McGregor Memorial Conference Center

Interior of McGregor Memorial Conference Center with diamond-shaped skylights.
Interior of McGregor Memorial Conference Center, circa 1958.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Photo by Bill Hedrich.

Quick Facts
495 Ferry Mall, Detroit, MI.
National Historic Landmark

The McGregor Memorial Conference Center is located on the campus of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. The building, constructed in 1958, was Japanese American architect Minoru Yamasaki's first commission at Wayne State University and represents a key turning point in his career as he moved from the International Style of modern architecture to New Formalism. Yamasaki is considered one of the most prominent architects of the second half of the 20th century and is one of the primary practitioners of the post-World War II architectural style known as New Formalism.

Minoru Yamasaki was born in Seattle, Washington, in 1912. He later cited the natural beauty of the Seattle area as an early influence on his aesthetic outlook. At age 16, Yamasaki enrolled in the University of Washington's architecture program and during the summers he worked in the Alaskan salmon canneries to help pay for college, an experience that greatly influenced his later life, teaching him the importance of humility and to recognize the humanity in people. He graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1934. Yamasaki entered the architectural profession at the close of an important period of change. Beaux-Arts, the formal, decorative style that took its references from classical art and architecture, had dominated American architecture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but was beginning to give way to what would be known as Modern Architecture.

Architecture in Europe and the U.S. had been slowly moving in a new direction during the second half of the 19th century as a response to changes in society and advances in technology. Architects had begun to experiment with new building materials and styles that emphasized simple forms with no decorative details or ornamentation. This trend gained momentum in the first half of the 20th century as a number of architects and designers such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Konstantin Melnikov, Mies van der Rohe, Rudolf Steiner, and Frank Lloyd Wright began to integrate traditional styles with new materials and technology in a struggle between old and new. This struggle gave birth to such early Modern architectural styles as Art Deco, Style Moderne, Constructivism, and the Bauhaus style, an outgrowth of the German Bauhaus School founded in 1919.

In 1932, American architect Philip Johnson and architectural historian and critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock organized the International Exhibition of Modern Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The exhibit featured buildings from around the world that shared common characteristics and trends the two men felt were typical of Modern Architecture. These included the use of industrially-produced materials such as glass, steel, and concrete, balance over symmetry, a lack of ornamentation, and a visual emphasis on horizontal and vertical lines. Johnson and Hitchcock called these shared features the "International Style." This was a turning point in architecture and the International Style and became the dominant style in commercial and institutional architecture for the next several decades.

Although he had been trained in the Beaux-Arts style, Yamasaki, like many of his contemporaries, was drawn to Modern Architecture and in particular the International Style. After graduating from the University of Washington, he enrolled in New York University's Master of Architecture program and worked for several firms known for their Modern architectural designs. These included the firms of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon who designed the Empire State Building and Harrison, Fouilhoux, and Abramovitz who designed Rockefeller Center.

By the mid-1940s, Yamasaki was beginning to develop a reputation for his Modern design work and had begun teaching architectural design at Columbia University in New York City. In 1945, he was offered a position at one of Detroit's oldest and most prestigious firms, Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls (SHG). SHG's partners had made the decision to embrace Modern Architecture, but needed someone who could deliver the Modern aesthetic. SHG's George Hellmuth recommended Yamasaki, and the firm hired him as their head designer.

The job offered Yamasaki significant opportunities. After World War II Michigan was the epicenter of industrial design and attracted innovators in design technology and materials. Its architectural community was beginning a significant period of Modern architectural work and Yamasaki became a leader of this early wave beginning with his design, while at SHG, for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Detroit Branch Building Annex. The Annex, completed in 1951, is considered the first important post-World War II building in Detroit and one of the buildings at the forefront of the Modern design movement.

In 1949, Yamasaki teamed with SHG colleagues George Hellmuth and Joseph Leinweber to create their own architectural firm with offices in Detroit and St. Louis. By 1954, the strain of travel and running a firm had given Yamasaki a case of bleeding ulcers forcing him to dissolve the St. Louis partnership with Hellmuth and remain in Detroit with Leinweber. The new partnership received a commission from the U.S. State Department to design its consulate in Kobe, Japan. Yamasaki traveled to Japan three times, taking the opportunity to visit India and countries in Southeast Asia and Europe and study their art and architecture.

While Yamasaki continued to admire the work of International Style architects, it was at this point that his own design philosophy began to move away from the style's strict designs. Rather than continuing to reject older styles as the International Style did, Yamasaki took inspiration from historical and classical styles, incorporating them in an abstract manner while using the newest materials and building technologies.

