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Detroit Architecture Main

by Cynthia J. Drake

If you pay close attention, Detroit’s architecture reveals the story of the city itself. From the glitzy art deco skyscrapers of the 1920s that dance with the prosperity of the city’s heyday to the strong, fortress-like GM Renaissance Center of the 1970s, the story of the automobile’s imprint is clear.

The best way to observe Detroit’s architecture and hear each structure’s legendary tales is with the aid of one of Detroit’s well-versed architecture tour guides. But if you want to do a basic building crawl on your own, there are certain iconic structures you must visit.


Wirt C. Rowland of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls

The Penobscot Building, so emblematic of the emerging skyscraper design of its time, infuses the Detroit skyline with Roaring Twenties glamour. When it was completed in 1928, the 47-story building was the eighth tallest in the world — a fact that speaks to the power and prestige of Detroit in that era.

Many people don’t realize that the Greater Penobscot Building is actually one of a trio of connected Penobscot buildings. The architectural design “allows for more windows to have access to sunlight,” said Jon Chezick, Detroit experience coordinator for D:hive, a welcome center and organization that provides themed tours.

The Greater Penobscot structure is also a treasure trove of symbolism, which has long been debated and interpreted differently depending on the source. Some, such as Chezick, say symbols such as the Penobscot’s zigzags and cylinders, for example, represent the river and the logging industry from which the building’s original owner, Simon Murphy, earned his wealth. Others claim that these elements simply represent common art deco design fundamentals frequently used by renowned architect Wirt C. Rowland.

You’ll also note several Native American images (“Penobscot” itself refers to an indigenous tribe from Maine), including ornately carved reliefs on the exterior and designs on the building’s elevator doors. Visitors may wonder about the “swastikas” carved underneath the windows. “A lot of ancient civilizations used these as a symbol of prosperity,” Chezick said. “It’s actually a reverse of the Nazi swastika and has nothing to do with Nazis.”

645 Griswold St., Detroit, 48226; 313-961-8800 or penobscotbuilding.com

     Penobscot Building Detroit
Penobscot Building Detroit 2


Guardian Building Detroit 1  

2. The Guardian Building, 1929

Wirt C. Rowland of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls

Architecture buffs count this stunning building among their top must-sees.

“By far, my favorite is the Guardian Building,” said Chezick. “It’s a must-see because it’s one of the most beautiful buildings in the country, if not the world. In those few years in the late ’20s, the grandiose architecture that was produced during that time really reflects the optimism that surrounded Detroit — and really, the country — at the time.”

The orange brick building embraces color and design both on the inside and outside, incorporating locally produced Pewabic tiles on its exterior. “It’s a wild architectural experiment with effusive use of color,” said author, local architecture buff and Detroit Free Press reporter John Gallagher. “It’s one of a kind.”

Take a peek inside and you’ll be treated to an original glass Tiffany clock — one of only four still in existence. You’ll also see colorful rare marble from Italy, Belgium and Africa — lead architect Wirt C. Rowland himself traveled to a closed African mine to procure red Numidian marble.

Rowland was meticulous in his attention to detail of the Guardian, even designing the silverware and wait staff outfits for the building’s original restaurant, Chezick said.

The Guardian Building incorporates a 3/4-inch mat of horsehair on the ceiling. Why? In its original life as a banking building, the horsehair provided the necessary soundproofing to keep personal financial information on the down low.

500 Griswold St., Detroit, 48226; 313-963-4567 or guardianbuilding.com


Guardian Building Detroit 2  
Guardian Building Detroit 3  


3. The Fisher Building, 1929

Albert Kahn and Joseph Nathaniel French

A third iconic Detroit building, the Fisher was originally commissioned by the seven Fisher brothers of Fisher Body Company, which produced the automotive bodies that would later be incorporated into General Motors’ designs.

“They wanted to give back to the city of Detroit,” D:hive’s Chezick said. In fact, the brothers were known for their philanthropy throughout the city.

Albert Kahn’s art deco skyscraper, positioned in downtown’s New Center, includes a “golden tower.” Interesting fact: The roof of the Fisher Building used to be gold-plated, “but it was taken down during World War II because it was thought to be too big of a target for the enemy,” noted Chezick.

3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit, 48202; fisherbldg.com

  Fisher Building Detroit 2
   Fisher Building Detroit 1


One Woodward Detroit 1


4. One Woodward Avenue, 1962

Minoru Yamasaki and Smith, Hinchman, & Grylls

Opened 10 years before the World Trade Center, the most notable building designed by Yamasaki, One Woodward Avenue is one of few Detroit buildings that came out of the modern era. “If architecture is a conversation across the centuries, as they say, Yamasaki responds maybe to the Penobscot Building,” said the Free Press’ Gallagher.

1 Woodward Ave., Detroit, 48226



5. The GM Renaissance Center, 1977

John Portman & Associates

In contrast to the fanciful 1920s starlets down the block, the “Ren Cen” is a sleek and powerful homage to the industry that put Detroit, and the nation, on wheels.

