Detroit has plenty of beautiful, old tall buildings that were constructed around 1920. At that time building codes were much different than they are today. One of the key elements of the codes back then was that the buildings going up were to have fire escapes. For obvious reasons, those were mandatory on both high-rise commercial buildings, as well as apartment buildings, that were being constructed during the city’s period of rapid growth and expansion. The multi-level, steel staircases with built-in landings can be found on the exteriors of most buildings throughout the downtown area.
Based on the footprint of a particular building, some of the escapes are attached at steep angles to accommodate the narrow width of the walls. The steep escapes have landings at each floor that are nothing more than a turning point leading to the next set of stairs leading down. Other buildings have wide horizontal walls. The escapes mounted on those wide walls flow into long landings that seem to span the length of the wall before connecting to the next set of descending stairs.
The open steel grating on the steps and landings (that were designed to keep snow and ice from being built up), can be quite decorative, much like ornate trim elements found on a Victorian era house. Depending on the time of the day, the shadows and lighting found on the zigzagging, well-built escapes can be quite dramatic and often draw attention to the workmanship of the escapes. Not only does the soft light of an early morning sunrise or late afternoon sunset highlight the intricate steel work of the escapes, but it also highlights the textured brick found on the walls where the escapes are attached.
I see many buildings with outside fire escapes on my bicycle travels in Detroit, with most being clustered downtown. I also see where graffiti artists have taken advantage of the adjoining open space that surrounds the escapes. In many cases they were able to work their way up the escapes and create their bubble-lettered tags on the walls surrounding the platforms and stairs. The painted graffiti usually follows the sharp angle of the stairs or the level landings, highlighting the pattern and flow of the fire escape.