Completed in 1895, this is the oldest surviving skyscraper in Detroit. Until the late 1880s, there were no tall buildings. A number of engineering developments were required before architects could design skyscrapers. One was the idea of using cast iron and/or steel as a skeleton for a high rise structure, a skeleton to which an exterior could be attached such as a covering of limestone. Another was the development of a safe and reliable elevator that could easily and rapidly take passengers to upper stories. The skyscraper also awaited the invention of a central heating system that could supply warmth efficiently and safely to many stories. Finally, the development of skyscrapers awaited changes in business organizations so that it became necessary to have office space at one location for large numbers of clerks and administrators. There is debate about who should receive the most credit for inventing the skyscraper since many architects and engineers contributed innovations that made them possible. There is more agreement that the world’s first skyscraper was the ten-story Home Insurance Building at the corner of LaSalle and Monroe in Chicago, completed in 1885 and designed by the American architect, William Jenney who had been a professor of architecture at the University of Michigan but never, so fas as I know, designed a building in Detroit. If you asked many people who invented the skyscraper, I suspect that the frequent answer would be Chicago architect Daniel Burnham who designed the Dime, the Ford and the David Whitney buildings that are within a short walk of this Chamber of Commerce Building. Burnham studied with William Jenny and is famous for the numerous skyscrapers he designed, for his participation in the Chicago World Fair Expostion of 1892 and for his strong involvement in the City Beautiful movement. That movement sought to make many large cities more livable and led to the development of Detroit’s Cultural Center. Daniel Burnham designed Detroit’s third skyscraper, the Majesty Building completed in 1896 and torn down in 1962. That 14-story building was located at 1011 Woodward. The first skyscraper in Detroit was the ten-story Hammond Building located at 31 West Fort and designed by Chicago architect, Harry W. J. Edbrooke. It was torn down in 1956.
William Rohns, born in Göttingen and trained in architecture at an institute in Hanover, migrated to Detroit in 1883 and originally worked with Gordon Lloyd. The next year, he formed a firm with Frederick Spier. Spier was working for the famous New York architect, Vyrus Lazelle Eidlitz who was employed by the New York Central Railroad and their affiliate lines to design large depots. Eidlitz apparently dispatched Spier to Detroit to help design the large Victorian Michigan Central Station that stood at West Jefferson and Third from the 1880s until after World War II, although passenger trains ceased visiting the station when the Michigan Central Depot at Roosevelt Park opened in 1912.
Rohns and Spier apparently wanted to design an Italian Renaissance Beaux Arts structure here but it is now challenging to appreciate their original intentions because of numerous renovations. The original design involved a rusticated base with numerous pillars, flaring cornices and an arcade. The building has been substantially altered over the years. The arched windows have been greatly changed and made rectangular. The light well, at one point, was enclosed and the cornice was removed in the 1950s. In fact, the cornices of most Detroit downtown buildings were removed in that decade. I believe that a large piece of cornice fell to the street in the late 1940s, killing a pedestrian. City council then enacted a statue demanding that cornices be reconstructed or removed. Most property owners saved monies by removing them. Rohns and Spier designed an elegant interior for the Chamber of Commerce Building using Italian marble for the lobby and extensive mahogany paneling for the offices.
I do not know if the original name of this structure was the Chamber of Commerce Building or the Detroit Savings Bank Building. Elon Farnsworth was born in Vermont in the Eighteenth Century but came to Detroit in 1822 where he studied law with Solomon Sibley whose homes stands to this day on East Jefferson. Farnsworth was elected to the territorial legislature in 1834. The state’s first constitution called for a chancellor. Farnsworth was the first and only chancellor this state has had. Farnsworth served as Michigan’s Attorney General from 1843 to 1845 and was a member of the first voter-elected Board of Regents of the University of Michigan in 1852. In 1840, Farnsworth helped to establish the Detroit Savings Fund Institute. Just 22 years later, this fiscal outfit became the Detroit Savings Bank whose name still graces the arch over the State Street entrance to the Chamber of Commerce building. The Detroit Savings Bank survived the Depression, but became the Detroit Bank in 1936. That firm merged with two or three local banks in 1953 to become the Detroit Bank and Trust Company.
Federal and state laws prohibiting interstate banks ended in the early 1980s. Detroit Bank and Trust changed its name to Comerica Bank in 1982 and acquired or affiliated with banks and credit card companies in Florida, Illinois, Texas and California. After the firm grew, they commissioned architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, in 1990, to design the impressive Comerica Tower at Woodward and Larned. In 2007, Comerica Bank announced that after having its headquarters in Detroit for 158 years, they were moving their governing center from the city to Dallas.
The Chamber of Commerce building provided office space from 1987 to 2009 to the Detroit United Way. That organization moved away, and in 2012, I believe that Downtown Development Authority owns this structure and is preparing to renovate it.
Architects: Frederick Spier and William Rohns
Architectural style: Italian Renaissance and, perhaps, Beaux-Arts Classicism
Date of completion: 1895
Use in 2012: Owned by Downtown Development Authority and awaiting renovation and reuse
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: This building is included within the Capitol Park Historic District; P35,753, Listed March 18, 1999.
National Register of Historic Places: This building is also, I believe, within the Capitol Park National Historic District. This is #99000338 and also listed March 18, 1999.
Photograph: Ren Farley; September 30, 2010
Description updated: January, 2012
Return to Commercial Buildings
Return to Homepage