“The Renaissance Center is distinctive,” said Michael Boettcher, freelance writer and a Detroit tour guide of more than 20 years.

Originally, plans called for 15 towers, a much more massive structure than the already dominant six-tower skyscraper, which is so large it has its own ZIP code.

“What I think is interesting is that, despite it being GM headquarters, it was originally the brainchild of Henry Ford II, Henry Ford’s grandson,” said D:hive’s Chezick. “He originally wanted it to be part of the renaissance of downtown Detroit when it opened in 1977.”

When GM moved in during the 1990s, it removed a surrounding outer wall, making the structure appear more accessible to outsiders. Still, it stands as “a city unto itself,” said Chezick, with four movie screens, a gym, hotel, stores and restaurants inside.

100 Renaissance Center, Detroit, 48243; 313-567-3126 or gmrencen.com

  Renaissance Center Detroit 1B 


One Detroit Center 2


6. One Detroit Center, 1992

Philip Johnson and John Burgee

After a somewhat dormant period for Detroit architecture, One Detroit Center emerged on the city’s skyline in the early 1990s, infusing the collection with a dose of postmodernism. “Philip Johnson was a rock star architect in the ’80s and ’90s,” said writer Boettcher. The architect is well known for his Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, and the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. One Detroit Center is Johnson’s only architectural contribution in the state of Michigan.

500 Woodward Ave., Detroit, 48226; 313-965-3271 or onedetroitcenter.com


Who’s Who of Detroit Architecture

Albert Kahn

This well-known industrial architect was born in Germany and came to Detroit in 1880 at age 11. In addition to the Fisher Building, Kahn designed Cranbrook House and the Dearborn Inn.

   Architect Albert Kahn

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

One of the pioneers of modern architecture, his Lafayette Park, called “one of the nation’s most beautiful and obscure residential developments” by the Wall Street Journal, is one of his greatest achievements.

   Architect LM VanDerRohe

Wirt C. Rowland

One of Detroit’s most renowned architects, Rowland was born in Clinton, Michigan, apprenticed under George Mason and studied architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge. He was recruited by Albert Kahn in 1909 to join his Detroit firm.

  Architect Wirt Rowland 

Eliel Saarinen

This Finnish architect found his way to the U.S. in 1923 and became a visiting professor at the University of Michigan the following year. In 1925, George Gough Booth, founder of the Cranbrook Educational Community, asked Saarinen to design the campus. His aesthetic is imprinted on Cranbrook to this day, where students continue to study his work.

   Architect Elial Saarinen

Minoru Yamasaki

Japanese-American architect Yamasaki moved to Detroit from his birthplace of Seattle in 1945 and joined the firm of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls, which sheltered him from internment during World War II. Yamasaki designed One Woodward Avenue 10 years before his most legendary work, New York City’s World Trade Center. He also designed Temple Beth El in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills.

  Architect Minoru Yamasaki 

Guided Architecture Tours

Detroit-based community organizations and groups offer a variety of architecture-themed tours that can be taken by foot or by bus.

Detroit Urban Adventures 
Boasting “day tours with a local,” a guide will take you through two program options: The D You Must See and Detroit’s Rise, Fall & Renewal. Both are $26 and include architectural information.

Feet on the Street Tours + Events 
Planned tours are usually designed around a historic theme that incorporates food, art, architecture, music and unique neighborhoods.

Preservation Detroit 
Walking tours, which run Saturdays from May to September, cover the cultural center and Midtown, downtown and Eastern Market, and cost $12 to $15.

Detroit Bus Company 
This company offers history tours, drinking tours and bar crawls. Currently on the docket: Scofflaws and Speakeasies: Detroit Prohibition Tour.
thedetroitbus.com or detroittours.com

Detroit Experience Factory 
D:hive’s touring arm, the Detroit Experience Factory, offers a free walking tour every Saturday at 11 a.m. On the first and third Saturday of every month, it hosts a bus tour for $15 for the first seven people; $20 for the rest. Private architecture tours for groups may also be booked.

Detroit Historical Society 
The Historic Houses of Worship Tour Series departs from the Detroit Historical Museum and typically features five area churches. Make your reservations well in advance as these tours sell out fast.


Fox Theatre Detroit


The Show Must Go On

Detroit’s oldest theaters, such as the Fox, Fisher, Fillmore and Masonic Temple, are some of the city’s greatest architectural gems that still carry out their original function. The Senate Theater (1926) in southwest Detroit, for example, still screens silent films accompanied by organ music.


Walk-It map

Walk It

Put on your walking shoes and look up. These landmarks are all within walking distance (except for the Fisher Building — you’ll need to drive over to that beauty).

1. The Penobscot Building
2. The Guardian Building
3. The Fisher Building
4. One Woodward Avenue
5. The GM Renaissance Center
6. One Detroit Center



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Travel Tip

When you step in Edsel Ford's home office at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House, check out the secret panel that opens up to reveal a private darkroom.

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