In this now-famous Super Bowl commercial, Chrysler was selling its newest sedan and, perhaps to a greater extent, the city of Detroit. But it may as well have been selling the idea of historic preservation.
The spot featured shots of Detroit landmarks such as the Campus Martius ice rink and the Joe Louis Memorial, as a narrator boasts of a city that’s been “to hell and back.” The commercial concludes with rapper Eminem – a Detroit native – driving to a spectacularly adorned theater, walking down its aisles, and telling viewers “this is the Motor City, and this is what we do.”
The commercial drew national praise for spotlighting a city that has seen its share of bad news, and it has been widely proclaimed as the evening’s best advertisement.
So what is the building that was front-in-center in the now-legendary Super Bowl spot?
It’s the historic Fox Theatre, a Detroit landmark that was saved through historic preservation. Built in 1928, the 5,000-seat theater – then one of the largest theaters on earth – gained instant acclaim. One local newspaper declared that “few specimens of architectural splendor, either ancient modern, surpass the Fox Theatre.” At the time, Detroit was a boomtown and other large theaters were being built in the area, known as Grand Circus Park, but the Fox was the largest.
Local architect C. Howard Crane had designed more than 250 theaters by the time he took the Fox commission, which was part of an effort to open five spectacular theaters throughout the country (the others were in Atlanta, Brooklyn, San Francisco and St. Louis).
The theater’s massive lobby is a half-block long and six stories stall. In addition to its huge proportions, the Fox also featured two pipe organs, and its walls are adorned with Egyptian, Asian and Indian-inspired designs.
According to Buildings of Detroit, a website run by two historians, the theater originally showed films and Vaudeville acts, then began to host concerts in the 1950s. Despite its auspicious start, the theater fell onto hard times, and in 1970s, it switched to a kung-fu and horror movie format.
In 1987, the theater and adjacent office building were acquired by the Ilitch family, which also owns Little Caesars Pizza, the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, among other enterprises. It underwent an 18-month, $12 million restoration to bring it back to its glory days.
Though the building wasn’t in deplorable condition at the time it was bought, the Fox had fallen on hard times. “It did not have its original splendor, and it was not carrying its own economic weight,” Elisabeth Knibbe, who worked as the historic preservation consultant for the renovation project, told Governing.
A complete restoration of the ornate interior painting was performed, and the building’s plaster was repaired in an effort to restore its character. Decades of grime produced by cigarette smoke caked the walls with a yellowish patina that was eventually removed. Architects also worked to install modern building systems like heating and air-conditioning without disrupting its historic character. Through the process, the Fox’s owners coordinated with Michigan’s State Historic Preservation Office to ensure they’d be eligible for federal tax credits that are dependent upon strict preservation guidelines.
A major challenge the architects encountered was the Fox’s long, free-standing balcony that was a danger during musical performances because it often shook. They feared that it had the potential to resonate so much that it could collapse and injure patrons, so they installed a counterweight system to mitigate the shaking, said Knibbe, now a principal at Quinn Evans Architects.
A 10-foot wide glass fixture was also lowered from the ceiling and restored, and additional concession stands were installed as well. The building was re-carpeted with original carpet that was found in storage.
Originally, the theater had a tall sign outside that spelled out “Fox Theatre,” but a new art-deco sign was installed in the 1950s that didn’t fit with the building’s Asian themes, Knibbe said. The owners wanted a recreation of that newer sign, but eventually an entirely new sign featuring a lion was constructed and installed. Though it was an original creation, it fit the character of the structure.
The project presented a unique opportunity from a preservation perspective because, despite the dirt and grime, the original aspects of the building were still very much in tact since they had remained dry throughout the years. Today, Knibbe said, “It’s very much like it was originally.” In 1989, the Fox received a national historic landmark designation, and today, it hosts musical acts and theatrical performances, among other events.
After seeing Sunday’s commercial featuring the Fox, Knibbe said she was nearly in tears. “It was really cool to see the city of Detroit portrayed the way I see it,” she said. “It was incredibly rewarding.”