Wirt Rowland – A Short Biography
By Michael G. Smith with Dale Carlson / Photos by Dale Carlson & Michael G. Smith
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“….Wirt Rowland, he reached out, rather than looking back….A lot of architects, their work….referred to something. Well, Wirt Rowland was departing. He had a background of classical work, and he was revolutionary in his ideas and his effort….You take the color he used in the Guardian….Architects didn’t use color!” ~Corrado Parducci
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Downtown Detroit’s skyline first came of age in the 1910s and 20s, and of the city’s many skyscraper architects active during that time none exerted more influence upon it than native Michigander Wirt Rowland, designer of the Buhl, Greater Penobscot and Guardian Buildings.
Rowland, born in 1878, grew up in the southeast Michigan village of Clinton, in Lenawee County, where his father worked as an engineer in the local woolen mill. At the age of eight, an illustrated article about England’s Lambeth Castle in Harper’s Magazine caught Rowland’s eye and inspired him to become an architect.
Lacking the resources to pursue formal training, Rowland, in 1901, began his architecture career as an apprentice draftsman in the offices of Rogers and MacFarlane, moving the following year to the firm of George D. Mason, both among Detroit’s leading architectural firms of the day. Under Mason’s tutelage, Rowland’s skills developed rapidly and he was soon promoted to designer. While employed at Mason’s firm, Rowland played an important role in the development of Detroit’s original Pontchartrain Hotel, built in 1907 and formerly located on the southeast corner of Campus Martius.
After nearly nine years with Mason, Rowland left in 1909 to work for Albert Kahn and Ernest Wilby. Kahn & Wilby’s design and engineering firm had become the largest in Detroit with responsibility for many projects throughout the nation. Much of the firm’s work was industrial in nature as Kahn’s brother Julius, the firm’s Chief Engineer, had developed the revolutionary “Kahn System” for steel reinforced concrete buildings. Rowland, however, was afforded the great opportunity to work closely with Wilby, who designed most of the firm’s non-industrial commissions. Wilby and Rowland’s most notable collaborative work during this period was Hill Auditorium (1911) on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Armed with laudatory letters of recommendation from both Mason and Kahn (see photos #2 and #3 in the album), Rowland was accepted to and attended Harvard University’s Graduate School of Architecture from the fall of 1910 through the spring of 1911. Rowland returned to Detroit with a deeper understanding of architectural history and the latest trends in the field. His design skills were in demand.
In 1912 he was lured from Kahn’s office by Malcomson & Higginbotham to assist in preparing the firm’s design proposal for the new Detroit Public Library. Malcomson, Higginbotham and Rowland’s entry was runner-up to the design presented by Woolworth Building and U.S. Supreme Court Building architect Cass Gilbert. At nearly the same time, Rowland’s proposed design for Detroit’s Northwestern High School won the firm a contract. During Rowland’s three years with Malcomson & Higginbotham, two more high schools and numerous grade schools were designed for the Detroit Public School system, offering Rowland further opportunity to develop his skills.
In 1915 Rowland returned to work for Kahn and Wilby, now the world leader in the design of steel reinforced concrete industrial buildings, particularly those built for the manufacturing of automobiles. In 1917 the firm was selected to design structures for the U.S. Army Air Corps at Langley Field in Virginia and Rockwell Field on North Island in San Diego Bay, with senior designer Rowland largely responsible for their aesthetics. To maintain Rockwell Field’s stylistic compatibility with regional tastes, an associate architect, Richard Requa of San Diego, was appointed to work closely with Kahn’s office. Requa was a leading advocate for Spanish, Pueblo and Mission Revival Styles of architecture, popular in the American West and Southwest. His influence upon Rowland is clearly evident in the appearance of these structures. On his own in Langley, Rowland designed numerous historically significant structures in a melange of Revival styles, including Renaissance, Italianate, Mission, Tudor, Tudor-Gothic and Craftsman, with touches of Art Deco, Art Moderne and Romanesque. Many of the buildings feature intricately patterned full masonry exteriors with finely sculpted concrete iconography. Here in both Langley and San Diego, during this often overlooked period of his career, Rowland absorbed many lessons in designing structures inspired by dissimilar stylistic influences, adapting the industrial age materials of concrete and steel to the architecture of local, historical and classical precedent, experiences that would prove invaluable later in his career.
Rowland became Kahn & Associates’ Chief Designer when Wilby left the firm in 1918. Their final collaborative effort, the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan was designed in 1915 and completed in 1920. During the latter half of his second tenure at Kahn & Associates, Rowland was also closely involved in the exterior design of the General Motors Building (1921) on the southeast corner of Grand Boulevard and Second Ave, and the First National Bank Building (1922) on the very site of the original Pontchartrain Hotel he’d worked on just 15 years earlier. Both demonstrate his artistic skills with very large, steel frame office buildings. Both are faced with limestone and feature lower floors surrounded by classically inspired columns. Though not highly innovative, both efforts were successful and attractive.
