Everyone who has spent time driving around Detroit thinking about its history and rich architecture carries in her or his head a list of the most attractive of the many beautiful buildings found in this city and its environs. The Lighthouse Supply Depot at the foot of Mt. Elliot is high on my list of most attractive buildings.
In the early 1870s, Congress appropriated funds for the Army Corp of Engineers to build 12 lighthouse supply buildings. These were intended to be warehouses for the storage of wicks, oil, lamps, buoys and accoutrements that were needed to maintain lighthouses. The first of these supply buildings was erected on Staten Island to serve East Coast lighthouses. The second was the one you see here in downtown Detroit, designed to supply the Great Lakes lighthouses.
For more than forty years, I have been employed by state and federal agencies. Along with many of my colleagues, I get upset when disparaging remarks are made about the competence or diligence of civil servants. Most of us are extremely proud of our work and spend many more hours at work than required.
This impressive Lighthouse Supply Deport was designed by a civil servant working in the Corps of Army Engineers, Major Orlando M. Poe. Please observe the clarity and attractiveness of this warehouse. It is a very becoming and memorable mix of Romanesque Rival and Italianate style. Even from the exterior, you can see the lofty interior spaces used for storage of the large components of Nineteenth Century Lighthouses. The gray stone archways over the doors and the windows are particularly pleasing. When you see this building with the early morning sun still over Windsor, you appreciate the talent and imagination of Major Poe.
Orlando Metcalfe Poe was born in Navarre, Ohio on March 7, 1832. He graduated from West Point in 1856, ranking sixth in his class and then served with the Corps of Topographic Engineers surveying the upper Great Lakes. During the Civil War, he led troops in Virginia and West Virginia. After the Union victory, he returned to the unit that had been renamed the Corp of Army Engineers and served on the Great Lakes. After designing the beautiful building you see, he continued to serve. In 1895, he was inspecting the locks at Sault Ste Marie when he experienced an injury that led to his death in that year.
The building was restored in 1996 by the Albert Kahn firm. It is in the riverfront area of Detroit that is gradually being restored into one of the nations finest and most beautiful residential areas, but not too many of us will live long enough to see that project completed. At one point, I believe this building was slated to be used as a maritime interpretation location, and then later, as a building for the city’s Department of Parks. It’s beautiful in the sunlight.
The Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse pictured on the right is an example of the lighthouses that were supplied by tenders from the Detroit facility.
Architect: Major Orlando M. Poe
Date of construction: 1874
Architect for the renewal of the building: Albert Kahn Associates
Date of the reconstruction: 1996
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Use in 2004: I believe that it is used by the City of Detroit Department of Parks
Photo: Ren Farley; February, 2004
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