Just as New York City has a Cathedral of Commerce — the gorgeous Woolworth Building — Detroit has its Cathedral of Finance. The Guardian Building, originally called the Union Trust Building, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. In a city with a rich inventory of architectural treasures, including its outstanding churches, the Guardian Building stands out as particularly special, for many, many reasons. It instantly became one of my favorites, not just in Detroit, but in the world. If I had to work anywhere in this city, this is where I’d want my office to be.
Right from its origins, the Guardian was going to be unique. First off, the entire endeavor was an all-Michigan affair: Michigan architect (Wirt C. Rowland), Michigan contractors, Michigan artisans. Their collective talents produced a majestic structure, but it was one that was almost immediately doomed. Completed in 1929, when Detroit was roaring along and it was the fourth-largest city in the United States, the Guardian’s fate took an abruptly unexpected turn. Only six months later, the stock market crashed, igniting the Great Depression. The Union Trust Company was one of its early victims, and in 1932 it went into receivership. It was rescued by investors who were bullish on Detroit’s future. They reorganized the company into the Union Guardian Trust Company, and the newly christened Union Guardian Building survived, morphing into the Guardian Building moniker it goes by today.
Occupying a full city block and rising 36 stories with two asymmetric towers, one that extends the building an additional four stories, this 496’ boldly Art Deco treasure rises from a granite and stone base and is clad in 1.8 million tangerine-colored bricks. The custom-made color was afterward marketed as “Union Trust Brick” and then “Guardian Brick.” The choice of both color and material was unusual, as most buildings of this size from this era employed granite and limestone. As such, the Guardian became the world’s tallest masonry structure when it was completed.
At the main entrance, two relief sculptures symbolizing Safety and Security (created by a Detroit sculptor) flank the half-dome swathed in tiles in a Native American design with corresponding symbols (produced by a Detroit pottery maker). Over-scaled polychromed terra cotta on the upper stories of the building and especially on the north tower are easily visible from street level.
Rowland explained the incorporation of a broad spectrum: “We no longer live in a leisurely age…The impression must be immediate, strong, and complete. Color has this vital power.”
Rowland abided by his vision of color in the most spectacular way inside the Guardian. The luxurious interior is nothing short of a masterpiece, and I was bowled over as soon as I entered the 150’-long, three-story lower lobby. I felt as if I had just stepped into the grandest Aztec temple imaginable. An explosive array of vibrantly colored interlocking hexagon tiles covers the barrel-vaulted ceiling. Ziggurat arches between columns of Italian Travertine marble are awash in reds, greens, and yellows in an Aztec design. Two other types of rare marble embellish the lobby: black marble from Belgium, from mines that are now exhausted of this type, and blood-red Numidian marble, which required Rowland to go to Africa to pick out what he needed from a mine that had been closed for three decades and reopened just for him. Stained-glass figures representing Fidelity and Aztec-inspired lanterns adorn the elevator lobbies. These elevators represent the first use of the technology that allowed them to automatically stop the cab level with the floor and to open the doors without the assistance of a human operator, ushering in the demise of the elevator man (although that rebelliously carries on in Seattle’s Smith Tower).
Further into the lavish lobby, I stopped at the reception desk to admire and read the large wall mosaic of a pine tree and text describing the original bank’s purpose, set against a deep blue background. I followed the Travertine marble steps up to the massive Art Deco ornamental Monel metal screen, with a lovely glass Tiffany clock (one of only four extant clocks of this type), that divides the lower lobby from the banking hall. This was another of Rowland’s innovations: He employed this type of metal for all the Guardian’s exposed metalwork instead of more commonly used brass and bronze — a revelation that was subsequently widely adopted, including in New York’s iconic Chrysler Building.
The delights continue in the main banking hall. My attention was immediately drawn to the mural of a map of Michigan at the far end of the hall. A Native American goddess of bounty stands in the middle of the state’s Lower Peninsula, surrounded by three of the five Great Lakes and symbols of and people engaged in the state’s manufacturing, agriculture, mining, fishing, finance, and commercial industries.
A hand-painted canvas covers the cement-plaster barrel ceiling. This wonderful stenciled ceiling features an Aztec motif in 16 colors that extends down to the sunburst arches of the main space. Quartets of simulated skylights, arranged in a diamond pattern of four diamond-shaped glass tiles, run along the ceiling, a design mirrored in the column piers. Underneath the canvas, a ¾” mat of horsehair had been installed to dampen the noise and absorb the sound, making this hub of activity a quiet space to conduct business.
Forty artisans contributed to the accents and designs of the interior — the murals, ceilings, tile work, mosaics, stained glass, and marble fixtures. Even detail-obsessed Rowland had a hand in the finer elements: He designed furniture for the bank’s offices as well as the tableware, linens, and waitress uniforms for a restaurant within the building.
With its long history of bankruptcies, leaseback contracts, auctions, and different owners, and its even longer list of tenants over the course of nearly a century, including the U.S. Army, which used it as its command center for wartime production during World War II, it’s miraculous that it survived at all, much less prospered. The Guardian Building reopened to the public in the early 2000s after a 25-year ban and a $14 million improvement and restoration project. You no longer have to work here to come in and gape at the grandeur of this masterpiece and its beguiling color and craftsmanship, but I was jealous of everyone who did.
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