Living with Mies: The Towers at Lafayette Park

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Lafayette Towers, Lafayette Park, Detroit, Michigan. [Photo by Corine Vermeulen]
Lafayette Towers, Lafayette Park, Detroit, Michigan. [Photo by Corine Vermeulen]

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a major urban redevelopment project on Detroit’s east side created Lafayette Park, a planned community that is today one of the city’s most racially integrated and economically stable neighborhoods. Lafayette Park was built on land that was once a densely populated working-class African-American neighborhood called Black Bottom, after the marshy bottoms at the source of the River Savoyard, which was buried when Detroit was settled. Classified as a “slum” in the 1940s, the neighborhood were razed and left vacant until the mid-1950s, when Chicago developer Herbert Greenwald made a successful proposal to develop the land with architect Mies van der Rohe, urban planner Ludwig Hilberseimer and landscape designer Alfred Caldwell. Three high-rises, 186 ground-level townhouses and a large park were completed by the early 1960s.

Today the townhouses are owned by residents as co-ops; the apartments in the Pavilion and the twin Lafayette Towers are rented out. Lafayette Park also includes a shopping plaza, an elementary school, three additional townhouse developments and two more apartment buildings at the north and south ends of the park. Although there are other large apartment buildings in Detroit — along the river and in midtown — a more common housing type is the single-family frame house or brick home, found throughout the city. High-rise living is unusual in Detroit, perhaps in part because the city is sparsely populated and hasn’t needed to economize on space. But the possibility of building around a large park appealed to Mies: “If you build high,” he said, “you must have enough space to live upon, as we have in Detroit.” 1

In 2009 and 2010, we visited residents of Lafayette Park with photographer Corine Vermeulen while researching our forthcoming book Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies. Vermeulen’s portraits of townhouse owners in their homes appeared in the New York Times. Here we present the corollary to that series: tenants of the Pavilion and the Lafayette Towers in their apartments. Vermeulen’s portraits are accompanied by Lana Cavar’s photos of the views from each apartment window and by excerpts from the interviews we conducted.

Photo by Corine Vermeulen

Jacqueline, The Pavilion. “I just changed the whole bedding about four months ago, it was a different color green. I was like, ‘You know, I’ve got to bring some chocolate in here, let’s use green on the pillows.’ Because I invested so much in the sage [I’m keeping] some of that but I started changing out some of the sage with aubergine and chocolate.” [Portrait by Corine Vermeulen; view by Lana Cavar]

Many of the tower residents are retired or divorced people looking to scale down or young people who aren’t yet settled — often law, medical or art students, or single professionals saving to buy a home. There is also a solid contingent of long-term renters who have been there for 15 years or more. The Pavilion features a small convenience store on the ground level, a beauty parlor and a business center. On Friday mornings there are donuts and coffee in the lobby for tenants, and regular holiday-themed events are held throughout the year. Both the Pavilion and the Lafayette Towers have fitness rooms and outdoor pools; the Lafayette Towers pool, located on top of a low, shared parking structure, offers a spectacular view of the buildings themselves. The Pavilion has consistently high occupancy rates and a generally positive atmosphere, but the Towers has seen a high turnover in building staff and tenants since new owners bought the complex in 2008, and it is currently facing foreclosure.

In our conversations with residents, we found that the decision to rent in Mies’ towers had more to do with their convenience to downtown, security, cleanliness and sense of community than with their architectural significance. That said, the windows — and the striking views they afford — came up repeatedly as a favorite feature. The Pavilion, completed in 1958, was designed with floor-to-ceiling windows; the two Lafayette Towers, completed a few years later, have a ledge about a foot high at the base of the windows. There is a rumor that this design adjustment was made after Pavilion tenants reported nervousness. Longtime resident Mattie Louise Cunningham told us, “Little children come here and stand right next to the window — it’s amazing! But my friend … is afraid to go close to window. People have different feelings about it.”

Photo by Corine Vermeulen

Mr. Parker, The Pavilion. “I’ve lived here 42 years! I came here the year of the riots. It was a popular place to live back then. The screening was rather strict, it was a different clientele, more professional, that was my impression. … I’ll put it this way, I’d say most of the people that live here now don’t really know about the history of the building. Not that it was perfect before, but people were different.” [Portrait by Corine Vermeulen; view by Lana Cavar]

In his essay on plate glass, Richard Sennett describes the relatively recent technological advancements that made it possible to build walls of glass, and the corresponding modern sensation of “fully apprehending the outside from within, yet feeling neither cold nor wind nor moisture.” 2 At the ground level, this translates into a feeling of intimacy with wildlife and plant life. In the high-rises, it’s as if you’re suspended in the sky; the environment can shift radically from one moment to the next. Architect and former Lafayette Towers resident Christian Unverzagt described living on the 16th floor as having “a relationship … with weather and major systems,” making it possible to watch storms coming up the river from the south or down from the suburbs in the north. A rainstorm that seems normal at ground level can be experienced on the upper floors as an impressive force of nature barreling across the landscape.

While the views are spectacular, the experience of living with enormous windows inevitably becomes part of the tedium of regular life. Occasional moments of interest — a fire across town, heavy fog, an emergency helicopter, a thunderstorm — punctuate everyday concerns like the management of blinds. Oppressive sun in the summertime can make the apartments unbearable. One resident, Stephen Powell, told us that the sun faded the leather on his couch and caused the trim on a desk to melt off, and that if he forgot to close his blinds when he left in the morning the apartment turned into a “toaster oven.”

