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Pure Detroit Tours: Guardian Building

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Way back in November (you know, that month when the entire mitten state had yet to be blanketed in snow), I spent a Saturday learning about some of downtown Detroit’s greatest architectural landmarks with Pure Detroit.

If you haven’t read my abridgment of our time at the Fisher Building and our Downtown Skyscraper tour (do it!), here’s a little background.

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

Pure Detroit started as a single shop opened on Thanksgiving Day of 1998 in the David Whitney building, and has now grown to three store locations, has opened several satellite businesses, assists in local development projects, puts on various cultural events, and much more.

To help celebrate its fifteen-year anniversary in 2013, Pure Detroit began conducting completely free public tours this past February.

Conceived by former city planner and longtime Detroit aficionado, Michael Boettecher, the tours serve to promote not only Pure Detroit, but also to promote and honor the city and buildings that are such an integral part of that business.

Mike, who got involved in tours of the Motor City after going on a tour himself through Preservation Detroit (then Preservation Wayne), is so committed to the success of the tours that he conducts the weekly Downtown Skyscraper tour himself.

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And I think I speak for all who have been on the tour when I say that I’m very glad he does. Mike was incredibly knowledgeable, informative, engaging, and an amazing tour guide and representative of Pure Detroit, as was every Pure Detroit employee and tour guide that we had the opportunity to interact with.

Since each tour began at one of the Pure Detroit shop locations, we were able to shop around and talk to some of the store employees before starting our tour (and pick up one of these awesome Detroit Small Business Passports) and every interaction was a hugely positive one.

I also was excited to find that, though both the Guardian Building and Fisher Building tours began at 11 a.m., the Downtown Skyscraper tour started at 1 p.m. from the Guardian Building. Basically, we got to kill all three birds (tours) with one stone and make a Detroit day of it.

Now, it may seem like cheating that I’ve made the Guardian Building portion of the Downtown Skyscraper tour a feature in and of itself, but A. it warrants it, and B. Mike was so thorough and engaging with his anecdotes on the building that including it in the same feature as the rest of the Downtown Skyscraper tour would not have done it justice.

Though we met at the Pure Detroit shop at the Guardian Building for the Downtown Skyscraper tour, it wasn’t until the end that Mike really gave us the skinny on this beacon of the Motor City. Rounding the corner at the end of the tour, the Guardian Building came back into view, and it is completely apparent why the building was named a National Historic Landmark in 1989.

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Nicknamed the Cathedral of Finance (the Fisher Building was similarly coined the Cathedral of Commerce), the building was designed by famed Detroit architect Wirt C. Rowland. As the head designer at Smith, Hinchman & Grylls (now Smith Group), Rowland also designed several other Detroit landmarks, including the Buhl Building and the Penobscot Building.

Rowland designed the 40-story Art Deco structure for the Union Trust Company in 1927; the building was completed in 1929, just before the Stock Market crash. The Union Trust Company was reorganized into the Union Guardian Trust Company (thus where the structure gets its name) and retained ownership of the building for the time being, though it changed hands frequently later on.

Both the taller North tower and the shorter, octagonal South tower are built of an orange brick on a granite base. The brick is unique on many levels; first, because it was wildly uncommon in that time to build such a structure of brick (it was the largest to be erected with the material at the time), and second, because the color is ONLY seen on that singular building. Coined “Guardian Brick”, there were 1.8 million individual bricks used to construct the skyscraper.

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At the entrance of the building is a semi-dome adorned with a seated figure with open arms, designed and crafted by Mary Chase Stratton, founder of Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery.

Flanking the welcoming figure are two figures, one holding a key and the other holding a sword, representing safety and security. The two reliefs were conceived and executed by Corrado Parducci, whose work can be seen throughout the Detroit area.

In total, 40 artisans worked on the Guardian Building. Though that number may seem considerable, when taking in the grandeur of the artistry, it is difficult to conceive that only 40 artisans were involved. Walking under the semi-dome, we enter into the 150-foot long main lobby.

At about a third of the height of the three-story vaulted ceiling is a walkway where the guard would have paced in the bank’s heyday, above the entrance we just passed through. The lobby contains materials from all over the world, from Italian Travertine marble to Tavernelle marble from Tennessee to Namibian marble, which Rowland was so desperate to use that he reopened a mine in Africa that had been closed for more than 30 years.

Perhaps paramount to the impressive marbles is the vaulted ceiling. Crafted of Rookwood pottery and Pewabic tile in an interlocking Aztec design, the ceiling was hand stenciled and cut by artist Anthony Eugenio, and painted by 10 additional artists. This ceiling, along with the ceiling in the banking hall, is canvas stretched over horsehair in order to minimize sound.

On each side of the lobby are small coves with the notched arches typical of the building. Between the two coves on the East side (where the elevators are located), is the “White Pine” mural by Ezra Winter, depicting a pine tree and detailing the bank’s mission.

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Walking up one of two sets of stairs, visitors pass through a metal archway containing a Tiffany clock (one of four in that style ever created), and enter into the main hall. When the building first opened in the 1920s, this area would have been filled with 80 teller cages.

The multistory windows visible from the exterior in the building allow an influx of light into the hall (though, originally, they would have produced near unbearable heat on hot, sunny days). In front of these windows now is a row of shops, bank tellers, and businesses; glass partitions have been erected to separate the businesses from the main hall in such a way that they are able to be later removed without damaging the structure.

My personal favorite part of the Guardian Building is the five-story mural at the South end of the main hall. Ezra Winter (the same artist responsible for the “White Pine” mural) created the piece as a tribute to the industry, agriculture, and prosperity of Michigan; the mural depicts a Native American princess holding two horns of plenty, with spokes extending from her to represent the industries of Michigan, all set with an image of Michigan in the background.

Designed by Michigan architects, constructed by Michigan contractors, and embellished by Michigan artisans, the Guardian building as a whole is a great tribute to not only the strength and resilience of Detroit, but to the entire state of Michigan.

If you have yet to visit a Pure Detroit store, I highly recommend a trip. And absolutely try to stop in on a Saturday when you can also join in on a tour; I guarantee that you’ll leave with a renewed sense of pride in the Motor City.

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