If you’re a fan of old factory car photos (and who isn’t?) you’ve surely noticed the interesting setting for some GM pics from the 1930s. Like this one, for instance. Here’s the story.
The scene of this photo is the roof of a building, obviously, and that building is the General Motors Research Center, also known as the Argonaut Building. Just across Milwaukee Street from the General Motors Building in Detroit, the Argonaut was headquarters for GM engineering and design until 1956, when the sprawling GM Technical Center in Warren was opened.
The General Motors Reseach Center, aka the Argonaut Building, 485 W. Milwaukee St. at Cass.
Like the GM Building across the street, the Argonaut Building was designed by Albert Kahn, but presents a remarkably different look, featuring brick and white limestone in a striking art deco pattern. The contrasting style of the GM Building can be seen in the lead photo above—it’s the classical edifice looming behind the two ’32 Buicks. Other old photos shot from the Argonaut’s roof show other aspects of the Detroit skyline in period, including downtown and Milwaukee Junction.
Incidentally, the district around the GM complex, around three miles north of downtown Detroit where Grand Boulevard intersects Woodward Avenue, is known as New Center. Across the street from the GM Building on the opposite, West Grand Boulevard side is the Fisher Building, developed by the body-manufacturing Fisher Brothers. No longer occupied by the automaker, the GM Building is now called Cadillac Place.
The top floor of the 11-story Argonaut building was the personal kingdom of GM styling boss Harley Earl, who also commandeered the roof—its natural light made it an ideal location for viewing and photographing his design studio’s creations. Earl’s department at GM was originally called the Art and Colour Section before it was renamed the Styling Section in 1937 and he was elevated to corporate vice president, a position he held until his retirement in 1958.
Today the Argonaut Building is known as the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education and is part of Detroit’s famed College for Creative Studies. Earl’s old 11th floor now houses the school’s Transportation Design Studio, where automotive stylists of the future learn their craft.
In the slide show gallery below, you can look over a variety of GM vehicles photographed on the roof throughout the 1930s as well as some related images from GM Styling.