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Pure Detroit Tours: Downtown Skyscrapers

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A few weeks back, I spent my Saturday afternoon exploring some of Detroit’s greatest architectural gems with Pure Detroit. You may have already read my recap of our tour of the Fisher Building (if not, please do; the tour was fantastic), but that wasn’t the only Pure Detroit tour we enjoyed that day.

After our tour of Detroit’s Cathedral of Commerce, we headed to the Guardian Building to take a tour of some of the Motor City’s most impressive skyscrapers.

**Please Note: This article was written in 2013. Please check their website for the most up-to-date information about any tours available.**

Both tours were a part of the completely free public tour series that Pure Detroit began hosting this past February to help celebrate it’s fifteen-year anniversary. (In addition to the Fisher Building tour and the Downtown Skyscraper tour, there is also a tour of the Guardian Building itself.)

The tours obviously serve to promote Pure Detroit, but more than that, they promote and honor the city and buildings that are such an integral part of that business.

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This is part of what makes Pure Detroit such an asset to the Motor City. What started as a single shop (opened on Thanksgiving Day 1998 in the David Whitney building), Pure Detroit now has three store locations, has opened several satellite businesses, assists in local development projects, puts on various cultural events, and much more.

Every representative of Pure Detroit that we had the opportunity to interact with (from the employees in the stores to Ryan, our tour guide at the Fisher Building) was friendly, helpful, and enthusiastic.

None were more so, perhaps, than our Downtown Skyscraper tour guide Michael Boettcher. A former city planner and longtime Detroit aficionado, Mike got involved in tours of the Motor City after going on a tour himself through Preservation Detroit (then Preservation Wayne). He was behind the idea to celebrate Pure Detroit’s fifteenth anniversary with the series of architectural tours.

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Mike began our tour in the grand Guardian Building (though we didn’t really get to hear about the landmark’s history until the end of our tour). From there, we took to the windy streets of Detroit’s downtown to visit some of the most prominent architectural landmarks.

First, we headed toward the First National Building, walking along a block with structures dating back to the late 1800s. One of these is now home to the Grand Trunk Pub. The pub, which I had been in a few months prior, served (in the early 1900s) as a ticket office for the Grand Trunk Railway.

The railway wanted an office that provided downtown visibility, and thus purchased the then-jewelry store to renovate (these updates included vaulted ceilings and the company’s logo emblazoned on the interior and exterior of the building).


As we continued our approach to the First National Building, Mike pointed out the building’s unique design: the zig-zag structure allowed for increased light and ventilation. And in a time sans air conditioning, the employees in the building surely owed a debt of gratitude to architect Albert Kahn on particularly hot summer days.

Stepping into the building, the juxtaposition between old and new was striking. Structurally, much of the building had been altered, but there were still glimpses of the art deco design from the original construction.

We left the First National Building to take in the views of and around Campus Martius Park. Surrounded by such giants as Chase Tower, Cadillac Tower, and Compuware Headquarters, Campus Martius was one of my favorite places on the skyscraper tour to truly appreciate some of the incredible structures in Detroit.

The eclectic architecture (the Corinthian columns of the First National Building are a far cry from the incredibly modern face of the Compuware Headquarters) illustrate the changing landscape of the Motor City.

Another shining example of this on our tour was when we caught a glimpse of the Wayne County Building. Originally built in the late 1800s and completed in 1902, it is one of the finest preserved examples of Roman Baroque architecture in the nation.

Amongst the behemoth structures of the more modern-day Detroit, standing in front of the building (which is on the National Register of Historic Buildings) is like looking back in time to a much different Detroit.


Another such structure is the Penobscot Building. Completed a couple of decades after the Wayne County Building in 1928, the interior and the exterior of towering building are adorned with American Indian ornamentation. The structure is also another example of employing a unique shape to allow more light and air to enter the building.

After a quick stop in the lobby of the Penobscot Building, we continued on toward the river to take in views of a couple of slightly more modern buildings: the GM Renaissance Center and One Woodward Avenue (designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center towers).

We didn’t go into the “RenCen” (again, embarrassingly, I have never been inside), but since both Mike and my dad relayed what a confusing time it can be to find your way around inside, I wasn’t that disappointed. (Although I hear the views from the top are incredible!) This was yet another one of my favorite locales on the tour; being down by the water, near Hart Plaza, the Monument to Joe Louis, and the Spirit of Detroit, it was impossible not to feel a swell of love for Detroit.


We made our way back to the Guardian Building (more on that breathtaking landmark soon!) in the biting wind talking about all of the changes Detroit has seen over the years, and what is on the horizon for the Motor City.

Cheesy though it may sound, I couldn’t help but feel a surge of overwhelming optimism that our great city is headed down the right path with people like Mike and companies like Pure Detroit at the forefront.


  1. Hi Hayley, this is Michael, your tour guide. I’m so glad you enjoyed the tours you took with me! Other than the Fisher Building, Pure Detroit stopped doing tours at the onset of the COVID pandemic. I’m now repeating the Guardian and Skyscraper tours (and others) with a new company, Detroit History Tours (detroithistorytours.com), and we’d love to have you back to see how much we’ve learned and how much has changed since your first visit!

  2. We are very excited to be taking this tour with DHT in a few weeks, with our grandson for his 13th birthday outing. He loves architecture and is looking forward to his upcoming adventure downtown.

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