Art Deco Detroit – Part 1 – The Guardian


Depression-era bank buildings like the Guardian offer a bittersweet paradox. They were magnificent spaces in which every detail conveyed security. But like the era’s movie palaces, it was all just an illusion.


A nearly unobstructed view from 1929.

The Guardian went up, literally, as the stock market went down. The building’s owner, Union Guardian Trust Company, failed shortly after the building opened. Sadly, there was nothing unique about that; twenty other Detroit banks collapsed at the same time.

Imagine what went through the minds of Guardian Trust officals, seeing their “Cathedral of Finance,” open in 1929 and go into receivership in 1933. Liqudation commenced, and was so convoluted that final settlements were not completed until 1953.

What happened to the savings of the bank’s customers? The bank promised to make them whole–up to $1000. If they were fortunate enough to have more than $1000, they would receive .35 cents on the dollar on any additional balances.

Another paradox of the Art Deco era is that because color photography was expensive and difficult to reproduce, readers of archtectural publications often had to rely on descriptions of color to imagine what something looked like.



Some of the 20 different colors of Atlantic terracotta, and many different colors of brick.

I think you’ll agree that words alone are inadequate to describe the Guardian Building’s use of color.


Welcome to the Guardian!

The Guardian’s “Gothic Modern” design was the work of Wirt C. Rowland (who also designed the impressively Art Deco but very different Penobscot Building across the street.)  Rowland designed everything in the Guardian, from furniture and textiles to the silverware used in the dinning room. Where wood was used, Rowland indicated the direction in which the grain should run.


Monel elevator doors with Favrille glass accents. At the end each elevator bank is a stained glass window. One is “Security”, the other, “Fidelity.”



Incredible as all this is, it’s not even the bank, just the lobby.

Innovations were many, including the use of Monel metal, an alloy with a platinum-like appearence, for gates, teller windows, check writing tables and elevator doors. The elevator doors were further ornamented with inlaid Favrille glass.

Guardian Bldg., Detroit, Michigan

Behold the Cathedral of Finance


The banking room, with Ezra Winter’s map of Michigan.



Mining, fishing, agriculture, manufacturing


Mural detail


Banking room ceiling fixture

The Guardian’s banking room has been home to several banks, the utility company MichCon and currently Bank of America.


A gate leading to the vault. The red marble was unavailable because the quarry had been closed. So Rowland went to Africa and had it reopened. No, I’m not kidding.

Safe Deposit Windows, Guardian Bldg., Detroit, Michigan

The vault itself is not Art Deco styled but this counter obviously is.


Closing time

I’ll end this post with some trivia. My love affair with the Guardian began back in the 1980s. I don’t know the exact year, but if you look closely at the photo below, the Michigan National Bank was offering 13.7% interest on 6-month deposits.

Michigan Bank, Guardian Bldg., Detroit, Michigan, 1980s--look at

Michigan Bank, Guardian Bldg., Detroit, Michigan, 1980s--look at

Another brief stop at the Guardian turns into a whole day!


Looks like the book is out of print but you can still get it here:

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2 Responses to Art Deco Detroit – Part 1 – The Guardian

  1. Johnny Canuck says:

    Outstanding photography. Amazing architecture.

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