Posted by on March 23, 2012 in Architecture - 8 Comments

The Penobscot Building – Detroit, Michigan

The Penobscot Building at 645 Griswold in downtown Detroit’s Financial District was the city’s tallest building when it opened in 1928 and held that title until 1977 when the central tower of the Renaissance Center was completed. For a very short time the Penobscot Building also held the title of the eighth tallest building in the world and the tallest building in the world outside of New York City and Chicago. It was designed in an Art Deco influenced style by one of the most highly regarded architects in Detroit’s history, Wirt C. Rowland, while employed by Smith, Hinchman & Grylls (now known as SmithGroup) and ranks among his most iconic and career-defining commissions.

The Indiana limestone structure rises sharply from a mahogany granite base for 37 stories, with its top ten floors culminating in a dramatic series of setbacks, its tapered pinnacle topped with a blazing globe of red neon, visible for miles by night. Extensive exterior sculpture by Corrado Parducci features primarily Native American motifs, intermixed with captivating but slightly incongruous nods to American commerce and industry, as well as Zodiac symbolism. The building takes its name from a Native American tribe that originally inhabited a large portion of what is now Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. According to, the Penobscot Indians’ “sole link to the city was to live in the Maine woods deforested by a lumber baron, Simon J. Murphy, who came to Michigan to reap similar logging rewards”.

The Greater Penobscot Building, as it is more formally known, is actually the third building within the block bounded by Fort, Shelby, Congress and Griswold to bear the Penobscot moniker.

13 and 23 story structures of the same name were both designed by John Donaldson of Donaldson and Meier, and were built in approximately 1905 and 1915, respectively. The tri-chromatic original Penobscot stands just to the southwest of the Greater Penobscot at 127 W. Fort Street and features gorgeous exterior Beaux-Arts sculpture on the the top two floors. The second Penobscot Building stands at 138 W. Congress Street, directly to the southwest of the Daniel Burnham designed Ford Building (1913), and also features a Beaux-Arts exterior, but is significantly less photogenic than its predecessor. Both buildings now bear metal nameplates upon the ground floors of their facades, emblazoned with the phrase The Shops at Penobscot. Lumber baron Murphy, as far as we can tell, commissioned and funded the design and construction of only the original 1905 Penobscot building and died in the same year.

Much of Rowland and Parducci’s very best work stands here within the Financial District. The Rowland designed

Guardian Building (1929) and Buhl Building (1925) stand within eyeshot, both of which feature Parducci sculpture, and just around the corner is Rowland’s ornately sculpted Bankers Trust Company Building (1925). Nowhere in the Motor City is the genius of Rowland and Parducci so plainly and thoroughly concentrated as it is here, in the shadow of the 565-foot, 47-story, H-shaped superstructure of the Penobscot Building. ~I♥DM

About the author

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Dale Carlson grew up along the northeastern shores of Lake Michigan, where at a young age Detroit called out to him in his dreams. In 2008, after extended stays in ten different Michigan cities, the author settled permanently in southeast Oakland County where he currently lives and works in various capacities within the local real estate industry.


  1. Posted August 14, 2012 at 12:42 am

    […] structures in Detroit’s Financial District: the Bankers Trust Company (1925), Buhl (1925), Greater Penobscot (1928), and “Union Trust” Guardian (1929) […]

  2. Posted March 14, 2013 at 1:23 am

    What percentage of the Penobscot Building is occupied? Is it properly maintained or has it been allowed to deteriorate like the rest of Detroit?

  3. Posted March 15, 2013 at 1:39 am

    The last time I went inside was when I was taking the photos for this post. The interior appears to be very vell maintained. I know nothing about its occupancy rates or structural integrity.

  4. Posted March 14, 2013 at 1:24 am

    What’s the latest word on Michigan Central train station?

  5. Posted March 15, 2013 at 1:36 am

    We hear it got new windows. Lol!

  6. Negash Detroit
    Posted February 3, 2014 at 10:07 am

    Detroit Made Me!

  7. Susan Schwandt
    Posted February 28, 2016 at 4:57 pm

    I love this blog post about the Penobscot Building. Dale, I’d like your permission to use an image of the lighted red ball and Penobscot Indian architectural detail in a quilt I’m making depicting my memories of Detroit. I interned in the Penobscot building in the 1980s.

    The quilt’s for my personal use, but I hope it will be accepted and displayed in the American Quilt Show in Grand Rapids in August. I would give you the proper photo credit.

    Please advise,


  8. Susan Schwandt
    Posted March 8, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    Hi, Dale:

    You Penobscot Building blog is very informative and the photos really capture the grandeur of the Penobscot Building.

    I interned in the Penobscot Building and created a quilt depicting my memories of moving to Detroit in 1984.

    I’m seeking your permission to use the photos of the lighted red ball and Chief Penobscot architectural detail in my quilt. The quilt is for my personal use and will not be sold, but I’d like to enter it in a quilt show in Grand Rapids. I would give you proper photo credit and would be glad to send you a photo of my quilt.

    Please advise. Thank you for the inspiration and your informative blog post!



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