Art Deco Architecture

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Penobscot Building

After that last batch of images, I really don’t think I will bother posting any more pictures of this one, because they were too amazing. But before we move on to some other Detroit Deco, here’s an essay from the Historic Detroit site:

Penobscot Building

BY DAN AUSTIN OF HISTORICDETROIT.ORG

The 47-story Greater Penobscot Building towers over Campus Martius, an Art Deco masterpiece that has dominated the city’s skyline for more than 80 years.

The building is named after a tribe of American Indians in New England. The name Penobscot means “the place where the rocks open out.” Simon J. Murphy, who made a fortune as a lumber baron before coming to Detroit, spent his youth working on the Penobscot River in Maine. As the nation moved west, Murphy’s lumber empire moved with it, and he settled in Detroit. When it came time to name his new building, his thoughts returned to his roots.

There are actually three Penobscot buildings. The first is the 13-story building Murphy erected in 1903. It was joined by a 24-story tower in 1916. The third, the 47-story tower known as the Greater Penobscot, was built at a cost of $5 million.

The Penobscot was the eighth-tallest building in the world when it opened in October 1928, and was the fourth tallest in the United States. At about 567 feet, it was the tallest building in Detroit until 1977, when it was surpassed by the 729-foot Renaissance Center. It is now the city’s third-tallest, also having been overshadowed in 1993 by Comerica Tower, which stands about 623 feet tall.

There is an urban legend that the building’s 100-foot tower with its winking red orb was once used as a port for a dirigible. In truth, it was simply an aviation beacon. These days, the tower and its blinking red light are simply for decoration. The orb, which is 12 feet in diameter, was first turned on when the building opened 79 years ago and can be seen 40 miles away.

The building has not been without controversy over its eight decades. For example, those are indeed swastikas adorning the exterior of the Penobscot, but they weren’t put there by Nazis. The swastikas are part of the building’s American Indian motif and symbolize sun worship. Suggestions during World War II to get rid of them were discarded. The swastikas on the Penobscot also are angled differently than those used in Nazi Germany.

Note: The bit about the swastikas being different is an example of the oft-repeated nonsense that one kind of swastika is good and another “bad.” In fact swastikas historically have pointed left and right and with many different angles and design variations. The swastika has been used all around the world and is still use (a lot) in some parts of the world, without any connection to Nazis. But often people will say “No, these swastikas are different than the Nazis” as if there’s a problem even if they are the same. More info here. (Yes, I will get off my soapbox.)

Filed under penobscot building art deco architecture detroit michigan history 1920s skyscraper swastika

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Penobscot Building, Detroit, MichiganPhoto from HistoricDetroit.org
The “nob” on the Penobscot Building.
From Wikipedia:

On holidays, both the Penobscot Building and the nearby One Woodward Avenue light up for the night, with red, white and blue for Independence Day and Canada Day; and red, white and green for the Christmas season. In addition, during the Christmas season, the Penobscot Building’s radio broadcast tower is illuminated bright gold, to resemble a giant glowing Christmas tree topped with a flashing red beacon. The Penobscot Building has become a souvenir item along with other Detroit skyscrapers.

Penobscot Building, Detroit, Michigan
Photo from HistoricDetroit.org

The “nob” on the Penobscot Building.

From Wikipedia:

On holidays, both the Penobscot Building and the nearby One Woodward Avenue light up for the night, with red, white and blue for Independence Day and Canada Day; and red, white and green for the Christmas season. In addition, during the Christmas season, the Penobscot Building’s radio broadcast tower is illuminated bright gold, to resemble a giant glowing Christmas tree topped with a flashing red beacon. The Penobscot Building has become a souvenir item along with other Detroit skyscrapers.

