“The Radiator.” “Darth Vader’s Helmet.”
Generations of University of Detroit and University of Detroit Mercy students called the Fisher Administration Center all sorts of things, but for half a century this seven-story building on the northeast corner of Livernois and Florence Street was called home by the school’s leadership.
A brief history of the University of Detroit Mercy
The University of Detroit Mercy was founded by Jesuits as Detroit College in 1877, and it was incorporated in 1881. Today, the institution is the state’s oldest and largest Catholic university. Back in its early days, tuition would set you back a whopping $40, about a grand today, when adjusted for inflation.
In January 1911, the college became the University of Detroit. By the fall of 1924, the school’s student body had increased by 300 percent in just three years. As its downtown campus grew too cramped, especially given the skyscraper boom during Detroit’s boom years, U of D bought land at West McNichols Road and Livernois Avenue in 1927.
The firm Malcomson & Higginbotham won a design competition for the U of D campus, choosing a Spanish Mission style for the university’s buildings. The school’s power plant, faculty building, chemistry, science, engineering, and commerce and finance buildings opened with the university for the 1927 school year. The grounds and buildings were blessed Oct. 9, 1927, by Bishop Michael J. Gallagher.
In 1990, the school merged with the Mercy College of Detroit — founded in 1941 by the Sisters of Mercy — and became the University of Detroit Mercy.
Changing times, a changing campus
As Detroit entered the 1960s, things were still looking up for the university and the city itself, though the decline had, in actuality, already begun for the latter.
Detroit was already losing businesses and people to the suburbs, where modern-looking buildings (what we now call Mid-Century Modern) were all the rage. Looking to compete and show that Detroit was still a “modern” town, a number of downtown landmarks from the 19th and early 20th century were being razed, such as Old City Hall and the Majestic Building. Others had their original, often classical-styled interiors ripped out and replaced with fluorescent lighting and drop ceilings in an attempt to compete with this modern aesthetic.
Looking to throw its hat in the modern ring was the University of Detroit. Most of its buildings dated to the campus’ founding in 1927. It also had a number of its administrative offices spread across seven buildings. The school set out to fund-raise for a new, centralized building from which to run the university.
Enter four of the Fisher brothers - Alfred, Edward, Charles and William - who gifted the university three-quarters of a million toward building the modern new high-rise U of D had sought. The building would be named the Fisher Administration Center in their honor. It was not the first building to bear the brothers’ name, however, as they also built the Fisher Building in New Center.
Alfred Fisher also was vice chairman of the University of Detroit's Challenge Fund Campaign that kicked off in December 1961. The Detroit News called it "an ambitious campaign" to raise $25 million for future development, with a more immediate goal of $10 million in the next three to five years. The fund-raising was required to "erect three 'urgently needed' buildings in the immediate future (and) 'even more important' need for funds to raise teacher salaries," The News wrote Dec. 20, 1961. Those three buildings were a $1.25 million biology research facility, a $1.5 million engineering lab and $1.5 million administration building. At the time, U of D was the 19th largest private higher ed institution in the country, but was ranked 195th in the size of its endowments.
By 1963, the university was halfway there, with more than $5 million raised. The school announced that construction on the biology research and administration buildings would start by the end of 1963 and be opened by December 1964. However, ground would not be broken until Dec. 17, 1964, because of a change of plans.
Initially, renderings of the proposed building from 1963 (architect unknown and unattributed at the time) showed a fairly nondescript, four-story Mid-Century modern structure.
In May 1964, U of D announced it had selected Gunnar Birkerts & Associates to design something else, something more unique. Birkerts would go on to become a highly revered architect of unusual or unique Mid-Century Modern structures. It was built by James & Savage Contractors. Ground was broken Dec. 17, 1964. The Very Rev. Laurence V. Britt, then the university’s president, and the two surviving Fisher brothers, William A. and Edward F. Fisher, turned the first spades. Britt hailed the new structure as the realization of "our dream,” and said the building would stand as “a true memorial to the Fisher brothers.”
William Fisher said, “We are happy to play a part in promoting the success of this undertaking by helping to provide a modern facility that will enable the university to operate more efficiently,” according to a Detroit News article on Dec. 18, 1964. “We are proud to have the Fisher name attached to the University of Detroit, and we earnestly hope that God will continue to bless and prosper its endeavors.”
Father Malcolm Carron succeeded Britt as president July 1, 1966.
Enrolled into service
The tower would be dedicated Sept. 29, 1966, “in a simple ceremony with only students, faculty and members of the Fisher family in attendance,” The Detroit News reported that afternoon. The university moved its offices in that October.
The 45,000-square-foot, gray-black building had administrative offices on second through fifth floors with executive offices on the set-back top floor. The center housed the offices of the president, vice presidents and their administrative departments. The Fisher Administration Center also was home to a computer center, the Center for Continuing Education, the Human Relations Center, alumni and student affairs, the placement department, public information, admissions, university research, registration and scheduling, and Student Counseling Service. All in, the building cost about $1.9 million to erect, the equivalent of about $17.8 million in 2023 dollars, adjusted for inflation. It was about $650,000 (about $6 million in 2023) over its original budget.
In April 1967, the Michigan Society of Architects gave the building one of its annual awards of merit, with the judges calling the Fisher “a superb building - very distinguished. A master design by an excellent architect.” Even almost four decades later, the building still had fans, with the Michigan Chapter of the American Institute of Architects recognizing the Fisher Administration Building in 2003 for its “architectural design of enduring significance … that has stood the test of time for at least 25 years.”
But that wouldn’t save it.
No love for Vader
As the building aged, UDM deferred maintenance on it, knowing that it didn’t want to invest in a structure it had little desire to keep. Students and faculty often complained about iffy elevators trapping students, no fire alarm system and dodgy heating and cooling, though those issues weren’t the building’s fault. The mid-rise did present challenges in terms of accessibility, with its restrooms being located in stairwells, which posed problems for students with disabilities. The lower level experienced water infiltration during bad storms.
In 2021, UDM declared that the building had become too costly to maintain or renovate, and announced that it would be demolished. Its administrative offices moved to the Student Union in July 2021 following a renovation and expansion, which, the school said, would not only save money but create a more vibrant center of campus and “one-stop shop” for student services.
“Fisher is obsolete,” Tamara Batcheller, associate vice president for Facilities Management, said in an article on UDM’s website. “The costs to fix it are far higher than it would be to tear it down. It makes no sense to try to renovate.”
Demolition began around Sept. 27, 2023, starting on the southeast corner. The university said the site will remain green space until another use is found for it.