On a sunny spring day in Detroit, one staircase took center stage to host a variety of people looking to document the important milestones of their lives for one reason.
“Everyone knows if you have your photo taken in front of this, you’re going to look good. It just really compliments the photographs. It’s on par with the fountain on Belle Isle,” said Detroit Institute of Arts director of public programs Larry Baranski, about the marble-clad staircase at the rear of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“A lot of wedding parties seem to find it fun but actually it’s a very serious thing. It’s a fire escape,” said Baranski about the scissor staircase behind the Detroit Institute of Arts Auditorium that was built around 1925.
“I liked the marble staircase in the back. It fit with what I was viewing for my wedding, kind of like that elegant, classic look. Once I decided I wanted to go to Detroit for my pictures that was my top location,” said Rebecca McNally of Trenton about the staircase at the back of the Detroit Institute of Arts. “I’d seen it in other pictures just browsing through the internet.”
“When we first pulled up there was only one other group there. Once we started taking photos two other wedding groups showed up. That’s when I was like, ‘oh my gosh I didn’t realize how many people would be there on that day.’ I guess I was a little naive because it is such a beautiful spot,” said McNally.
Baranski said the beauty of the spot actually was borne of a practical use.
“It looks so dramatic but it had to do with how important fire safety was in the 1920s, particularly for big theaters,” Baranski said. “The Fox and other theaters downtown had incredibly elaborate fire escape systems and it was because there had been some very bad fires in U.S. history around the turn of the century. They began designing fire escapes that were capable of evacuating people quickly and that explains the shape of those stairs. They figured out in the 20th century that you need to design fire escapes that continually branch so that there’s less of a chance for people jamming into a space.”
“It’s just so perfect. You can find things that are more ornate. You can find things that are great examples of particular styles of architecture but just for the sheer logic of the design and the restraint, if you look at it and think about what it is, in some ways it becomes more beautiful,” said Baranski.
“We have to maintain it as a fire escape so you can go on it. You can have your photos taken on it but that’s all that we would use it for other than an exit from the theater.”
The DIA developed a policy to make it safe and accessible that includes when the theater is in operation, it’s necessary tokeep the stairs clear at those times, primarily during matinees and evenings. The DIA doesn’t permit drones and doesn’t permit things like confetti or alcoholic beverages or things that make loud noises.
The staircase was restored about six years ago. It was nearly completely taken apart and rebuilt to tend to the marble sections that began to show age.
“We really enjoy seeing people enjoy the building over the last decade. Over the past two decades, there was a massive effort to save things like that and this is the reason why. For people to actually feel like it’s their home and it’s going to be this memory,” said Baranski.