Surprising Gems of Detroit Architecture

No question about it, we love cars here in Detroit. Our passion for classic cars bursts through every August during the Woodward Dream Cruise. Detroit’s identification with all things automotive, however, distracts us from the classic buildings that architects have given us over the last 150 years.

Albert Kahn is the best known of the architects whose work developed along with the automotive industry. He used natural light in his innovative designs for automotive assembly plants, but he also created signature office buildings, including the Fisher Building in midtown Detroit – a graceful 26-story Art Deco office building with a three-story vaulted arcade finished with 40 different varieties of marble.

Most Detroiters couldn’t tell you who Wirt Rowland was, yet anyone with a bit of history here can probably identify his signature work – the Guardian Building downtown (and home to the DEGC). They know it by the distinctive terra cotta color of the exterior – along with glazed tiles in designs that may have been inspired by Aztec or Native American art. Recently Rowland’s descendant architectural firm renovated the interior for its own headquarters, and in the process re-awakened many visitors to the stunning mural-covered vault in its public space.

Rowland also designed another Detroit icon – the Penobscot Building – a half block from the Guardian. In contrast to the exotic exterior of that building, the Penobscot is a clean limestone tower up to the 30th floor, with progressive stepped back floors for 17 more stories.

These three classic buildings are among 50 gems featured in a recent book by New York Times architecture critic Robert Sharoff. American City: Detroit Architecture, 1845–2005 is a remarkable collection of stories and outstanding photographs by William Zbaren. It demonstrates without a doubt that the talent, energy and enthusiasm for building cars here for more than 100 years has been complemented by a passion for outstanding architecture. And the best news is that One Kennedy Square, a bold steel and glass wedge at Campus Martius Park and the Boll Family YMCA Building a few blocks away are great examples of a passion that is here to stay.

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