This weekend I finally got around to something I’ve been meaning to do for a while – go on Pure Detroit‘s tour of the Guardian Building in downtown Detroit. Back in March, I went on their tour of the Fisher Building and loved it, yet somehow it took me another 8 months to make it to the Guardian Building tour! I’m glad I did though, as the Guardian Building is easily one of the most beautiful buildings downtown – I think I might even call it my new favorite.
The tour leaves from the Pure Detroit store on the retail promenade of the building and I arrived about 15 minutes early, which gave me a chance to wander around the store a bit. I love all the Detroit themed items Pure Detroit sells, but this particular one made me laugh and get a little sad at the same time:
The tour started just after 11 with a short speech in the lobby about the history of the building. The Guardian was designed by Wirt Rowland of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls for the United Trust Company Bank in 1929. Rowland and SHG are both major players in Detroit architecture. Rowland, with SHG, had already brought Art Deco to Detroit with the Buhl (1925) and Penobscot (1928) buildings. Today Smith, Hinchman and Grylls is one of the oldest continually running architecture firms in the country. Now known as SmithGroup, the firm is headquartered in the Guardian Building, which makes a neat little circle of architectural history.
Rowland intended to make the Guardian into a “Cathedral of Finance.” The front lobby is shaped like the narthex of a church and then the main floor is designed like a nave, with a large mural of Michigan where the alter would be. Huge, vaulted ceilings reinforce the idea, making you truly feel like you are walking into a cathedral. Only, instead of a place of worship, it is a place of business (I wonder how religious leaders felt about that). The main floor was originally lined with teller windows and filled with people taking care of financial matters. By the time the building opened, the bank held 40% of Detroit’s banking resources after buying out several other institutions and becoming the Guardian Detroit United Group.
Of course, anyone today can guess that things did not go well for the bank. After all, the building opened its doors in spring of 1929, right before the Great Depression. By 1932, the bank had gone into receivership. The Guardian went through several different owners since then and is currently owned by the Sterling Group. The Cathedral of Finance still holds up to its name, however, as Bank of America has a large presence on the first floor, along with a cafe, Pure Detroit and another small shop. It may not see quite the hustle and bustle it once did, but it is far from one of the Detroit stereotype of a empty, abandoned building.
Well, I have somehow already written 500 words without mentioning a thing about the design of the building itself. And I certainly have a few things to say about it! The Guardian is, in a word, gorgeous. It is an Art Deco masterpiece, covered in intricate tile and metal work, stunning statuary, and beautiful stained glass. The first half of the tour was outside, as we viewed the exterior and talked about the surrounding neighborhood. The Guardian was built of brick, an unusual choice for Art Deco skyscrapers (the orange color of the bricks was dubbed Guardian Brick). However, brick is cheaper than limestone or granite, allowing more money to be spent on design. There was so much tile work on both the exterior and interior that four different companies were used, Pewabic from Detroit, Flint Faiance (who I’ve mentioned on here before) Rookwood out of Cincinnati, and The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company. Sculptures adorning the exterior were designed by Italian Corrado Parducci. Two large figures flank the entrance, representing Strength and Security, were intended to signal to the masses that this was a safe place to keep your money. Although the symbolism is a bit ironic considering the fate of the original bank, the statues are still impressive.
Beautiful as the exterior is, it is outshone by the interior. More colorful tiles adorns the walls, along with two types of rare marble. There is black marble from Belgium and red from Tunisia – from a closed mine Rowland convinced to reopen just long enough to get some marble for his new building. Much of the design, as is common in Art Deco, was inspired by Native American art. Our tour guide explained that part of the impetus for this homage was a distaste for European influence after the violence of World War I. Americans began to look for more homegrown forms of art, and thus turned towards Native Americans art, particularly the Aztecs and Mayans of Central America. The result is geometric patterns along with Native American symbolism and figures.
The main floor has an ornately painted ceiling that is actually made of a woven horsehair canvas. This canvas helps muffle sound, a necessity in a banking environment. It also features a large mural of Michigan, painted by Ezra Winter, depicting the state’s main industries including manufacturing, agriculture and mining. Considering maps, Michigan and history are among my favorite things, I’m pretty much in love with this mural.
Rowland put an Art Deco touch on every detail. Take a look at these pictures of the elevators, and the bottom of an original bank table pulled out of storage by Bank of America.
Sadly, unlike the Fisher Building tour, we did not get the chance to go upstairs and take a look around. Fun as that would have been, I’m still very satisfied with the tour. I love getting the chance to learn about all the amazing architecture in Detroit and learn a bit about the city’s history at the same time. Pure Detroit still has one more tour I haven’t done yet about all the Detroit skyscrapers – I’m sure I’ll make it to that one sometime!