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Skyscraper exhibit celebrates Wirt Rowland


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JOHN GALLAGHER: Skyscraper exhibit celebrates the man who designed the Penobscot, the Buhl and the Guardian

July 13, 2004



Something clicked in Detroit in the 1920s, and in a handful of years, much of the city's modern urban landscape took shape.

Even now, we think of the '20s as Detroit's Golden Age of architecture -- a time when the Guardian, Penobscot, Fisher and other skyscrapers pierced the clouds; when Henry Ford completed his Rouge complex; when the Detroit Institute of Arts opened its splendid new building, when an exponentially expanding Detroit unfurled toward the horizon as never before.

It was a busy age, but quality counted even more than quantity. The milestones of that period were not just taller or covered more square footage than what came before. The newer buildings were sleeker, jazzier, more efficient. Gone were the blocky Victorian buildings slathered with ornament like wedding cakes; in their place came slim, tapering silhouettes for skyscrapers, and an industrial aesthetic that married art and machine in one.

Remarkably, a relative handful of people were responsible for this outpouring of creative work. Some of the names are familiar -- Ford himself, of course, and his architect, Albert Kahn. But perhaps the most important genius of that age has been largely forgotten, and is just now the subject of an exhibit at the Guardian Building downtown that strives, somewhat against the odds, to give him his due.

Wirt Rowland was a warm-hearted man of humor and intelligence, but he did have his quirks. One of the highest-paid architects in Detroit, he lived alone in a rooming house on the east side, never marrying. He seems to have favored hot new cars, but he never learned to drive, relying on chauffeurs. Unlike Kahn, an astute businessman as well as a brilliant designer, Rowland cared not so much for balance sheets and bank accounts, except that they allowed him to travel. He lived for his work.

His career spanned more than 40 years, from the opening of the 20th Century until his death in 1946. He trained early with the then-dean of Detroit architecture, George Mason, and later worked at Kahn's office, helping craft such landmarks as Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. But in 1922, when he was in his mid-40s, he went to work for Detroit's powerhouse firm, Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, as chief designer. And there his talent blossomed as never before.

In the space of a couple of years, Rowland turned out the Buhl Building, the Penobscot and the Guardian. From one to the next you can see his ideas about skyscraper design growing and changing.

Up until then, tall buildings were just slighter higher versions of smaller buildings, with flat roofs and heavy cornices that held down the visual energy like a heavy hand. Tentatively at the Buhl Building, then with growing confidence at the Penobscot and Guardian, Rowland allowed the towers rise to a more natural peak, cut way back on the ornamentation and created a more open, rational interior plan that favored an easy flow of foot traffic.

How did all this happen so fast? Clearly Detroit was surging with creative energy just then, benefiting from all the new fortunes being made in the automobile industry, and acting like a beacon for talented people who could design an engine, blow a tune through a horn and muscle steel beams into place. And the city's relatively compact size - it would be years yet before Detroit filled out its borders to 8 Mile Road - concentrated much of the creativity on the downtown core.

The Guardian was perhaps the most remarkable of Rowland's work. He understood, before most architects, that a new car culture would change not only our mode of transit but our way of life. So he designed the bold brick and tile designs on the exterior of the Guardian not to be viewed up close at leisure, as a pedestrian might, but as oversized bold shapes to be glimpsed from a passing vehicle.

One of the tragedies of Rowland's career is that the Depression cut short almost all construction work for more than a decade. Workers put down their tools; draftsmen left plans unfinished on drawing tables. Smith, Hinchman quickly shrank from hundreds of workers to fewer than 10, and Rowland found himself adrift, out of a job, broke and without a clue what to do about it.

Some Detroit architects of that time managed well enough. Detroit's great theater designer, C. Howard Crane, moved to England and made a second career designing British factories. Kahn's office built steel mills and auto factories in the Soviet Union. And so on. But Rowland struggled with underemployment until a friend took him in and gave him a few more years of working life. His final achievement was to draw the original plans for the Kirk in the Hills church in Bloomfield Hills.

It's tempting to think what more Rowland would have achieved for Detroit had not his career and the city's economic life been stilled for so long by the Depression. The Penobscot was so different from the Buhl, and the Guardian so different from both, that it's no telling where Rowland's keen mind would have taken him next.

Contact JOHN GALLAGHER at 313-222-5173 or [email protected]


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The attention to detail, both inside and out, on his buildings is amazing! I got to see the exhibit a few weeks ago inside the Gaurdian. If you really want to see this exhibit, this is place! And with it only being down there for the month of July, your time is running out. Where it goes next, I don't know.

Although there isn't a whole lot there, its is definitely worth stopping in for. If you go down there though, don't be discouraged by the contruction, you will still be able to enter the building. They have several publications which you can pick up which give some insight. Also, the lobby is under renovation, be you'll quickly see why it was labled the cathedral of comerce! All of this truly makes this trip worth while.

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I'm going downtown on Tuesday, and this is one stop my friend and I intend to make. It's in the Guardian during July, and then moves to the lobby of the Penobscot Building during August. I can't remember where the exhibit is moving to after that.

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