Posted by on March 23, 2012 in Architecture - 10 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 motorcitycandleworks.com, 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.