A history of Detroit's tallest buildings

The Hudson's site development will take the top spot on completion

The Renaissance Center has been the tallest building in Detroit since its completion in 1977

DETROIT - Dan Gilbert's Bedrock real estate company broke ground Dec. 14 on the site of the former Hudson's department store in downtown Detroit

Construction is underway on what is planned to be a 58-story residential tower and a 12-story building. The tower will be the tallest skyscraper in Detroit upon its completion.

Over the course of Detroit's history, many buildings of different types and styles have taken the top spot. WDIV Local 4 has compiled a timeline of the tallest buildings in Detroit, which you can read below.

First Michigan State Capitol Building

Capitol Park

From 1828 to 1866
Two floors, 140 feet 

Source: historicdetroit.org

Just after the Toledo War ended in 1836 with the passing of the Frostbitten Convention, Michigan became the 26th state, with Detroit as its capital city. The first State Capitol building was built in 1832, standing 140 feet tall, making it the tallest building in Detroit at the time. This Greek architecture revival stood as Michigan’s statehouse for almost 20 years. Detroit’s border to Canada left many Michigan residents fearful of the possibility of their capitol being invaded easily by hostile Canadians, so the more centralized Lansing became the capitol in 1847.

The building then became Detroit's first high school before ultimately burning down in 1893. It’s unclear how the fire started, but newspapers at the time believed it to be arson.

Most Holy Trinity Church

1050 Porter St.

From 1866 to 1871
One Floor, 170 feet 

Source: historicdetroit.org

While the Most Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church is one of the oldest churches in the city, it’s also one of the oldest parishes, having been established in 1835. This church was built around an older church so that services wouldn't be interrupted during the construction. Once completed, the church inside the church was demolished and the new church’s interior was renovated. Construction took approximately a decade, completing the building in 1866.

Former Detroit City Hall

Campus Martius Park

From 1871 to 1877 (tie)
Four floors, 200 feet 

Source: historicdetroit.org

When initially proposed, Detroit was a small city, but the government ambitiously and correctly knew it would become much larger. Plans to create a grand landmark were put on hold due to federal restrictions on materials during the Civil War. Two years after the war ended, construction began on the new City Hall building in 1867, finishing in 1871. 

Predating the city’s first skyscraper, the former City Hall shadowed over any building nearby. A renovation in 1869 gave the building a trendy mansard roof. The conflicting designs tainted the building’s aesthetic, with one councilman saying in 1935 that it was the building’s only flaw. 
It was demolished in 1961.

St. Joseph Oratory

1828 Jay St.

From 1873 to 1877 (tie)
One floor, 200 feet 

Source: Wikipedia user Nheyob

St. Joseph Church is the first building on the timeline to be included on the National Register of Historic Places. Formerly a parish church of the Archdiocese of Detroit, it’s now an oratory.
Starting construction in 1870, this Victorian Gothic church was completed in 1877, tying with the former City Hall building’s height of 200 feet. Both buildings were tied for tallest building till 1877, when another church was completed, taking the top spot.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

Fort Street Presbyterian Church

631 Fort St.

From 1877 to 1909
One floor, 265 feet 

Source: historicdetroit.org

A rush of English Protestants contributed heavily to Detroit’s population growth in the 1830s and 1840s. The Rev. Robert Kellogg , with no relation to Battle Creek’s cereal magnate and enema enthusiast W.K. Kellogg, organized the Second Presbyterian Church, with the congregation meeting in the old Capitol building until the church could be constructed. 

The original church was completed in 1855, with construction costs preventing it from being fully realized. A fire in 1876 destroyed the building completely, leading to it being rebuilt according to the original plans. With its steeple 265 feet tall, it became the tallest building in the state and is still listed as one of the tallest churches in the United States.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

Ford Building

615 Griswold St.

From 1909 to 1913
Nineteen floors, 275 feet 

Source: historicdetroit.org

One of the oldest skyscrapers in the city, the Ford Building revitalized the then-failing Griswold Street, keeping Detroit’s business center from moving elsewhere. Using a steel support system beneath its tile exterior, the office and retail building was able to stand taller than buildings without steel enforcement.  

Ironically, the Ford Building has nothing to do with Ford Motor Company. The building was constructed to be the headquarters for the Edward Ford Plate Glass Company, which had a factory in Toledo. 

Designed by the same man who designed New York City’s Flatiron Building, Daniel Burnham created a modern building with running hot and cold water on every floor and state-of-the-art air circulation designs. 

Penobscot Building Annex

144 Congress St.

1913
Twenty-three floors, 310 feet 

Source: historicdetroit.org

The second building of three built in the Penobscot complex, this Renaissance-inspired building was named after the indigenous people of the northeast coast of North America. Simon J. Murphy, who financed the construction of the first Penobscot building, picked the name due to his fond memories of the Penobscot River in Maine, where his family was from initially.

The Detroit Stock Exchange found its home inside the Annex in 1919- after leaving the Dime Building.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. 

Chrysler House

719 Griswold St.

From 1913 to 1924
Twenty-three floors, 324 feet tall

Source: historicdetroit.org

The Annex didn’t hold its top spot for long, as the completion of the Dime Building snatched the title within the year. The Dime Building -- later renamed the Commonwealth Building, later renamed Griswold Place before going back to the Dime building, later renamed Chrysler House -- was designed by Ford Building architect Daniel Burnham. An underground tunnel connects it to the Ford Building.

