Top 15 Best Architects in Detroit History
ABOVE: The Louis Kamper designed Colonel Frank J. Hecker House (1888-1891) at 5510 Woodward Avenue in Detroit.
(Editor’s Note: This post, with just a few minor edits and updates, is a transplant from our “Best of Detroit” pages and was originally published in July of 2011.)
As we’ve said so many times before, the most impressive aspect of Detroit’s multi-dimensional presence just might be its architecture. From downtown to the suburbs, commercial to residential, low-rise to high-rise, historic to modern, and everything in between, Detroit possesses an awe-inspiring breadth of revolutionary, groundbreaking and just downright gorgeous structures. Rookie enthusiasts of Detroit architecture will have a basic but important frame of reference to work with after reading our list of the top 15 best architects in Detroit history. ~I♥DM
1. Albert Kahn – From the opulent grace of the Fisher Building (1928) to the utilitarian functionality of the world-changing Highland Park (1910) and Rouge (1917-1928) Ford plants, Kahn’s effect on daily life in Detroit echoes through the ages. Our favorite example of Kahn’s pervasive influence is his posthumous and completely unintentional contribution to Detroit’s Techno scene: the Packard Plant on East Grand Boulevard, easily one of the most important venues in the history of one of Detroit’s most important artistic movements
2. Wirt C. Rowland – The genius behind much of Detroit’s Financial District architecture [Penobscot Building (1927-1928), Buhl Building (1925), Bankers Trust Building (1925)], including the single most stunning structure in the downtown Detroit skyline, the Guardian Building (1928-1929). Also known as “The Cathedral of Finance”, the Guardian Building embodies a seamless unity of engineering and art and features numerous distinctive embellishments including exterior sculpture by Corrado Parducci, custom mosaic and tile work by Pewabic Pottery and touches of inlaid glass by Tiffany & Company of New York City.
3. Louis Kamper – Kamper’s major contributions to Detroit’s skyline include the Book Building (1916), the top-heavy Book Tower (1925-1926), the recently renovated Westin Book Cadillac Hotel (1923-1924), and soon to be renovated Broderick Tower (1926-1928). All distinctive buildings in their own right, but his most impressive works, in our opinion, are the smaller scale Colonel Frank J. Hecker House (1888-1891) at 5510 Woodward and the elaborate 8th Precinct Detroit Police Station (1900-1901) at Grand River & Rosa Parks, both designed in the French Chateauesque style. (Please see corrections below ~Eds.)
4. Gordon W. Lloyd – Lloyd specialized and excelled in Episcopal Church design as evidenced by Christ Church (1861-1863) at 960 East Jefferson and the all wood Saint James Episcopal Chapel (1867-1868) on Grosse Ile. Highly regarded residential designs of Lloyd’s include the David Whitney House (1890-1894) at 4421 Woodward, and his collection of East River Road Gothic Revival homes (1840s-1870s), also on Grosse Ile.
5. George D. Mason – Mason’s career is a study in grandiosity. Detroit’s Masonic Temple (1920-1926), the largest in the world, and the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island (1887) both rank among the top architectural attractions in the state of Michigan. Other beauties designed by Mason include the Hiram Walker & Sons Building (1896) in Windsor, the Charles T. Fisher House (1922) in the Boston-Edison neighborhood and the Detroit Yacht Club (1923) on Belle Isle. Though Mason died in 1948, his firm served as the architects of record for Bloomfield Township’s Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church (1958) and based much of their final design on the preliminary plans and drawings of Wirt Rowland.
6. SmithGroup – Wirt Rowland, William Kapp and Gordon Lloyd produced much of their best work while employees of this prolific Detroit firm more commonly known as Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. SmithGroup was established in 1853 by Sheldon Smith, and is, according to Wikipedia, “the longest continually operating architectural and engineering firm in the United States”. SmithGroup’s long list of designs includes Henry Ford’s Piquette Avenue Plant (1904), the Fyfe Building (1916-1919) at Woodward & Adams, the famously imploded J.L. Hudson Building (1911-1946), Pease Auditorium on the campus of Eastern Michigan University (1914), Hart Plaza (1978), Joe Louis Arena (1979), Chrysler World Headquarters (1996) in Auburn Hills, Comerica Park (2000), the Edward McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport (2002), and in conjunction with a host of other companies, Ford Field (1999-2002).
