Here’s what Downtown Detroit looked like before the Renaissance Center was built

Motor City landmark has dominated skyline since 1977

Image showing future location of the Renaissance Center, before construction began in 1973. This picture was taken from the Canadian side of the Detroit River. Photo from Building the Detroit Renaissance Center digital collection, Wayne State University Library System. (Wayne State University Library System)

DETROIT – As the tallest building in Downtown Detroit, the Renaissance Center has dominated the city’s skyline for more than four decades.

The enormous building -- whose central tower stands 727 feet tall, was erected in the 1970s and completed in 1977 -- has established itself as one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Motor City for over 40 years. For many, it’s difficult to even imagine what Detroit looks like without it.

But there was, of course, a time when the RenCen did not exist. So, what exactly did Downtown Detroit look like before the now-General Motors headquarters was built?

Thanks to historical photos archived by Wayne State University libraries and the Detroit Historical Society, we can take you back to the 1970s and earlier so you can see for yourself.

Related: 🔒 From the Vault: 1973 special on Detroit Renaissance Center

Before construction kicked off, the area off Jefferson Avenue was cleared out for the project. The photos below, from the Tony Spina Collection at Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library, show an aerial view of the land before construction began.

An aerial view of the area cleared for the construction of the Renaissance Center, Detroit, Michigan. In the background Cobo Arena, the Tunnel to Canada, Ford Auditorium, one of the Bob-Lo boats and the skyline of Downtown Detroit are in view. Photo from the Tony Spina Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University. (Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)
An aerial view of the area cleared for the construction of the Renaissance Center, Detroit, Michigan. In the background the Tunnel to Canada, Mariners Church, and the traffic on the Detroit River are in view. Photo from the Tony Spina Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University. (Wayne State University Walter P. Reuther Library)

Before the land was cleared for construction, however, the area was home to several different buildings -- albeit, much smaller ones in comparison. In yet another photo by Tony Spina, we can see what the Downtown Detroit skyline looked like way before construction began, in 1965.

Skyline and riverfront view, taken from upriver, with a marking to show where a proposed monorail will go, Detroit, Michigan. Photo from the Tony Spina Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University. (Wayne State University Walter P. Reuther Library)

And here’s what Downtown Detroit looked like in 1950.

An aerial view of downtown skyline, the riverfront and boats moored in the Detroit River, Detroit, Michigan. Photo from the Tony Spina Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University. (Wayne State University Walter P. Reuther Library)

According to the Detroit Historical Society, the Renaissance Center now occupies more than 14 acres of land and is large enough to have its own zip code.

Black and white glossy photo showing an elevated view of the western end of the Renaissance Center site during construction. The intersection of Brush Street and Jefferson Avenue can be seen in the foreground. The construction site with cranes, construction materials, and piles of earth can be seen in the left background. The entrance to the Tunnel to Canada at Randolph Street as well as Mariners' Church, Ford Auditorium, and the Bob-Lo boats can be seen in the right background. The Detroit River and Windsor skyline are visible in the far background. (1974) (Detroit Historical Society)

Below is a photo of part of the Downtown Detroit skyline in 1973 before the Renaissance Center took center stage. The photo was taken from the Canadian side of the Detroit River.

Image showing future location of the Renaissance Center, before construction began in 1973. This picture was taken from the Canadian side of the Detroit River. Photo from Building the Detroit Renaissance Center digital collection, Wayne State University Library System. (Wayne State University Library System)

The Renaissance Center campus today has seven buildings, including six 39-story office towers and the 73-story central tower, which is home to the Detroit Marriott hotel. Here’s what a rendering of the project looked like before construction began in 1973.

Image of the finished Renaissance Center complex in an architectural model/artist's rendering. Note that upon completion, only two additional shorter towers were built on the northeast side of the complex. Photo from Building the Detroit Renaissance Center digital collection, Wayne State University Library System. (Wayne State University Library System)

Now that you’ve seen Downtown Detroit pre-RenCen, let’s take a look at its construction.

Construction views

Construction on the Renaissance Center campus began in 1973 and was initially expected to take place in three phases. During phase one, the 73-story hotel and four 39-story office towers were built.

