Wirt Rowland’s architectural impact explored in ‘Designing Detroit’


When discussing architects who had the greatest influence on Detroit, landlord Rowland must be included in the discussion. Designing Detroit: Host Rowland and the Rise of Modern American Architecture, written by architectural historian Michael G. Smith and published by Wayne State University Press this spring, covers the architect’s career and contribution to architecture in Detroit.

Photo by Michael G. Smith

Rowland’s influence, best known for the design of the Penobscot Buildings and the Guardian Building, can be traced back to his early work with Albert Kahn. Rowland served as chief designer while Kahn was managing his company. Many buildings during this period were built to specialize in function, and Rowland explored new design methods, colors, and symmetries that are very recognizable today.

Before Rowland started his own company, he designed many notable buildings in Detroit. In 1915 he designed the TB Rayl Building at 1400 Woodward while working for Baxter, O’Dell and Halpin. This building is now being converted into the Shinola Hotel.

One of the work Rowland designed for Kahn’s company is the General Motors Building in New Center. Rowland created the layout and exterior design which, due to its unique design, let in much more light into the offices.

General Motors Building photo by Michael G. Smith

Rowland designed many buildings across the state for Michigan Bell, including this one in Detroit.

Michigan Bell Madison in East Bethune and John R Photo by Michael G. Smith

The Tower from the Michigan Bell and the Western Electric Warehouse Photo by Michael G. Smith

Michigan Bell Vinewood Central Office Building Photo by Michael G. Smith

The symmetry in his designs is evident in the details, especially here on a manhole cover and in the entrance to the Michigan Bell Warehouse (compared to the Chrysler Building).

The book goes into great detail about the design work of one of the most famous and unique buildings in Detroit: the Union Trust or Guardian Building.

Designing Detroit details Rowland’s life and work in Detroit and across the country. It is available through Wayne State University Press.


Dusty Kennedy