When most people think of Detroit, it’s the gritty auto industry, financial corruption or large-scale bankruptcy that come to mind. But for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Detroit was one of America’s greatest cities and, because of a legacy of great architecture in the early 20th century, many knew Detroit as the “Paris of the West.”
Although the Gilded Age of great Downtown Detroit has long since ended, a visit to the Capitol Park Historic District still bears the reminders of a variety of landmark buildings that are as breathtaking to behold now as they were in the Gilded Age itself.
It’s a sad kind of beauty, but unfortunately not unique. Head east on State Street to Griswold Street to meet Book Tower’s rival in misfortune. The David Stott Building is a 1929 brick and marble Art Deco landmark crowned with a marble sculpture at its entrance. Unfortunately, the building has fallen into various states of disrepair over the past several years, with its most recent failure coming in the form of a nine-story flood in the middle of winter. Like Book Tower, this empty shell of beauty is best seen from a distance.
But, lest you think all of Detroit is a city on the brink of collapse, head south of Griswold for some Art Deco optimism.
Art Deco and Neo-Gothic double feature
Penobscot was designed by Wirt C. Rowland, an architect responsible for much of the reputation of the Historic District, including the Buhl Building on the next block of Griswold St. The Neo-Gothic style features stone carvings on the facade that follow a similar Native/Deco hybrid design. The building was once home of the Savoyard Club, an exclusive club for the richest of Detroit’s white, Anglo gentlemen, back when members-only, old-money exclusivity was more of a thing. As Detroit’s population dwindled, so did the club’s membership. Today, the building is home to mostly offices but is definitely still worth a look around the lobby.
Rowland's magical last stand
Unfortunately, the Guardian, commissioned by the Union Trust Company in 1928, didn’t get to bask in its own glory for long: the Great Depression was right around the corner, and the money behind the Cathedral of Finance crumbled. Luckily, we still have the building itself.
Gems of design, not destroyed by the sands of time
There’s more buildings to be seen on Shelby Street, Michigan Avenue and Woodward. But as you’ve discovered already, Detroit is not dead, in spite of what you’ve heard. Historical treasures and stories abound in the Downtown district and, although some of the city’s great buildings have fallen from grace, there’s redemption and, most importantly, beauty all around.
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