During this time Rowland also founded a local architectural organization, The Thumb Tack Club, who’s annual exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts became quite the society event. Over a decade earlier he’d served as president of the prestigious and influential Michigan Architectural Club, whose members included former employer Arthur Malcomson, Marcus Burrowes, C. Howard Crane, John Donaldson, Maxwell Grylls, Augustus O’Dell, William “Buck” Stratton, Stratton’s soon-to-be wife and co-founder of Detroit’s famed Pewabic Pottery Company, Mary Chase Perry, and her close associate and developer of Pewabic Pottery’s “Revelation Kiln”, Horace J. Caulkins. Later, in the 30s, Rowland would also preside over the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
In 1922, the Detroit architectural firm of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls (SH&G) offered Rowland the position of Chief Designer. Administrators at SH&G shrewdly reasoned that bringing on the city’s top building designer would win the firm larger and more prestigious commissions. They turned out to be correct. For Rowland’s part, the position with SH&G offered greater influence than the team structure of Kahn’s office. Moreover, for the first time since leaving Malcomson & Higginbotham, Rowland would be individually recognized for his work, as all buildings designed by Kahn’s firm were attributed to Kahn himself. With much at stake for both firms, Rowland began his work for SH&G in July of ’22.
Rowland designed some of Detroit’s most important and beautiful buildings and established a national reputation during his eight years with SH&G. He is best known as the architect of four superlative structures in Detroit’s Financial District: the Bankers Trust Company (1925), Buhl (1925), Greater Penobscot (1928), and “Union Trust” Guardian (1929) Buildings.
The Bankers Trust Company Building, though only two stories tall, is one of the city’s most delightful structures. Here Rowland dispensed with the typical classically columned bank theme, using instead ornately decorated arches and an entrance set on an angle. The building is welcoming, light and cheerful, and decorated extensively in cost-effective terracotta sculpture.
The 29-story Buhl Building is essentially a single section of New Center’s four-section General Motors Building, resulting in an unusual cruciform-shaped tower atop a larger base. As the skyscraper was a relatively new form of engineering and art, architects of the era often struggled to find suitable treatments for the tops of buildings. Rowland’s clever solution for the Buhl: upper floors and a roof line that suggest the building is topped by a neo-gothic cathedral. Closer inspection reveals, however, nothing more than the dominant window lines of an office building–a fascinating visual ambiguity.
Rowland’s 47-story Greater Penobscot Building is also an innovative, artistic triumph. Of the building’s many fine design elements, the most captivating is almost certainly the unique series of setbacks between the 37th and 47th floors. Drawing upon his earlier work with Requa, and inspired by the multi-level, cubic, adobe pueblos of Taos and Acoma, Rowland created a tapered pinnacle of stacked cubes with flat roofs and rounded top edges, complete with earth tones and two open bell towers, both signature elements of the Pueblo Revival style.
Rising from Griswold and Congress Street at nearly the same time as the Penobscot, the ornate 40-story Guardian Building is widely recognized as Rowland’s masterpiece. Varying colorful motifs on the exterior are continued throughout the interior, resulting in a extraordinarily innovative gestalt quality rarely exhibited by other skyscrapers of the era. As a cost-cutting measure, Rowland chose brick rather than stone for the exterior. Capitalizing upon brick’s chromatic potential, he turned this less desirable material into an asset. Flamboyant and extravagant custom artwork by a multitude of world-class artisans completes Rowland’s tour de force.
In the wake of the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent depression, demand for new buildings, particularly skyscrapers, vanished. Smith, Hinchman & Gryll’s staff shrank from 250 in 1929 to ten in 1930 and Rowland was among those let go. During the years of depression and war that followed Rowland teamed with prominent Detroit architect H. Augustus O’Dell, securing a small number of projects including the prefabricated “Good Housekeeping / Stran-Steel House” for the 1933 World’s Fair Exhibition in Chicago, Lewis E. Maire Elementary School in Grosse Pointe, two residences in Bloomfield Township, and the Detroit Public Library’s Mark Twain Branch. In the mid-40s Rowland produced what might be considered his final work: a number of preliminary drawings for Kirk In The Hills Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield Township, a neo-Gothic design completed by George Mason and constructed in the 1950s.
Rowland died in November of 1946 at the home of a relative in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His works of art in concrete, steel and stone—admired now as much as ever—remain in many respects unequaled. ~I♥DM
(Acknowledgements: Much of this biography is based on research conducted for the Historical Society of Clinton, Michigan for their 2004 Wirt C. Rowland Exhibition. The efforts of Sharon Scott, Tom Holleman and Rebecca Binno Savage, in particular, generated an impressive and indispensable collection of original source material on Rowland. The “Exhibition Catalog”, prepared by the Historical Society and written by Tom Holleman, is an excellent source for those seeking more information on Wirt Rowland. It is available through the Village of Clinton website at: http://www.villageofclinton.org/wirtrowland.html. The authors also wish to gratefully acknowledge the assistance and generosity of Mary Joann Wallace, administrator of the “Virtual Motor City” photo collection at Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library, Bloomfield Village Manager Art Atkinson, Mrs. Genevieve Burroughs Baker, administrators of the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library, the Harvard Architectural School Alumni Association, and the United States Library of Congress.)
