History of Detroit's iconic 'Spirit of Detroit' statue

Statue was cast in Oslo, Norway, in 1955

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DETROIT - The widely-known Spirit of Detroit statue has, overtime, become the icon and majestic jewel of the city of Detroit.

Created to be a representation of hope and the “spirit of man,” the statue has become a nationally recognized landmark.

The iconic statue was first envisioned by sculptor Marshall Fredericks, who was commissioned by the Detroit-Wayne Joint Building Authority.

Work on the statue began in 1955 when a cast was made across the pond in Norway.  After the cast for the statue was constructed, artists working with Fredericks carefully applied acid to the surface of the bronze cast which oxidized the statue, turning it the greenish color that we all see today.

Without the oxidization process done by the artists and assistants, it would have taken the statue hundreds of years to naturally turn green. It only took a few months and a few applications for the artists to achieve the warm, aged green color that it is now.

A long journey to a new home

After the construction of the cast was complete, it was boarded onto a German freighter and shipped from Oslo to Detroit. The statue transported face down, wrapped in protective fabric and was surrounded by a supportive frame.

Meaningful messages

Brendan Roney, of the Detroit Historical Society, said the statue was built as a representation of the basic hope of humanity as a whole.

The statue depicts a deity-like man holding gold figures of a man, woman and child in one hand and a sphere surrounded by three rings and rays radiating from it.

“I also thought it was interesting that Fredericks sought a consensus from representatives of several different religions when designing the God aspect of the work.”  Roney said. “The sphere idea was what they arrived at.”

A plaque placed in front of the statue further supports Fredericks' usage of religion and sentimental meaning.
The plaque reads: “God, through the spirit of man is manifested in the family, the noblest human relationship,” while the marble wall behind the statue features a verse from 2 Corinthians, and the seals of both the city and the county.

A focus on Detroit

Although the notion of a higher power and religious text are certainly prominent focus points of the statue, Fredrick also emphasized the symbolism of progress for the city.

“Rather than something concrete like Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac or an automobile, Fredericks opted for something more abstract which he hoped would inspire Detroiters,” Roney said.

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“Fredericks hoped the symbolism of the work would inspire Detroiters, and it certainly seems to have captured our imaginations.  True to the wish of the Detroit-Wayne Joint Building Authority, the statue did become a logo for the city’s various departments. “

And what about those huge jerseys the statue sports sometimes?

“From my understanding, a couple different companies have made the jerseys over the years,” Roney said. “Since the market for sportswear for giants is a little sparse, these duties generally fall upon companies who specialize in making banners or vehicle wraps.”

Regardless of whom you’re rooting for in the sports world or who you’re reaching to in the spiritual one, if there’s thing that’s for sure, it’s that Detroit and its residents are resilient, just like our statue - which withstood months of acid treatments and a face down trip from Norway.

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Watch the Detroit Historical Society's history archive video about the 'Spirit of Detroit' statue below:

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