Book Review: “Designing Detroit ~ Wirt Rowland and the Rise of Modern American Architecture” by Michael G. Smith

Book Review: “Designing Detroit ~ Wirt Rowland and the Rise of Modern American Architecture” by Michael G. Smith

“Designing Detroit” Author Michael G. Smith

You can’t imagine our pride and pleasure, people, seeing an I♥DM contributor’s 400-page, photo-filled biography of Detroit architect extraordinaire, Wirt Rowland, published by the area’s top disseminator of quality written history, Wayne State University Press. The list of commendable accomplishments associated with Michael G. Smith’s “Designing Detroit” is long. Where do we start? Most importantly, Smith’s meticulously researched tome at long last fills a vacuum in the annals of Detroit architectural history, its thoroughness and accuracy rightfully elevating Rowland’s largely unsung career to the lofty heights deserving of a true giant of not just American architecture, but all fine arts. Smith’s voluminous work also brings to light the remarkable degree of influence, so often obscured by the highly publicized architectural legacies of Chicago and New York, that Rowland’s Detroit exerted upon the evolution of the American skyscraper during the Roaring 20s. Additionally, Smith expounds at length upon Rowland’s widespread influence beyond the Detroit of the 1920s, citing iconic buildings that bear his stylistic signatures in New York and Los Angeles, and a host of Detroit architects, whose careers developed under Rowland’s guidance, that went on to form a catalyst of Miami’s celebrated Art Deco building explosion in the early 1930s. Less significant nationally, but still noteworthy, Smith’s work also puts to rest a long-standing debate among Detroit’s architectural historians regarding the degree of Rowland’s contribution to the final design of Bloomfield’s Kirk in the Hills. (The verdict? You wish. No spoilers. Gotta read it yourselves, kids). Finally, and likely relevant only to us here at I♥DM, Smith’s opus lends immeasurable legitimacy to our modest website, and even more so, to his condensed Rowland bio, published in these very pages, back in June of 2012.

Architect Wirt Rowland

It’s the fine detail, though, that really brings this volume to life, in our opinion. Smith’s encyclopedic knowledge of the life and work of Rowland is at its most impressive as he elucidates Rowland’s disciplined use of complex geometry and dynamic symmetry in nearly all of his architectural design work, backing his claims regarding Rowland’s creative process with a beyond convincing series of geometric illustrations superimposed over original Smith, Hinchman & Grylls architectural drawings. Rowland’s deep involvement in the cultural life of Detroit is also given ample attention, including his participation in local architecture oriented fraternal organizations like the Thumb Tack Club and the Detroit Architectural Club, his impressive and oft showcased talent for singing, his extensive published writings in local arts and architectural journals, and, perhaps most interesting, Rowland’s largely unknown/forgotten contribution to the interior of St. John’s Episcopal Church at Woodward and US-75.

Iconic Rowland designs, clockwise from top left: Kirk in the Hills, Penobscot & Guardian Building pinnacles, Buhl Building, Bankers Trust Company Building

So there it is, folks, our official and unconditional endorsement. We encourage you to purchase a copy of “Designing Detroit ~ Wirt Rowland and the Rise of Modern American Architecture” for yourself or another lover of Detroit at one of these local stores: Pure Detroit, Source Booksellers, Pages Bookshop, Crazy Wisdom Bookstore & Tearoom and Nicola’s Books or purchase it online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Wayne State University Press. ~I♥DM


Dale Carlson

Dale Carlson grew up along the northeastern shores of Lake Michigan, where at a young age Detroit called out to him in his dreams. In 2008, after extended stays in ten different Michigan cities, the author settled permanently in southeast Oakland County where he currently lives and works in various capacities within the local real estate industry.