Detroit’s most dazzling historical architecture
The opulent Fox Theatre. Photo courtesy Olympia Entertainment
By Emily Bingham | [email protected]
In the early 20th century, Detroit was establishing itself as a powerhouse of American innovation and industry — and the city’s movers and shakers wanted the architecture to prove that. As the town grew like gangbusters, its builders spared no expense, constructing skyscrapers, theaters, museums and houses of worship that flaunted Detroit’s newfound wealth and cemented its status as a major player among the world’s capitals of commerce and culture.
You might know some of these buildings from their exteriors, but if you’ve never stepped into some of these gems, where intricately designed lobbies and mezzanines glitter like giant jewelry boxes, it’s time to get to know a new side of the city’s history. All of these buildings are either open to the public or accessible via tours. Here’s our guide:
1. Cadillac Place
Formerly known as the General Motors Building, this 15-story office complex opened in 1923 as the original permanent headquarters for GM (which moved to the Renaissance Center in the early 2000’s). The building was designed by famed architect Albert Kahn — known to architectural historians as “the man who built Detroit.” Its glittering lobby is something of a secret in the New Center neighborhood — though the current tenants include a bank and a Secretary of State office, making it one heck of a place to cash a check or renew your license.
Cadillac Place’s vaulted arcade, open to the public, features luxe details like walls of Italian marble and an intricate, historic globe chandelier.
The building was renamed Cadillac Place in 2002 to honor Detroit founder Antoine de Cadillac; it now has a variety of tenants, including a handful of state government agencies.
To visit Cadillac Place
Address: 3044 W Grand Blvd, Detroit
Hours: The lobby is open during typical business hours Monday through Saturday.
(Eye-spy tip: The building was originally intended to be named after GM founder William C. Durant; the name was changed after a company power shift, but by then a “D” had already been carved into the limestone on the front of the building, where it can still be seen today. See if you can spot it.)
2. Detroit Public Library, main branch
The building that houses the heart of Michigan’s largest library network was designed by architect Cass Gilbert, whose impressive portfolio includes the United States Supreme Court Building and the Woolworth Building in Manhattan. In the library’s main hall, white marble walls are capped by an eye-popping barrel-vaulted ceiling; other opulent details throughout the structure include rich, expansive murals, painted glass windows and a fireplace outfitted with tile from Detroit’s historic Pewabic ceramic studio.
Construction of this beauty was kickstarted by a donation from American library philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
It was finished in 1923, though it got a dose of mid-century modern style in the early ’60s with the addition of the north and south wings.
To visit the DPL’s main branch
Address: 5201 Woodward Ave.
Hours: Tues. – Wed., 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.; Thurs. – Sat., 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday
Tip: DPL offers free, one-hour, docent-led tours twice a month. Click here for more info and to register.
3. Fisher Building
The skyscraper known as “Detroit’s largest art object” is impressive from the outside, for sure — it dominates the skyline in Detroit’s New Center neighborhood, standing much taller than any other nearby high-rise. But the interior of this Art Deco behemoth is even more arresting. Inside you’ll find a palatial lobby: intricate tile mosaics, cast bronze details, marble pillars and dazzling glass chandeliers, all beneath a hand-painted vaulted ceiling the Detroit News once called “a mass of gorgeous color, shimmering like the plumage of exotic birds.”
More than 40 kinds of marble were used in the Fisher’s construction, from the floors to walls to window sills.
This Albert Kahn creation was completed in 1928; a year later it was honored with a silver medal from the Architectural League of New York (the coveted gold went to a bank in Philadelphia). [Pictured: The detail on a wall of elevator doors.]
Tanya Moutzalias | MLive Detroit
In February 2017, a massive restoration project began to revive the fading colors of the Fisher lobby’s legendary hand-painted frescos.
To visit the Fisher Building
Address: 3011 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit
Hours: The lobby is open during normal business hours; make sure to walk up to the second-floor mezzanine. Or, sign up for one of Pure Detroit’s free tours (and get access to parts of the building you can’t see on your own).
4. Guardian Building
Not a single detail was spared in the construction of this 1929 Art Deco jaw-dropper, right down to the exterior’s unusual rust-colored bricks — a custom shade named “Guardian brick” by the designer. The breathtaking interior features colorful vaulted ceilings tiled with Aztec designs, columns and walls built with rare black and blood-red marbles, and faux skylights crafted from glass imported from France.
