This Is The Only Beautiful Architecture Left In Crumbling Detroit


Although Detroit has recently looked like it was hit by a convoy of miles of Firenados, there are still signs of architectural grandeur that illustrate why it was once known as the Paris of the Midwest.

Perhaps this faded beauty is nowhere more tangible than in the large format photography of Philip Jarmain, a Vancouver-born man who photographed Detroit’s lofty buildings for three years, sometimes just months before they were bulldozed.

Jarmain may be from Canada, but he has centuries-old Detroit family ties and extreme respect for the place.

“At one point this was probably the most important city in the world in terms of innovation, craftsmanship, and manufacturing,” he says, adding that one of his childhood heroes was Henry Ford. “It was just an amazing city in the early 1900s, and obviously things went terribly sideways at some point.”


Lee Plaza.

Philip Jarmain

When the 41-year-old commercial photographer heard annoying rumble noises in 2008, he decided to venture south to document the city’s Art Deco and neoclassical past before something terrible happened (well, even more terrible than the civil unrest and urban decay ). So he joined local historian Sean Doerr of Buildings of Detroit and went in search of “legendary masterpieces of Detroit architecture” hidden in a crumbling labyrinth of 80,000 to 100,000 abandoned buildings.

The search became more urgent when he found that many of his subjects were being eliminated by demolition teams trying to reduce the city’s expensive footprint (not to mention what he thought were bored teenagers who started fires). “It’s just sad because it’s so beautiful that it contains some of the best examples of early 20th-century architecture in any city in North America,” he says. “Plus, it can probably compete with Baghdad in terms of burned-out structures.”

While many photographers rushed to Detroit, attracted by the so-called “ruin porn” that lures sightseers to the Chernobyl wastelands, Jarmain’s mission is a little different. He wants to keep these venues as accurate and detailed as possible so that future generations can look back in amazement at how bright the city shone. For this reason, he lugs a sophisticated Dutch cambo camera and Schneider lenses from Germany. “These pictures are 5 feet by 7 feet,” he says. “It’s the best camera system out there.”


Highland Park Police Station (demolished in 2012).

Philip Jarmain

The fruits of his nine trips to Detroit are now hanging on the walls of the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco for the show “American Beauty: The Opulent Pre-Depression Architecture of Detroit”. The exhibition focuses on the more haunted and rotted carcasses in his oeuvre, though some of what he photographed has since been turned into functioning spaces. Jarmain points out that several startups have also invested in Detroit, including luxury watch company Shinola, a designer of an electric Tesla-like vehicle called the SP01, an Art Nouveau bicycle manufacturer, and others.

“Despite all the bankruptcy hype, Detroit was able to return for the first time in 50 years,” he says. “So I’m an optimist.”


Belle Isle Aquarium.

Philip Jarmain


Woodward Presbyterian.

Philip Jarmain


Michigan Central.

Philip Jarmain


Mackenzie High School (demolished in 2012).

Philip Jarmain


The German house.

Philip Jarmain


The farewell building.

Philip Jarmain

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The Meridian Gallery in San Francisco at 535 Powell St. will display these images through October 20 ...


Dusty Kennedy