Image of a drill rig, bulldozer, and workers present at the Renaissance Center building site. Photo from Building the Detroit Renaissance Center digital collection, Wayne State University Library System. (Wayne State University Library System)
Black and white glossy photo showing an area of archaeological excavation at the Renaissance Center construction site. Two archaeologists can be seen at work in the foreground and they are looking at some broken wood planks near the end of a sewer pipe. A small chalkboard above the excavation shows reference notes and is dated 5-10-1974. It is not clear what the historical significance of this excavation might be, but it could be one of the numerous privies that were found during the site preparation work. Construction cranes, construction workers, materials, and storm sewer pipe can be seen in the background. Buildings along the north side of Jefferson Avenue are visible in the far background. (1974) (Detroit Historical Society)
Image of a Renaissance Center tower during early stages of construction. Derricks and scaffolding are present, as well as workers at the top of the structure. The Detroit River and Windsor, Ontario, Canada are seen in the background. Photo from Building the Detroit Renaissance Center digital collection, Wayne State University Library System. (Wayne State University Library System)
An aerial view from the northeast that shows construction progress on three of the towers of the Renaissance Center, Detroit, Michigan. Part of series. Photo from the Tony Spina Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University. (Wayne State University Walter P. Reuther Library)
Image of the building progress on the Renaissance Center, with part of the Detroit skyline in view. Photo from Building the Detroit Renaissance Center digital collection, Wayne State University Library System. (Wayne State University Library System)
Image of the building progress on two of the four towers of the Renaissance Center. Construction equipment is clearing visible. Photo from Building the Detroit Renaissance Center digital collection, Wayne State University Library System. (Wayne State University Library System)
Image of the Renaissance Center, looking northeast on Jefferson Avenue. The Tunnel to Canada building can be seen in the lower center of the photograph, at the base of the tower and Ford Auditorium is on the right side. Photo from Building the Detroit Renaissance Center digital collection, Wayne State University Library System. (Wayne State University Library System)

After several years, the first RenCen tower opened in July of 1976. The central hotel tower opened in 1977, officials said. Two additional office towers opened in 1981 -- and voila! The Downtown Detroit landmark we know and love was largely complete.

Short watch: From the Vault: Detroit’s Renaissance Center under construction in 1973

Completed Renaissance Center

Here’s what the completed Renaissance Center looked like in 1977.

Image of the completed Renaissance Center, as seen from the Canadian side of the Detroit River. Photo from Building the Detroit Renaissance Center digital collection, Wayne State University Library System. (Wayne State University Library System)

Here’s what the Renaissance Center looked like in 1980.

Black and white photographic print depicting an aerial shot of the downtown Detroit skyline and riverfront looking northeast. Visible buildings include the Joe Louis Sports Arena, Cobo Hall, and the Renaissance Center. Construction of Wayne County Community College Administration Building, the Joe Louis Arena Garage to the west of the Joe Louis Arena and the restructuring of W. Jefferson Ave. are also visible. The STE. CLAIRE and the COLUMBIA are visible on the Detroit River at the dock by Joe Louis Arena. Sheets of ice dot the river. Photo by Tony Spina. (1980) (Detroit Historical Society)

And in 1985.

Color photo of the Renaissance Center as taken from across the Detroit River. A Goodyear Blimp floats above the city in the background. Also in the background are the Millender Center and Courtyard by Marriott. Crowds and yellow tent pavilions are visible along the waterfront and atop the Center Garage, and boats are gathered on the river. Small hot air balloons are visible atop several buildings in the background. (1985) (Detroit Historical Society)

Here are some views from inside the atrium when the central tower opened in 1977.

Image of the atrium on the ground floor. Large canopies can be seen over a restaurant with diners present. Photo from Building the Detroit Renaissance Center digital collection, Wayne State University Library System. (Wayne State University Library System)
Image of the atrium within the Renaissance Center, looking down from the second floor. Note the concrete supports and components that make up portions of this building. Photo from Building the Detroit Renaissance Center digital collection, Wayne State University Library System. (Wayne State University Library System)
Image of the atrium within the completed Renaissance Center. Note the trees, plants, and an escalator in the foreground. Visitors can be seen sitting in a "pod" toward the bottom center of the photograph. Photo from Building the Detroit Renaissance Center digital collection, Wayne State University Library System. (Wayne State University Library System)
Image of the open second floor within the atrium of the Renaissance Center. Visitors are visible sitting in "pods" and walking around the newly constructed building. Photo from Building the Detroit Renaissance Center digital collection, Wayne State University Library System. (Wayne State University Library System)

Browse Wayne State University Library System’s Renaissance Center photo collection here.

Browse the Detroit Historical Society’s Renaissance Center archive here.


🔒 From the Vault: This half-hour special from 1973 dives into Renaissance Center construction


About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.