Monday, January 14, 2008

Hawkins Ferry: The Original A-Gay

In the grand pantheon of Supergay Heroes, one stands higher than the others. W. Hawkins Ferry, who died twenty years ago this month, was born to Detroit royalty and lived a life that was not only seventeen kinds of fabulous, it left a legacy that is felt widely through the area to this day. He was the original Detroit A-Gay.

The appropriately-named Ferry is best known for writing the definitive book on Detroit architecture, The Buildings of Detroit. Long out of print (it was published in 1968 with an update done in 1980), this book throws local architecture buffs and Detroit lovers into a frenzy. Some consider finding a copy of this book a Detroit rite of passage, although it really only usually takes a trip to John King books.

While “the book” is his claim to fame among the hoi polloi, the cognoscenti know he is a major figure in Detroit’s cultural history. An heir to the Ferry Seed Company fortune, he came from a long family tradition of arts appreciation and philanthropy - his grandfather, Dexter M. Ferry, was one of the founding fathers of the
Detroit Institute of Arts. Hawkins himself was a trustee of the DIA from 1960 to his death, and sat on the Collector’s Committee, the group that decides on art acquisitions for the museum. He was also president of the Friends of Modern Art for years. He attended Cranbrook and was a Harvard-trained architect and architectural historian who studied under the Bauhaus greats Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer.

Hawkins Ferry was by all accounts a “confirmed bachelor,” and his sexual preference was generally known if not openly discussed. Genteel and well-mannered, he was a fixture in Grosse Pointe society, but notably did not marry and succumb to the phenomenon we now know as
Grosse Pointe Gay. Snaps for Hawkins! From the 1940’s through the 1980’s he participated in the conservative worlds of philanthropy and society not just as a fringe character, but as a major player. Being gay was not super cool then like it is now, but he had money, education, pedigree (don’t pretend it doesn’t matter), taste, access, and drive.

As a patron of the arts, Ferry amassed an impressive collection of Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist art, which he bought for his own enjoyment and for the purpose of donating to the DIA. He bought all the great 20th century modern artists: Picasso, Calder, Arp, Maholy-Nagy, Leger, Miro, Giaocametti, and Rauschenberg, among others. In his
New York Times obituary Jan van der Marck, the DIA’s curator of 20th century art at the time, said, “He bought more ambitiously than the curators dared to propose.” Over the years he donated an entire collection to the DIA - which was the subject of an exhibit in 1987 and a book by Wayne State University Press - with the rest of his personal collection given to the museum after his death. His gifts to the DIA form the core of their modern collection today.

He also left an architectural legacy, most notably bringing modernist master Marcel Breuer to Grosse Pointe to build their Central Library branch in the late 1940’s. (Once upon a time modern wasn’t a dirty word in the land of
Lilly Pulitzer.) He even threw in a Calder mobile as a gift with purchase. This building was added to the endangered modernist building list last year when the GP library board announced plans to raze the building and construct a new building with more space. There is a great write-up about the effort to save the building and some additional pictures here, and it appears the building has been issued a reprieve. Grosse Pointers may not like modern, but they like being called cultural Neanderthals even less.

A rare modernist moment in Grosse Pointe.

Ferry constructed the ultimate bachelor pad on the water in Grosse Pointe Shores. He hired William Kessler to build an International Style villa to use for entertaining and showcasing his art. One architecture expert and three martini lunch companion places it among Kessler’s best work, and attributes that to Ferry’s involvement, saying, “it affirms Hawkins Ferry as the Harvard-trained architect who was very much aware of the International Style as it was coming of age.” It actually might be for sale right now – in foreclosure maybe? – I can’t remember, but one person I was discussing it with said it really can only be the house of a rich gay man – it’s all parties and art and glamour. I’d look into it but it would put me just a bit too close to my parents. Not that I don’t love them to death.

A relatively unattractive photo of an extremely attractive staircase. See this and other photos
from the house's recent real estate listing by following the link in the comments section.

"Have a seat next to the Giacometti."

I do know that a large installation by Harry Bertoia that was left to the DIA but remained in situ under an agreement with a subsequent homeowner was recently removed for restoration and ultimate reinstallation in the DIA. Also, word is the house is starting to show some signs of its age. But man, talk about the ultimate gay fixer upper! And mere footfalls away from the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club for booze and food and tennis to boot! True urban living.

