Searching for Ceres: On Missing a Postmodernist Muse


Amy Hetletvedt


Travel & Leisure, Postmodernism
Image details

Was it to be a missing person’s report, or more of a personal ad?

Middle-aged female architect ISO a goddess she recollects from her youth

About seven feet tall; long, flowing locks; triumphant pose

Last seen: Battle Creek, Michigan, sometime in the late 1980s, in the food-court of a mall

I see now that it’s starting to read a bit like an episode of Stranger Things, but pour yourself a bowl of corn flakes and settle in.

Battle Creek, Michigan: a mid-sized midwestern town that grew up around the breakfast cereal industry. It has been home to Ralston and Post cereal factories, and Kellogg, the patron manufacturer of the town. Breakfast cereal saturates the built and sensory environment of Battle Creek–not only from the factories that encircle the town and fill the air with a burnt-sugary smell–but in the city center as well.

The town’s largest building, a 14-story behemoth, looms on the edge of the commercial district. Constructed as a health resort by the eccentric J.H. Kellogg in the late 1860s, the “sanitarium” (as it was christened) attracted followers of Seventh-Day Adventist principles with a program of flaked cereal breakfasts and wholesome exercise. It was the happening place in its day, with visitors including Amelia Earhart, Sojourner Truth, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller Jr, and Thomas Edison.[1]

Down the street from the sanitarium, which is now a federal administrative building, the commercial center boasts a trifecta of Postmodernist buildings: the Kellogg corporate headquarters (Hellmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum, 1983-1986),[2] the intermodal transit station (William Kessler and Associates, 1982),[3] and a high-rise hotel and shopping complex called McCamly Square, named after the city’s founder.[4] 

The retail portion of this complex, McCamly Place (The Collaborative, 1984-1986),[5] was designed with an exterior plaza and a double-height interior retail courtyard centered around a set of monumental escalators that led to the second-floor shopping balconies. McCamly Place was a latter version of the Festival Marketplace, the creation of developer James Rouse’s Enterprise Development Corporation.

In its early years, when I roamed the mall with my cousins and my carefully hair-sprayed bangs, the space mirrored my teenage exuberance. The smells of the food court and my floral perfume and the sounds of the ebullient fountain and tinkling piano music mingled with the celebratory visuals of neon lights, applied classical pastiche, and color-blocks in pastels. It was a poster child of Postmodernism.

The part I loved most was an over-scaled statue that was nearly level with the top of the escalators, perched atop a column that was looped with neon. “Cool! It’s Ceres, the goddess of grain. Get it?” Ceres, the goddess of the cereal capital. It was the kind of wink-wink that Postmodern architects loved.

Unbeknownst to me at that time, my now-husband roamed those same retail corridors in the 80s and 90s. Fast-forward thirty years. My bangs have grown out. I’m no longer wearing purple mascara. We are back in Battle Creek for a visit, trying to rent a car. Following the address of the car-rental company, we found ourselves outside McCamly Place.

It looked a little bit, well, closed. Shuttered. We tried the doors in series and found one unlocked. Even after our eyes adjusted to the inside, we were disoriented. Some of the basic elements of the atrium were still there (the lighting, the escalators), but the Postmodern pizzazz had left the building. Most notably, Ceres was missing.

“I hope they have her in a storage building somewhere and didn’t throw her out!” I ruminated, optimistically envisioning an Indiana-Jones-like warehouse, Ceres crated in straw and plywood. I worried about her fate. I was not sure who owned the space anymore. I composed a letter to one of the potential owners. “We’re interested architects,” I wrote. “It was a significant moment in architecture history,” I wrote. “Any idea if the statue was salvaged?” No response.

A mutual love of un- and under-appreciated Postmodern architecture is woven through our marriage. One long-ago stop was a pilgrimage to the then-unrestored Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans, a Postmodernist top-ten hit designed by Charles Moore.[6] At the time, it had fallen into ruin. The fountains were empty, the campanile stripped and rusted. Yet as we sat in the space, which was windswept with trash and had a shopping cart parked in the corner, it spoke to me of things we as a society have quickly discarded and problems we have willfully looked away from.

Author Alexandra Lange argued that the “restlessness of mind” which produced Postmodernist works is tied to our collective design process and to our experience of urban spaces. She wrote about the significance of the love-it/hate-it reaction that many of the spaces provoke. “Postmodernism should be preserved,” said Lange, “but it is even more important to preserve its iconoclasm.”[7]

In my quest for the cereal icon, I finally tracked down an address for sculptor Don Brown–or at least a guy named Don Brown who I thought might be the sculptor. I sent him a typewritten letter, trying to sound as least like a stalker as possible. “Hi, Amy,” my voicemail later played back, “This is Don Brown. I got your letter and yes, I’m the Don Brown you’re looking for.”