7. C. Howard Crane – Detroit’s preeminent theater designer gave us the Fox Theatre (1928), Olympia Stadium (1927), the Fillmore Detroit (1925) formerly known as the State Theater, Orchestra Hall (1919), Capitol Theatre/Detroit Opera House (1922) on Broadway St, and the United Artists Theater Building (1928) at 150 Bagley St.
8. William E. Kapp – Kapp’s Florentine Renaissance style Players Club (1925) at 3321 East Jefferson Avenue is one of the city’s most unique structures. Meadowbrook Hall (1926-1929) in Rochester Hills, Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts (1928) at Madison & Brush, U of M’s Horace H. Rackham Building (1936-1938), and Temple Israel now known as Saint Paul Temple of the Apostolic Faith at 17400 Manderson in the Palmer Park neighborhood round out his outstanding body of work.
9. Eliel & Eero Saarinen – Father Eliel, along with Albert Kahn, designed the majority of Cranbrook Educational Community’s buildings in the late 1920s. Son Eero played a major role in the development of GM’s Warren Tech Center (1949-1955) before going on to design the world-famous Gateway Arch (1963-1965) in St. Louis. Working together they produced the design for Fenton’s Community Center in the late 1930s.
10. Donaldson & Meier – John Donaldson & Henry Meier’s long list of commissions include the intricately carved St. Aloysius Church (1930) and Chancery Building (1924) on Washington Boulevard, Beaumont Tower (1928) on the campus of Michigan State University, the David Stott Building (1929) in Washington Park, Sacred Heart Seminary (1923) on West Chicago Boulevard, and Most Holy Redeemer Church (1921) in Mexicantown.
11. Malcomson & Higginbotham – This prodigious partnership produced Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church (1893-1896) at 5930 Woodward, the “Old Main” Building at Wayne State University (1895), Starkweather Hall (1896-1897) on the campus of Eastern Michigan University, the Henry & Clara Ford House (1908) in the Boston-Edison Neighborhood, Old Cass Tech High School (1916-1922), and the Ford-Bacon House (1897) in Wyandotte.
12. Charles N. Agree – In its early years Agree’s firm specialized in live theater design, giving Detroit the Grande (1928) and Vanity (1929) Ballrooms, as well as Harpo’s Concert Theatre (1939), all irreplaceable venues in the great musical history of Detroit. In later years, his firm designed many local movie theaters and shopping malls, including Oakland Mall (1965-1968) at John R & 14 Mile.
13. Marcus Burrowes – This early 20th century residential architect designed numerous homes in Detroit’s Boston-Edison and Indian Village neighborhoods, as well as Farmington Hills, Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe. Highland Park’s old YMCA building (1926-1927) at Woodward & Winona St. ranks among his best non-residential work. His partnership firm, Burrowes & Eurich, designed the Springwells Municipal Building (1922) at 13615 Michigan Avenue in central Dearborn. (Please see corrections below ~Eds.)
14. Minoru Yamasaki – The designer of New York’s behemoth World Trade Center built his first skyscraper in Detroit: the former Headquarters of Michigan Consolidated Gas at One Woodward Ave (1962) [Center building in photo]. Other structures of note in the area by Yamasaki include McGregor Memorial Conference Center (1958) on the campus of Wayne State University, and Temple Beth El (1973) in Bloomfield Township at Telegraph & 14 Mile.
15. Rosetti Architects – This (formerly) Southfield based firm worked in conjunction with numerous other companies in the design of both Ford Field (1999-2002) and Compuware Headquarters (2000-2003) on Campus Martius. Other local commissions include the Palace of Auburn Hills (1988) and Greektown Casino Hotel (2006-2009). Rossetti Architects also managed the recent renovations and modernizations of Detroit’s long vacant, Minoru Yamasaki designed Federal Reserve Building annex on West Fort Street, and then went ahead and moved their firm into the fourth floor.
(Editor’s Note: Between August 2011 and January 2018 I♥DM erroneously attributed the design of the Highland Park Y.W.C.A at 13130 Woodward to Marcus Burrowes and also erroneously reported its year built as 1926-1927. The actual architect of this structure was George D. Mason and it was built in 1930. Also, between August 2011 and January 2019 we erroneously reported the Louis Kamper designed Book Tower’s year of construction as 1916 when it was, in fact, 1925 to 1926. We humbly apologize for our errors and promise our readers more accurate research in the future.)