Discover Detroit’s unique architectural heritage



A weekend getaway to Detroit can be filled with music, sports, food, and history. But for architecture enthusiasts, the city’s downtown core is a treasure trove of American skyscrapers. Take a tour or go alone. This walkable city center will have you looking up high.

Day 1

After you fly to Detroit, hire a car (hey, that’s Motor City) and head downtown. Start your day feasting on Coney dogs and chili fries at Lafayette Coney Island, a local icon. Then walk a few blocks to the Guardian Building. This art deco masterpiece is Detroit’s main architectural landmark. Designed by local architect Wirt Rowland, it opened as the Union Trust’s ‘Cathedral of Finance’ in 1929. The 40-story exterior is an unusual mix of orange-tan brick, terracotta polychrome and beige Mankato stone, an exotic promise for those who venture inside. There, the dramatic lobby curls overhead in a blaze of colorful tile in an Aztec motif. A rare double-sided Tiffany clock with a sunburst design, nickel-clad Monel elevators, and arched staircase doors make the Guardian Building as stunning today as it was when it was built.

Related:The cult of the Detroit Coney Dog, explained

Day 2

A day of wandering. Have breakfast at Avalon Bakery on Woodward Avenue. Walk down the street and admire the good condition of so many historic skyscrapers. One of the perks of Detroit’s tough times over the past few decades is that while many buildings have remained empty, nothing has been demolished. Now it is a gold mine for restoration. Head towards the Detroit River, noting the elegant lines of the One Woodward building designed by Detroit architect Minoru Yamasaki in 1963. Cross Jefferson Avenue to the popular Detroit Riverwalk and stroll to the landmark building of the city, the black glass towers of the 1970s Renaissance Center, designed by John Portman.

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The people of Detroit have a love-hate relationship with “Ren Cen.” While impressive on the outside, the interior still looks like a maze of dark concrete, no matter how many renovations have been done. See for yourself, then have lunch at Joe Muer Seafood in Tower 400 with its fantastic view of the river – and yes, that’s Windsor, Canada, across the water. In the afternoon, stroll the splendid Riverwalk to State Park and William G. Milliken Harbor.

Day 3

It’s Albert Kahn day. Kahn was Detroit’s most beloved architect. Many call the 29-story Fisher Building its greatest achievement, but it’s an acquired taste. No expense was spared for the 1928 art deco skyscraper, featuring an interior adorned with bronze, steel, silver, marble, and murals. Small interesting information: it was the first American office building to have a parking lot. Visit the Pure Detroit Gift Shop on the first floor, then if you have more time, visit the fantastic Motown Museum, the birthplace of Motown Records, which is just down the street.

Fisher Building Details

In the afternoon, you have the choice. Visit Belle Isle, the island just east of downtown, to see the charming Kahn-designed Belle Isle Conservatory and its small aquarium, with its Beaux-Arts-style shimmering green opaline glass walls. Or drive east to Grosse Pointe Shores to visit Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, a Kahn-designed and Cotswold cottage-themed mansion on the shores of Lake St. Clair. Edsel was the only son of inventor Henry Ford and the father of Henry Ford II. Enjoy lunch at the new Continental Restaurant on the grounds which overlooks peaceful Ford Cove.

Flights from Columbus to Detroit

Delta, four to five a day to Metro Detroit

Where to stay in Detroit

Architecture buffs can’t go wrong with the Shinola Hotel on Woodward Avenue or the Doubletree Suites Fort Shelby Hotel on West Lafayette Boulevard. The restored main building of Shinola, a former hardware and sporting goods store built in 1915, was designed by Wirt Rowland, while Fort Shelby was designed by Albert Kahn in 1927.

This story is from the October 2021 issue of Columbus monthly.


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