Detroit’s Best Architecture – Thrillist

In December 2015, Detroit was added to the UNESCO Network for Creative Cities as a City of Design. It is the first and only American city to be designated a City of Design. This is a big deal. Detroit’s diverse collection of skyscrapers from the 19th and 20th centuries, centuries-old industrial buildings and historic private houses certainly played a role in this.

Detroit has an inventory of architectural marvels from some of the greatest names of the past two centuries: Albert Kahn, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Minoru Yamasaki, Daniel Burnham and Frank Lloyd Wright. Yamasaki used its One Woodward design as a template for the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Mies van der Rohe imagined the country’s first urban renewal project, with which the middle class in the city should live in the idyllic Lafayette Park. Albert Kahn, known as “the Architect of Detroit”, produced more buildings than any other architect in his life.

Detroit also has dramatic Gothic churches and beautifully landscaped centuries-old cemeteries, quaint historic neighborhoods with Victorian mansions from the 19th and mid-19th centuries[20th]20th century modern townhouses and a remarkable collection of public art ranging from massive metal sculptures (“The Spirit of Detroit,” Joe Louis “Fist,” “Transcending” in Hart Plaza) to artist-run murals and constantly evolving installation projects that encompass entire city blocks.

It’s not easy to single out just seven of Detroit’s man-made wonders, but these stand out even among the extraordinary.

Belle Isle Conservatory

Belle Isle

The conservatory and aquarium were completed in 1904; built by Albert Kahn Associates
While Frederick Law Olmsted’s connection to Belle Isle tends to steal the limelight (he designed some of the features, including the canals), Albert Kahn-designed Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory is an architectural marvel in its own right. Inside is a true paradise that offers tropical relaxation from Michigan’s typically harsh winters in five different greenhouse sections. The 985 acre park also features the James Scott Memorial Fountain, Belle Isle Casino, Nature Zoo, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Detroit Yacht Club, Athletic Field and Field House, natural forests and wetlands, the only public beach in the City and the not so secret “Hipster Beach”. The Kahn-designed Belle Isle Aquarium by Beaux Arts, which closed in 2005 when it was the oldest continuously operating aquarium in North America, officially reopened on Fridays and Saturdays this summer.Flickr / Michigan Municipal League

The Detroit Institute of Arts

Completed in 1927; built by Paul Philippe Cret
In the darkest days of Detroit’s record breaking bankruptcy, it seemed like the DIA’s near-priceless collection was at stake. A 2014 valuation of the museum’s 65,000-piece collection found it to be valued at around $ 8.1 billion. This shows that it is not entirely “priceless”, but it is certainly very valuable. Fortunately, the collection was saved from the auction block, and Detroit has one of the largest, most significant, and extensive art collections in the country. The anchor institution of the historic district of the Midtown Cultural Center was built in 1927 and designed by Paul Philippe Cret in the neoclassical Italian Renaissance Beaux-Arts style. Spanning 658,000 square feet with over 100 galleries, its numerous assets include a series of five massive Diego Rivera murals collectively titled “Detroit Industry” or “Man and Machine” and the Detroit Film Theater designed by C. Howard Crane. It is also one of the most visited museums in the world.Flickr / Jess

The Masonic Temple

Completed in 1926; built by George D. Mason
The 14-story neo-Gothic Masonic Temple is located in the former Cass Corridor and is the largest Masonic temple in the world. It is still home to many Masonic organizations in Detroit. But that’s not all – since 2011 the Masonic Temple has hosted the lavish annual Halloween festival Theater Bizarre, which describes itself as “the greatest masquerade in the world” and is rightly considered one of the best costumed Halloween celebrations in the world the country. The labyrinthine building from 1926 is an ideal location for the event. It offers elaborate set pieces that are reminiscent of carnival freak shows of the turn of the century and more than a bit of Masonic mysticism. The temple made headlines in 2013 when former Detroit resident Jack White saved it from tax foreclosure and got its name at the Cathedral Theater (now the Jack White Theater). It’s also the end point of the annual Marche du Nain Rouge, Detroit’s unique parade of revelers who march every spring to drive the fiendish red dwarf out of Detroit.Flickr / Thomas Hawk

