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This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Michigan Library and Historical Center building, the home of the Michigan History Center headquarters. The building is not just a home for government offices, though – it is a part of Michigan’s mid-century modern legacy. Today’s blog post explores the life and work of William Kessler, the architect behind the Michigan Library and Historical Center.

The William Kessler Collection

The Archives of Michigan received the William Kessler Collection (MS 2013-109) in 2013 and was provided a veritable goldmine of materials to illustrate the architectural scope of the firm and its place in Modernism in Michigan. Blueprints, slides, scrapbooks, promotional pamphlets and original sketches from the Kessler collection illustrate the creative process leading up the design and construction of the Michigan History Center.

Kessler’s Career

William “Kess” Kessler studied New Bauhaus design in Chicago, graduating from the Chicago Institute of Design in 1948. At the encouragement of friends, he studied architecture at Harvard University under Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus Movement. Gropius wrote “Let us together create the new building of the future which will be all in one: architecture and sculpture and painting,” and taught Kessler that art and architecture were not separate endeavors. After graduation, Kessler stayed a year to teach before he left to begin his architectural career.

Kessler came to Michigan to work for Minoru Yamasaki (architect of the World Trade Center) in the early 1950’s when architects where enjoying the building boom in Michigan. In 1955, he partnered with Philip Meathe to create Meathe, Kessler and Associates and in 1967 organized his own firm, William Kessler and Associates.

With the goal of designing buildings that merged living space with the natural environment, William Kessler did not specialize in any particular building type. The firm applied its commitment to meaningful, inventive architecture to projects ranging from private residences to public houses, corporate headquarters to schools, colleges to science centers. The Detroit Science Center and Detroit Receiving hospital are notable examples of his civic-minded architecture. Projects like Mount Clemens Public Housing, Timber Shores Trailer Resort, Mount Clemens Federal Savings and Loan and the Beckwith Residence which are featured in the exhibit show the broad range of projects that the firm typically worked on.

A Commitment to Art

The importance of “doing” art remained a constant throughout Kessler’s life. In Minds of Modernism, a temporary exhibit on modern design in Michigan that was on display from 2016-2017, a gallery of untitled artwork chronicled paintings, drawings, and mixed media created by William Kessler from his time as a student in Chicago, spanning the 1940s through 1998. It also showed the evolution of and importance of color as a design element in Kessler’s work.

Public art was an essential component of Kessler’s concept for the Michigan History Center, as he learned from Walter Gropius, art and architecture work together to make exceptional building. Kessler persuaded the state legislature to set aside $250, 000 in the Art in Public Places fund art in the Michigan History Center. The exhibition illustrates how public artwork was incorporated into the design of our building.

Designing the Michigan Library and Historical Center

When designing the Michigan Library and Historical Center, Kessler had many challenges to address. The library, museum and archives had been looking for dedicated buildings since 1939. When the opportunity finally came in the late 1980’s, one building needed to serve all three functions. State officials asked Kessler to not overshadow the Capitol building in height or style and to fit the new building into the existing Capital Complex architecture.

Kessler made the Michigan Library and Historical Center a showpiece that reflected Michigan’s natural resources, using native copper for the courtyard exterior, native white oak for interior trim and a color palette of greens and blues to represent woods and water throughout the building.

The focal point of the building is the courtyard. Kessler used the space to unify two distinct agencies in the building (Library and History Center). Planted in the center of it all is Michigan’s state tree, a white pine, affectionately named “Carl” after the landscape architect Carl Armstrong. It is surrounded by a reflecting pool created by the Glen Michaels that represents the four Great Lakes that touch Michigan. At the north end, Kessler added the granite land forms that represent the coming together of Michigan’s two peninsulas at the Straits of Mackinac. Relief panels by Sergio Deguisti hung in Center’s rotunda depict Michigan’s topography through three dimensional forms and shapes that suggest aerial views of barns, farm fields, lakes and sand dunes.

As part of the Detroit creative community, Kessler’s architecture provided several artists with the opportunity to gain important commissions. Just as Kessler enjoyed experimenting with color and form in his buildings, filling those buildings with artwork was merely another means of experimentation. To the un-imformed eye, the Michigan History Center may appear from the distance as just another monolithic state building but further insight shows it is rightly situated. Created by one of Michigan’s finest modernist architects, the Michigan History Center deserves to be spot lit front and center!

This article originally ran in the Summer 2017 issue of TRACE magazine, a publication of the Archives of Michigan.