Look Up: Top 10 Downtown Buildings

The architects and Detroit enthusiasts of AIA-Detroit’s Urban Priorities Committee share their list of downtown’s 10 most significant structures. The group, whose members include prominent architects, planners, educators, designers, construction managers, and journalists, is a forum to review, critique and generate urban ideas and projects for metro Detroit.
Here’s their list of favorite buildings downtown, with their own comments and using their “AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture” as a reference.

1. Penobscot Building
Architect: Wirt Rowland (Smith, Hinchman & Grylls)
Year built: 1928

Detroit’s tallest building for nearly 50 years, this art deco masterpiece was the fifth largest in the world when completed. The building uses an “H” plan for its first 30 floors, and then begins a very impressive display of setbacks reaching the 47-story mark. On the very top of the building, a 60-foot pinnacle airplane beacon is topped with a renowned red neon ball that can be seen in visible conditions for upwards of 40 miles. In 2000, the building was modernized into a first-rate technology center with new wiring and other modifications. The most striking part of the renovation was the addition of Detroit’s best display downtown of exterior lighting that bathes the setbacks in a wash of white light.


2. Guardian Building
Wirt Rowland (Smith, Hinchman & Grylls)

This is the most exuberant art deco skyscraper in the world. The immense use of color (in fact, it has its own color designed just for the building, Guardian red) presents a vibrant and sharp image to pick out among the many other buildings and shapes that dot the cityscape. Equally impressive, however, is the interior -- especially the former banking room, the main lobby and the mural wall depicting the state of Michigan. SHG, which designed the building for the Union Trust Bank nearly 75 years ago, is now the building’s lead tenant (today known simply as SmithGroup). The Pewabic tiles that arch the exterior entrance are toned perfectly in color balance that goes beyond visually pleasant to mildly spectacular. The 40-floor building is among the tallest brick buildings in the world.


3. 1 Woodward
M. Yamasaki and Associates

Designed to be the home of the Michigan Consolidated Gas Co., it is now home to a variety of tenants, including law offices and the Detroit Regional Chamber. Lacy steel grillwork tones and harmonizes the building, and the building does well in its placement at the forefront of the Civic Center Complex. The windows seem small and narrow, yet each seemingly offers its own individual picture. The upper floors and a large cube on the top of the tower provide something a little more varied, in terms of geometric view, to gaze at during both day and night -- especially as the sun sets and they are completely illuminated in a variety of colors and tones that add bright dashes of color to complement the evening skyscape.


4. Coleman A. Young Municipal Center
Harley, Ellington and Day

Modeled seemingly after the United Nations Building in New York, the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center is a joined 19- and 14-story tower that fronts the Civic Center complex at the terminus of Woodward at Jefferson. The building, which replaced with modernity the classic and revered City Hall on the Kennedy Square block in the Campus Martius district, serves as a joint operations center for the city of Detroit’s government and some of the government of Wayne County. The architecture is not beautiful nor is it hideous. It does, if the goals were in fact this, promote the idea of a modern, clean and healthy city. The glass shimmers in light colors; the crisp white marble looks sharp. Yet this could easily be the headquarters of a business, not the one of the largest and most important cities in the nation. The building massing was designed by Eero Saarinen as part of the 1951 civic center master plan he designed for the 1951 city master plan. Saarinen was passed over to complete the building in favor of a “local Detroit” architect, Harley Ellington. There is little connectivity to speak of to the overall Civic Center, with, save for one notable exception, little civic art, lighting, government symbols or landscaping to promote this as an operations center for the people of Detroit and a testament to the better city they hope to create. The obvious exception is the most recognized piece of civic art in the city -- Marshall Fredricks’ acclaimed Spirit of Detroit. The seated green figure holds in his hands both the essential human family and the symbol of a higher power. While the sculpture is easily recognizable and a must stop for photographers and tourists, the plaza built for it could have gone the distance to further this as the heart of the government, and in truth the heart of the very city itself.

