The Penobscot Block, Detroit

Detroit Publishing Co., Copyright Claimant, and Publisher Detroit Publishing Co. Penobscot Building, Detroit, Mich. United States Michigan Detroit, ca. 1907. Photograph. Library of Congress.

Time to move to downtown Detroit, and start with one of the most interesting square blocks in the United States, the Penobscot Block. Like all good things, it was the result of the accretion of decades of history and multiple building campaigns by disparate developers. This first building of the ensemble is the 1905 Penobscot Building, seen above and below and typical of turn of the century skyscraper architecture.

Designed by John M. Donaldson and Henry J. Meier, it has a rusticated limestone base with a brick center and a terracotta crown.

Beside it is the State Savings Bank designed by Stanford White in 1900 with an addition in 1914 by the same architects of the 1905 Penobscot Building.

It’s a restrained Beaux-Arts commission with the state seal of Michigan.

Perhaps if fortune swung a different way, this one story bank might very well have been demolished; note the unfinished rough brick on the side of the Penobscot Building…

As it were, the Penobscot Building Annex was erected directly behind the first building in 1922, bringing in the same architecture team of Donaldson and Meier to built a taller second skyscraper than the first, reminding me of the Syndicate Trust once being the annex of the Century Building in St. Louis.

It’s a massive, towering hulk, and I really like it.

Peaking through a hole in the towers is the Guardian Building.

But of course the soaring Art-Deco masterpiece of the 1928 Penobscot Building, only six years after the Annex, is the real star here. In just over half a decade, Detroit architecture had swung in a different direction so radically.

Siegel, Arthur S, photographer. Detroit, Michigan. Top of Detroit’s city hall dwarfed by the modern Penobscot Building in the background. Wayne County United States Michigan Detroit, 1942. July. Photograph. Library of Congress.

You might be thinking–did they rip off the Empire State Building? No, they didn’t as the famous skyscraper in New York was only built between 1930 and 1931.

While I wondered if the giant ball on top of the tower was a weather ball, apparently it was just for aerial navigation before the advent of reliable radar.

It’s an interesting building, and shows how the gradual move away from classicism in the early Twentieth Century did not happen overnight.

The developer of the building grew up near the Penobscot River in Maine, and thus there is supposedly a Native American theme to the ornament.

Yes, there are swastiskas, but this was built long before the rise of the Nazi Party and reflect the ubiquity of the symbol in many different cultures and even in Western Civilization long before hte 1930s.

It’s one of those buildings that serve as a “keystone” to the skyline of Detroit, one that St. Louis failed to build in the early Twentieth Century in its downtown. Read more about the Penobscot Building here. There is also the Ford Building on the block, but I neglected to photograph it.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mark Preston says:

    Actual Nazi swastikas are all turned with one leg up, the Hindu swastika always has one leg horizontal. to the ground.

    1. cnaffziger says:

      Ah yes, that makes sense! Thanks, Mark.

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