Through the Lens
The Architecture of Detroit
Published: September 4, 2013
Detroit’s skyline is one of the most recognizable in the country. The architectural cityscape is notable in that Detroit boasts one of the largest intact collections of late 19th and early 20th century architecture in the country. Nearly all of the city’s skyscrapers were built in a five-year boom just before the Great Depression. Many of the buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places or designated National Historic Landmarks. The National Trust for Historic Preservation lists many more local buildings as some of America’s most endangered landmarks.
Many prominent architects have helped to shape the city’s landscape. The venerable Albert Kahn, known as The Architect of Detroit, designed nearly 400 buildings in the greater Detroit area during his lifetime; some well-known buildings include the Packard plant, Belle Isle Conservatory, Fisher Building and Cadillac Place.
Another well-respected architect who left his mark upon Motown, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was regarded as a pioneering master of Modernist architects. Lafayette Park, completed in 1960, is Mies’ only contribution to the city, but includes 26 buildings, which makes the community the largest collection of Mies buildings in the world.
As well, Minoru Yamasaki, widely considered to be a master of the New Formalism style — and who most famously designed the ill-fated New York’s World Trade Center in 1973, also designed several buildings on Wayne State University’s campus, including McGregor Memorial Conference Center and DeRoy Auditorium.
Detroit is also home to Yamasaki’s first high-rise building, One Woodward Avenue (formerly Michigan Consolidated Gas Company office). Interestingly, Yamasaki suffered from a severe fear of heights and, with that in mind, the World Trade Center was designed with narrow windows so workers didn’t get vertigo.
Some buildings have survived the test of time due to the luck of continued operations, like the Guardian and Fisher buildings. Other buildings, however, have not been as fortunate. The Book Tower, for example, has had a very tumultuous past.
The first owner defaulted on the mortgage. John Lambrecht, who had successfully renovated the Cadillac Tower, acquired the building. However, his untimely death bought renovation plans to a halt; Lambrecht’s widow tried, unsuccessfully, to gain momentum for the revitalization of Book Tower. After another exchange of owners, The Northeast Commercial Services Corporation, which was created for the management of the building, eventually defaulted on its mortgage loan, subsequently filing for bankruptcy in 2007. Two years later, the last tenant of the building moved out, leaving Book Tower to become one of the largest abandoned structures in the city.
Sadly, the Book Tower is just one of many instances where historic buildings are under threat due to foreclosure, vandalism, stripping and lack of funds for rehabilitation.
The Michigan Central Station stands as a glaring, constant reminder of architectural neglect. Other buildings under threat include Fort Wayne, Metropolitan Building, Grande Ballroom, and the State Savings Bank, whose owner wants to convert the property into yet another parking garage.
Detroit’s rich architectural history, like its citizenry, has been under siege for years because of neglect. As commercial interests continue to take advantage of affordable and prime real estate in the city’s core — and city government goes through its restructuring — perhaps the cityscape that has so captured the heart of preservationists can receive similar attention.
Adaptive reuse of a building is more cost-efficient than demolishing and building new. Reuse preserves community character— something that Detroit has in abundance.
If you would like to become active in historic preservation, seek out Preservation Detroit, preservationdetroit.org.
Kelly Johnston is a contributing photographer and writer for the Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Michigan Central Station
> Email Kelly Johnston