Buhl Building

Buhl Building

535 Griswold Street at West Congress in downtown Detroit

The Buhl brothers, Frederick and Christian, came to Detroit early in the Nineteenth Century. They made their money in the fur trade and then in the hat business. As Detroit became a leading industrial metropolis, they turned to manufacturing as well as retailing and property development. They founded the Detroit Locomotive Works and then the Buhl Iron Works that later became the Detroit Copper and Brass firm. They added to their wealth by entering the hardware business and then erected an office building at the corner of Griswold and Congress that became an attractive location for prosperous law firms. Frederick Buhl served as mayor of Detroit in 1848, while his brother, Christian, served as mayor twelve years later after holding a variety of other political offices.

The skyscraper building boom in Detroit reached its zenith in the late 1920s, reflecting the demand for office space generated by the vehicle industry. A third generation of Buhls decided to make more profitable use of their prime downtown land by replacing their small office building at Griswold and West Congress with the 26 story building that you see. They selected the Smith, Hinchman and Grylls firm and, fortunately for them, the skilled and imaginative Writ Rowland was selected as the architect. His most magnificent accomplishment is the nearby Guardian Building but he created a beautiful structure in the Buhl Building, one that has great appeal some eight decades after he first sketched it.

Modern air conditioning for large office buildings was not available until the end of the 1920s and, when Rowland designed this building; electric lighting was less effective than it is today. To solve these challenges, Daniel Burnham—the father of the modern skyscraper—placed large light wells in his building, giving every office external light and air. The light well in the nearby Dime Building faces Griswold while the light well in the adjoining Ford Building is reversed so it is visible from West Congress but not from Griswold. Nevertheless, the light well was only a partial solution and, perhaps, not such a good one for offices on the low floors. By the time Rowland designed the Buhl Building, he believed it would be more effective way to capture natural light and gentle Detroit breezes was the cruciform style. This design also had the advantage of providing eight external corner offices, offices that could be rented at higher rates. The skyscraper is largely Gothic in style but the numerous details at the lower level are Romanesque. If you look at the impressive columns and the barrel vaulting of the main entrance, you will find the images traditionally incorporated in classical Roman buildings: ram's heads, acanthus leaves, basket weaving, along with elaborate laurel and floral work. At the time he designed this building, I believe that Writ Rowland was working on the design for the Gothic Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church and, I have been told, for a Romanesque bank. I don’t know the name of the bank but the Gothic and Romanesque elements used in the Buhl Building may be linked to his other simultaneous commissions. Quite a few Detroit building from this era display a carved Indian on their exterior, perhaps to remind us of the cities past. The one on the Buhl Building was sculpted, I believe, by Carrado Parducci. The striking globe for the hung lamp at the entrance dates from 1925.

Architect: Writ Rowland employed by Smith, Hinchman and Grylls
Architectural Style: Modernized Romanesque
Date of Completion: 1925
Use in 2006: Major Office Building
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
Michigan Register of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Sites: Not listed
Photograph: Andrew Chandler; July, 2004
Description refreshed February, 2006.


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