An ornate metal screen and Tiffany clock separate the lobby from a banking hall, which still hosts a bank as well as a cafe. The hall features a hand-painted ceiling and an enormous mural of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
The banking lobby of the Guardian is noticeably quiet, despite its high, vaulted ceiling. So, how are such uncanny acoustics possible? During construction, nearly an inch-thick horsehair mat was laid over the plaster ceiling, and then covered with perforated canvas — all of which was designed to absorb sound.
To visit the Guardian Building
Address: 500 Griswold St., Detroit
Hours: The lobby is open during normal business hours. Or, sign up for one of Pure Detroit’s architectural tours.
5. The Whitney
Nineteenth-century lumber baron David Whitney Jr. was once the richest man in Detroit, and his residence on Woodward Avenue proved it — when adjusted for inflation, the 1894-built home would have cost more than $9 million today. The equivalent of an additional $13.7 million was spent by Whitney’s family to outfit the home with furnishings and artwork.
The sprawling mansion, built with rose-colored granite, has 52 rooms, numerous Tiffany stained-glass windows, oak and mahogany woodwork, and at the center of it all, a grand hall entrance with a bronze balustraded staircase. In 1894, the year construction on the home was finished, the Detroit Free Press called it “the most pretentious modern home in the state and one of the most elaborate houses in the West.”
Whitney only lived in the mansion for six years before he died. In 1941 the family gave the building to the Wayne County Medical Society; in 1957 it was purchased by the Visiting Nurses Association. Since the mid-1980’s, following restoration work, the award-winning Whitney restaurant has called this place home.
To visit the David Whitney House
Address: 4421 Woodward Ave., Detroit
How to visit: To go beyond what you can see while dining in the Whitney, check out the restaurant’s special events, such as paranormal dinners (the mansion is rumored to be haunted) and champagne tours. More info here.
6. David Whitney Building
The centerpiece of this 1915 neo-Renaissance skyscraper (named after the aforementioned lumber baron, but not built for him) is a resplendent four-story atrium lobby constructed with wall-to-wall marble, terra cotta and gold leafing.
According to HistoricDetroit.org, the 18-story building cost $1 million when it was constructed in 1915 — about $22.7 million today.
A $92 million renovation in 2014 saved the landmark from an uncertain future (it had been closed since 1999); it is now home to apartments and a boutique hotel.
To visit the David Whitney Building
Address: 1 Park Ave., Detroit
Hours: The lobby is open 24 hours. Historic architectural tours are sometimes available through the Detroit Historical Society (including one scheduled for May 13, 2017).
Photo courtesy of Olympia Entertainment
7. Fox Theatre
The Fox Theatre opened in 1928 with a silent film — still a novelty in that era, though it’s safe to guess that the first patrons might have been more blown away by the building’s show-stopping interior. Beyond the brass doors awaited a grand six-story lobby stretching a half-block long — but the showpiece here is the exquisite main theater, with accents inspired by Egyptian, Indian and Far Eastern ornamentation.
Courtesy of Olympia Entertainment
Billed as “the most magnificent Temple of Amusement in the World,” the Fox has hosted some of the biggest acts in show business, including Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
Courtesy of Olympia Entertainment
By the late 1980’s, the Fox had become worn out and run down. An 18-month, $12-million restoration spearheaded by the Ilitch family (owners of the Little Caesars pizza chain empire) saved the Fox from further decline and restored it to its original glory.
To visit the Fox Theatre
Address: 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit
Group tours are available through Olympia Entertainment (which owns and operates the Fox) for parties of 15 or more people. Detroit Historical Society has held “behind the scenes” tours of the theater as well.
MLive file photo
8. Belle Isle Aquarium
Stepping into this Belle Isle gem feels like entering a secret sea cave; the arched ceilings are covered with luminous green opalite glass tiles that, when lit from below, give the building’s main gallery an underwater feel. When it first opened in August of 1904, this was the third largest aquarium in the world; more than 5,000 Detroiters lined up to visit on its opening day.
When the aquarium closed, its fate uncertain, in 2005, it had been the longest continuously operating aquarium in the United States. Thanks to efforts from The Belle Isle Conservancy, it reopened in 2012 and is now run by volunteers. It still holds the title for the oldest aquarium in the U.S.
The Baroque-style entrance features carvings of sea creatures, the City of Detroit’s seal, and Neptune, Roman god of the sea.
To visit Belle Isle Aquarium
Address: 900 Inselruhe Ave., Belle Isle State Park, Detroit
The aquarium is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission and parking are free, but all vehicles coming onto the island (which is a state park) must have a Michigan Recreation Passport.
