings in the city when completed, it is not downtown, rather about 3 miles north in an area that was named ‘New Center’. Developed in the 1920s New Center was envisioned as one of the original ‘edge cities’.

In reality the Fisher Brothers had tried to purchase a complete city block downtown, but at that time Detroit was a boom town and no land was available, making the New Center option even more attractive.

The Fisher Brothers founded Fisher Body, who provided the automobile bodies to General Motors. Most of the office space in New Center was occupied by GM, and their suppliers.

They chose this area to be closer to their factories.

As you enter the three story barrel vaulted concourse. The building is noted mostly because it contains forty (yes 40) different types of marble.

The Fisher Brothers were noted for their philanthropy and they felt that by providing a grand space for their business, as well as the public in general, they were giving back to the city.

As an architect Kahn had to be elated when the Fisher Brothers essentially said, spend what you need, make it memorable.

Including in the building is the Fisher Theater. With over 2000 seats it remains one of the oldest theaters in the city. The day we were there a matinee of ‘Hamilton’ was performing, resulting a large crowd gathering as we completed our tour.

Even areas like a small food court is opulent.

The mosaics, as well as other pieces of sculpture and frescoes were completed by Geza Maroti. As with much of the art in the period, the works have symbolism, including numerous eagles symbolizing America stretching to greater heights.

Lighting is always difficult to capture properly but when made the focus they make an interesting look.

A close up of the ceiling reveals one of the numerous tributes to knowledge.

The mezzanine level offers a nice glimpse of the ceiling, along with the main concourse.

The railing are very stylish….

… but obviously not OSHA complaint height.

The mezzanine level has great symmetry.

Just across the street is Cadillac Place. From the 1930s until the 1970s, this was the headquarters of GM.

From the 26th floor there was a nice view back toward downtown Detroit on this hazy day.

Our effervescent tour guide Jordan was great. She was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable – Pure Detroit should be proud to have her.

Chicago – October 2018 – Open House Chicago Special Tours

We were fortunate enough to get tickets to two Open House Special Tours.

Our first tour was of the CTA El Train Repair Shops in Skokie. Directions to our tour was to go to the Howard Street Station on the Red Line and gather on the far end of the platform.

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For this Saturday morning the platform was jammed with many people not used to taking the train, as they were in town for the University of Nebraska game against Northwestern in Evanston. To the normal commuter seeing a 1922 El Car come rolling into the station would be a surprise, but to this large out of town crowd it was stunning.

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One of the volunteers was dressed in a period uniform.

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While others had their safety vests on. All of the vintage cars are maintained by volunteers – many retired CTA workers.

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The passengers were excited…

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As we arrived at the yard we were greeted by other vintage cars awaiting restoration, as well as the revenue generating current cars.

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The 400 series cars really stand out against the modern cars in the yard.

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But it was time to tour the shop.

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Our tour guide was the manager of the facility.

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The shop.

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There were El cars in various states of repair.

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This station refurbishes the wheels.

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While another lifts the entire car for easy access.

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They also have some bays with pits to get underneath the cars.

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A great Chicago tradition is the Holiday Train. Started in 1992, the Holiday Train is a labor of love for the CTA employees who volunteer to work on the cars, as well as the public. During the holiday season the Holiday Train visits every El station on every line, usually taking food baskets to local organizations.

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Another vintage car along ithe snow removal engine (minus the blower)

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The El Cars have springs and shocks like a regular car, just much larger.

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An axle and wheels.

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A pile of wheels waiting on refurbishing.

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A collection of contact shoes that connect the train to the third rail to provide power to the engines.

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A series of trucks ready to go. After this we headed back to our vintage car and returned to Howard Street Station.

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Our second tour of the day was the Chicago Tribune Printing Facility

The Chicago Tribune Freedom Center is a printing and inserting facility located along the Chicago River. Built in 1981, it was located along the river with the theory of bringing the paper products directly into the facility by boat, but the first shipment showed that with the bend in the river, the bridges and the building itself they couldn’t get to the dock. While the doors are still there they have never been used for their original purpose.

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Our guide was someone from the receiving department.

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Our tour of the 800,000 square foot facility started in the warehouse with massive 1 ton rolls of paper.

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From this warehouse they are loaded onto carts that are electronically routed (via a wire in the floor – 1980s technology at it’s finest) to the appropriate press.

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There are a total of 10 massive presses that are used. The Tribune facility prints not only their own newspaper, but also for the regional suburban newspapers, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal for the Midwest, and even their local competitor the Chicago Sun Times.

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The tour group was very focused.

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The massive printing presses are very cool.

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The Chicago Tribune Printing Facility was a great tour – one of the best we have done.

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Zionsville, Indiana – July 2018 – A Big Fan of Fans

As you wander through the streets of an industrial park in suburban Indianapolis the last thing you would expect to find is one of the largest fan collections in the world.

So what you think – well look and be amazed at how stylish and functional these antiques are.

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Housed in the headquarters of a fan company called Fanimation, the museum has over 2000 desk and ceiling fan from more than 140 manufacturers (according to their website)

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Most are from the first few decades of the 20th century, and show that classic 20s and 30s style.

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When we arrived we asked if we could see the collection. The receptionist told us we were more than welcome to check them out, and lead us to the display room. She also indicated she would get Kim to tell us about them.

Kim is a retired Indianapolis firefighter who has been collecting fans for a long time. He is an excellent restorer of fans, having refurbished many of those in the collection.

The fan below however is in it’s original condition, after more than 80 years.

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The fans are owned by various members of the Antique Fan Collectors Association (of which Kim is a member with many of the fans in the collection being his personal ones).

