A Look at the History of The Fenton Community Center

Certainly not the oldest, but perhaps the most historic building in Fenton is the community center.  To locals the center is a familiar sight and place of many memories.  It is also an object of wide interest.  As recently as last March, a group from the The International Committee for the Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement was given a tour of the building by Director Vince Paris as well as a presentation on Eliel and Aero Saarinen, architects of the center.

The building was completed in 1938.  It might be interesting to compare it to a 1938 Buick.  Each of them must be showing its age and need considerable attention.  Both are still useful.  How pleasing to be able

to go out riding on a dry Spring day in such a magnificent old car.   The community center still functions for civic and social events such as receptions and weddings and the like.  Both need considerable care.   The huge tube radio in the Buick is probably “off the air,”  but with some cash and help from fans of old radios, it might still bring in AM stations.  So also the community center no longer has use of the auditorium partition. However if funds  and skilled workers could be found, it might be brought back to it useful function.

The Saarinens were world famous architects.  Father Eliel’s career buildings are in both Finland and the U.S. Perhaps he is known best locally for designing all the buildings at the Cranbrook Institutions. Eero’s most famous work is the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Curiously, in later years the Saarinens would build the place where Buicks were designed. They both worked on the amazing GM Technical Center down in Warren. All the Saarinen’s building have two things in common. They reflect the architects commitment to good proportions and exacting detail.

This certainly shows in the center. From any viewing angle the horizontal and vertical lines always look “just right” while equally fulfilling their necessary function. Windows, doors, spacings, all exhibit what is sometimes called the “Goldilocks” effect. That is they show not too much and not too little, but “just right.”

Unlike many architect/builders, the Saarinens concern themselves with every surface and detail in their

buildings. Walls, ceilings, doors, windows were all designed or chosen to reflect Goldilocks proportioning. Even the door hinges are special and interesting in themselves. The back stair railings were copied from those they had designed for Cranbrook. The really complex brick screen around the entry way is something you might not find anyplace but an English country house (see photo).

As many may know, the community center was a gift of the Rackham family. Horace Rackham was an early investor in the Ford Motor Company. Mrs. Rackham had connections to Fenton and felt it would benefit from a place where there were community facilities for “the promotion of leadership, educational advancement, social enjoyment, and civic improvement.”

Recently the City of Fenton has chosen to invest significantly in the upkeep and improvement of the center. That effort will have a dual outcome. It will help preserve an exceptionally fine historical artifact, and it will help to continue to meet the goals that Mrs. Rackham set as she chose Fenton as the place for her generous gift.