Designing Detroit: Wirt Rowland and the Rise of Modern American Architecture

Designing Detroit: Wirt Rowland and the Rise of Modern American Architecture

by Michael G. Smith


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In the early 1900s, Detroit was leading the nation in architectural innovation and designer Wirt Rowland was at the forefront of this advancement, yet few are even aware of his substantial contribution to the evolution of architectural style. It is widely believed that celebrated local architect Albert Kahn designed many of Detroit’s structures, such as the General Motors and First National Bank buildings. In fact, while Kahn’s efforts were focused on running his highly successful firm, it was Rowland, his chief designer, who was responsible for the appearance and layout of these buildings—an important point in appreciating the contributions of both Kahn and Rowland. During the early twentieth century, Rowland devised a wholly new or "modern" design for buildings, one not reliant on decorative elements copied from architecture of the past. As buildings became more specialized for their intended use, Rowland met the challenge with entirely new design methodologies and a number of improved technologies and materials that subsequently became commonplace.

Designing Detroit: Wirt Rowland and the Rise of Modern American Architecture begins with a brief overview of Rowland’s early life and career. Author Michael G. Smith goes on to analyze Rowland’s achievements in building design and as a leader of Detroit’s architectural community throughout both World Wars and the Great Depression. The interdependence of architecture with the city’s fluctuating economic prosperity and population growth is explored, illuminating the conditions for good architecture and the arts in general. The author identifies the influence of Jay Hambidge’s "dynamic symmetry" in Rowland’s work and how it allowed him to employ color as a modern replacement for traditional ornamentation, leading to the revolutionary design of the Union Trust (Guardian) Building, for which he receives nearly unanimous praise in national media. This book is concerned primarily with Rowland’s influence on Detroit architecture, but spans beyond his work in Michigan to include the designer’s broad reach from New York to Miami. A comprehensive appendix includes extensive lists of Rowland’s publications, locations he had designed, and jobs taken on by his firm during his tenure.

This book represents new research and insights not previously discussed in either scholarly or general audience texts and will be of interest to casual readers of Detroit history, as well as architecture historians.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814339794
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
Publication date: 04/17/2017
Series: Great Lakes Books Series
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 578,408
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Michael G. Smith is a Detroit-area architecture historian with an interest in early twentieth-century building and construction. His lifelong enthusiasm for the fine arts led to an early career as a graphic artist and, more recently, his photography work has been published internationally.

Table of Contents

Architectural Terms Illustrated vii

Preface xi

Introduction 1

1 Working for "The Dean" 11

2 Back to Schools 29

3 The City's Top Designer 67

4 Columns of Stone, Columns of Words 97

5 New Work, New Freedoms 117

6 A Breakthrough 165

7 Two Kings of Griswold Street 201

8 End of the Round Arch 267

9 Aftershocks 313

10 A Great Depression 339

11 Church and State 365

Acknowledgments 405


1 Published Works by Wirt Rowland 407

2 Essential Reading 409

3 Further Reading 411


1 Selected Jobs, 1912-17: Malcomson and Higginbotham 413

2 Selected Jobs, 1910-22: Albert Kahn, Architects and Engineers 414

3 Selected Jobs, 1922-30: Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls 416

Notes 421

Bibliography 467

Index 479

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