The guard building

Completed in 1929; built by landlord C. Rowland for Smith, Hinchman & Grylls
Of all the skyscrapers of the early 20th century that still stand in Detroit, the 40-story Guardian Building is the (almost) universal favorite. The building itself, a national historic landmark also known as the “Cathedral of Finance,” is the attraction you need – the Art Deco meets Mayan Revival style features orange brickwork with tile, limestone, and terracotta on the outside. The interior is a multicolored mosaic of Pewabic and Rookwood tiles with Native American motifs, which honestly feel a little more suitable for the Southwest than the Midwest, which makes the Guardian all the more different from the other skyscrapers of its time. Stone carvings by Corrado Parducci with the allegorical figures “Sicherheit” and “Sicherheit” flank the entrance to Griswold St. of the building. The three-story lobby is adorned with various rare marbles imported from Italy, Belgium and Africa. The designer, landlord C. Rowland, who also designed the Buhl and Penobscot buildings, was extremely fond of detail, which is documented in historic Detroit with an equally fond attention to detail. The building also hosts one of Pure Detroit’s most popular weekend architecture tours (schedules can be found here). Rowland Café may not have the best coffee in town, but it’s certainly one of the best places to have a cup as it’s under the arched mezzanine of the impressive building.Flickr / Thomas Hawk

The renaissance center

Completed in 1981; built by John Portman & Associates
If you find the layout of the GM Renaissance Center daunting, blame postmodernism. Or more precisely, blame the aesthetic populism of the time, which dictated the need that those forced to go to the city should not have to deal with the city in any way. If you’ve ever wondered why the RenCen feels like an island fortress, this is why, and yes, it was by design. The cluster of seven interconnected skyscrapers is so large it has its own zip code, and the central tower was once the tallest skyscraper of any hotel with the tallest restaurant in the western hemisphere (those records have now been broken, but it’s still darned tall ). The renovations over the past decade have opened the RenCen more to the public. That includes the five-story, glass-enclosed Wintergarden atrium overlooking the Detroit River and GM Plaza & Promenade and the Detroit Riverwalk, a public facility that is itself one of the best ideas the city tour ever had (not listed here, there there are many urban river walks in the country here and most of them are very nice too). Even so, the RenCen is still more impressive on the outside than it is on the inside, but without it it is impossible to imagine the Detroit skyline. Russell Industrial Center

The Russell Industrial Center (RIC)

Completed in 1925; built by Albert Kahn Associates
Large history preservation and adaptive reuse projects are neither new nor unique to Detroit. While many such projects have sprung from the collapsed shipping industry across North America, in Detroit’s automotive history in the first quarter of the 20th century massive industrial buildings spanning millions of square feet were erected that are now given a new lease of life. Most of these were built by Albert Kahn Associates, including the infamous Packard factory (which is currently going through its own Reno / Demo) and the 100-year-old Russell Industrial Center. The RIC complex with seven buildings covers 2.2 million square meters and more than one million square meters have been renovated as studio space. The Arts Building houses over 140 artist studios, making it the largest arts center in the Midwest. There is also an exhibition center that has been used to shoot big budget films such as the highly anticipated Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice film.Flickr / Daniel Epstein

John K. King Used & Rare Books

Completed in 1905; built by Stratton & Baldwin
This is certainly the outlier of this list. It’s not a flashy skyscraper or sprawling art destination – actually it’s a sprawling art destination, just literary. The 1905 building was originally designed as a dry goods wholesale factory but has been home to John K. King Used & Rare Books since 1984. The store carries over a million titles wall-to-wall filled with used and rare books and has been featured as one of the best bookstores in the world in national media such as Salon and Business Insider. The rundown exterior and harsh environment hide one of the most impressive and extensive collections of retail books in the country and truly is one of Detroit’s cultural gems.

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Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance travel and culture writer who moved to Las Vegas over two years ago. During this time, she gained a whole new appreciation for Detroit’s obsession with losing architectural names.


Dusty Kennedy