The Penobscot Building Defined Detroit’s Skyline

Detroit Once Had the World’s Eighth Tallest Building

Peeking just ten feet over the Washington Monument and towering 89 feet above the Book Tower, Detroit’s previous tallest building, the Penobscot Building became Detroit’s tallest building and the world’s eighth tallest when it opened in 1928. 

The Greater Penobscot Building, as it was originally known, rises 566 feet from the ground to the top of the parapet above the highest roof. The colorful metal beacon sits another 90 feet above the parapet. Designed by Wirt C. Rowland, Head Designer of Detroit architecture firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, the building became a potent symbol of the opulence and economic might of Detroit in the early 20th century. 

Developer Simon J. Murphy built the original 13-story Penobscot Building at 131 W. Fort Street in 1905. He employed the Detroit architecture firm of Donaldson and Meier to design the structure. Eleven years later, Murphy’s son William then had Donaldson and Meier design a much larger, 24-story annex on Congress Street, behind the original building. Both phases are still standing and connect directly to the 1928 tower.

For the 1928 section, Rowland designed an H-shaped tower that went straight up for 30 floors, with a series of setbacks reminiscent of New York’s contemporary skyscrapers above that. Rowland rejected the Italian Renaissance stylings of the previous Penobscot Building sections, opting instead for the streamlined forms and stylized ornament of the Art Deco style, with Corrado Parducci’s carved Native American motifs adorning the façade and common interior spaces. 

In fact those Native American motifs are a nod to Murphy himself. He grew up in the woods of Maine and began his career there, working in the lumber industry along the Penobscot River, which was named for the Penobscot tribe that had lived in the area as well. 

Look up above the fifth floor level of the façade and you’ll see a chevron design wrapping around the building, representing the Penobscot River. Two floors above that, the band of vertical details symbolizes the logs that would be floated down the river to saw mills to be turned into usable lumber. 

Between those two bands, you’ll also see swastikas in the window spandrels. Versions of that symbol have been used by civilizations worldwide for at least 3,000 years. Here again they, along with the many chiefs’ heads and other similar ornamentation are meant to evoke the Penobscot tribe and Native Americans in general, a popular design theme at the time.

The Penobscot Building proclaimed Detroit’s place in the world and defined the city’s skyline for decades. With today’s race to the sky among office towers though, it scarcely registers as a tall building. But it still remains a local icon and home to a revived Caucus Club restaurant, the Smart Detroit business center, law firms, retailers and more in just over 1,000,000 square feet. 

You can see all this for yourself and learn tons more on one of Pure Detroit’s free tours of the Guardian Building on Saturdays at 11:00 am and 1:00 and 3:00 pm and on Sundays at noon and 2:00 pm.

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