Milwaukee Junction was where it was at. Ford, Dodge, Packard, Studebaker, and Oakland all had auto factories there. Hupp, Anderson Electric, Brush, and Everitt-Metzger-Flanders, too. For a brief time, from about 1908 to the Great Depression, it was perhaps the single most important location in the auto industry, a grand intersection of railroads and dreamers.
Then, almost overnight, people moved on. And like much of what had made Detroit great, Milwaukee Junction was left to rot. Iconic buildings, crumbling and vacant, stubbornly waited in vain for the next generation of dreamers.
Or so the story goes.
Psst. You wanna know a secret? Some dreamers are there, right now, breathing new life into the same walls men like Henry Ford once leaned against.
“Paul always likes to tell people, ‘Henry Ford could’ve stood right here,’” Anne Fracassa says in her studio in the Pioneer Building on Detroit’s East Grand Boulevard, right in the heart of Milwaukee Junction and spitting distance from the towering, art deco Fisher Building.
Anne’s children, including Paul, bought the three-story red brick Pioneer Building back in 1994. They converted the serpentine industrial space into dozens of art studios years before the larger Russell Industrial Center down the street took a similar route under new owner Dennis Kefallinos.
Luckily, it didn’t take long for the building to attract tenants, including one decidedly not famous Jack White.
“Jack White’s upholstery shop, Third Man Upholstery, was in this building,” Paul says. “So the White Stripes actually kind of started in here. They used to practice really terribly here when Jack was, like, 18 or 19 years old.”
You can still find traces of White’s dried blood on a consecrated pillar in his old, dimly lit studio. He eventually left to pursue music full-time, and the world got hits like “Seven Nation Army”.
Anne has a respect and admiration for Detroit and its potential that shows in the company she cultivates and the finished paintings she hangs on her walls. Her artwork, a moody mix of neutral tones and lurid reds and oranges, often riffs on common Motor City themes in poignant, unexpected ways.
In one series, she paints on bricks salvaged from throughout the city. Anne explains:
“I was thinking one day about Pompeii and how when the city was uncovered, we learned about the civilization and what life was like in that town because of the frescoes. And I started wondering, what if Detroit was buried by some cataclysmic event? What might be preserved in the walls? That’s when I began painting on bricks.”
The creativity of Anne and many of the other artists at the Pioneer Building is nurtured, in some part, by the sense of community it provides. It’s close-knit and dedicated, ranging in age from roughly 40 to over 80, a real hangout for dyed-in-the-wool creative types with a few gray hairs to go around.
John Hegarty, a retired Wayne State University art professor, taught quite a few of the people at the Pioneer Building, including Anne. Now, he too rents a studio there. He sees humor in his unofficial status as a sort of godfather of Detroit art.
One work on his studio wall, which he says he’d probably call Grief if he ever gave it a title, sums up his opinion on the matter.
“See, my beard is short now. It used to be down here for years,” Haggerty says, pointing to a spot halfway down his chest. “One day, my wife said I looked too old with my long beard. So I trimmed it, and for the first time in 30 years, I could see all the wrinkles on my neck!”
In the resulting self-portrait, a bare-chested Hegarty tugs mournfully at his neck, his farmer’s tan in full view.
I like to think that if the Pioneer Building were a person, it’d feel just like Hegarty.