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The oldest electric fans in the museum are from the 1890s, while they have non electric ones (steam and water powered ones) from the 1880s.

The Dayton fan company, represented below, is still in business today.

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They have numerous fans of different shapes.

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Fanimation was founded by Tom Frampton in Pasadena, California in the 1980s. They relocated to Indiana in the mid 1990s, opening this facility in 2003.

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Most have extensive use of brass, which adds a classic beauty to practical use of the fan.

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Numerous specialty designs are represented, such as this airplane fan – a cool way to stay cool.

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More of the collection.

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One of the non electric fans

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As a fan manufacturer their lobby fans are stylish as well.

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Even the replica terracotta soldier in the lobby has a fan! If you ever find yourself in Indianapolis, skip the art museum (although it is nice too) – check out the fan museum – ask for Kim!

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Kokomo, Indiana – July 2018 – Hot Times in a Glass Factory

Kokomo, Indiana is a city of 50,000 in north central Indiana, about 50 miles north of Indianapolis. Always an industrial town, Kokomo was surprisingly a nice town.

We were in town to take a factory tour (below) but while we waited we checked out all of the places in town noted on Roadside America.

The first site is the Seiberling Mansion. Built in the late 1800s it is a stately home along Sycamore Street.

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In the middle of town is the Kokomantis – a 17′ high steel sculpture of a mantis.

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A block down the street is the Storybrook Express, a quirky building used for a drive through beer distributor.

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Finally in Highland Park are two attractions including Big Ben who was thought to be the largest steer in history at over 5000 pounds.

He is now stuffed and on display inside a shelter behind glass.

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Also in this shelter is the remains of a giant sycamore tree. This stump is 57′ in circumference.

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Our main event for the day was a tour of the Kokomo Opalescent Glass Company. It is the oldest manufacturer of opalescent glass in the world, with this factory in continuous use since 1888.

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Our tour started next to the furnace. We were about 50′ away and it was 120 degrees.

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They use an assortment of ladles for pouring the glass.

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The vintage carts have already mixed material for the various colors ready for the furnace.

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When they are done the pieces of glass are placed in barrels scattered about the factory for remelting and forming later.

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A few of the ovens.

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KOG is famed for their skilled glass blowers. We were treated to a demonstration.

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A trainee demonstrated how to blow glass.

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Our tour consisted of a number of elderly from a church and two moms who had 9 kids between them! As you can see the kids were thrilled to be there.

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Our tour took us back past the furnace area.

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Once completed, the glass is inventoried. With hundreds of colors and patterns the selection is immense.

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The storage reminded me of the end of the first Indiana Jones movie.

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Throughout the history of the company the workers have signed a wall, with some signatures dating back to the 1800s.

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They have high skilled workers who can customize the glass for various uses, including stained glass panel replacements.

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The pubic has the opportunity to come in and make their own glass beads.

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Another one of the skilled workers with some detail glass work.

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The Kokomo Opalescent Glass Company is a great place for a visit.

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Elkart, Indiana – July 2018 – RV Capital of the World

The town of Elkhart, Indiana is where an amazing 80% of the world’s RV production occurs. What Hollywood is to movies, and Wall Street is to finance, Elkhart is to campers.

As a result the RV Hall of Fame is located here.

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While I was questioned why I would want to see the RV Hall of Fame, as soon as we entered it was obvious. The first one we saw was one of the earliest ever, built in 1913.

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The inside has a simplistic beauty.

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Next door is a Model T with a structure on the back that contained storage, but when expanded had a bed. Built on a 1915 Model T, it was a one off build known as the Telescope Apartment.

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Many of the campers were from the 1930s through the 1950s. The one below is a ‘Yellowstone’ 18 foot travel trailer from 1954.

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The vintage ones had a lot of woodwork.

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The 1937 Hunt Housecar was built by a Hollywood cinematographer named Roy Hunt.

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The Hunt Housecar has a great interior.

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Another example of the detailed woodwork.

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This weird looking camper is on a 1976 Cadillac Eldorado base. Many refer to it as the Star Trek Camper.

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The 1931 Chevrolet Housecar was built by Paramount Studios for Mae West.

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It was at this point I came to realization that there many of the numerous manufacturing facilities in the area offered tours. A bit of internet surfing revealed that the Heartland RV company was located a few miles down the road, and had tours starting in 30 minutes.

Before you knew it we were touring their facility. The outdoor inventory included these axles used for the ‘bump outs’.

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With the number of campers built daily, they go through a lot of toilets.

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We toured the factory that builds ‘Fifth Wheels’, huge campers that are towed by a ‘wheel’ in the bed of pickup trucks.

Interestingly they build the interior components, then add the shell of the camper.

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Once the sides are on, the roof is added and secured by workers using this yellow catwalk.

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A bump out ready to be installed.

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The massive backs of these campers are one large component.

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Indiana – home of mobile homes and campers.

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Logan, Ohio – June 2018 – Washboard Factory

Our return visit to Logan included a second trip to the Columbus Washboard Company. Since people only use washboards for decoration or musical instruments, this is the last washboard manufacturer in America.

Since this was our second visit here as well, I spent more time getting a closer look at the process. The factory is small, but efficient and very retro.

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Even the dolly is old school.

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A stitching machine.

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Rolls of aluminum for the boards themselves.

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Fed through a crimper. They have a variety of crimp styles for the various boards.

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Ready for the next step.

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Meanwhile in another section of the factory they make the finger joints for the frame.

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More of the collection of vintage, but effective, machines.

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The frame sides are ready.

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They use plates for the logos.

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The assembler said she can make 20 washboards an hour.

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Ready for your band, or laundry.

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And they even have tubs if you need them.

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