GM CAMPUS THRIVING AT 50                              

THE FORMAL DEDICATION of the GM Tech Center was held May 16, 1956. The event included a address by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which was broadcasted via close circuit TV from Washington, D.C.
 

By Derek Stark Staff Reporter

When the General Motors Corp. Tech Center in Warren was dedicated on May 16, 1956, it was heralded as the “Versailles of Industry” by Life magazine.

Now, as the Tech Center celebrates its 50th birthday, the spotlight has returned to GM’s architectural landmark.

Constructed in 1956, the Tech Center cost a hefty $100 million, or $500 million by today’s standards.

As passerbys can attest, landscaping still remains an integral part of the 330-acre site, which is bordered by Van Dyke Avenue, Mound Road, 12 Mile Road and 13 Mile Road.

More than 13,000 trees have been planted, along with 3,180 shrubs, 55,941 ground cover plants and 155 acres of sod.

Tree-shaded pedestrian walks and more than one mile of underground tunnels connect major technical groups.

While GM continues to renovate old buildings and build new additions to the campus, its famed Design Center has lived through each and every change.

The Design Center was created to include several separate design studios, or large drafting rooms with space for clay models and vehicles. GM’s design department, then labeled GM Styling, was the last of the original set of main buildings to be completed.

“We paid great attention to maintaining the original intent (of GM Design), of not only the architecture but the sculptures and studios themselves,” said Mark Leavy, global director, design center operations, GM. “As technology increased, we had to change the footprint of the way we do our work. Architecturally, everything here in the building has been maintained.”

Just as many of the architectural design cues remain unchanged at GM Design, so does the workplace legendary designer Harley Earl.

In 1927, GM persuaded Earl to move from Hollywood to Michigan to design for the automaker. While in Detroit, Earl redesigned the LaSalle and developed the Buick “Y Job,” one of GM’s first concept cars.

“Just like how his cars were often ahead of their time, Harley Earl’s workplace was a preview of what was to come,” explained Richard Earl, Harley Earl’s grandson.

“Anyone can see now – 50 years later – it’s hospital routine for a company leader today to enjoy all the futuristic, high-tech gadgets and most sophisticated furniture, likened to modern art, that money can buy. There wasn’t anything like it in the world.”

According to Richard’s website, carofthecentury.com, Earl’s office, designed by famed architect Eero Saarinen, was a luxurious enigma dominated by the large rounded bulks of his desk and two built-in sofas.

During the construction phase, Earl and Saarinen made an agreement that Saarinen would handle the design of GM Styling’s public spaces, such as the lobbies, hallways, cafeterias and auditoriums, while Earl’s team would handle the offices, Leavy explained.

“The furniture in these offices is original furniture designed by GM’s Architectural Interior Studio,” Leavy said.

“They reported to Earl, and that group was headed by Carl Benkert.”

Included in the desk are several gadgets, such as light and temperature control panels, a built-in waste basket, TV controls and a desk light that rises from its flush-prone position at the push of a button.

“It’s really beautiful,” said architect Michael Poris, who owns McIntosh Poris Associates in Birmingham.

Poris co-owns the design firm with Doug McIntosh, the grandson of Howard “Buck” O’Leary. O’Leary worked as a personal assistant to Earl.

“Harley’s office was on one side, and Buck’s office was on the other,” Poris said. “Harley’s desk is all custom-formed cherry, reminiscent of how they use to model cars in wood forms … it’s just gorgeous.”

Richard said the offices often included additions from famed designers of the time: A Finn Juhl desk chair was modified by GM Styling to include a cherry and chrome swivel base; Mia Grotel designed special ceramic planters and Gertrude and Otto Natzler provided the decorative ash tray.

Other colorful design elements were added to Earl’s array of offices that his team worked on, Richard said.

“Then there is the cherry wall paneling ribbed with aluminum extrusions, and in contrast to this, a ceiling covered in a beige fabric, cross-hatched with cherry strips,” Richard said.

A curve of travertine framed in cherry was wrapped around one of the couches and continues to a narrow shelf along the window wall behind Earl’s desk. It is supported by tapered chromed legs ending in round feet. A second couch in the room has a continuous tapering counter that joins to the desk in a sensuous, tapering curve.

Today, Leavy, along with GM Global Design Vice President Ed Welburn, occupy the former offices of Earl shared with O’Leary.

Earl and O’Leary could control the temperature and lights in the office from their respective desks in each suite.

They could also communicate with their secretaries from their desks with the push of a button, in addition to closing or opening the draperies and shutting the door.

“Not all of the controls work today, but both of the offices are in their original form,” Leavy said.

Leavy said to reincorporate some of its architectural heritage into the facility, GM gave its design lobby a massive overhaul for one of the automaker’s more recent awards ceremonies, Eyes on Design.

“It was put back to its original intent, with aluminum-etched walls and the tea cup desks that were original pieces,” Leavy said. “We had to recreate all of the pieces.”

But many of the Tech Center ground’s landmarks still remain as they were: the 140-foot-tall water tower still peaks through the center’s skyline; the fountain outside the Research and Development Center is often seen pumping out more than 3,000 gallons of water per minute; and the special patio adjacent to the Design Center still hosts numerous “special” functions celebrating GM’s futuristic vehicles.

Leavy said he feels the Tech Center’s 50th anniversary should be noteworthy to every GM employee.

“Hopefully this is making people aware of the historical significance of this campus, of where it’s been and where it’s going,” Leavy said.

“Every day I feel blessed to work in this department, and in the space I have, recognizing how historical that it is. I never thought I’d be here … it’s quite a spectacular feeling.”

May 15, 2006 hard copy, shown below:

More on why GM Tech Center was built: