Before Detroit became shorthand for the automobile industry it had grown into the 13th largest city in America with more than 285,000 people in 1900, first through fur trading and then on the manufacture of tobacco and varnish and shoes and pharmaceuticals and, most fortuitously, carriages and bicycles that would lay the foundation for production of cars in the 20th century.

In 1701, the French officer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, along with fifty-one additional French-Canadians, founded a settlement called Fort Ponchartrain du Détroit, naming it after the comte de Pontchartrain, Minister of Marine under Louis XIV. France offered free land to attract families to Detroit, which grew to 800 people in 1765, the largest city in the Americas between Montreal and New Orleans. After Great Britain ceded the Northwest Territory to the United States in 1796 under the Jay Treaty Detroit was named the capital of the Michigan Territory.

Through the 1800s Detroit grew into a thriving hub of commerce and industry. Then in the spring of 1896 Henry Ford built his own horseless carriage. In 1901 Ford challenged Alexander Winton and his world champion “Bullet” at Grosse Pointe race track outside Detroit. Three cars lined up for the ten-mile race but only Ford and Winton left the line. Winton led Ford for 8 miles but sputtered badly as the Ford racer puttered past. Newspapers the next day anointed Ford as “top rank of American chauffeurs.” In 1903 Ford and eleven others pooled $28,000 to start the Ford Motor Company. At the time the population of Detroit was inching towards 300,000. By 1930, after decades as the fastest growing city in America, the population was north of 1.5 million and no other city in America was as identified with a single industry as Detroit was with automobiles.

It was also the golden age of building on Detroit’s streets. The more enthusiastic called the city the “Paris of America.” Every year seemed to bring a new “biggest” or “tallest” this or that. Detroit has not been shy about tearing down historic structures but many skyscrapers remain from that era that have long formed one of America’s most prominent skylines. Our walking tour of the area south of Campus Martius Park will find many of these heritage buildings in the Financial District and surrounding neighborhoods and we will start in a park space that itself was run over in the rush to the automobile in the early 1900s but recently re-emerged...

Campus Martius Park
Michigan Avenue, Monroe Street, Cadillac Square, Fort Street, and Woodward Avenue

Augustus Brevoort Woodward was 31 years old when President Thomas Jefferson appointed him as the Michigan Territory’s first Chief Justice on March 3, 1805. But Woodward never got the see the newly appointed capital of the territory, Detroit. Two weeks before he arrived the town burned to the ground. Woodward set out to rebuild the town, then boasting a population less than a 1,000, based on the radial street plan of Washington, D.C. The hub would be at Grand Circus with five broad avenues spoking out towards the Detroit River. Woodward’s scheme would be abandoned barely 11 years later but several key elements, including this park whose name translates from Latin as “Field of Mars,” were implemented. The park was lost in the 1900s in the rush to accommodate the new automobile traffic but it was brought back to life in 2004. Its focal point is Randolph Rogers’ Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument honoring Michigan’s Civil War dead. An impressive roster of Union generals including George Armstrong Custer, Philip H. Sheridan and Ambrose E. Burnside were on hand for the unveiling on April 9, 1872.


First National Bank
660 Woodward at Cadillac Square

The First National Bank began taking deposits during the Civil War in 1863 and if you had any doubt of the importance of this financial institution when this building was raised in 1922 the massive five-storyCorinthian pillars modeled after those in the Roman Forum might clue you in. The architect was Detroit favorite Albert Kahn who fit this 24-story office tower onto an irregular-shaped lot. The street-facing facades feature a grey granite skin at street level and limestone on the floors above.


Vinton Building
600 Woodward at northeast corner of Congress Street

Albert Kahn designed so many buildings in town he was sometimes called the “Architect of Detroit. He was 47 years old in 1916 when he tackled this commission for the Vinton Construction Company headquarters and built one of his first skyscrapers. At 172 feet, this was one of the highest buildings in town and the peaked parapet wall that evoked a classical Greek temple on the roofline was much more prominent then. 


Bagley Memorial Fountain
Cadillac Square at Bates Street, east of Campus Martius Park

Henry Hobson Richardson of Boston, the most influential architect of post-Civil War America, left one tiny footprint in Detroit, this granite drinking fountain in the memory of John J. Bagley, the 16th governor of Michigan. When Bagley died in 1881, his will contained $5,000 for the construction of a drinking fountain for the people of Detroit, having “water cold and pure as the coldest mountain stream.” Richardson modeled the fountain on the vaulted canopy over the altar in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy.

Cadillac Tower
65 Cadillac Square at northwest corner of Bates Street

This skyscraper has redefined the meaning of “commercial building” - in recent years one side has sported 14-story advertising murals. In its early days the 437-foot skyscraper, constructed in 1927, was known as the Barlum Tower, after John J. Barlum who headed the Cadillac Square Improvement Company that erected three large structures to perk up the Cadillac Square Area. Harrie W. Bonnah and W. C. Chaffee were the architects on all three projects. The Gothic flavored building was designed with two stories underground which added up to 40 floors - the first building outside New York and Chicago to boast so many. Barlum went broke and lost all three buildings in the Great Depression of the 1930s - perhaps he should have painted an advertising mural on the side. 

Cadillac Square Apartments
111 Cadillac Square at northeast corner of Bates Street

Detroit went on an urban renewal kick in the 1920s, clearing swaths of low-rise 1800s buildings in targeted areas for modern development. This was one of a troika of towers constructed by John J. Barlum, to be used as a luxury hotel. His investment group, that included two brothers and a former mayor, sunk $3,750,000 into the Barlum Hotel which architects Harrie W. Bonnah and W. C. Chaffee designed in a Venetian Revival style. Guests could enjoy a private bathroom in each of the 612 rooms, a rare amenity for visitors to Detroit in 1927. The posh hotel disappeared in the Great Depression and attempts to revive it met with little success; in 1967 it was converted into an apartment building.

Flatiron Building
Randolph Street at Cadillac Square and Congress Street

Detroit’s radial-spoke street grid creates odd building lots which were often filled with triangular-shaped structures known as “flatirons.” This four-story building has stood under-utilized across from the courthouse for more than a century.

Lawyers Building
137 Cadillac Square at northwest corner of Randolph Street

Take away the unsympathetic remodeling of the street level storefront and you have one of the least altered Chicago Style heritage skyscrapers in the city. This was the first of three buildings erected by the Barlum family on Cadillac Square in the 1920s. Architects Harrie W. Bonnah and W. C. Chaffee kept the ornament to a minimum on the terra cotta and glass structure, helping usher in an age of modernism with Detroit high-rises.

Wayne County Building
600 Randolph Street

This ornate pile of buff Berea, Ohio sandstone stands, albeit empty, as one of America’s greatest expressions of Baroque architecture, with touches of Beaux Arts and Neoclassical elements tossed in. Architects John and Arthur Scott created the confection between 1897 and 1902 which stood as a counterpoint to the similarly exuberant Detroit City Hall that was sited at the east end of Cadillac Square until its demolition in 1961. The central pediment above the entrance depicts county namesake and Revolutionary War hero Anthony Wayne in a scene depicted by Detroit sculptor J. Massey Rhind. The copper dome and spire were redone in the 1960s bringing it to 247 feet. The County shuffled its offices out in 2007. 


Chapoton House
511 Beaubien Street 

Jean Chapoton was a surgeon in the French army, and was assigned to Fort Pontchartrain, arriving in 1719. Chapoton remained in Detroit until his death in 1762 and generations later the family had ammassed a fortune in the masonry and building trades. Alexander Chapoton built this Queen Anne-syle house in the early 1970s at a time when well-to-do Detroit streets were lined with similar rowhouses. Today the Chapoton House is a rare survivor of that age.


Renaissance Center
400 Renaissance Center Drive at Detroit River

Henry Ford II was the primary driver in the largest private development project ever undertaken back in the 1970s. Today, the owner of the seven-tower waterfront complex is General Motors. Famous for its cylindrical design, the central 73-story, 727-foot tower’s diameter is 188 feet - at the time it was the highest hotel-only building ever constructed.


Mariners Church
170 East Jefferson Avenue

Julia Ann Anderson came to Detroit in 1818, accompanying her husband, an Army engineer who was assigned to map Michigan. After her death in 1842 her will provided funds for a church to serve the spiritual needs of seamen plying the Great Lakes. Calvin N. Otis came from Buffalo in 1849 to provide the rectangular Gothic Revival design executed in coarse gray limestone with sandstone trim. Mariners is the second oldest church in continuous operation in Michigan but not always from this location. In 1855 the 3,000-ton structure was hauled three football fields down the street on steel rails to make room for the Civic Center Plaza. The move snarled traffic for 21 days.  

Joe Louis Memorial
Jefferson Avenue at Woodward Avenue

This 24-foot arm must have been what it seemed was coming at Joseph Louis Barrow’s 57 knockout victims. Joe Louis was born in Alabama but came with his family to Detroit when he was 12, in large part to escape racism. Louis rose through the amateur boxing ranks in Detroit to win the heavyweight championship in 1937 and would make 25 successful title defenses, more than any boxer in history. Louis held the heavyweight title for almost 12 years. This memorial was created by sculptor Robert Graham and installed at Jefferson Avenue at Woodward, Detroit on October 16, 1986.


Spirit of Detroit
Woodward and Jefferson avenues in front of Coleman Young Municipal Building

This is the piece of public art that gets dressed up in team colors when Detroit’s professional sports teams compete in championship playoffs. Marshall Maynard Fredericks, who contributed many public monuments to the cityscape, took no creative fee for this one, which he never named, in 1955. In fact, it actually cost him money to produce. In its left hand, the large seated figure holds a gilt bronze sphere emanating rays to symbolize God. In its right hand, is a family group symbolizing all human relationships. The 26-foot sculpture was cast in Oslo, Norway.

Michigan Consolidated Gas Building
1 Woodward Avenue

Seattle-born Minoru Yamasaki, one of the most acclaimed architects of the 20th century, did not design a skyscraper until he was almost 50 years old and the first was the Michigan Consolidated Gas Building, in his adopted hometown. The narrow windows reminiscent of ancient Gothic architecture, which would appear on many of Yamasaki’s later buildings including his World Trade Center twin towers in New York, were said to arise from a personal fear of heights. The windows here rise to points on the roof, also calling to mind the Gothic influence. The 430-foot tower was topped off in 1962 and the gas company stayed until the 1980s before moving next door.


Guardian Building
500 Griswold Street at northeast corner of Larned Street

After serving in the Civil War, Frank J. Hecker, still in his teens. went to work on the railroad, first as an agent and then as project manager. In 1879 Hecker tapped the seemingly unlimited supply of Michigan pine to begin manufacturing box cars and the Peninsular Car Company made him rich. In 1890 he was the prime mover in organizing the Union Trust company which became the city’s largest bank by the 1920s. When it came time to construct a new headquarters the bank decided to not build the expected powerful monument to capitalism and instead opted to project an image of trustworthiness and friendliness with its building. In response architect Wirt Rowland delivered a 36-story vision of orange executed in brick and glazed tile and polychrome terra cotta. Rowland outfitted his building with Mayan-influenced decoration and an interior so lavish the building was nicknamed the “Cathedral of Finance” after it was completed in 1928. Warm and fuzzy, however, was no match for the Great Depression and Union Trust closed its doors in 1932. Attempts to reopen, including a stab as the Union Guardian Trust Company, all came to nothing except a permanent re-naming of the Art Deco landmark. 


Buhl Building
535 Griswold Street

As head designer for the firm of Smith, Hinchman & Grylis in the 1920s Wirt Rowland contributed some of the most memorable skyscrapers to the Detroit streetscape and this was the first. Sheldon Smith started the practice in 1853 and today it is the longest continually operating architecture and engineering firm in the United States. For the Buhl Building in 1925, Rowland started with a massive Romanesque-flavored base which gave way to Gothic detailing as the terra cotta floors soared to a 29-story conclusion. 

The tower was constructed for the third generation of Buhls in Detroit, a lineage that began in 1833 when brothers Frederick and Christian arrived from Pennsylvania to sell hats. The hats became furs which became hardware with an iron works, a locomotive works and some banks thrown into the Buhl empire. In his downtime Christian Buhl spent time as Detroit mayor in 1860-61. 

Ford Building
615 Griswold Street at northwest corner of Congress Street

Daniel Burnham, one of the fathers of the modern skyscraper, was lured from Chicago to build Detroit’s first steel-skelton high-rise not by Henry Ford but by the Fords of the Edward Ford Plate Glass Company of Toledo, Ohio. Burnham completed the city’s tallest building in 1909 with an emphasis on verticality and clean, modern lines. Burnham did not completely abandon the decorative elements of the day; he installed impressive pillars at street level and paraded arches across the upper floors.

Penobscot Building
645 Griswold Street at southwest corner of Fort Street

When this monstrous tower was completed in 1928 it was the eighth tallest building in the world and the tallest outside New York City and Chicago. It remained the tallest building in Michigan for nearly 50 years. Simon Jones Murphy erected the first Penobscot Building in 1905. Murphy made his fortune from the timberlands along the Penobscot River in Maine before coming to Detroit in 1866 to begin lumbering on the St. Clair River. His son William took the building to unprecedented heights. Wirt Rowland provided the Art Deco design and utilized setbacks at the top after thirty floors. Clad in Indiana limestone with a granite base, Rowland decorated the building with motifs inspired by the powerful tribe of Penobscot Indians. In an odd twist, Simon Murphy died a week before his building opened and 24 years later William Murphy also died a week before the new Penobscot Building opened. 


First Penobscot Building
131 West Fort Street

John Donaldson and Henry J. Meier had been populating southeastern Michigan with buildings for 25 years before winning this commission from the Simon J. Murphy Company. The lower three stories of the building are faced in limestone, the middle seven in brick, and the upper three in terra cotta. The facade is divided into five bays, each with a pair of double-hung windows.

Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Detroit Branch
160 West Fort Street

The Federal Reserve moved onto this corner in 1927 with a Neoclassical branch building. In the 1950s architect Minoru Yamasaki went in a completely different direction for additional space and designed an eight-story Annex Building in marble and green-tinted glass. The Fed moved on in 2004 leaving its contrasting premises on Fort Street empty.    

State Savings Bank
151 West Fort Street at southeast corner of Shelby Street

The State Savings Bank took its first deposits in 1883 and by 1898, when it purchased this land in the heart of the Financial District it was the largest bank in Detroit. The directors went shopping in New York for an architect to design a suitable headquarters and came back with the best - Stanford White of the fabled firm of McKim, Mead & White. White created a Neoclassical vault composed of marble inside and out. The main entrance is in a recessed portico and framed by two 28-foot high Ionic columns, each weighing 28 tons. Above the entry is a cartouche bearing the Michigan Coat of Arms flanked by two figures representing Industry and Commerce. The original building was doubled in size in 1914 with architects John Donaldson and Henry J. Meier executing a seamless extension for the entire block. State Savings collapsed during the Great Depression and Edsel Ford’s Manufacturer’s National Bank moved in but the space has not served a financial master since the 1980s.

Detroit Trust Company Building
201 West Fort Street at southwest corner of Shelby Street

The Detroit Trust Company began in leased space in the Penobscot Building in 1900 and after 15 years of success moved out into this Albert Kahn-designed headquarters. Kahn’s classically-flavored building announced the bank’s growing prominence with a colonnade of the Corinthian order which he accompanied with foliated details set into the attic story. The Detroit Trust Company merged with Detroit Bank in the 1950s to form the Detroit Bank and Trust Company, and built the next-door tower; today the company is known as Comerica with its name on the Detroit Tiger’s baseball stadium.


Detroit Fire and Marine Insurance Company Building
625 Shelby Street

This handsome Greek temple-like limestone building was constructed in 1912 for the Detroit Fire and Marine Insurance Company Building, that began writing policies in 1866. The facade of this building has four Ionic columns, plus a half-column at each end.

United States Mortgage Bond Company Building
607 Shelby Streetat northwest corner of Congress Street

This Beaux Arts package was assembled in 1925 for the United States Mortgage Bond Company. Rising to an ornate cornice, the nine-story building features a three-story skirt of rusticated limestone before giving way to brick the rest of the way to the top.   

Banker’s Trust Company Building
205 West Congress Street at southwest corner of Shelby Street

Busy architect Wirt Rowland tapped the Italian Renaissance style for this exquisitely decorated bank vault in 1925. The two-story corner building is awash in arches on both levels. Look up to see lion heads atop the green marble pillars at the entrance and an array of intricately designed pillars supporting the upper arches. The terra cotta exterior has been scored to resemble ashlar stone. Banker’s Trust was founded in 1917 but for most of its life this artistic gem has served other masters.


Detroit Fire Department
250 West Larned Street at Washington Boulevard

The Detroit Fire Department, established in 1860, has been headquartered in this building since 1929. Hans Gehrke designed the Neoclassical building with similar facades on both the Larned and Washington elevations. The building is constructed of dark red brick trimmed with terra cotta, sitting on a grey granite bulkhead.


Detroit Club
712 Cass Avenue at northeast corner of Fort Street

Two bachelors, attorney Samuel T. Douglas and banker/broker James Campbell, perhaps motivated by loneliness, started the private Detroit Club in 1882 with ten members. Their stated goal of providing a place where “men of culture could associate to mould into form that atmosphere and enthusiasm which are important factors in club welfare and where they could give interested attention to the development of art, civics, literature, and other elements in the permanent upbuilding of the city” soon attracted a membership of 101 of Detroit’s elite. In 1891 the club’s well-heeled membership was able to lure Eastern architect Wilson Eyre, noted for his elegant residential work, to town for a new clubhouse. Eyre delivered a stately four-story brick and stone Romanesque Revival building framed by symmetrical bowfronts. The Club has feted a Who’s Who of 20th century notables includingHarry Truman, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Prince William of Sweden, Empress Zita of Austria, the Duke of Windsor, Margaret Truman, Charles Lindbergh, Gene Tunney, Admiral Richard Byrd, John D. Rockefeller and Edward G. Robinson.


Detroit News Building
2nd Boulevard between Fort Street and Lafayette Boulevard

The Detroit News began in 1873, when James E. Scripps rented space in the rival Free Press’s building for an evening paper. English-born Scripps had been running newspapers in Detroit since 1862 and used $20,000 insurance money after his previous paper, the Detroit Daily Advertiser, burned to start the News. Scripps took his publication down-market, appealing to working men and women, a class which was becomingly increasingly literate with the introduction of more public schools in America in the middle of the 19th century. While his competitors scoffed at the News with its short, simple human interest stories, Scripps was building the largest circulation in Detroit. By its centenary, the Detroit News had more readers than any evening paper in America. The paper moved here in 1917. Detroit go-to architect Albert Kahn designed a workhorse building for the working class, framing the plant in reinforced concrete fitted with prominent arches to admit light.

Fort Street Presbyterian Church
631 West Fort Street at southeast corner of Third Street

This congregation formed in 1849 as the Second Presbyterian Church with 26 members and was successful enough by 1855 to move into its second church at this location, then a tony residential district. Brothers Albert and Octavius Jordan, among the busiest architects in town, designed the exuberant Victorian Gothic church that came with a $70,000 price tag. The building was destroyed by fire in 1876 and another conflagration claimed the roof in 1914 but both times it was rebuilt according to the Jordans’ plans. The soaring 265-foot steeple was the tallest manmade structure in Michigan until 1909.


Fort Shelby Hotel
525 West Lafayette Boulevard

The idea in 1917 was to build a hotel near the Fort Street Union Station that would appeal to the new class of business traveler looking for affordable rooms rather than the traditional luxury hotels with clubs and restaurants that were then the norm in American downtowns. The architectural firm of Schmidt, Garden & Martin designed a ten-story, 450-room Beaux Arts brick hotel trimmed with limestone. The enterprise was so successful that after ten years Albert Kahn was brought in to build two more 450-room additions. Kahn overwhelmed the original with a 27-story tower but the second addition was never built as the Great Depression scuttled further expansion plans. Fort Shelby operated into the 1970s after which it remained closed for 33 years until an $82 million restoration breathed life back into the hotel.

Detroit Free Press Building
321 West Lafayette Boulevard

The city’s largest daily newspaper in town, once with the tenth largest circulation of any paper in the country, traces its roots to four-page weekly editions put out by the Democratic Free Press and Michigan Intelligencer in 1831, six years before Michigan joined the Union. When the operation moved into this location in 1925 the impressive limestone building by Albert Kahn represented more aspiration than achievement - at the time it was the third newspaper in town behind the Detroit Times and Detroit News. In fact, the central 13-story tower that lords over the structure was originally intended for rental space. The building is adorned with bas-relief figures, sculpted by Ulysses A. Ricci, symbolizing commerce and communication. Kahn had earlier designed the headquarters for the Detroit News three blocks further west and after the Free Press abandoned these digs in 1987 that is where they moved.

Theodore Levin United States Courthouse
231 West Lafayette Boulevard

Detroit’s federal building fills a full block and was constructed between 1932 and 1934. The building was designed in the Art Deco and art moderne styles of architecture, incorporating granite and limestone into the structure. The main facade is limestone, above a polished black stone. This historic site was where Fort Lemoult, later called Fort Shelby, stood and so did the previous federal building, an 1897 Renaissance Revival structure. This building, whose decoration is limited to relief carvings of eagles and other symbols stands in stark contrast to its ornate predecessor, emblematic of the austere times in which it was constructed.


First State Bank Building
751 Griswold at southwest corner of Lafayette Street

This was the “German” bank in town back when the first deposits were taken in 1871. This Albert Kahn creation became home in 1925. Each facade of the four-story bank building has three-story Ionic columns and is faced in limestone.

Security Trust Company Building
735 Griswold Street

This building dominated by elongated arches in triplicate was created by Albert Kahn for the Security Trust Company in 1925. The columns are intricately designed. The bank, that opened in 1906, only stayed here a couple of years and disappeared altogether shortly thereafter during the Depression. Subsequent owners have not treated the space kindly as witnessed by the insensitive additions above.

Dime Building
719 Griswold Street at northwest corner of Fort Street 

Daniel Burnham designed this skyscraper in 1910 with an impressive ground level banking floor for the client, the Dime Savings Bank, and topped it with 21 floors in a U-shaped plan. This was a common configuration in the early days of steel-framed high-rise buildings which allowed light and air into the non-airconditioned core of the tower. It also served to create more corner offices inside.