Detroit sculptor Corrado Parducci gets his due

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

The names of Detroit's fabled architects — Kahn, Rowland, Yamasaki and the two Saarinens, to cite but a few — are well-known and the source of no little bragging on the part of Detroiters.

But what of the artists responsible for the architectural flourishes that often got you to look at the building in the first place?

One such unknown is sculptor Corrado Parducci, whose embellishments gave punch and texture to structures as far flung as Detroit's Guardian Building and Rochester's Meadow Brook Hall.

"Parducci is long overdue to be remembered," says Detroit artist Gary Eleinko, for years head of the exhibitions committee at the Detroit Artists Market. "His Art Deco stuff graces so many of the major high-rises of the 1920s and '30s. And his bear fountain at the Detroit Zoo is one of the most popular fountains in the area."

Happily, this is a historical blank spot about to be filled, thanks to two enterprising Detroiters — Jennifer Baross and Jack P. Johnson — who are midway through producing a documentary on the Italian immigrant's life and prolific career in the Motor City.

"From a preservation standpoint," says filmmaker and photographer Johnson, "this is an important part of the city's heritage. People walk past Parducci's work and say, 'Wow,' but have no idea where it came from."

Parducci arrived in Detroit in 1924 and stayed until his death in 1981. He is the rare example of a 20th-century artist who threw over New York City for Detroit.

"He was effectively a branch of (ornamentalist) Anthony DiLorenzo's office in New York," says Baross, who works with D-Pop's marketing team. "He opened a Detroit office and was flooded with work."

Eventually Parducci bought out his contract with DiLorenzo and went out on his own, in the process leaving fingerprints all over the city. Other buildings he detailed include the Penobscot, Buhl, Fisher, Bankers Trust, Ford Rotunda and the Detroit Historical Museum, a track record any artist would be proud of.

Some of Parducci's work, like the alarmed gargoyles atop columns on Bankers Trust, are easy to miss unless you're really paying attention.

That's hardly the case with two of the most dramatic dudes in the city, his Mayan-style sandstone gods — "Safety" and "Security" — that flank the Griswold entrance of the Art Deco Guardian Building, which started life as a bank. Nor can you miss the Native American chief in full headdress half a block away who scowls down at pedestrians walking into the Penobscot Building's main entrance.

Parducci also is responsible for work at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, flagpoles at the Detroit Historical Museum, a statue of St. Benedict at the old St. Benedict High School, and the Stations of the Cross on Royal Oak's Shrine of the Little Flower.

"His cast-bronze Stations of the Cross rival anything Donatello did," says Detroit sculptor Sergio De Giusti, referring to the celebrated Renaissance master.

He also did lots of work for the office of Albert Kahn. Detroit architect Bob Kraemer recalls looking at architectural drawings with the briefest of notes that Kahn had penciled in — "Sculpture" or "Relief" — where he wanted Parducci's work to go.

"I imagine Kahn would sit down with Parducci and say, 'This is what I want,' " says Kraemer. "And I'm sure he also asked 'What do you think I should have here?' "

Baross and Johnson first started work on the documentary in 2012. With $1,500 raised from an Indiegogo crowd-sourcing campaign, their research has taken them to the Italian American Museum in New York and the Los Angeles home of Parducci's son, who's now 89.

There they found a treasure trove, at least for anyone trying to document an artist's life.

"We're talking to Parducci's granddaughter," Johnson says, "and I lift the top off this Tupperware box and get hit with the smell of photographic fixer. The box was full of albums, complete with notes and pictures Parducci took of his work."

Baross and Johnson are about to launch another Indiegogo campaign to finance the rest of their research and production. They say they hope to have the video up and ready, perhaps for broadcast on public TV, within the year.

Which will be a good thing, says De Giusti, who maintains that an appreciation of Parducci is key to understanding the power of much of Detroit's 20th-century architecture.

"Parducci was one of great architectural sculptors," De Giusti says. "He's responsible for the beauty of this city."