Guardian Building has long been the crown jewel in Detroit skyline

This photo of Detroit’s skyline looking north up Woodward was taken in 1931 by legendary Detroit News photographer William Kuenzel from the Detroit News Autogiro airplane, which now resides at the Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village. The Guardian Building can be seen at left center, just to the right of the Penobscot Building, tallest of the downtown structures.

An aerial view of the Guardian Building in Downtown Detroit.

An aerial view of the Guardian Building in Downtown Detroit.

After the end of the First World War, Detroit’s skyline underwent a dramatic facelift. The huge 1920s building program attracted the attention of architects throughout the country. Detroit ranked third in the nation, after New York and Chicago, in the number of major buildings erected during the Roaring Twenties. The boom proved dramatic and lasting.

In 1919, General Motors began construction of its new headquarters, the largest office building in the world at the time, followed by the First National Bank Building in 1922.

The Penobscot Building, begun in 1928, the tallest in the city for nearly 50 years, highlighted the downtown skyline along with the new Buhl Building in 1925. The Book brothers transformed Washington Boulevard into a replica of New York’s Fifth Avenue. The Book Cadillac Hotel at Michigan and Washington became the showstopper of the fashionably chic district. In 1928, the beautiful Fisher Building, across the street from the General Motors Building, complemented its business partner. The Masonic Temple, also completed that year, added ambiance to the bustling area.

The riverfront also saw great building activity. In 1928, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel provided motorists with an alternative to ferry boats. The following year, the Ambassador Bridge provided competition as well as a better view of the bright new skyline.

The city led other major urban areas in economic development as its citizens became more prosperous. Signs of growth were everywhere. Travel brochures enticed visitors to come to Detroit.

Detroit employed more than 330,000 workers. The automobile industry, pharmaceuticals, tobacco, copper, steel, printing, meat packing and leisure industries all contributed to Detroit’s economic boom. Publicists coined the phrase “Paris of the Midwest” to herald Detroit’s booming image and standard of living.

To accommodate this newfound prosperity, several prominent businessmen decided the city need to establish a financial sector. Dubbed the Cathedral of Finance, the towering Guardian Building opened its doors in 1929 as the new home of the Guardian Detroit Union Group, formerly the Union Trust Company.

Founded in 1890, the Union Trust Company, the second trust company allowed to organize under the Trust Act of 1890, prospered in Detroit. Michigan Sen. James McMillan, and businessman, Dexter Ferry helped organize the company along with Russell Alger, Col. Frank Hecker and C.H.Buhl. The original company offices on Larned Street started out small, as did their assets.

A period postcard featuring the Guardian Building.

A period postcard featuring the Guardian Building.

Union Trust was one of the first major banks to offer the average worker the opportunity to purchase a home. The bank attracted scores of customers by offering either conventional mortgages or newly developed land contracts. This new phenomenon explains why Detroit, unlike many other large cities, became a community of single family homes rather than apartment buildings and why Detroit remains a leader in home ownership.

In 1928, the Union Trust Company with assets of $52 million, merged with National Bank of Commerce, which had $54 million. The size of the newly merged banking giant created the need for larger, finer facilities. The booming Detroit economy required a structure to reflect this new prosperity.

But the feisty bank and its founding officers earned a reputation as being fair and honest. Union Trust employees personally called on widows and families in distress who held accounts in the bank, delivering their monthly stipends. This personal touch attracted more depositors. They developed a reputation as being bankers with a heart for the common laborer. By 1895, the bank had built a new eleven-story office building that was one of the city’s first steel-frame buildings. The bank continued to grow.

The bank purchased the entire block surrounded by Griswold, Larned and Congress, and hired the prominent Detroit architectural firm of Smith Hinchman and Grylls.

Wirt Rowland, the firm’s noted young designer, was only in his early 30’s when he reshaped Detroit’s skyline with his Buhl, Penobscot and Guardian buildings along with Music Hall. But Rowland is most remembered for his design of Meadowbrook Hall. He so impressed Matilda Dodge, that on her honeymoon with John Dodge, Rowland accompanied the newlyweds on their European trip to review the lavish homes on the continent. Of Detroit’s skyscrapers, the Guardian became the crowning jewel in the city’s booming financial district.

Built around a steel frame, it was sheathed in Guardian brick developed specially for this project and accented with Pewabic title from Detroit and Atlantic terra cotta from New York State. Rising 486 feet, forty floors, it became Detroit’s second tallest building when it opened in 1929.

The architectural design defies categorization: Aztec, exotic modern, American Indian and jazz-age elegance along with a mixture of Dutch, French and American arts and crafts join in harmony. Color, however, hallmarks the landmark building, which also covers a city block from Congress to Larned.

“What we see, we must see quickly in passing and the impression must be immediate, strong and complete-color has this vital power,” explained architect Rowland.

To people who were shocked by the tangerine exterior, Frank W. Blair, bank president replied: “Wait till you see the pattern as a whole, how it glows through the murky shadows of soot laden Detroit atmosphere, how it flashes in the sunshine in the summer and even after its baptism of smoky air, still stands out amid its grimy surroundings with dauntless good cheer.”

