The Cathedral of Finance: An Ode To One of Detroit's Gems

Whatʼs the point of having a beautiful office building? From a purely pragmatic perspective, why would it make sense to splurge on aesthetics, when a company could just as easily invest that capital in other, more lucrative ventures? This phrase–beautiful office–in and of itself evokes a sense of ironic juxtaposition between creative wonder and confined bureaucracy. Offices are, by definition, meant to serve as places for work to get done, so it may seem logical to utilize workspaces that minimize ‘distractionsʼ and promote productivity. The Guardian Building, built in the late 1920s by the Union Trust Company and designed according to the vision of architect Wirt C. Rowland, defies this philosophy. Instead of simply devising a skyscraper in which his clients would be able to conduct their day-to-day affairs, Rowland sought to build an iconic structure whose architectural and artistic uniqueness would allow it to stand out among downtown Detroitʼs commercial and residential buildings. He intended to raise a building whose character would appeal to, as well as foster the imagination of both tenants and passersby.

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Walking through the Guardian Buildingʼs foyer and lobby, I was mesmerized by the vibrant Art Deco style, particularly the Pewabic tiles that lined the ceilings and walls. The large open spaces were filled with bright light and even brighter colors. The soft echoes of quiet footsteps on the marble floor and the discreet whispers of faint conversations in the distance added to the grandeur. I felt immersed but certainly not overwhelmed. For a brief moment, time seemed to stand still as I wandered through the palatial halls, trying to take in all that I could. Beautiful office buildings like the Guardian, are reflections of the collective ethos of those who work there. The architecture, and the overall aesthetic more generally, serves to give the building some degree of life, assuming that the remainder will come from the companies/institutions/people whose livelihoods come from inside. Thus, office buildings do not need to be and really should not be mere collections of steel and bolts that create spaces for work. The way that they are built ought to manifest and to inspire certain values, namely creativity and ingenuity, because doing so helps to reinforce a sort of spatial sanctity, wherein doing oneʼs job can feel less like monotonous work and more like meaningful difference-making. The Guardian Building is more than a commercial nucleus around which Detroitʼs business district used to be centered. It is the Cathedral of Finance, and it is also my new favorite building.

Words by Connor Tukel. Photos by Avery Naman.