We subsequently shared a delightful phone conversation. After our opening pleasantries, I got down to the “who” of my missing person’s report. “So, my memory is a bit fuzzy on this.  Was she actually supposed to be Ceres or Demeter, the goddess of grain?” I asked.

“Well, yes. She had quite a few more informal nicknames… But most often people call her the Wheat Lady . . . Initially, the design concept for the sculpture was more warrior-like. But I toned that down a lot. I used my daughter as a model, actually.”

Familiar faces, looking back at us. It reminded me of how Charles Moore inserted a sculpture of his own face on a cartouche at the Piazza d’Italia. Brown went on to explain how Ceres had been constructed: 2-pound density urethane foam sheets, 6” thick and glued together, then sculpted. This was followed by a top-coating with automotive-finish fiberglass, which was then sanded and painted.

Brown’s techniques were honed in Michigan’s primary industry: automobiles. He spent twenty years in automotive design departments, sculpting design models of cars, prior to starting his own studio. Though he continued freelance work with auto manufacturers, he undertook a fascinating variety of sculpture projects in various contexts and scales; from a twenty-foot diameter sculpture of a hot air balloon for an outdoor sculpture park to a miniature wax relief of George and Barbara Bush for a chocolatier to the steady flow of what he calls “design shafafa” for malls and restaurants.

Brown doesn’t know where Ceres is either. Though he did point out that if she exists somewhere, she’s on borrowed time. “I just don’t know, over this length of time, how the urethane foam would age versus the fiberglass. There could be differential shrinkage.”

Even if Ceres were to be found, her very materiality highlights some of the technical difficulties of preserving the architecture, and particularly the ornamental sculpture, of postmodernism. The pastiche of postmodernism was experimental and some of the material choices were necessary precisely because of the acrobatics inherent to the architecture. After explaining how he constructed Ceres’ core from foam, Brown went on to say, “It’s a good thing I did, too, because they ended up hoisting her twenty feet in the air. It just wouldn’t have worked if she had been made of stone.” 

Ironically, some of Postmodernism's early icons, the BEST Products Company superstore prototypes designed by SITE in the mid-1970s, were built as a ruins. They read as a commentary on both the materiality of the age (which favored thin appliqués like brick veneer and stuccoed exterior insulation known as EIFS) and on the big-box model itself. Eroding boxes and tumble-down bricks asked entering patrons to consider whether the suburban auto-dependent mall, burgeoning in those decades, was something they could count on to last and whether, as a model, it was substantive enough to build upon. A crumbling façade suggested its own answer.

It was actually the suburban draw-away that retail concepts like the Festival Marketplace were designed to counteract. After having developed suburban malls in prior decades, James Rouse pioneered the Festival Marketplace concept in the mid-1970s at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston to breathe life back into downtowns. Festival Marketplaces in other major cities like Baltimore, New York, and Miami soon followed. By the mid-1980s, Rouse’s Enterprise Development Corporation was moving the concept into smaller cities like Flint, Toledo, and Battle Creek.

Some questioned Rouse’s particular conception of urban revitalization. Architecture critic Robert Campbell once described the Festival Marketplace as a “halfway house for a generation of timid suburbanites trying to find their way back to the richness and diversity of real city life.”[8] But the Festival Marketplace concept and the exuberant Postmodern architecture that was its frequent companion cannot be so categorically dismissed, like a strong gust of wind against a cardboard funhouse. The reality is a bit more nuanced and certainly leaves more behind.

J. Philip Gruen, in his review of a 2005 monograph on Rouse, articulates the difficult duality of Rouse’s legacy. Rouse is typically linked with the “inauthenticity of downtown: seeking ultimate profit by any means necessary […and…] considered instrumental to the privatization of public space in America.”[9] Yet Rouse is also characterized as a complex individual who “imagined a richer, more community-oriented public life”[10] than given credit for and who was driven by a genuine concern for the health and welfare of America’s cities. As we look at these all-but disappeared phenomena of the Festival Marketplace, interconnected questions sit before us: what to do about Postmodern architecture and its icons that remain? How to best help still-struggling cities? What is the role of imagination, whimsy, and especially dialogue in our civic life?  

Postmodernism, from its earliest beginnings, prompted not only a connection to the past, but also a dialogue with the past. Postmodern ornament borrowed heavily from the classical tradition but used classical conventions and symbols in tongue-in-cheek ways: giant eggs on top of a building (TV-am Studios, London, Terry Ferrell Partnership, 1981-1983), a skyscraper disguised as a Chippendale dresser (AT&T Building, New York, Philip Johnson and John Burgee, 1984); an oversized TV antenna crowning a senior housing building (Guild House, Philadelphia, Venturi and Rauch, 1963). I must confess, I always had a slightly uneasy feeling about that exalted antenna. Did it confer dignity? Or did it have something of a snide tone?[11] Postmodern icons referenced the past in their symbology and architectonic placement, but simultaneously opened up a conversation by highlighting the space between the past and the present. The questions that the exalted antenna introduced are what made me uneasy; what exactly was it trying to say about how we treat our aged, how we spend our time, and about our conception of the good life?

