A Visit to Detroit: Stunning Architectural Ruins

My husband and I made a drive to see some family in Michigan for Thanksgiving. My mom is from there and much of my family still resides there. My husband and I decided to extend our trip so that we could see both Chicago and Detroit. We chose to visit Detroit specifically for its wonderful historic eye-candy. As a designer, I have always been interested in historic restoration, always daydreaming about abandoned buildings and how they could be revitalized and re-integrated into our future, and so I couldn’t resist a visit to Detroit because of its vast amount of stunning architectural ruins.


A Brief History of Detroit:

“Detroit was founded in 1701 by the French and was settled along what is now known as the Detroit River, which connects Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. The settlement was a fur-trading outpost, and fell to the British in 1760.

After American independence, Detroit was incorporated as a town in 1802. A fire in 1805 destroyed 299 of the towns 300 buildings.” 

  1. It was after this fire a Father Gabriel Richard said, “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.” This has become the cities official motto. 

“Territorial Governor Judge Augustus Woodward laid out a plan to rebuild the city, featuring public squares and circular parks based on the model of Washington D.C. Woodward established a state university, the University of Michigan, in 1817 in Detroit.

In the 1850s, Detroit began building railroad cars, ships and stoves, and major industries were established that exploited Michigans vast resources of iron ore, copper and water. The population surged from 2,222 in 1830 to 79,577 in 1870.

In 1908,  Henry Ford built the first Model T, and cars quickly became popular. In 1914, Ford ran the first assembly line, at his factory in Highland Park, offering the unheard-of wage of $5 a day for eight hours work. By 1921 Ford had produced more than 5 million cars. The citys population more than doubled from 1910 to 1920, reaching nearly a million people, as workers from the South and across the country and the world came for jobs in the automobile plants.

The 1920s were a time of unprecedented prosperity for Detroit. The booming city was a metaphor for American opportunity. For decades, it enjoyed the highest percentage of home ownership in the nation. Huge, ornate theaters were built downtown for movies and stage shows. The J.L. Hudson department store was one of the worlds biggest and most famous. The city developed a superb system of streetcars and trolleys.

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Detroit hard initially, but the automobile industry survived. The modern movement for labor unions began with a famous battle between organizers and police at the Ford River Rouge plant in 1937.

During World War II the auto companies converted their factories in short order to production of planes and tanks. Major shifts occurred in Detroits demographics after World War II. The post-war economic boom was accompanied by the construction of a network of freeways that decimated Detroits old neighborhoods while making possible the exponential growth of suburbs. For a while downtown Detroit remained the thriving center of the metropolitan area, and its population peaked at 2.1 million in the late 1950s. 

But as more prosperous people fled the city and left poorer ones behind, racial tensions heightened. They exploded in the infamous 1967 riots, which left dozens dead and hastened white flight. The city plunged into a long decline, as key components of business, industry and culture shifted to the suburbs. 

The automobile industry was hit hard by a severe recession caused by rising oil prices and competition from Japanese imports. Factories in the city closed and thousands of good-paying jobs for unskilled workers disappeared, never to return.

The growth of the suburbs has permanently changed the citys landscape. Most jobs, hotels, restaurants, shopping centers and entertainment facilities are now outside the city limits, creating a sprawling metropolitan area that remains heavily dependent on the automobile. Yet a more unified approach to the areas problems and prospects has civic leaders optimistic. Detroit retains its rich cultural treasures, its vibrant entertainment and dining scene, and above all its strength as a genuine melting pot, with immigrants from around the world bringing their own cuisine and traditions and religions. It has proven to be a resilient place and one of Americas greatest cities.”

For a more detailed history click here.

Fisher Body Plant No. 21, architect Albert Kahn, 1919Fisher Body Plant No. 21, architect Albert Kahn, 1919


Vanity Ballroom, architect Charles N. Agree,1929 Source

Woodward Presbyterian, architect Sidney Rose Badgley, 1908


Ford Motor Company Model T Headquarters, architects Albert Kahn and Edward Gray, 1910Source

Highland Park Police Station (a city within Detroit’s borders), architect Van Leyen, Schilling & Keough, 1917. Demolished 2012Source

Belle Isle Aquarium, architect Albert Kahn, 1904 Source

Michigan Theatre, architects Rapp and Rapp, 1926. Now a parking garageSource

Eastown Theatre interior, architect V.J. Waiver, 1930 Source

The Farwell Building, architects Bonnah & Chaffee, the Russel Wheel and Foundry Company and Tiffany Studios of New York, 1915Source

 The metropolitan area of Detroit and its surrounding neighborhoods are rich in Romanesque, Beaux Arts, Neo-Classical, Neo-Renaissance and Italian Renaissance Architecture, as well as Modern, Postmodern and Contemporary Modern Architectural Styles. The downtown areas consist of high-rise buildings, while the majority of the surrounding city consists of low-rise structures and single-family homes. The city’s neighborhoods constructed prior to World War II feature the architecture of the times, with wood frame and brick houses, larger brick homes in middle-class neighborhoods, and ornate mansions throughout the city’s many historic districts and nearby suburbs.

*** Now I feel I should note that not ALL of Detroit is in ruins. Much of it is still very much alive an thriving and preserved! Check out these homes in some of Detroit’s nicest neighborhoods.

Some Historic Neigborhoods Include:

Indian Village


Bosten-Edison & Arden Park * The neighborhood where Henry Ford lived.


Palmer Woods


North Rosedale Park


Click here for more details on the neighborhoods.

Now here are some of the abandoned homes we saw as we roamed the city.

A beautiful home, in Detroit’s Mid-town, turned into a fancy restaurant.

My husband and I. It snowed on one of the days we were there. What a beautiful church in the background; only one of many all over the city!

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