David Fredenthal Mural
Mural by David Fredenthal. (Dan Austin/HistoricDetroit.org)

With the approved sale of the R. Thornton Brodhead Naval Armory in Detroit to the Parade Company, the question becomes what will happen to the several murals painted by famous artist David Fredenthal that are embedded in the structure of the building.

This month, the Detroit City Council approved the sale of the R. Thornton Brodhead Naval Armory in Detroit to the Parade Company, the organization that presents the famous Detroit Thanksgiving Parade. Usually, when a long-neglected property is repurposed, it is a cause for celebration, but there is a serious concern regarding this sale.

The Brodhead Armory opened on Jefferson Avenue in 1930. For many years, it was the headquarters for U.S. Navy Reserves and Marine Corps Reserves. The Armory has also hosted one of Joe Louis’ early fights, as well as USO shows and dances. Since 2003, however, the Armory has been vacant and neglected.

William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

The primary concern with the sale is that, literally embedded in the structure of the building, are art murals, and current plans include demolition of that part of the Armory. Several of the murals, nautical scenes, were painted by the famous artist David Fredenthal (1914-1958) in 1937 as part of the Federal Art Project. 

The son of immigrant parents, Fredenthal was born and raised in Detroit. He attended Cass Tech High School and Cranbrook Schools, where he studied under Zoltan Sepeshy. When Fredenthal was still a teenager, the great Detroit architect Albert Kahn recognized his talent and encouraged him (point of interest: Fredenthal’s daughter, Ruth, also an artist, is named after Kahn’s daughter). At age 19, he received two Guggenheim grants for painting, and the accolades for his work never stopped. 

William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

Fredenthal’s work with Life magazine brought him great renown. During WWII, while traveling with the U.S. Army in the Pacific, Italy and Germany, he illustrated soldiers at war for such articles as “Of Men and Battle” and “Night Landing on New Britain.” He created sketches of David Ben-Gurion and other Israeli leaders for “Some Agonizing Moments in Israel’s Great Decision,” an article about Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 1957.

At the time of his death in 1958, Fredenthal was, perhaps, the most famous Detroit artist of his era, highly regarded for his watercolors as well as his ability to illustrate the drama and emotions of life as he encountered them. It was said that Fredenthal never went anywhere without loaded pens and a sketchbook.

William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

There several references to Fredenthal in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History. A story in Arnold Levin’s “Heard in the Lobby’s” column was interesting (Sept. 1, 1944). While working on scaffolding assisting fresco artist Boardman Robinson, Fredenthal slipped and fell 15 feet to the ground, breaking his arm. Once it was placed in a cast, he climbed up and used his left arm to continue his work. 

Another story notes that, along with nine other artists, Fredenthal was commissioned by Hudson’s in 1946 to paint murals of life in Michigan (Feb. 20, 1948, JN). His 12 panels followed a shipment of iron ore from a mine to a Ford factory. In the Sept. 23, 1955, issue of the JN, it was reported that Detroit Jews donated funds to purchase one of his paintings and then donated it to the Detroit Institute of Art.

I hope the Parade Co. will figure out a way to save the Fredenthal Murals. 

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.