If he were still alive today, famed architect Wirt Rowland might cringe to hear his magnificent creation called “ugly,” but that’s just how Detroit’s Guardian Building struck the building’s current facility manager Rick Hohn when he first started working there.
“I’m the oldest living fixture here,” Hohn joked. “I started working here in 1980.”
When construction was finished in 1929, the building was a colorful and gorgeously-decorated Art Deco skyscraper, complete with carvings by Corrado Parducci on its granite base. Other aesthetic touches included a three-story vaulted ceiling above the main lobby decorated with multicolored hexagons of Rookwood pottery and Pewabic Tile, giant marble columns, a large outdoor scene in mosaic near the elevators, a mural of Michigan, and hand-painted canvas ceilings. However, various owners and tenants had covered up many of the decorative touches over the years.
“It was quite ugly when I first got here,” Hohn said.
“You’d walk into the main lobby, and there was no revolving door, and the window was closed off. The leaded glass was buried in the walls. The ceiling was flat with recessed lights – they covered up the old ceiling when they put in air conditioning.”
Located on Griswold Avenue in the city’s financial district, the building is so ornate that it has been nicknamed Detroit’s “Cathedral of Commerce.”
However, the building’s appearance is just one aspect that makes it unique.
The 40-story building has had many tenants and has seen many changes over the last nine decades.
It was originally named the Union Guardian Building or the Union Trust Building after the financial firm that commissioned the building, and Hohn said the influence of Union Trust can still be seen on doorknobs and other fixtures, where the initials “U.T.” are embossed inside an octagon.
However, soon after the building was completed, the U.S. stock market crashed, and Union Trust Co. was in trouble.
In 1932, the bank went into receivership as the New Union Building Corp. During World War II, the building housed the U.S Army Command Center for war time production, and then the New Union Building Co. took the building back over after the war.
The company went into bankruptcy in 1949, and the building was sold at action in 1952 to the Guardian Building Co. of the Michigan Bank Corp.
In 1982 it became the headquarters of Michigan Consolidated Gas Co., and under MichCon’s management, the lobby and vaulted ceilings on the first floor were restored during the mid-1980s.
“MichCon renovated the lobby and uncovered the ceiling. They had to build a structure and wheel it through the promenade on the second level to restore the hand-painted ceiling,” Hohn said.
He said subsequent renovations included putting in 1960s-style glass blocks, redoing the lighting to make it similar to that used in the original plans, getting an antique clock operating again, and opening up a wall to restore an original leaded-glass window.
After several rounds of renovation, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark in June 1989. Later, MichCon’s parent company merged with DTE Energy, and in 2002, DTE sold the building to a local real estate developer. Current tenants are Wayne County and the architectural and engineering firm SmithGroupJJR.
Hohn said that the public can no longer tour the whole building, but they’re welcome to come in and look around the restored lobby.
For more on the history of the Guardian Building, visit http://www.guardianbuilding.com/history.asp or http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/detroit/d17.htm.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in southeast Michigan. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.