Filed under penobscot building detroit michigan antenna radio tower architecture history one woodward avenue

22 notes &

From a write-up of the Penobscot Building in the blog "Drawing on Indians," which focuses on depictions of Native Americans over the past 500 years. Why is it written up? Because it’s covered with Native American references! Check it out!
In particular worth noting this analysis on how this is a typical example of white designers grabbing onto generic Indian designs for their own purposes:

Once again, we have a prominent example of non-Native individuals appropriating an Indian style or motif to express their nostalgia for a long ago time (in this case, for the logging camps of northern Maine).  Why  couldn’t they have used a Northwoods or lumberjack theme?  Wouldn’t that have been more appropriate considering their history?
It’s unique that they specifically decided to go with the Penobscot name (based on the river, named after the tribe).  But once again, the Indian designs come out as a complete grab bag of styles, designs, and symbolism very little of which has to do with the actual Penobscot people of northern Maine (who were certainly around in the 1920s to serve as design consultants!)
Why would the “Penobscot Building” include sculptures of Plains Indian style headdresses, southwest Indian geometric patterns, and animals ranging from foxes to turtles to eagles?
The answer is simple.  The designers weren’t actually going for a Penobscot theme but rather a generic “Indian” theme in which the most visually striking but culturally divergent elements are pulled together to fulfill the designers’ notions of Indianness.
In so many ways, the Indian figures throughout the Penobscot Building represent America’s thoughts and feelings about Native people in the early 20th century.  The cold stone bodies represent a people immobile, stuck in place and unable to change.  The stoic expressions represent a people devoid of emotion and sentiment, yet somehow appear both proud and sad.  They are forever linked to both Nature and the primitive ways of the past.  Like classical Greek columns or Gothic spires, they are rich with meaning and symbolism, put on display for all the world to see.
The Penobscot Building is above all an artifact.  It is an item from the past whose elements can reveal the secrets of a time long ago.
It is a truly remarkable building and worth the visit if you ever come to Detroit.

BTW, about the writer behind Drawing on Indians:
Stephen Bridenstine: I am a graduate student at the University of British Columbia where I study modern U.S. and Canadian social and cultural history. I specialize in issues of myth, memory, and representation concerning indigenous peoples and the North American fur trade. In an effort to bring attention to these topics and put my thoughts into writing, I have started blogging. I hope you appreciate the results.

From a write-up of the Penobscot Building in the blog "Drawing on Indians," which focuses on depictions of Native Americans over the past 500 years. Why is it written up? Because it’s covered with Native American references! Check it out!

In particular worth noting this analysis on how this is a typical example of white designers grabbing onto generic Indian designs for their own purposes:

Once again, we have a prominent example of non-Native individuals appropriating an Indian style or motif to express their nostalgia for a long ago time (in this case, for the logging camps of northern Maine).  Why  couldn’t they have used a Northwoods or lumberjack theme?  Wouldn’t that have been more appropriate considering their history?

It’s unique that they specifically decided to go with the Penobscot name (based on the river, named after the tribe).  But once again, the Indian designs come out as a complete grab bag of styles, designs, and symbolism very little of which has to do with the actual Penobscot people of northern Maine (who were certainly around in the 1920s to serve as design consultants!)

Why would the “Penobscot Building” include sculptures of Plains Indian style headdresses, southwest Indian geometric patterns, and animals ranging from foxes to turtles to eagles?

The answer is simple.  The designers weren’t actually going for a Penobscot theme but rather a generic “Indian” theme in which the most visually striking but culturally divergent elements are pulled together to fulfill the designers’ notions of Indianness.

In so many ways, the Indian figures throughout the Penobscot Building represent America’s thoughts and feelings about Native people in the early 20th century.  The cold stone bodies represent a people immobile, stuck in place and unable to change.  The stoic expressions represent a people devoid of emotion and sentiment, yet somehow appear both proud and sad.  They are forever linked to both Nature and the primitive ways of the past.  Like classical Greek columns or Gothic spires, they are rich with meaning and symbolism, put on display for all the world to see.

The Penobscot Building is above all an artifact.  It is an item from the past whose elements can reveal the secrets of a time long ago.

It is a truly remarkable building and worth the visit if you ever come to Detroit.

BTW, about the writer behind Drawing on Indians:

Stephen BridenstineI am a graduate student at the University of British Columbia where I study modern U.S. and Canadian social and cultural history. I specialize in issues of myth, memory, and representation concerning indigenous peoples and the North American fur trade. In an effort to bring attention to these topics and put my thoughts into writing, I have started blogging. I hope you appreciate the results.

Filed under penobscot penobscot building detroit michigan art deco architecture skyscraper 1920s native american american indian cultural appropriation indigenous peoples ethnocentrism racism history art history corrado parducci