Yamasaki's new approach to design came to be known as "New Formalism." Typical characteristics included the use of classical elements, such as arches, colonnades, and columns, in new contexts; a return to materials like travertine, marble, and rich woods, sometimes using newer materials that mimicked the richness of traditional materials; formal landscapes, including central plazas, pools, fountains, and sculpture; and the creation of modern monuments, including techniques such as setting the building on a podium.

Perhaps no building exemplifies Yamasaki's new design philosophy better than his first major commission following his illness and overseas travel. This was the McGregor Memorial Conference Center on the campus of Wayne State University in Detroit. In 1954, the McGregor Fund, founded by Detroit philanthropists Tracy and Katherine McGregor, decided that a community conference center would be an appropriate memorial to the McGregor's work and legacy. Although it would be located on the campus of Wayne State University it would not be an academic building. This was an ideal commission for Yamasaki to begin expressing his newly evolving approach to Modern architectural design.

The nature of the building and its use gave Yamasaki room for experimentation. To express its character as a memorial, he built the Center on an elevated platform, setting it above and apart from its surroundings. For the landscape around the building he designed a sunken reflecting pool and gardens that wrap around two of the building's sides and provide a sense of serenity, repose, and thoughtful contemplation.

The two-story, rectangular Center is made up of identical halves with a large glass atrium running through the middle. The north and south walls are covered with narrow pieces of white Italian travertine and projecting from the center of both walls are the ends of the atrium. Each atrium end has a set of four glass and aluminum doors covered with decorative aluminum screens. Metal screens like this would become a characteristic of Yamasaki's later work.

The east and west walls of the building are made up of aluminum and tinted grey glass windows framed by rectangular steel columns covered with white marble and topped with triangular projections. These projections give the impression of pointed arches. The columns and projections are set in front of and apart from the windows and act as a screen, helping to shade the interior from direct sunlight. Yamasaki also installed aluminum screens in a geometric pattern in the top third of the "arches" to help shade the interior.

The main feature of the inside of the building is a two-story, light-filled, glass-enclosed atrium covered by a skylight which rises above the roof. The triangular projections and columns of the exterior walls are repeated on the sides of the atrium. The effect is similar to a medieval cathedral, with a soaring center aisle flanked by columns and first and second floor galleries. Set behind the columns are flat plaster walls and doors with teak wood panels on both the first and second floors to softened the interior. The first and second floors are Vermont white marble, with a purple carpet in the center of the atrium. On the second floor the two side galleries are linked by an antique marble bridge, supported by steel framing with triangular stainless steel railings.

The outside of the building has an L-shaped pool with three rectangular islands covered with crushed white marble pavers. There are groupings of large boulders within the pool, planters, and sculptures on the islands, and concrete bridges covered with crushed black granite. Stairs lead from the plaza down to the center island and the pool is surrounded by a concrete terrace lined with trees, planters, and benches.

The McGregor Memorial Conference Center, completed in 1958, brought Yamasaki national attention. It was the first completed expression of his new design philosophy, and the most significant break from his earlier work done in the International Style. Yamasaki's design of the McGregor Center so impressed Wayne State University that he was chosen to design several more buildings and create a new campus plan.

The late 1950s and early 1960s were arguably the height of Yamasaki's career and popularity as an architect. In 1959, Yamasaki set up his own company, Yamasaki and Associates. The firm was extremely popular, and by the early 1960s Yamasaki was handling commissions from across the country and around the world. His career reached its height with the commission for the World Trade Center in New York City in 1962. The center exemplified many of Yamasaki's design ideals and he considered the design of the site to be as important as the buildings. He created a mix of high and low rise buildings set within an urban oasis–a garden space where people could relax and find serenity.

Yamasaki remained active in architecture into the 1980s, maturing into arespected elder of the profession. Over the years, he mentored a number of architects who, in their turn, would become among the most successful of the next generation including Gunnar Birkerts, William Kessler, Phil Meathe, and Don Hisaka. After his illness in 1954, Yamasaki continued to suffer from stomach problems exacerbated by his heavy workload and the extreme pressure he placed on himself. He died in 1986.

Minoru Yamasaki's unique design style married his taste for history, his simply expressed humanism, and his occasional whimsy with the technological advances available to Modern Architecture. The McGregor Memorial Conference Center both established and embodied those principles, ushering in a new aesthetic style, New Formalism, which helped to influence Modern Architecture in the second half of the 20th century.

The McGregor Memorial Conference Center is located at 495 Ferry Mall, Detroit, MI.

Last updated: May 2, 2022