Dan Austin can quit anytime he wants. Really. He just doesn’t care to.
The author and architecture buff has been collecting historic Detroit postcards — “an insanely addictive hobby,” he said — for the past 10 years. He’s got six huge binders bursting with them at home.
Austin’s addiction turns out to be our great fortune. Painted Turtle, part of Wayne State University Press, will release his lavishly researched and illustrated “Greetings from Detroit: Postcards from the Motor City” ($24.99) Sept. 18. (You can also purchase books at HistoricDetroit.org.)
There will be a book-release party in the Fisher Building lobby from 1-4 p.m. Sept. 17.
The founder of the authoritative website HistoricDetroit.org and author of “Lost Detroit” and “Forgotten Landmarks of Detroit,” has made himself into a leading expert on the city’s history and architecture.
“Everything I do,” Austin said, “is about introducing people to Detroit’s architectural history, and trying to get them to explore it themselves.”
This particular compulsion has deep roots that reach back into his childhood.
“As a kid, I collected baseball cards,” Austin said. “And here were baseball cards of my favorite buildings.”
“Greetings from Detroit” organizes its 200-plus postcards into chapters focusing on downtown, Midtown and New Center, east side, city parks and — a delightful choice — steamers.
The latter celebrates the large, long-gone excursion boats that used to ply the Detroit shoreline.
Ever wonder how you got to Belle Isle before the 1923 construction of the Douglas MacArthur Bridge? You likely hopped on board the Pleasure at the foot of Woodward, which scooted back and forth from 1894 to 1929.
Even those who know city history well may be astonished to learn about Electric Park, Detroit’s very own N.Y.-style Coney Island fantasyland, complete with rollercoaster at the city end of the old Belle Isle Bridge, which was demolished in 1915.
And just as the Fisher Building was planned to be humongous complex of three towers, only one of which got built, who knew the Book Tower was supposed to be joined to a never-constructed, 81-story behemoth just down the block?
Never mind that it never went up — there’s still a postcard of the unrealized ambition.
For that matter, how many knew Wayne State’s Hillberry Theatre started life as a Christian Science church?
Throughout the book, the cards — almost all in color — are accompanied by meaty, readable captions with a wealth of historical and architectural detail.
Paging through this sort of visual encyclopedia, it’s hard not to mourn the elegance that fell victim to short-term needs and the wrecking ball.
Detroiters today would likely kill to have the elegant old Hotel Ste. Claire at Randolph and Monroe, the marvelously chunky 1884 Police Headquarters at Bates and Farmer, or the 185-foot Water Works Park Tower out East Jefferson with its observation platform atop 202 steps.
The Detroit Publishing Co., as it happens, was a source of particularly handsome postcards. Its photographers, Austin explained, used large-format cameras producing images that could be blown up huge, meticulously tinted, and then shrunk down to postcard size.
“Cheaper cards didn’t do that,” he said, “and it showed.”
At 20th century’s turn, before many owned cameras, postcards “doubled as souvenirs or keepsakes,” showing where you’d traveled, as Austin noted in his Introduction.
And from the point of view of the building or institution represented on the front, they amounted to cheap advertising.
Some subjects, however, were odder than others. In particular, Austin came across tons of postcards starring the city’s hospitals.
“You assume the card was bought at the hospital store,” he said, “so patients could update friends and relatives on their typhoid or yellow fever.”
And who wouldn’t want a postcard commemorating that?
‘Greetings from Detroit’ book launch party
1-4 p.m. Sept. 17
Fisher Building Leasing Office
First floor, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
Free noon and 3 p.m. tours of Fisher Building start at Pure Detroit store