Agriculture. Lumbering. Mining. Finance. Fishing. Commerce. Manufacture.
Those were the ingredients for Detroit’s roaring success, the great churning wheel of industrial progress. Paved roads of gleaming concrete unrolled before it, the trees practically felling themselves along the way. A guardian angel holding ample horns of plenty to her bosom watched over the pleasant peninsula, its prosperity divinely guaranteed.
Then the Great Depression hit.
No other building – or work of art – quite captured the exuberance of Detroit in the ’20s like the Guardian Building and Ezra Winter’s Michigan Mural. Housed within the radiant, Aztec-inspired skyscraper of tangerine, blood red, cream, and sky blue, Winter’s painting reinterprets capitalism with a spiritual air. Under the kaleidoscopic, mosaic-like fractals of the main banking hall’s tremendous vaulted ceiling, you can almost feel Adam Smith’s invisible hand resting on your shoulder.
They didn’t call it the “Cathedral of Finance” for nothing. It was intended from the ground up to evoke a strong sense of permanence and power.
Designed by Wirt Rowland for the Union Trust Company, Detroit’s biggest bank at the time, no expenses were spared. A mine was temporarily reopened in Africa to supply builders with a rare type of marble. Thousands of tiles from Detroit’s legendary Pewabic Pottery were ordered. Famous local sculptor Corrado Parducci was commissioned to embellish the building’s exterior. There was a hint of Citizen Kane’s Xanadu in the project’s grandeur.
The final result, of course, was stunning. The unusual “Guardian” orange brick stands out against the dark Detroit skyline like a ray of sunshine on a stormy day, Parducci’s stern-faced Native Americans emerging from the brick bearing torches of light. Ever concerned, they gaze over the mad parade of Detroit – the trumpeters playing mangled medleys of classic tunes; the impoverished black Detroiters waiting anxiously for the bus; the businessmen and women walking briskly down the street in perfectly pressed outfits.
The Union Trust Company regrettably went bust in the ’30s. Since then, the Guardian Building has had numerous owners, and was finally purchased by Wayne County in 2007. Currently, the lobby is home to a Bank of America branch, two cafes, and a couple of small stores, including Pure Detroit, a Detroit gift shop. Thanks to the latter occupant, you can now buy Detroit-themed panties in the Guardian Building, just like how Wirt Rowland must’ve envisioned it when the foundations of were first laid.
Somehow, I imagine the feeling it gives me is little different than how the Romans felt when the barbarian Flavius Odoacer declared himself King of Italy in 476 AD, marking the fall of the Roman Empire.
Nevertheless, we should at least be thankful that a new generation is breathing life into the hallowed halls of the Guardian Building. One can only hope that the present tenants – Bank of America, in particular – will be inspired to live up to the bold aspirations inscribed by the building’s founders in gold in the main lobby:
FOUNDED ON PRINCIPLES OF FAITH AND UNDERSTANDING THIS BUILDING IS ERECTED FOR THE PURPOSE OF MAINTAINING AMD CONTINUING THE IDEALS OF FINANCIAL SERVICE WHICH PROMPTED THE ORGANIZATION OF THIS INSITUTION