By Jeffrey Buck
Photographs play an integral role in preserving our history, regardless of the subject. Societies can change—sometimes for the better, but unfortunately also sometimes for the worse.
A photograph can tell a story for both present and future generations and has the ability to take someone back in time. George Bulanda knows the power of photography and the curiosity of the past, especially the immense history of the Motor City. For over 10 years now, Hour Detroit has featured a historic image of Detroit in every one of its monthly editions.
The idea was the brainchild of a former publisher, but Bulanda took the reins only a few months after its inception and has been the voice behind each photograph ever since. It quickly became one of his favorite parts of his job and soon changed the way people read the magazine.
“I just kind of inherited it in 1998,” said Bulanda. “They were freelancing it out and I said you know you don’t have to do that. I’m pretty knowledgeable with history, I can do it. I’ll research it. To this day it’s still my favorite part of my job.
“A lot of people say I begin when I get the issue in the mail by flipping and starting at the back. And it doesn’t really seem to matter the age of the reader. Some people might remember these from the 40s and 50s. But a lot of young people have said to me ‘I never knew Detroit had this, I never knew Woodward Avenue was so packed at Christmas.”
It was these photographs that made the book The Way It Was possible. Following the success of the first book, Bulanda released a second volume filled with new photos in December 2011. The new book was offered as a special edition which included the first volume and unique slip cover as well as on its own.
A majority of the photos over the last seven years made the cut to be included in the book but some were lost and the write ups were revised.
“It was updating, I had to go back because for instance Awery Bakeries (pg. 82) when I wrote that it was still family owned, they had problems and had to sell it,” said Bulanda. “The Belle Isle Aquarium (pg. 10) was closed when we wrote that one but it was open a couple of weeks ago for only one day and they put on a new roof. I didn’t want to leave people with the impression that it was closed and you can’t get in there because it may reopen one day.
“The Eastown Theatre (pg. 48) is in there on opening day, it was at Harper and Van Dyke but there was a fire there this summer and there are apartments on it and I think the theatre was so damaged that it just wasn’t salvageable. At press time I checked and it was still standing but on the demolition list.”
One of Bulanda’s favorite photographs, a night shot of several downtown skyscrapers, was chosen to be the cover. The distinctive shot taken in 1929 can also be found in the book on page 44. It offers a rare view of the Guardian building lighting up the night sky, a spectacle unseen for decades.
“I’ve always liked the one of the Guardian Building, with that starburst on there,” said Bulanda. “That’s the year it opened in 1929 and I think it just distills or crystallizes what a boom town Detroit was in the 20s, what a city of growth it was and it was the fourth largest city in the country. And then the depression came later that year and hit Detroit pretty hard. That starburst stayed up only through the start of World War II.”
Bulanda explained how it was thought that the light may attract the enemy and Detroit being the Arsenal of Democracy it could be a target for destruction. The Fisher Theatre, to the north of the Guardian in New Center, also had its tower lights dimmed.
The Guardian is one of many downtown buildings featured in the new edition, along with several of Detroit’s legendary film theaters. Many of the theaters have been torn down or stand in disarray, while others such as the Madison Theatre have been repurposed, or in some cases fully restored to their former glories.
“I love the picture of the Madison Theatre (pg. 126) at night in 1961,” said Bulanda. “I remember going to the Madison theatre. It’s still there, the building is there but the theatre portion was gutted. I’m glad the building is still there because there are only a few of the film theatres still left downtown. The Michigan theatre is a parking garage and the UA (United Artists Theatre) is in pretty bad shape.”
It’s very apparent when you talk to Bulanda just how much he loves history and Detroit. His wealth of knowledge is exceptional and his stories equally exciting. It’s amazing how much information could have been written for each photo and limiting it to only a paragraph is astounding but Bulanda does it with ease.
For those generations that may be unfamiliar with the Detroit depicted in the photos it’s enjoyable to see what buildings were once home to, where businesses were once located and what activities people before us took part in. Equally enjoyable are the photos for those who lived it, a chance to look back and remember the good and the bad. The Way It Was accomplishes just that.
George Bulanda is managing editor of Hour Detroit and Detroit Homes magazines. He previously worked at the Detroit News and grew up on Detroit’s north side.
Photos | Source