These gates originally guarded the safe-deposit box vault of the lowermost public floor of the Union Trust Building (now known as the Guardian Building), one of the signature, and certainly most innovative, structures erected during the preDepression era in Detroit. Designed by Wirt Rowland of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls, the Union Trust stands as his finest achievement and the one where he most freely expressed his ideas of design and material use.
The period between World War I and the economic collapse of October 1929 represents the era of Detroit’s greatest building boom. The city’s skyline took shape with numerous office towers simultaneously growing skyward. Throughout the country this era was the defining moment for the American vertical style—the skyscraper. The architectural work produced in Detroit during those years made the city a major repository of preDepression American vertical-style buildings.
Working with principles of the northern European architects, Rowland chose the abstract plan of a Gothic cathedral as his design inspiration. He developed a notched arch, created by right-angle voids cut into the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle, as a design motif. At times he placed the triangles back to back or four together in a shape of a diamond to serve as the basis for the decorative vocabulary throughout the building. Rowland’s use of materials provided a departure from the traditional surfaces of office towers. Orange-colored brick formed the thirty-eight-story skin for the structure, accented by glazed tiles manufactured by the Atlantic Terracotta Company of Trenton, New Jersey, and Pewabic Pottery of Detroit. The interior employed similar ideas, materials, and themes. Multicolored Rookwood tiles sheath the lobby ceiling, accompanied by exotic marbles accenting the walls and floor, with platinum-colored Monel metal elevator doors, gates, and handrails. The dominant element of the lobby is the large Monel metal screen at the entrance of the former main banking room.
Rowland chose Monel, a newly developed nickel alloy with a platinum appearance, for the decorative metalwork throughout the building. As opposed to more traditional metals such as brass, it required a low amount of maintenance, and its properties did not allow for casting, but could only be rolled and cut. The technical challenges of Monel metal did not inhibit Rowland’s concept for the building’s metalwork, but surprisingly worked to accentuate his angular machine-inspired motifs. In the design and production of his most elaborate pieces, he layered sheets of the metal to provide depth.
In Rowland’s design for the gates, he employed the signature notched arch-pattern in profile, in projection, as void, and as a solid form. These notched-arch variations adorn the gate with several techniques, including incised, applied, or cut into the surface. Contributing to the visual diversity of the gates, its surface is a combination of dull, matte, and shiny finishes. Complementing these gates and also in the DIA collection is the teller’s cage for the safedeposit vault. James W. Tottis
Adapted from Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 81, nos. 1–2 (2007): 46–47.