Bankers Trust Company Building – Detroit, Michigan
By Michael G. Smith / Photos by Dale Carlson & Michael G. Smith
In an out-of-the-way corner of the Financial District resides one of Detroit’s most delightful architectural masterpieces: The Bankers Trust Company Building. Designed by Wirt C. Rowland, better known for his Buhl, Penobscot and Guardian buildings, this little gem at Shelby and Congress Street was quite revolutionary.
At the time of the building’s completion in 1925, bank architecture was limited to heavy-looking, classical designs. Bankers Trust execs wanted something different. They may have known that their intended location a full block away from the main banking streets of Griswold and Fort and the modest size of the building they had in mind would put them at a competetive disadvantage.
Wirt Rowland, Chief Designer at the architectural firm of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, devised a brilliant solution: a compact building that was beautiful, unorthodox in style and exceptionally welcoming, yet only moderate in cost. In general terms, the building’s style was inspired by architecture of the Italian Renaissance and bears some similarity to buildings designed by 15th-century architect Filippo Brunelleschi.
While it may appear that the building is covered in finely detailed carved stone, the surface is actually comprised of terra cotta, a ceramic product made from soft clay which, when fired at high temperature, becomes extremely hard and durable. Terra cotta is easily worked and is ideal for sculpting complex shapes such as those seen on the Bankers Trust Building. Terra cotta was also less expensive than stone, the surface treatment most commonly used for banks at the time.
Rowland’s use of terra cotta enabled complex ornamentation to be layered over contrasting bands of flat surface, giving the building a lighter and more refined look. Its light color also adds to the aesthetics of the structure, helping it stand out among the larger, grey stone buildings nearby. Those who have admired this building only while speeding toward the Lodge Freeway entry ramp may have missed the green columns which flank the front door, beautifully complementing the buff-colored terra cotta. Green-painted window frames accentuate the two-tone color scheme.
Rowland’s placement of the building’s entry on the corner, rather than centered on either of the sides, was unprecedented amongst its neighbors within the Financial District. He clipped the building’s corner at a 45-degree angle and added an arch to the resulting face. This arch’s outer surfaces are identical to the other seven, but it extends much further into the building with additional layers of decorative sculpture. What appears to be a bronze door is actually a clamshell outer cover for the revolving door which was originally installed behind. A round window above the door serves as a focal point which complements the arch and softens the vertical and horizontal lines. The overall result is that the entrance is the building’s most important feature, functioning not just as an opening, but as an invitation to enter.
Inside the door was an octagon-shaped lobby, along the sides of which were located the cashier’s office, bankers’ desks and the bank president’s office. Bankers Trust was a mortgage lender and therefore had no need for more than one cashier window. A second street entrance, located within the third arch along Congress Street, originally opened into a small lobby and stairway to the second floor, providing access from the street to the upstairs offices without having to pass through the bank.
To gain some perspective on the difference between this building and its contemporaries, take a look at the First State Bank and Security Trust Company buildings on Griswold at the corner of Lafayette Boulevard. Both were designed by Albert Kahn, no slouch of an architect, and completed the same year as Bankers Trust, 1925. Both also feature elaborate exterior embellishments….but the first thing you’ll notice is that both of Kahn’s buildings are mostly unoccupied and for sale, while the Bankers Trust Company Building has been leased regularly and acted as home to numerous nightclubs and even a restaurant over the last two decades.
And what, you may ask, became of the Bankers Trust Company? Is it gone, or has it, like its headquarters building, survived into the 21st century? The Bankers Trust Company of Detroit was formed in 1917. Their directors at that time included Leo Butzel, for whom the law firm Butzel Long is named, Edwin Denby, former Secretary of the Navy for whom Detroit Denby High School is named, and William Kales, for whom the Kales Building at 76 West Adams Street is named.
Bankers Trust Company dealt first in home mortgages. With the onset of the depression and banking crises of the 1930s, this turned out to be a prescient business strategy as Bankers Trust was one of just a few banks in Michigan to survive through the Great Depression. Bankers Trust and its diminutive headquarters proved better able to weather the 1933 bank panic than even the Guardian Trust Company one block east in the mighty Guardian Building.
In 1948, Bankers Trust merged with Equitable Trust to form Bankers-Equitable Trust. Three years later, that firm merged with Detroit Trust Company, retaining the name Detroit Trust Company. Meanwhile, Detroit Savings Bank was renaming itself The Detroit Bank, which then snapped up Detroit Trust Company in 1955, becoming Detroit Bank & Trust (DB&T). The following year, DB&T merged with banks in Birmingham, Ferndale and Detroit. (The fifties must have been a great time for business card printers.)
During the 1960s, DB&T took a breather from buying up banks and instead built a new International style headquarters building that stands at 211 West Fort Street. In 1973 they changed their name to Detroitbank and in 1982 changed it again to Comerica. In 1992, they merged with Manufacturers National, but retained the name Comerica. The following year they moved the whole shebang over to the newly constructed Comerica Tower, also known as One Detroit Center. Finally, in 2007, Comerica decamped its Detroit world headquarters and moved to Dallas, while retaining a very strong presence in the city that continues to this day. ~I♥DM
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(Editor’s Note: This post represents I Love Detroit Michigan‘s very first foray into guest authorship. We’re glad to welcome Mr. Michael G. Smith to our team. See his picture to the right. Michael is a mammoth Wirt C. Rowland enthusiast and lives in Oakland County where he works as a corporate recruiter. We look forward to sharing more of Michael’s unique and expertly researched perspectives with you over the coming months.)