Photo by Corine Vermeulen

Tabatha, The Pavilion. “My favorite color is navy blue. It’s from my corporate days. The power suit a navy suit with a white shirt. If I could be any color it would be navy blue.” [Portrait by Corine Vermeulen; view by Lana Cavar]

Still, the windows provide a unique perspective on Detroit. North and east, the view extends for miles across a flat urban landscape — you can see smoke rising from the country’s largest incinerator two miles to the north; the four vacant Brewster housing project buildings where many Black Bottom residents moved after they lost their homes; the streets awkwardly re-organized around the freeways cutting through downtown. One resident said she preferred the north view at night when she didn’t have to see the abandoned buildings, and would prefer a view across the river, but artist and former resident Kevin Beasley said looking north gave him a sense of potential: “you get to really see the city for what it is.” A corner apartment in the West Tower affords a choice of views, south across the Detroit River to Canada, or west toward the downtown skyline, which exemplifies the current state of the Detroit economy: a car company (GM headquarters), a health care company (Blue Cross Blue Shield), a casino, various detention facilities, two sports arenas and some vacant buildings.

The East and West Towers have apartments that face the grid of windows on the opposite building. In her remarkable documentary film, Janine Debanné interviews a tenant living in one of these apartments who would regularly dance in front of her window, performing for her neighbors in the opposite tower. 3 The dancer was familiar with the rhythm of the lights coming on and off in the apartments across the way and felt recognized by her audience. Who needs Broadway, she says, when you have the West Tower?

Photo by Corine Vermeulen

Jimm, The Pavilion. “The other day I thought about it, ‘Ha, she’s probably going to come here and want to shoot all this crap that is over here. …’ My family will see this picture and they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, that’s his place. …’ They’re going to look at it and they’re going to go ‘Oh, my goodness, does he own all that stuff!’ But it’s fine.” [Portrait by Corine Vermeulen; view by Lana Cavar]

Photo by Corine Vermeulen

Kevin and Vanessa, The Pavilion. “We prefer facing north because you get to really see the city for what it is and it has this aura of potential. The windows help facilitate that. It lets you take in as much as possible.” [Portrait by Corine Vermeulen; view by Lana Cavar]

Photo by Corine Vermeulen

Toysia, The Pavilion. “When I was painting everybody was saying ‘what is she going to do with this, is she crazy with all these colors?’ Many people came by, because the door was open, and they could see I was doing three colors, and they would say ‘What is wrong with this lady?’ But when I put my furniture and stuff in here, and they came back, they said, ‘Now I understand.’” [Portrait by Corine Vermeulen; view by Lana Cavar]

Photo by Corine Vermeulen

Ms. Cunningham, The Pavilion. “When I moved in, it was one of the places to live if you were a renter. It’s not so much that now, but I mean it’s not so bad that you’d want to move.” [Portrait by Corine Vermeulen; view by Lana Cavar]

Photo by Corine Vermeulen

Daniel, The Pavilion. “Actually, we have a house. We left the house, rented it out and moved here. We like it better. I had to convince my wife it would be nicer living downtown. Once I brought her down, she saw it and fell in love with it.” [Portrait by Corine Vermeulen; view by Lana Cavar]

Photo by Corine Vermeulen

Will and Jasmine, The Pavilion. “This is exactly what I dreamed of for my first place. I wanted a very big view of the city and I got that, because one wall is just one big window. The only thing I don’t like is the bathtub. It’s too small for me.” [Portrait by Corine Vermeulen; view by Lana Cavar]

Photo by Corine Vermeulen

Joe, Lafayette Towers (West). “One thing that is crazy to me is the East Tower is valued more that the West Tower. When I walked in the first time and I saw downtown, the trees, the park, the townhouses — it was a really fantastic view. But more people pick the East Tower. I think that the rates are somewhat higher there, too. I guess [they get] the sunrise and the river view.” [Portrait by Corine Vermeulen; view by Lana Cavar]

Photo by Corine Vermeulen

Matt, Lafayette Towers (West). “My idea was to take the shades down cause they are, you know, very ugly, but in the summer, July and August, it is really unbearable, so I have them up. In the wintertime I take them down, and it is really clean.” [Portrait by Corine Vermeulen; view by Lana Cavar]

Photo by Corine Vermeulen

Gabrielle, Lafayette Towers (East). “The set-up is always like this. Always! I don’t touch it. I eat at my office.” [Portrait by Corine Vermeulen; view by Lana Cavar]

About the Series: Modern Masters

In an ongoing and occasional series, historians and critics assess the vigorous achievements of a generation of modernist practitioners.

Editors' Note

This work appears in the book Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies, by Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar and Natasha Chandani, recently published by Metropolis Books.

  1. Moisés Puente, ed., Conversations with Mies van der Rohe. New York: Princeton Architectural Press (2008), 14.
  2. Richard Sennett, “Plate Glass.” Raritan Reader, Ed. Richard Poirer. Rutgers University Press (1990), 352.
  3. Janine Debanné’s film, M1 UR-Mich-1-1, was screened at a festival in Detroit in 2006. Her essay “Claiming Lafayette Park as Public Housing” (in CASE: Lafayette Park Detroit, Ed. Charles Waldheim; Prestel, 2004) provides a valuable account of the demographic shifts in the Lafayette Towers up through the early 2000s, including a period in the late 1990s when the towers were opened up for Section 8 housing. Photos by Debanné will appear in our forthcoming book, Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies.
Corine Vermeulen, Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar, and Natasha Chandani, “Living with Mies: The Towers at Lafayette Park,” Places Journal, April 2012. Accessed 21 Mar 2023.

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