Up on the roof

1932 Buick 90 sedan and coupe on roofIf 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.

 

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1937 LaSalle sedan
GM Styling 11th floor Argonaut Building
Harley Earl 11th floor office Argonaut Building 1948
1933 LaSalle Four-Door Sedan
1932 Chevrolet Deluxe four-door sedan
1932 Pontiac Roadster
1932 Buick roadster
1932 Pontiac Coupe
GM Albanita prototype
1936 LaSalle Sedan styling study
1932 Buick 90 sedan and coupe on roof
1932 Buick Five-Passenger Coupe
Buick Y-Job left front view
Buick Y-Job
1934 LaSalle Sedan
1932 Cadillac V12 Convertible Coupe
two 1932 Buicks on roof Argonaut Building
GM Styling desk
1936 Chevrolet Master Deluxe Sedan

1937 LaSalle sedan

GM Styling 11th floor Argonaut Building

Harley Earl 11th floor office Argonaut Building 1948

1933 LaSalle Four-Door Sedan

1932 Chevrolet Deluxe four-door sedan

1932 Pontiac Roadster

1932 Buick roadster

1932 Pontiac Coupe

GM Albanita prototype

1936 LaSalle Sedan styling study

1932 Buick 90 sedan and coupe on roof

1932 Buick Five-Passenger Coupe

Buick Y-Job left front view

Buick Y-Job

1934 LaSalle Sedan

1932 Cadillac V12 Convertible Coupe

two 1932 Buicks on roof Argonaut Building

GM Styling desk

1936 Chevrolet Master Deluxe Sedan

7 thoughts on “Up on the roof

  1. Nice job Bill. Our project to depict the building’s history in the lobby is nearing completion. A couple things to add: The GM Research building was constructed in two phases; the first part was occupied by Charles Kettering and R&D. The part that housed Harley’s office and studios wasn’t done until 1937. These photos all predate that…I think daylight design reviews for execs (the main reason to put the cars up on the roof) took place in the amphitheater after it was built, instead of on the roof. There are few, if any, roof photos after ’37. Don’t have exact dates for each event, but in ’37 several things happened and it’s nice to believe they were all coincident: As you note, Art and Colour became Styling and Harley became a VP. Also, Styling was organized into “studios” by brand, and they moved into this building (A&C had been housed in the HQ building “annex” for most of a decade before that).

  2. Thanks for the additional info, much appreciated. In the slide show there are several views of the studio as you describe.

    Will the general public be encouraged to visit the lobby installation?

  3. What was Milwaukee Junction? I have seen references to it in regard to auto production but as a non-Detroiter I am not familiar with the term.

  4. Lovely building. I am glad to see that it has survived. Some nice pics too. The building must have had a very large freight elevator to take those cars up.

  5. My favourite photos are the ones of the styling department and of the guy sitting at his styling desk. Can you imagine what it would have been like to work at a place like that? Those places exude a feeling of optimism and progress, as if flying cars and vacations on the moon were bound to become a reality in just a few years. It must have been an exciting time.

  6. @Matt K: Milwaukee Junction was the general area centered about one mile or so ENE of the Argonaut Building where two major railroads intersected. One was the Detroit, Grand Haven, and Milwaukee RR, hence the name Milwaukee Junction. The early auto industry in Detroit sprouted up in this part of town, along with another district along the Michigan Central Belt Line—a set of rails that aren’t even there anymore.

    Anyway, look for future articles at Mac’s Motor City Garage on these two Detroit neighborhoods—they’re essential to Motor City history.

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