During the Gilded Age, the auto industry boomed and money and people flowed to Detroit, then called the “Paris of the West.” It quickly rose to be the most powerful city in the nation outside New York, and its architecture reflected that. Those designers, artists, and tycoons putting up Oz-like buildings made sure to carve out lobbies that struck visitors straightaway and represented Detroit’s excess.
Sadly, many of the lobbies fell victim to the economic decline and horrifying shift in tastes that called for drop ceilings, carpeting, and other ludicrous “updates.”
Those days are now over, and we’ve entered into an era for renewed appreciation for original craftsmanship. Moreover, once-derelict buildings like the David Whitney are being brought back online. Its $92 million renovation included the restoration of marble, terracotta, and mahogany features that fill the dramatic four-story lobby. The Whitney’s lobby, like those of Detroit’s other early 20th century skyscrapers, is once again appreciated, serving as a window into a different Detroit.
Few spaces in the world offer an experience that could best be described as psychedelic. The Guardian Building’s lobby is among them. Architect Wirt Rowland set out to create the “Cathedral of Finance” in the 40-story art deco skyscraper and an appropriate new home for the powerful Union Trust & Co. bank in 1929.
Veering away from the stately columns and archways preferred by the era’s designers, Rowland drew his inspiration from Europe’s great cathedrals, Michigan’s Native American motifs, and Aztec culture. Trading in a world of geometry with a rainbow palette, Rowland interlocked intricate, repetitive patterns and details across the room’s ceilings, walls, doors, and floors to orchestrate an epic deco world.
On the lobby’s north end, the hexagonal and diamond grill work patterns in the Griswold Street window are surrounded by multicolored tile work that invokes a headdress. That bookends the 150-foot, 3-story lobby with a similarly patterned Monel metal screen in the portal to the adjacent banking hall. The vaulted ceiling is flanked by notched archways, all of which explode in color. The busy, interlocking Rookwood tile work patterns flow and roll across the lobby ceiling, and Rowland floods it with all the color spectrum’s increments.
That’s just the ceiling. The architect brought in rare Belgian black and Italian Travertine and blood-red Numidian marble for the columns, walls, and floors. A large Ezra Winter glass mosaic of a pine tree and text declares the Guardian’s fiscal purpose, and six-foot stained glass pieces in the short elevator hallways represent Fidelity.
It’s visually symphonic, though it’s also worth noting the aural experience. Noise in the Guardian’s lobby is surprisingly subdued because a 3/4-inch mat of horsehair covers the ceiling, adding to the surreal experience.
No lobby in Detroit is visually more intricate than that of the Fisher Building. The seven Fisher brothers sought to put the excess and wealth of 1920s Detroit, as well as their collective ego, on clear display in the 3-story, L-shaped, barrel-vaulted lobby. As one critic wrote in1929, the Fisher “would dazzle the most jaded Roman emperor.” The auto tycoon brothers also intended to send another resounding message with their 29-story building: “The industrial and financial importance of this city will constantly increase.”
That didn’t go as expected, but the building stands as a masterpiece. The Fishers gave designer Albert Khan a blank check, and he used it to carve the floors, walls, and columns out of a mix of 52 now rare and extinct marbles. Ultimately, it’s the rich symbolism in the frescoes, mosaics, sculptures, and metalwork that are most impressive. Artist Geza Maroti and famed Detroit sculptor Corrado Parducci focused on 26 “themes” that celebrate industry, arts, and culture.
On different parts of the ceiling, for example, 60 individual cherubs frolic in hemlocks and among the fruits that represent agriculture. Hummingbirds, owls, koi fish, macaws, and more are carved into the bronze elevator doors. Mercury, the god of transportation, can be found embedded in a mural on the floor. One set of stretch-winged eagles represents American patriotism, while others represent the eagles of Zeus and Detroit’s golden age of power.
Cadillac Place – or the former General Motors Building and former Durant Building – isn’t flashy like some of its contemporaries. However, Albert Khan crafted a no-less-impressive dignified and stately world in the main lobby off Grand Boulevard. Its colors are subdued, the light is low and the Romanesque design is dignified. That’s perhaps appropriate for welcoming the state of Michigan employees and Gov. Rick Snyder, whose Detroit office is atop the building.
The floors, walls, and columns are a mix of marbles that was de rigueur in the early 20th century lobbies. Khan used Tennessee and Italian Tavernelle for this project. An enormous, globular iron chandelier hangs just inside the Grand Boulevard entrance. It holds a zodiac motif, as do the frescoes adorning the wall.
The 3-story lobby/arcade is capped with a half-barrel ceiling displaying intricate, repetitive wood work and elaborate floral frescoes. The highly detailed pattern stretches the length of the 500-foot lobby, and the teal and red-orange color scheme is a unique choice in Detroit.
Perhaps the most underrated lobby in the city is that of yet another Detroit Albert Khan-designed, art deco building. The former Detroit-power family built it in 1927 to house the Knights of Maccabees, a fraternal organization that would later establish the Royal Maccabees Insurance Company for its 200,000 members.
The Maccabees Building’s radio and television studios broadcast the Lone Ranger, Soupy Sales, and Green Hornet, but the Knights bolted for the burbs in the 1960s. Detroit Public Schools moved in and brought with it the drop ceilings and marble-covering carpet that were en vogue at the time.
For those that recall when smoking was allowed inside, the tens of thousands of glass pieces were so stained with nicotine that a two-man crew was forced to scrub each individual tile to clean the ceiling in 2002.
Its features stayed hidden until Wayne State purchased the building that same year and undertook a significant restoration effort. Now, one enters the 2-story, “L”-shaped lobby from Woodward or Farnsworth to find a small galaxy of glass tiles twinkling from the ceiling. Across the ceiling’s lengths are an elaborate purple and gold floral pattern, and magnificent iron chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Its mosaics form bee hives, palm trees, deer drinking from a stream, squirrels holding golden leaves, and bending swans meant to represent the themes of early 20th century Detroit – power, prosperity, and peace.