Continued Rowland, “We chose tangerine or orange-hued brick because orange is the color which carries the farthest. This daring shade combined with bands of terra cotta, and tiled window trimmings for contrast. Rising on a foundation of light gray and dark red granite, the pattern works with a wide area of buff mancato stone to the sixth floor. From the stone the transition to the orange brick moves through a wide band of terra cotta in a geometric pattern of yellow, cream, blue, green and brilliant red. To give strength and definiteness to the mass of orange brick, banding of white, black and orange terra cotta enhance window casings of the banking room on the lower floor accent the bright hued tile.”

The lobby’s vaulted ceiling is blanketed in vivid Rookwood tile laid in diamond patterns.

Mary Chase Stratton, the founder of Detroit’s famous Pewabic Pottery Studio, coordinated the glazes and tile varieties with Rowland. Rare Numidian marble, a variegated blood red marble, accents the walls of Mankato stone. A divided staircase leads from the lobby to the massive entrance arch of the main banking hall. The Numidian marble came from a quarry in Tunisia that had been shut thirty years, but was re-opened for the sole purpose of extracting this rare stone for the Guardian project.

Michigan Sen. James McMillan was one of the founders of Union Trust, which built the Guardian Building.

The banking hall’s hand painted vaulted ceiling can be glimpsed through an open screen of Monel metal, whose elaborate grille covers the grand archway and contains a Tiffany clock. Monel metal is a unique composite mix of copper, nickel, and aluminum with a taupe-colored finish.

The lobby, resplendent with its Rookwood pottery, glazed tiles of Pewabic pottery and stained glass windows with opaque glass inserts, highlights ideas modeled after the cathedral nave located in Beauvais, France.

Other unusual features of the building include a three level basement which once contained a gun range for building security guards, a public cinema on the 32nd floor, a conference room floor comprised of five different woods, and a metal tablet in the lobby engraved with the names of 40 tradesmen to commemorate the true craftsmanship of these workmen. Such an extravagant work of art certainly required the signatures of the artists.

While construction on the Guardian went on, Union Trust continued to acquire and merge with other banking systems. By the time the building was completed, the Guardian Detroit Union Group emerged as Detroit’s largest financial establishment with assets of $400 million, 40% of Detroit’s total banking resources. One of every four people in the city had dealings with Guardian Detroit Union.

But the end of an era hit swiftly and harshly.

The stock market crash in October 1929 and the Depression that followed hit prosperous Detroit especially hard. The decade of prosperity ended.

In 1929, Detroit produced more than 5,337,00 vehicles. By 1930, car production fell to 3,363,000. Unemployment spread. On Sept 25,1930, Detroit’s unemployed numbered 19,412. Another 46,314 had registered by the 26th, and by Sept. 29, just four days after the first count, 75,704 had registered as being jobless.

By 1931 the situation became critical. Auto production dropped to 1,332,000. The unemployed couldn’t pay their mortgage notes, so the banks brought in no money. The banks held collateral worth a fraction of its original value, and real estate values kept plummeting. Between 1929 and 1934 more than 20 Detroit banks failed.

In 1932 Congress set up the Reconstruction Finance Corp. (RFC) to assist the thousands of failing financial institutions across America. The Guardian Group sought an RFC loan and was promised $37 million, but $50 million was needed to remain solvent. Henry Ford, one of the bank’s largest depositors, who had an extreme dislike for bankers — particularly James Couzens who once worked for him — refused to guarantee the $13 million balance. Even President Herbert Hoover, a friend of Ford’s, could not seal the deal to keep the bank afloat.

Col. Frank Hecker, center, was another founder of the Union Trust. He is flanked by his son, Maj. H.G. Hecker, right, and grandson Julian Hecker.

Col. Frank Hecker, center, was another founder of the Union Trust. He is flanked by his son, Maj. H.G. Hecker, right, and grandson Julian Hecker.

On Feb. 14, the day Governor William Comstock declared a banking holiday in Michigan, Guardian Detroit Group Bank went into receivership under the mantle of the New Union Building Corp. On behalf of the RFC, several area banks assumed fiduciary rights for what was left of the Guardian banking empire.

During World War II the Guardian Building housed the Army’s Command Center for coordinating ordinance production. After the war, the facility returned to the New Union Building Company. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1949 and in 1952 the building went in a public auction to the Guardian Building Company of Michigan Bank Corporation.

MichCon became the largest Guardian Building tenant until the late 1950’s when the Company decided to construct its own building. When MichCon moved into One Woodward Avenue, across Larned, some feared that the magnificent Guardian would fall to less than its previous first-class status. However, this never happened.

In 1975, The Guardian Building was sold to MichCon. Subsequently, MichCon sold it to General Electric Pension Trust under a leaseback contract.

Another Union Trust founder was seed merchant Dexter Ferry, shown here driving a White Steamer in 1901.

In January 1983 MichCon separated from American Natural Resources and now lists its corporate address as 500 Griswold Street—the Guardian Building.

In 1998, SHG (formerly Smith, Hinchman & Grylls) announced plans to move 270 of its employees back into the building they designed.

“We were able to reach back to our roots and put our signature into the rebirth of Detroit,” said SHG chairman, Arnold Mikon.

The unique Guardian Building still stands, basically unchanged, as a monument to the artisans, masons, craftsmen, painters and architects who worked furiously in the 1920s to ensure Detroit would be a showplace of American architecture. The richness of Detroit’s skyline displays one of the city’s treasured jewels.

The lobby’s vaulted ceiling is blanketed in vivid Rookwood tile laid in diamond patterns.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Pat Zacharias / The Detroit News