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Above: Detroit’s skyline, circa 1930. Rowland’s work dominates the view from the Detroit River. From left to right: the Buhl Building (1925), behind it the Greater Penobscot Building (1928), the Union Trust Guardian Building (1929), and behind the Boblo Island Park sign, the First National Bank Building (1922).
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While employed at the firm of George D. Mason (1902-1910): The original Pontchartrain Hotel (1907) on the southeast corner of Campus Martius - Interior and exterior elements.
While employed at the firm of Albert Kahn (1910-1911): Dollar Savings and Trust Building in Wheeling, West Virginia (1910), and Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (1911) - Both designed in collaboration with Ernest Wilby.
While employed at the firm of Malcomson & Higginbotham (1912-1915): Riverside Mortuary Chapel in Clinton, Michigan (1912), Detroit Public Library competition entry (1912), Detroit Northwestern High School (1912), Detroit Northern High School (1915), Detroit Southeastern High School (1915), and twelve Detroit elementary schools, including Clarence M. Burton (1912), Thirkell (1913) and Joyce (1915).
While employed at the firm of Albert Kahn (1915-1918): The Detroit News Building (1917) and Detroit News Warehouse (1917), both on Lafayette Blvd., and the University of Michigan Library now known as ‘Helen Hatcher Graduate Library’ in Ann Arbor (1920) – All designed in collaboration with Ernest Wilby.
While employed as ‘Chief Designer’ at the firm of Albert Kahn (1918-1922): In collaboration with Richard Requa, various buildings at Rockwell Field on North Island in San Diego Bay, California (1918), hangars and executive buildings at Langley Field in Port Comfort, Virginia (1919), preliminary work and exterior elements of the General Motors Building (1921) at West Grand Blvd. and 2nd Avenue, and preliminary work and exterior elements of the First National Bank Building (1922) on the southeast corner of Campus Martius.
While employed as ‘Head of Modern Design’ and ‘Chief Designer’ at Smith, Hinchman & Grylls (1922-1930): The Bankers Trust Company Building (1925) at Shelby and Congress Street, the Buhl Building (1925) at Griswold and Congress Street, the Second National Bank Building (Citizen’s Bank) in Saginaw, Michigan (1925), exterior design of the original six stories of the Grand Rapids Telephone Company Building [now Michigan Bell] (1925), Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church (1926) at 8625 Jefferson Avenue, the Grand Rapids Trust Building now known as “77 Monroe Center” (1926), 12-story addition to the 1912 Michigan Bell (AT&T) Building at Cass Avenue and Times Square (1927), the Greater Penobscot Building (1928) at Griswold and Fort Street, and the “Union Trust” Guardian Building (1929) at Griswold and Congress Street.
Buildings designed by Smith, Hinchman & Grylls while Rowland was employed as their ‘Head of Modern Design’ and ‘Chief Designer’ (1922-1930): Yost Field House at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (1923), David Mackenzie High School (1927; demolished, 2012) on Wyoming Street just north of Oakman Blvd, the Michigan Bell Telephone Company Building in Traverse City, Michigan (1927), Michigan Bell Telephone Company Buildings in Pontiac, Jackson, Howell, Bad Axe and Eaton Rapids, Michigan (c. 1925-1930), the Tau Beta Association Community House in Hamtramck, Michigan (1928), Ambassador Bridge support piers (1929), the Detroit Saturday Night Building (1929) at 1959 East Jefferson Avenue, the Pontchartrain Club (not completed, converted to Town Apartments) (1929) at Bagley and 1st Street, and the Michigan Bell and Western Electric Warehouse (1930) at Oakman Blvd. and Woodrow Wilson Street.
While in partnership with Augustus O’Dell (1930-1938): Residence at 253 Hupp Cross Rd. in Bloomfield Township, Michigan (1930), the “Good Housekeeping / Stran-Steel House” for Chicago World’s Fair Exhibition (1933), Lewis E. Maire Elementary School in Grosse Pointe (1936), Victor C. Vaughn House at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (1938), Residence at 625 N. Williamsbury Rd. in Bloomfield Township (1938), and the Detroit Public Library Mark Twain Branch (1940).
‘Semi’-retirement: In the mid-1940s Rowland produced preliminary drawings for Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, the final design of which was completed by George Mason and constructed from 1948 to 1958.
(Editor’s note regarding roster of Rowland’s commissions: This list is by no means comprehensive as Rowland had significant to minor involvement in innumerable other projects not noted here.)
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Click below to peruse our 147-image album and see Rowland’s brilliant 45-year career illustrated with numerous blueprints, letters, diagrams, historic newspaper and magazine clippings and, of course, the gorgeous photography you’ve come to expect from I Love Detroit Michigan. Enjoy!