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  • Kevin Elliott

Michael Smith

Bloomfield Hills author Michael Smith had a longtime interest in architecture, so when he learned that some of his favorite buildings in metro Detroit were designed by the same man, it made for the perfect foundation of a new book.

"I have always had somewhat of an interest in architecture and art in general. My grandfather did artwork for the Kenner company, and I read a number of books on architecture," he said. "In 2011, I was tasked with coming up with and heading a bus tour for a convention in Detroit. While researching the buildings, the ones I found most interesting and attractive, I discovered they were designed by Wirt Rowland. I couldn't find a book on him."

Rowland, who worked as an architect for the George D. Mason firm, Albert Kahn Associates and Smith, Hinchman & Grylls (SmithGroup), is best known for buildings he designed in southeast Michigan, including Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan, the Detroit News Building, First National Building and General Motors Building, which has been renamed Cadillac Place.

"There are all sorts of books on Frank Lloyd Wright and Albert Kahn, and others have had books and articles written about them, but this guy had nothing," Smith said. "I was appalled."

Out of curiosity, Smith began researching Rowland, leading him to contact the Wayne State University Press to see if they would be interested in a book.

"They were, and I wrote it," he said.

In April of 2017, Smith's book, "Designing Detroit: Wirt Rowland and the Rise of Modern American Architecture," was published. The book picked up a 2017 State History award, was named a finalist in the INDIES Book Awards in the architecture category, and won the 2018 Michigan Notable Book Award.

While architects like Kahn are well known, Smith said Rowland was part of the force behind some of the buildings the firm designed. From interior and exterior details, Rowland's designs were the force behind some of the buildings.

"The appearance of the building was in his hands, and he was highly paid by Albert Kahn to do just that," Smith said. "Most people assume (Kahn) was sitting there at a drafting table, but that was no more the case than Henry Ford designing the Maverick."

The book not only provides a deep dive into Rowland's architecture style and work, but his personal life and his own writings on architecture.

"The most interesting aspect is everything he did before 1930, and then from 1930 to 1940, what he wrote about architecture," Smith said.

In addition to the awards the book has garnered, Smith has kept busy with presentations about the book and buildings Rowland designed. In May, Smith was a guest speaker at Birmingham's Baldwin Public Library. Smith also gives tours of Detroit's Guardian Building and other locations where he discusses Rowland.

"Last Sunday, I led a tour of the Guardian Building hosted by the Jewish Historical Society," Smith said on May 1. "It was announced on Thursday, and by Sunday they had booked too many people.

"It gives you a sense of how much interest there is in Detroit architecture, particularly the Guardian Building. People are craving that cultural experience, after being seemingly disinterested in their cultural heritage. I think that's an important thing. A society that doesn't care about culture and their cultural heritage is probably a society that isn't long for this world."

Photo: Laurie Tennent

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