It was purchased by Dan Gilbert in 2011.

In 2012, Chrysler moved its Great Lakes Business Center to the building, taking residency in the top two floors.

Westin Book Cadillac Hotel

1114 Washington Blvd. 

From 1924 to 1925
Twenty-nine floors, 349 feet 

Historic Westin Book Cadillac Hotel -- Source: historicdetroit.org

This luxury hotel was built to compete with the nearby Detroit Statler Hotel for the most opulent hotel in the city. The Book Building, to be named after the Book brothers, was built on the site of the old Cadillac Hotel. After a delay in construction due to material shortages during World War I, construction began in 1923. The new name was the Book-Cadillac Hotel.

In May 1939, New York Yankee Lou Gehrig collapsed on the hotel’s grand staircase. Making the decision to not play, Gehrig broke his string of 2,130 consecutive games played.

The hotel was purchased in 1951 by Sheraton, who renamed it the Sheraton-Cadillac Hotel. Almost every interior space of the hotel was renovated. It was then sold in 1975, becoming the Detroit-Cadillac Hotel, and then sold again, just a year later, becoming the Radisson-Cadillac Hotel. Three years later, it was sold and rebranded again as the Book-Cadillac Hotel. 

Source: historicdetroit.org

Source: historicdetroit.org

During the 1980s, the building was converted into a mixed-use space, having office in addition to hotel rooms, but it wasn’t enough to keep the building profitable. It was vacant for 20 years before Detroit made a deal to renovate the building -- a plan that fell through when investors realized damage to the hotel was worse than anticipated. 

It was ultimately purchased and renovated to become a Westin Hotel and Residences, giving it its current name, the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel.

Buhl Building

535 Griswold St.

From 1925 to 1926
Twenty-nine floors, 366 feet

Source: historicdetroit.org

While the first four floors are rectangular, the fifth floor and higher have a cross-shaped floor plan. Designers chose this shape to have the maximum amount of potential windowed office spaces.
Dan Gilbert closed on the purchase of the Buhl on Dec. 4, 2017.

Bedrock said there are plans to upgrade the building’s common areas, its lighting and security.

Book Tower

1265 Washington Blvd.

From 1926 to 1928
Thirty-eight floors, 476 feet

Source: historicdetroit.org

Construction began on this building in 1916 as an addition to the original Book Building, finishing a decade later. Continuing the Book brothers' plan with the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel to make the neighborhood more upscale, the Book Building was a 13-floor office building at the start of their renovations. Purchasing real estate on Washington Boulevard between Michigan Avenue and Grand Circus Park, they started building skyscrapers on their new properties. After the success of their hotel, they made the ambitious choice to build the largest building in the city.

The architect wasn’t familiar with designing tall buildings and didn’t know the limitations and issues of such heights. Fire evacuation routes weren’t considered, resulting in an exterior fire escape that scales the entirety of the building. The building was faced in limestone, making the porous material absorb pollutants out of the air, giving the building its weathered look on the top floors.

Source: historicdetroit.org

Source: historicdetroit.org

In 1986, high winds took a radio antenna mass off the tower into the street below. While no one was injured, it caused damage, loosening several 300-pound pieces of the tower’s decorative cornice.

The building ended up in John Lambrecht’s hands, who was enthusiastic about renovating the building, but plans were put on hold after his death. 

Passing hands between several different owners over the years, the tower was purchased by Dan Gilbert in 2015. Renovations are estimated at $313 million.  

The Book buildings were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. 

Penobscot Building 

633 Griswold St.

From 1928-1977
Forty-seven floors, 565 feet

Source: historicdetroit.org

When this Art Deco office building was completed in 1928, it was the eighth-tallest building in the world and the tallest building in America outside of New York City and Chicago. This addition to the Penobscot complex was the tallest building in Detroit for almost half a century -- the longest title-holder on the list. It has since become the third tallest building in Detroit after the completion of One Detroit Center in 1993.

While One Detroit Center has fewer floors, the floors and the spire of One Detroit Center are taller, adding to its heights.

Contrary to popular belief, the 100-foot tower was never used as a docking port for blimps and dirigibles. It was just an aviation beacon, being visible up to 40 miles away. 

Renaissance Center

1 Renaissance Center Drive

From 1977 to present
Seventy-three floors, 723 feet 

Source: Wikipedia user Shawn Wilson

The Renaissance Center has been the tallest building in the state for more than 40 years. At the time of completion, the Detroit Plaza Hotel was the tallest hotel in the world and is now the second tallest in the western hemisphere. In its first year of operation, it generated over $1 billion in economic growth for downtown.  

Ford Motor Company used to occupy a large amount of space in the building but relocated after General Motors purchased the complex and moved its world headquarters there.

The 73-floor skyscraper has been a staple of the Detroit skyline for 40 years. 

You can read more about the Renaissance Center’s history here.

Source: Wikipedia user Ritcheypro

Source: Wikipedia user WikiDeaPi

Source: historicdetroit.orgnpgallery.nps.gov

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