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

The Guardian Building
Photos by Michael G. Smith

When discussing architects that made the biggest impact on Detroit, Wirt Rowland needs to be included in the discussion. Designing Detroit: Wirt Rowland and the Rise of Modern American Architecture, written by architectural historian Michael G. Smith and released by Wayne State University Press this spring, covers the architect’s career and contribution to Detroit architecture.

Photo by Michael G. Smith

Best known for designing the Penobscot Buildings and the Guardian Building, Rowland’s influence can be traced into his early work with Albert Kahn. While Kahn was working on running his firm, Rowland served as chief designer. Many buildings during this time were built to be more specialized in function, and Rowland explored new design methods, color, and symmetry that are highly recognizable today.

Before Rowland created his own firm, he designed many notable buildings in Detroit. In 1915, he designed the T.B. Rayl Building at 1400 Woodward while working for Baxter, O’Dell, and Halpin. This building is now being converted into the Shinola Hotel.

Some of the work designed by Rowland for Kahn’s firm includes the General Motors Building in New Center. Rowland designed the layout and exterior design, which allowed for much more light into the offices because of its unique design.

General Motors Building
Photo by Michael G. Smith

Rowland designed many buildings around the state for Michigan Bell, including these in Detroit.

Michigan Bell Madison at East Bethune and John R
Photo by Michael G. Smith
The tower from the Michigan Bell and Western Electric Warehouse
Photo by Michael G. Smith
Michigan Bell Vinewood central office building
Photo by Michael G. Smith

The symmetry in his designs can be seen in the details, notably here on a manhole cover and in the Michigan Bell Warehouse entrance (compared to the Chrysler Building).

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

Designing Detroit goes into extensive detail into Rowland’s life and work in Detroit and throughout the country. It’s available through Wayne State University Press.