"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Penobscot Building

In Minnesota, a Penobscot is a canoe

In Maine, the Penobscot are a tribe

In Michigan, the Penobscot is a building

Constructed in 1928, the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit, Michigan is an architectural and artistic masterpiece.  It also serves as another fine example in the long history of our nation's cultural obsession with the Indian.

First a few statistics (skyscraperpage.com):

  • Started in 1927 and completed in 1928
  • Rises over 202 meters (662 feet) for a total of 47 floors
  • Built in an Art Deco style with granite and limestone facing
  • Eighth tallest building in the world when finished
  • Served as Detroit's tallest skyscraper until 1977
  • Architect Wirt C. Rowland

An expression of the wealth and opulence of 1920s Detroit, the Penobscot building was a potent symbol of Detroit's industrial might.  The entire structure has Art Deco influences throughout but its main motif is American Indian.

(note: click on any photo to make it big!)

When you approach the building, you first notice the flag poles on the outside.  Notice the strong geometric themes playing off the very angular Native face with a stylized Plains Indian headdress.

This theme continues with the absolutely stunning sculpture of Corrado Parducci located above the main entrance.  The geometric design is reminiscent of southwest Indian art in particular.

Some of the Native symbolism present on the building (and yes those are swastikas which perfectly fit the theme).

The side of the main entrance:

Closeup of a side panel:

Above the main entrance doors.  Notice the Eagle at the top.

Closeup above the entrance doors.

The Native theme continues inside the lobby.

The ceiling above the lobby.

A stoic carved Indian figure holding a stylized staff.

A second carved Indian figure situated opposite the first figure stands guard over the lobby, this time holding a stylized spear.

A relief on the side of the main figure.

Finally, the absolutely stunning elevator doors.  There were six of these identical brass doors in the side hallway off the main lobby.

Closeup of the elevator door.

My thoughts:

The Penobscot Building is an absolute gem in downtown Detroit.  From the stunning stonework of the entrance to the beautiful brass interior, it's truly one of a kind.

The history is a different matter however.  While I do not have a definitive source for the design choices- I'm willing to go with Wikipedia on this one:

The building is named for the Penobscot, a Native American tribe from Maine. The following version of the choice of the name of the building is found in an undated publication believed to have been published concurrent with the buildings dedication in 1928 contains the following:
An intimation of the Murphy family's early history, together with the expression of genuine sentiment regarding the beginnings of the Murphy fortune, is contained in the name of the Greater Penobscot Building...... Long before the Civil War days, Simon J. Murphy and his partner, then two lads who had grown up in the Maine woods obtained their first employment in one of the logging camps along the Penobscot River - a stream named for the powerful tribe of Penobscot Indians.
The explanation also explains the choice of Native American styled art deco ornamentation used on the exterior and in the interior.

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.


  1. Excellent post. I need to keep remembering to visit this blog.

  2. Great post. I am going to be featuring it on my blog, Art Deco Architecture, within the next couple of weeks, with a link-back and shout-outs. Too many people post pictures of pretty pictures, pretty architecture, without analyzing too deeply. Given the number of American Indian references that crop up in Deco (everything from "Mayan" theaters to fraternal clubs in Indiana) I think my readers will really appreciate your insight. The blog is http://decoarchitecture.tumblr.com. -Wendy