There are a few other bits of the Hawkins Ferry legacy that do not get their own paragraph but warrant mentioning. He endowed a position at the Wayne State University College of Fine, Performing & Communication Arts, the W. Hawkins Ferry Chair in Modern & Contemporary Art History. He was a major part of the “Art in the Stations” commission during the construction of the
Detroit People Mover in the ‘80’s, and in fact the Pewabic Pottery mosaic in the Times Square station is dedicated to him. And finally you must know that while Hawkins was apparently not overtly gay acting in any way, his sister’s nickname was “Queenie.” Queenie Ferry! It’s too much.

In Honor of W. Hawkins Ferry: I guess it's the thought that counts.

I have no idea what his private social life was like, although surely he had his straight friends in GP (who doesn't?). I do know that later on in life he had other gay friends through his work at the DIA and with the arts in Michigan. Naturally I know absolutely nothing about his personal life except that if he had any kind of life partner thing going on nobody I talked to knew anything about it.

I always imagined Ferry would travel to see his gay friends in other cities around the world, and he’d have small exquisitely-appointed dinner parties at his house with the crème-de-la-crème of gay society and possibly a barefoot manservant like in “The Birdcage.” It was the fifties and sixties and seventies and there had to be this secret world of A-gays where a shopping weekend in Paris was always an option, as long as you weren’t busy escorting a Grosse Pointe blue hair to a charity gala. And then during the week it was meetings and planning and doing things to make the area just a little more amazing – at a time when there was money and growth and jobs and a touch more optimism.

Here is a man who had the best American education, met the world’s greatest modern architects, collected amazing art, built a gorgeous modern house, brought world-class architecture to his hometown, wrote the bible of local architectural history, was deeply involved with the area’s premiere cultural institution and had the means to inject more fabulous into his life anytime he wanted if somehow he found it lacking. Most importantly, he did not buy into a fully closeted life at a time when gay lib did not yet even exist. I think it’s funny I never picked up on the gay thing with him until someone told me, but it all makes so much sense.

Hawkins Ferry might not have been thrilled about a big Supergay writeup about his life, but we live in such different times now and I think it’s important to shed light on the contributions that gay people have made and continue to make to life in Detroit. It is fantastic that, in an area where there are few gay role models, we can point to a gay man who did so much, well, gay good stuff, and who did it right and did it with class. That’s a real gay hero.


TB said...

Grew up in Grosse Pointe, would love to know which house?

David said...

There was a bit of an age difference, but maybe he ran around with Robert Tannahill, another "confirmed bachelor" who devoted his life to art and the DIA.

Anonymous said...

I confirmed... 874 Lakeshore has been sold. $1.3 million. A steal!

SupergayDetroit said...

Here is the public info from the real estate listing:

One of America's finest homes, designed as a "residential art gallery" by William Kessler. Exquisite 2 story contemporary home made of steel, glass and concrete with cypress siding featuring a 2 story glass living room with 4 porches with glass door walls, capturing into nearly every room Michigans changing palatte of Michigan Sunrises each and every day. The polished terrazzo stair case artistically centers the interior.

I don't know why realtors try and get flowery with their prose. It never works.

The house was built in 1963, is 5600 sq ft, has five bedrooms and 3.5 baths and 140 feet of lake frontage.

Here is a link to the listing photos of the house. Clearly the agent thought the staircase was the big selling point (it is pretty fabulous, but I'd like to have seen the master bath, thanks).

Paul Hue said...

Chicago's northshore equivalent of Detroit's Pointes is simply stuffed with fantastic modern homes, built every year between the 1950s and today.

(Shouldn't you reference "La Cauge a' Foiles" rather than the inferior "The Birdcage"?)

Anonymous said...

I knew Hawkins in 78-80 as I was working for his brother Dexter. Hawkins was lively, engaging and very gay. I always enjoyed the fact that he was such a thorn in Dexters' side. Dexter was mean, snobby and as he was oft to say, turgid and bombastic that I detested working for.

Nat said...

I lived next door for three years in the late 70s and early 80s. I bought his book and one day knocked on the door to ask if he would sign it for me. (these days you could probably get arrested for that) His housekeeper answered and told me he was not home but she would relay the request and call me. Two days later she did and I was invited over for a private "book signing" and grand tour of his magnificent home and art collection. The Calder mobiles were extraordinary. The whole house was. He was very gracious and gentle man and I have retained a fond memory from that meeting. It is funny, but I have not shared this with many people. I appreciate the entry in your blog on him. He was a unique and colorful member of the community general and I wish we had more like him.

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