Towering ambition: LEGO architect takes on Detroit

Donna Terek
The Detroit News

As holiday shopping season accelerates into full swing, we're all making lists of potential gifts for the special people in our lives. Toys are always good for kids and LEGO sets have been a hit since 1958, when the Danish toy company introduced the little interlocking bricks that can become anything a child can imagine.

Jim Garrett of Redford would argue that LEGO is not just for kids. Since 2004, Garrett has constructed 22 buildings — from small, two-story structures to the 11-foot-tall Penobscot Building.

Twelve of those buildings are replicas of real Detroit structures, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Public Library in Midtown and the Fisher Building in New Center. Most of his downtown Detroit buildings are on view at The Henry Ford this month. Even the old red sandstone Union Depot, which stood at the corner of Fort and Third until it was demolished in 1974, is on display.

Garrett, trim and youthful at 51, sports earrings in each ear and ties his voluminous brown hair back in a ponytail. Like most of us, he played with LEGO blocks as a child, then forgot all about them when he hit too-cool-for-school-teenager-hood.

Towering ambition

It was seeing one of the ominous cinematic castles in "The Lord of the Rings" that brought LEGO back to mind decades after he'd abandoned the building blocks.

"For some reason, I decided I wanted to build the Tower of Orthanc," Garrett said.

But when he got out his old set, he realized he didn't have enough bricks. He had to buy several new sets to get enough bricks to complete his 4.5- foot high replica. And they had to be black to match the fictional original. So when he was finished with the tower, he had lots of multi-colored bricks left over.

"That's when I decided that I wanted to build my favorite building, the Fisher Building," Garrett said.

He built it in what LEGO aficionados call "minifig" scale, a size that looks realistic relative to the miniature (1.5 inches tall) humans that come in LEGO sets. By that reckoning, each story would be six to 10 bricks high, making the Fisher 7.5 feet tall.

To get enough pieces, he hit about "20 different Meijer stores and bought all the sets that were on clearance," said Garett. "That gave me almost enough pieces."

These days, it's much easier to find supplies via the Internet. The site sells specialized pieces like arched windows in bulk.

His first version was all white because "it was all I could afford." Unfortunately, he used some of the bricks he'd saved from childhood. "When I tried to move the building, it collapsed into a big pile of rubble."

It was a tough way to learn that years of use made the bricks lose their grip.

Undaunted, he started over using all new bricks — about 105,000 — and completed version two in about five months. It weighs over 300 pounds. That number is for an essentially hollow structure with some cross braces. He said a solid building would be too heavy to lift.

Since he takes his buildings to exhibit at train shows throughout the year and at the Henry Ford Museum at the holidays, he built it in 22 modules of up to 18 pounds apiece.

He finished the Fisher in 2005 and moved on to his second favorite Detroit building, the Penobscot.

Eventually, he ended up constructing every building on the block it occupies in Detroit's Financial District: the new and old Penobscot Buildings, the Penobscot Annex, the Ford Building and the Savoyard Center.

The Penobscot building is the tallest of Detroit's Art Deco skyscrapers "and I figured I'd have the tallest building in the Michigan LEGO Train Club if I finished it."

LEGO made some grooved bricks that perfectly matched the detail on the actual building "and I bought almost the entire world's supply at the time," he said. It took eight months to erect the Penobscot's 47 stories. The model is 9.5 feet to the roof and 11 feet to the tip of the red ball at the pinnacle. It's taller than the Fisher, but took only about half as many pieces.

He finished in time to display the Penobscot Building at the National Model Railroad Association show at Cobo Hall in 2007.

Inspiration Detroit

Garrett says he was always interested in architecture. He remembers going through downtown Detroit as a kid with his father, marveling at all the skyscrapers and he almost majored in architecture in college.

Art Deco is his favorite architectural style, with its cubist details and elaborate setbacks toward the scrapers' pinnacles. So, naturally, he gravitated to Detroit's Deco gems.

The city boasts the third largest collection of pre-Depression skyscrapers, bested only by Chicago and New York. In spite of rampant abandonment of buildings in the city, very few skyscrapers have been torn down.

"The Statler Hotel was one of the worst losses," he said. "but most of the Art Deco buildings have survived."

The purist

Garrett tries to make his replicas as accurate as possible — right down to the number of windows in each facade. When he joined the Michigan LEGO Users Group, only two other members were modeling Detroit buildings. One of the founding members, Chris Leech, had built a model of the Dime Building (now Chrysler House) on a smaller scale. Garrett convinced him to rebuild to the same scale he uses so they look natural when displayed together.

"He's gone through about three versions of it now," Garrett laughs.

Garrett calls his latest creation, the Guardian Building, one of the most interesting Art Deco buildings in the country. It took two years to collect enough dark orange bricks to replicate the building's unique skin. Once he got the parts, it took 22 months to build. He finished just before Thanksgiving. It's 80,000 pieces and weighs 190 pounds.

"None of my buildings have any painted parts," Garrett said. "I only use original LEGO colored bricks."

Garrett eschews glue. All his buildings are held together by LEGO's snap-together structure. Gluing has two problems he said: if you drop the building you can shatter parts of the structure at the impact point.

"The other disadvantage is if new parts come out or you just think of a better way to build a building, you can build it better," he said. "If you glue 'em, you're stuck."

How much time does Garrett put into his hobby? Two hours one day, maybe five hours on another, some days none at all.

"About as much time as some people spend watching TV," he said with a laugh. "The point is to keep me out of trouble.

"But seriously," he continued. "It's my hope that people who aren't familiar with Detroit will realize there's more to Detroit than crime stories and bankruptcy. I'd like to think it will help them get an appreciation of Detroit's architecture."

If you go

The Henry Ford Museum, 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, is open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week. (313) 982-6001