9. McGregor Memorial Conference Center
Tucked away on Wayne State University’s campus, this two-story steel frame and concrete Modernist building is the work of Minoru Yamasaki, the architect best known for designing the original World Trade Center in New York City.
Built in 1958, the two-story Modernist building has a light-infused atrium featuring marble floors and a repeating diamond motif. The structure sits alongside a reflecting pool and sculpture garden.
To visit McGregor Memorial Conference Center
Address: 495 W. Ferry Ave, Detroit
Hours: The building is typically open during business hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday) unless there is an event.
10. Detroit Athletic Club
A trip to see Renaissance architecture in Italy gave architect Albert Kahn the inspiration for this ornate Detroit landmark, which was finished in 1915. For a century it has served as an exclusive social club and members-only gathering place for activities like billiards, bowling, swimming, handball, and more.
The building’s original details and layout — with three distinct areas for socializing, athletics, and residences — have largely remained the same, despite modern upgrades over the past century.
To visit the Detroit Athletic Club
Address: 241 Madison Ave., Detroit
Getting into the Detroit Athletic Club is tricky if you do not belong to the club: The DAC will host tours of the building, but only when organized by a club member. The Detroit Historical Society has offered tours of the DAC building in the past. (Click here for the current DHS list of “behind the scenes” tours.)
11. Maccabees Building
Designed by Albert Kahn, this 14-story structure was once the home of Detroit’s WXYZ — shows like The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet were broadcast from here. This lesser-known building is steps from the Detroit Public Library’s main branch and the DIA, so its lobby is a must-stop on any self-guided architectural tour in Detroit’s Midtown.
The Knights of the Maccabees was a fraternal organization with, for a while, an auxiliary group called Ladies of the Maccabees, whose local clubs were called “hives.” The Ladies and the Knights merged roughly around the time this building was finished, in the late 1920’s.
To visit the Maccabees Building
Address: 5057 Woodward Ave., Detroit
The building is now owned by Wayne State University; the lobby is open during typical business hours.
Courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts
12. Detroit Institute of Arts
This “temple of art” is a work of art in itself: designed by Paul Cret (a French-born architect with nearly a dozen buildings on the National Register), this Beaux-Arts beauty sets a gorgeous backdrop for a world-class art collection with more than 65,000 works.
Photo by Emily Bingham | [email protected]
The historic Great Hall features Pewabic tile inlays in the floor and trompe l’oeil frescos on the ceiling.
Courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts
The museum’s “Detroit Industry” murals, painted by Diego Rivera in the early 1930’s, depict the City’s workforce as well as advances in technology and science. The murals were underwritten in part by Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford. In 2014 they were listed as a National Historic Landmark.
To visit the Detroit Institute of Arts
Address: 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit
Click here for museum hours (the museum is closed on Mondays). In the past, Detroit Historical Society has offered “behind the scenes” tours of the DIA; click here for schedule.
Courtesy Michigan Opera Theatre
13. Detroit Opera House
Originally built in the 1920’s as the Capitol Theatre movie palace, this building re-opened as the Detroit Opera House — home to the Michigan Opera Theatre — in 1996 after extensive renovations. Prior to that, it had sat empty, decaying and open to vandals, for almost a decade.
The Italian Renaissance-style building was originally designed by Detroit’s renowned theater architect, C. Howard Crane, who also designed the Fox and the Fillmore Detroit. Features like a grand staircase and opulent chandelier were inspired by European movie palaces.
To visit the Detroit Opera House
Address: 1526 Broadway St., Detroit
Click here for Detroit Opera House tour information.
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14. Detroit Masonic Temple
George D. Mason, the architect who helped design Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel, also designed this massive landmark — the world’s largest Masonic Temple. Opened in 1926, the neo-Gothic building contains more than 12 million cubic feet of space, with two ballrooms, a 5,000-seat auditorium (with the second-largest stage in the U.S.), a cathedral, multiple lounges, a drill hall — in total, 1,037 rooms.
In 2013, the Masonic Temple was saved from foreclosure when Detroit-born musician Jack White, formerly of the White Stripes, paid $142,000 to cover what the building owed in back taxes. White’s mother had been an usher at the historic venue.
Photo by Stan Wilson, Jr.; courtesy Detroit Masonic Temple
To visit the Detroit Masonic Temple
Address: 500 Temple St., Detroit
Currently, tours are offered on the first and third Sundays of each month at 10 a.m., excluding holidays. Tours must be booked in advance (click here for more info).
Photo by Dick Haefner, courtesy of The Platform
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