Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Guardian Building

As the 1920s opened, the banking industry was immense and Detroit was experiencing great prosperity. Looking to create an image that displayed extreme elegance and success, The Union Trust Company hired noted architect Wirt C. Rowland of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls to create their masterpiece headquarters. Rowland, who also designed the Penobscot and Buhl buildings, became known for his innovative and provocative Art Deco style. The design for the 40-story Union Trust Building was completed in 1927 and construction concluded in 1929. The stock market crash of 1929 had devastating effects on the Union Trust Company, causing it to fail. It was reincorporated as The Union Guardian Trust Company. The building was renamed the Union Guardian Building before becoming known simply as the Guardian Building. 

The building’s unmatched design, along with its occupants, earned the building the nickname “The Cathedral of Finance.” The main lobby is certainly reminiscent of a cathedral, with colored marble, stained glass windows, massive pillars, intricate metalwork, and a barrel-vaulted ceiling decorated with decorative colored Pewabic and Rookwood tiles meant to convey strength and stability. The distinctive exterior orange-tan color brick was later marketed as ‘Guardian Brick.’ The Guardian Building remains one of the tallest brick structures in the world, and unique among skyscrapers for its use of color. The main entrance to the building is flanked by two reliefs named Safety and Security, carved by prolific sculptor Corrado Parducci. The half-dome above the entrance is covered with Pewabic tiles whose symbolic designs were created in collaboration with the architect. The building also featured a three-level basement which housed a gun range for security guards, as well as a theater on the 32nd floor.

Following the Union Trust Company’s receivership in 1932, the building was underutilized until World War II when the building became the command center for U.S. Army wartime ordinance production. After the war, the building was sold at auction. Its largest tenant until the late 1950s was Michigan Consolidated Gas Company, who bought the building in 1975 and then sold it to General Electric Pension Trust. In 1989, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. SmithGroup, formerly known as Smith, Hinchman and Grylls, and the firm responsible for the Guardian Building, moved their offices into their iconic building in 1998. In 2007, Wayne County purchased the building and moved their offices there as well. 

The truly unique building, influenced by Native American and Aztec arts and crafts and containing masterful detail and craftsmanship, has its lobby accessible to the public. 



Lobby of the Guardian Building, 1983

Guardian Building postcard, 1935

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