Detroit needs a PR team. The whole fucking city. This place has been the butt of jokes my entire life. From Eminem to Insane Clown Posse, Detroit has been portrayed as a festering cesspit of white trashiness, rampant violence, mismanaged government and urban blight. A city so shitty that buying a house here was akin to buying a boat anchor. Someone let me believe for 37 years that Detroit was just a shitty mid-western crumbletown where one goes to get murdered and bankrupted.
Then I come here and my kind friend Alex takes me out to go look at buildings. She doesn’t hype them up or anything. Just says, I wanna show you a couple things. And so we ventured into downtown Detroit on a Monday night and if you hurry up, you can still scoop up pieces of my mind still scattered around the lonely streets as it was sufficiently blown.
The Guardian is a government building. It houses government offices. I tried to charm the security guard into telling me more things about the higher floors, but he didn’t find me interesting or charming. He said the ground floor was the most interesting thing about it, but I find that hard to believe. The thing I learned about standing inside the great art deco masterpieces of Detroit’s skyline, is that there is intense intricate beauty in tiny little insignificant corners in all of these buildings. The attention to detail isn’t just impressive, it’s oppressive.
Standing in the lobby of the Guardian is like standing next to a raging bonfire. It’s impressive in its scale and beauty. But imagine if around that bonfire were other tiny little matches, each one burning a different color flame. 90% of everyone would never even notice those matches. They’d be staring at the beauty that is the 20 foot raging fire. But these buildings (I’ll talk about some others in a minute) aren’t just singularly impressive. They offer multitudes. Look.
Every single thing about this picture is impressive. The scale, the craftsmanship. The tile work. The ironwork on that divider/gate is insane. But look closer and you’ll see the attention to detail in the way the brick and tile tuck into the entrances and off into the elevator halls. Those little bricks and tiles hint at the subtle, secret opulence.
WHO THE FUCK DOES THIS? Why the fuck would you go through the time and effort to beautifully design the elevator doors. They’re functional pieces, and yet, every little bit is custom and gorgeous. The whole building is an assault on the senses and then, even something as pedestrian as an elevator door gets this kind of treatment?
This brings me to the next building on the tour. The Penobscot Building.
This building was designed by the same fucking weirdo that designed the Guardian. His name is Wirt Rowland and he is Kelly Rowland’s great-great-grandfather (this is not actually true). So, I normally associate the Arts and Crafts movement with Frank Lloyd Wright and Mid-Century Modern but Detroit blew my fucking mind by having Arts and Crafts inspired art deco. I couldn’t believe it, but seeing Wirt’s interpretation of an otherwise Parisian art, it really tied the vertical grandiosity of art deco with the horizontal sophistication of MCM. I could see the linear path and the missing link for the first time ever.
Now it was around this time that my brain exploded out of my earholes and trickled out of my eye sockets, forever changing me as a human being. So, where do we begin? Look at the front of the Penobscot building. Scroll up and look again. You see the Native American chief, the huge opening with the doors and those long windows. You see the intricate metal work and the engraved symbols on the building facade. But, it’s like a fractal kaleidoscope, the more you look, the more you see.
Above each door is a light. And that light is set in a brass panel that looks like this:
And as you look closer you see the two Native chiefs. You see the Thunderbird. I have never seen art deco designs with Native American themes, but there is. And it’s glorious. But it’s also super fucking weird and that’s why I love it so much. What the actual fuck?
Look closer at the building and you’ll see the flag poles. But they’re not just shoved in some holders on the front of the building. Nope. More weird ass brass shit:
These are three stories up on a busy street. Who the fuck is ever going to see these? But look at them. They’re beautiful.
Normally, WTF Wednesday is for terrible design trends that I don’t understand. But this is something different. This is probably the most WTF moment I’ve ever had. So let’s venture further into the Penobscot and see if it’s also insane.
Yup. It’s still stupid. It’s way more subtle than the Guardian, but only in color palette. The tile inlays on the floor are perfectly laid out, and that blue/turquoise really makes the room pop. The intricate, but still symmetrical scalloped ceiling is beautiful. Those light fixtures are gorgeous and each one would be an artistic feature, but, if you look at their reflection, you’ll see a distinctive shape reminiscent of a Native American Thunderbird. Amazing.
Further down this hall you get to the elevators. Guess what?
You can’t just casually drop black marble and deep gold brass elevator doors, carved with that perfect art deco symmetry. It’s not fair. I’m only one person with a brain that can only take in so much information. But then you go ahead and beautifully design the panel around the elevator indicator lights? Are you an aesthetic sadist? I get it, you’re the fucking king, Wirt. Save some pussy for the rest of us. God damn.
But you wanna know when I figured out that Wirt Rowland was a fucking asshole? I captured the exact moment. Here it is. Now you can be JUST as mad as me.
This is the mailbox on the wall.
I’m… Okay look. This is what I was trying to point out. The thing that has really blown me away about Detroit’s take on art deco, isn’t the beautiful buildings, or the artistic flair. All of those are impressive, but comprehensible. It’s that every little corner of the space was seen as a moment to impress, and yet when we think of art deco we think large, vertical clean lines and punishing mathematical symmetry.
Then I come to Detroit expecting to see a bombed out hellscape, and I see more impressive works of art in two hours than I’ve ever seen before. And they’re not just impressive, they’re unfathomable. How the fuck did they do any of this, in the 1920s without a single computer chip. When motors were loud, clunky, low powered machines. How did any of this happen?
Look, Detroit still has it’s problems, and one of the saddest things about seeing all this beauty is thinking about how much of it was lost due to neglect and apathy. But, this is not some dying city with a long gone heyday. This is a vibrant community full of people who fiercely love it, and some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. I literally can’t do any of it justice in pictures. Detroit’s a city on the way up. It has an embarrassment of riches still.
There’s the sense that around every single corner, you will stumble into a building that is so crammed full of beautiful ideas that you could spend all day in the lobby and not see everything. Getting to spend some time in these buildings was like standing inside Wirt’s brain and him grinning confidently at me, showing me all his coolest stuff.
So, here’s my love letter to Detroit, and here’s my love letter to art deco, and here’s a bunch of words describing how impressed I am. Don’t sleep on Detroit. Plane tickets are 9 dollars and the people mover is 75 cents. I only showed you two buildings. The opera house is gorgeous. The GM Renaissance Center is disorientingly beautiful and modern. Greektown is hip and warm. The parks are pretty and full of light and art.
Detroit, in many ways, felt like meeting an old friend you never fully appreciated and finally getting to see in the right light. It’s getting the chance to fall in love, for the first time when you didn’t think that was possible again. I am one of the luckiest people to have a friend who lives here and showed me around. I’m so lucky to have gotten to go to Detroit on a work trip, in the middle of October, and have the warm weather hold out for just enough time to really get to see something special.
I’m impressed with you Detroit, and that’s not an easy feat these days. I need to be less cynical. You got a lot to be proud of Michigan. I’m rooting for you.