Maybe one of the most valuable aspects of Postmodernism for the present time is the provocative questions it makes us ask ourselves and the playfulness or even irreverence with which it asks them. It sets forth the challenge that perhaps within the love-it/hate-it dichotomy, or between arguments for failure or success, we can make space to appreciate things without even having to like them or agree with them.

In the case of McCamly Place, the lost Ceres could be a moot point. The monumental escalators have been recently torn out. Little remains in the atrium that recalls its original character. Like the TV antenna atop the Guild House, many of the ornaments from the postmodern era are easy to remove. After all, Ceres wasn’t a caryatid, she perched atop a column. She could probably have been taken away on a hand cart. Or heaved in a dumpster with two hands. But was she in fact superfluous? And are we the less for her absence?

Spaces do need to change over time. And not every piece of architecture needs to be pristinely preserved. But at many scales, from sculpture to building to city planning, we need to carefully consider our tendency to erase and delete rather than to edit. Could Ceres, should she still exist intact somewhere, still have a purpose in the Cereal City? Is an important part of what we lose in the disappearance of postmodern ornaments and the dismantling of postmodern spatial character simply their impertinent provocativeness? Maybe the search for Ceres not so much about the object itself, but about the questions she makes us ask ourselves.

Even if she’s cracked or split apart from differential shrinkage and unsuitable to be displayed, maybe that cracking also tells us something. Like the purposefully disintegrating façade of the BEST store, or the not-so-purposefully disintegrating Piazza d’Italia, these points of stress can cause us to look again at the spaces we made and the reasons we made them. Maybe we could have those difficult conversations about how to keep an economy rolling while still protecting the vulnerable; about defining the nature of an authentic and thriving public space; or even about how our early conception of the good life or our education and experiences shape our vision for civic harmony. Perhaps, even in a conversation in which we may disagree, there could be moments in which we are mutually disarmed by a moment of shared whimsy–a smile, a wink, even a laugh–or warmed by an indistinct familiarity with what we’re looking at together.  

O Ceres – sweetheart of the corn, muse of the Cereal City, where are you?


1. Howard Markel, “How Dr. Kellogg’s World-Renowned Health Spa Made Him a Wellness Titan,” PBS News Hour, August 18, 2017. Accessed September 28, 2020

2. Kathryn Bishop Eckert, "Kellogg Company Corporate Headquarters," [Battle Creek, Michigan], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—. Accessed: September 15, 2020.

3. Kathryn Bishop Eckert, "Battle Creek Intermodal Passenger Facility," [Battle Creek, Michigan], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—. Accessed September 28, 2020.

4. Willard Library Digital Collections. Accessed: September 15, 2020.

5. Kathryn Bishop Eckert, "McCamly Place," [Battle Creek, Michigan], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—.Accessed: September 15, 2020.Note that an archival photograph from 1984 (included herein) suggests that the commercial atrium space preceded its redevelopment as a Festival Marketplace.

6. Incidentally, Moore was a native of Michigan whose family hailed from Battle Creek. His great-grandfather, Allen Willard, who moved to Battle Creek from New York state, donated the library (Willard Library) at which some of the images in this article are archived. See David Littleton, Architect: The Life and Work of Charles W. Moore, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984, p. 101

7. Alexandra Lange, “Why Postmodernism is the Palate Cleanser We Need,”, February 1, 2018. Accessed September 16, 2020.

8. Robert Campbell, “The Man Who Brought you the Marketplace,” Boston Globe, November 18, 1986.  Accessed September 17, 2020. Note that Campbell’s comment refers to the Marketplaces designed for Rouse by architect Benjamin Thompson.

9. J. Philip Gruen, review of Nicholas Dagen Bloom’s “Merchant of Illusion: James Rouse, America’s Salesman of the Businessman’s Utopia," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, September 2005, Issue 64:3, p. 390

10. Ibid.

11. The antenna that originally crowned the building was removed soon after its completion. According to a Hidden City Philadelphia article from 2013, it is being re-gilded and is slated to be re-installed. 

About the Author

Amy Hetletvedt is a licensed architect who has practiced in the U.S. and taught in Europe. Among other professional and volunteer positions, she has served as an editor for the online platform Architecture in Development (NL) and as a Historic District Commissioner for the City of Detroit. Her work has been featured in ArchDaily, Slate, and regional architecture publications.