Hugh Ferriss: Visionary Illustrator

I came across Hugh Ferriss’s book The Metropolis of Tomorrow while assisting Judy Dyki, Director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art Library, in curating an exhibit of some of our rare and special collection books for the Bloomfield Township Public Library.  Ferriss (1889-1962) was a degreed architect, but he was most sought after for his architectural renderings of buildings. He developed an idiosyncratic style, often depicting buildings at night, seemingly enveloped in a kind of mist, with streetlights and the rays of the moon serving as illumination. I find Ferriss’s work intriguing because his drawings were so different from the typical architectural renderings of the 1920s to 1950s. The gothic yet futurist sensibility displayed in his work has influenced contemporary filmmakers like Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan. Ferriss has several connections to Cranbrook, the first being the drawing of the Detroit News Building that is in the collection of the Cranbrook Art Museum.

Hugh Ferriss in his studio, ca ? Photographer Stadler. Courtesy Creative Commons.

Hugh Ferriss in his studio, ca 1925. Photo by Stadler, New York. Courtesy Creative Commons.

The history of the Detroit News Building drawing is an interesting one. The J.L. Hudson Company, in honor of the company’s 46th anniversary and the opening of the new Detroit Institute of Arts building in 1927, commissioned Hugh Ferriss to create a series of architectural renderings of Detroit buildings, both extant and proposed, that contributed to Detroit’s rapidly changing skyline.  Twenty-two of these drawings where exhibited in the windows of Hudson’s downtown store in August 1927. Among these were two renderings of Eliel Saarinen’s proposed plan for a new Detroit Civic Center complex.  Also included was this drawing of the Detroit News Building. The Detroit News building, which opened in 1917, was commissioned by George Gough Booth, and designed by architect Albert Kahn.

Drawing of the Detroit News Building. Courtesy Cranbrook Art Museum (CAM1955.400)

Drawing of the Detroit News Building. Courtesy Cranbrook Art Museum. (CAM1955.400)

Booth, president of the Detroit News (and Cranbrook’s founder) purchased the drawing of the Detroit News Building directly from J.L. Hudson’s in October 1927 for the Academy of Art collections. (Accessions Book No. 1, Cranbrook Academy of Art).  To coinicide with the exhibition, J.L. Hudson Co. published a commemorative booklet entitled For a Greater Detroit, which contained Ferriss’s drawings and included editorials by various community leaders that discussed Detroit’s future. A copy of this booklet can be found in the Edsel Ford Office Papers at the Benson Ford Research Center. Ferriss’s drawing was transferred from the Academy of Art to the Art Museum in 1955, and is considered one of the museum’s “One Hundred Treasures”.

Stay tuned for a forthcoming blog post about Hugh Ferriss’s further connections to Cranbrook

Mary Beth Kreiner, Librarian, Cranbrook Academy of Art Library

Editor’s note: For additional information about the work of Hugh Ferriss, check out the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University.

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