5. Detroit Cornice & Slate Building
Harry J. Rill

The Detroit Cornice and Slate Co. manufactured building ornamentation made from steel, which was pressed and hand hammered, then painted to look like stone. What better way for the company to advertise its wares than to bedeck its own building? Architect Harry J. Rill merged a structural frame resembling earlier cast-iron commercial architecture with a stylishly current flourish of Beaux-Arts Classicism. The result is a unique and delightful whole. The building housed the original business until architect Kessler’s office converted it for their own use in 1974. In yet another life, it was converted in the 1990s to the offices of the Metro Times. Bill Kessler and his partner Ed Francis recently, and with exceeding sensitivity, parlayed the original company’s idea into a sleek, stainless steel wrap-around expansion to give the newspaper more room. This inventive solution represents a primer on how to successfully preserve and expand historic architecture.

6. Wayne County Building
John and Arthur Scott

Listen closely and you can almost hear the strains of a Wagnerian opera. This magnificent example of Beaux-Arts Classicism was designed to anchor the eastern end of Cadillac Square and serve as a counterfoil to City Hall, unfortunately lost in 1961. Four stories of Ohio sandstone surmount a rusticated base. A monumental stone staircase leads to a pediment pavilion with Corinthian colonnade. Massively squared “attics” hold down the corners, heavy balustrades add definition, and robust Baroque sculpture groupings enliven the sky. This is the architecture the moderns loved to hate.


7. David Stott Building
Donaldson and Meier

A longtime local landmark for the Capitol Park district, the David Stott Building is a toned down art deco tower that rises distinctively, yet without the fanfare of the nearby Penobscot and Guardian buildings. Its height seems almost exaggerated to be well over 500 feet tall, because of how thin the tower appears and how the setbacks, which begin on the buildings 23rd floor, seem to gracefully go on forever. It’s slightly irregular -- the setbacks match only on three sides of the building with the fourth side slightly different. Exterior lighting, however inconsistent, accents this at night. This tower was most likely inspired by the Saarinen designed version of the Chicago Tribune tower.


8. Savoyard Center (151 W. Fort)
McKim, Mead and White

Other than a mausoleum, this is the only building in Detroit designed by the legendary Stanford White and his partners. The white marble bank, one of Detroit’s finest examples of Beaux-Arts Classicism, is spacious and well-lit inside thanks to the broad window arcade. (A second, more ambitious White project, a proposal for a bicentennial tower at the tip of Belle Isle in 1901, never passed the dream stage.) Originally the bank occupied only half of its current site. It was doubled in size in 1914 by extending the building down to Congress, occupying the site of Calvin Otis’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, which in turn was relocated to East Grand Boulevard and rebuilt as the Church of the Messiah. Donaldson and Meier designed the addition so faithfully to the original that most people cannot detect where one stops and the other begins. Today the building serves as a computer training facility.

9. Ford Field
Rossetti Associates and SmithGroup

The new Detroit Lions’ den adds another piece to an emerging entertainment district that includes the Fox and State theaters and Comerica Park. Among a handful of architects specializing in design for major league sports, Rossetti brought new ideas to an age-old building type. The architects reduced the building’s impact by locating the playing field, and most of the 65,000 seats, below street level. One of the stadium’s most unique features is the incorporation of the old six-story Hudson’s warehouse, which features 120 private suites overlooking the field. The glassy southwest corner offers dramatic views of Downtown. All these amenities are designed to increase both fun and profit. Welcome to the modern world of major league sports and big league business.

10. Renaissance Center
John Portman and Associates

Detroit’s marquee hotel tower is a very integral part of Detroit’s marquee office complex. This, the central tower of the seven-tower Renaissance Center, soars above the city from its lofty and new SOM (Chicago)-designed five-story Wintergarden built in 2001. The hotel is one of the tallest in the world, and was renovated in a major $100 million upgrade which revamped the 1200-room complex into a world-class setting for General Motors’ headquarters.





All photographs copyright Dave Krieger


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