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.
We’ll start by exploring the buildings that correspond to Detroit’s reputation as a city in ruin. Your tour begins on Washington Boulevard at Book Tower, the oldest skyscraper on this tour. In 1916, this Renaissance-style, classical building was completed to great fanfare and full office buildings. With its beautiful facade, darkened by decades of decay, this building has lived the story of Detroit: grand designs, the growth from tower to entire block, and a reversal of fortunes in the 1980s, when its owners defaulted. Since then, its marble carvings and stonework have changed hands a dozen times and the building currently stands unoccupied, despite many owners’ plans for revitalization.
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
Start your tour in 1928 on Griswold Street with the 47-story Art Deco Penobscot tower that honors a Native American tribe from Maine. The building’s owners grew up around the Penobscot River, named after the tribe, and wanted the details and motifs of the building to pay tribute to that upbringing. The similarities between arrowheads and chevrons, and the architect’s ability to seamlessly fit features, birds, Native American headdresses and other symbols into the streamlined style of Art Deco makes for an inspired trip through the office building’s gold-plated lobby.
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
Directly across from the Buhl Building is Rowland’s last masterpiece, the Guardian Building. Although the style is clearly Art Deco, there’s a dedication to color in the building that almost resembles Antoni Gaudi’s work in Barcelona. The building, also known as the “Cathedral of Finance,” imitates the Spanish modernista designs in another way, too. Like the Sagrada Familia, this tower’s interior ceiling is carved like a cathedral dome and interior walls are laden with Gothic spirals. Stained-glass windows and extravagant lighting complete the look.
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.