Historic Detroit

One Woodward Avenue

At the heart of Detroit’s Civic Center, towering over Hart Plaza, Woodward Avenue and the Detroit River stands One Woodward, one of Detroit’s most celebrated mid-century modern structures.

The building was commissioned in 1958 by the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company Building. Detroit architect Minoru Yamasaki designed the skyscraper in association with the firm Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. The building would open in 1963 and marked a first for Yamasaki, who had never designed a skyscraper before. The building incorporates a pre-cast concrete exterior, narrow windows, Gothic arches, decorative tracery and sculptural gardens that later became the architect’s signature motifs. It has been called the fore-runner to Yamasaki’s renowned World Trade Center in New York.

Located on the northwest corner of Woodward and Jefferson avenues, the 430-foot, 32-story skyscraper sits on a square platform with concrete entrance staircases on all but the west side. On the west elevation, along Larned Street, a parking ramp leads to an underground garage. On the east elevation, along Jefferson Avenue, a small lawn with raised gardens, a fountain and a sculpture create a welcoming extension from Hart Plaza and draw attention to the building’s main entrance.

Local artist, Giacomo Manzu crafted the 11-foot bronze sculpture that stands on a pedestal in the fountain. The “Passo di Danza (Step of the Dance)” is a depiction of the artist’s wife as a nude ballet dancer, standing on point with her hands sensually uncoiling her hair above her head.

A three-story recessed glass lobby consisting of 82 30-foot glass panels wraps the entire building at the ground level, inviting the public into a starkly white interior that is nearly indistinguishable from the concrete and marble of the exterior grounds and walls. The upper stories are supported on white-marble-clad square columns that form a loggia surrounding the building. The columns align with the edges of the concrete panels above, accentuating the building’s verticality. Railings around the lobby entrances and on the stairs are of polished chrome that is repeated in the details of the lobby ceiling, as well as the muntins separating the glass panels. Decorative hexagonal tracery fills several thin panels on each side of the entrances.

The lobby — accessed through a pair of revolving glass doors on the east side main entrance and through revolving doors on the north and south sides — is shockingly bright and almost entirely empty. Three elevator bays form two hallways in the center in order to allow light straight through the building between Jefferson Avenue and Larned Street. A circular reception desk in the middle is made of narrow hexagon-shaped panels identical to the windows above. The lobby’s ceiling appears identical to that of the exterior terrace, as if a reflection in the glass.

The tower’s all-welded, steel frame is clad with two-story, pre-cast concrete panels that hold 4,800 vertical hexagon-shaped floor-to-ceiling windows. The panels hang above the exterior terrace as if dripping from the building’s frame. Hexagonal grillwork wraps the building’s top two stories. The roofline features delicate crenellation — an architectural feature similar to a castle’s battlements. A four-story recessed penthouse sits atop the building and contains the heating, ventilating and cooling systems. This section is also clad with crenelated, pre-cast concrete panels. A pedestrian bridge at the fifteenth floor connects to the Guardian Building across Larned Street.

Building a modern masterpiece

In 1958, MichCon, with Ralph McElvenny at its head, commissioned Yamasaki to design the company’s new headquarters. In 1938, a number of competing southeast Michigan gas companies merged to form the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company. A round of national consolidations in 1949 resulted in the American Natural Gas Company acting as a parent entity to MichCon and several other utilities, the firm’s corporate history says. The merge proved lucrative: By the late 1950s, MichCon had outgrown its offices in the Guardian Building.

Yamasaki, who moved to Detroit from New York (by way of Seattle) in 1945 to work as head designer for Smith, Hynchman & Grylls, founded Yamasaki & Associates in 1955. He was profoundly influenced by the Gothic and Renaissance architecture he found in Europe, the palaces of India and the traditional Japanese architecture he found while working on the U.S. Consulate in Kobe, Japan (1955). From these influences he believed that modern architecture needed to be more humanistic; should elicit surprise, serenity and delight; and above all, should breakup the monotony of contemporary, austere buildings. His buildings often include stylized Gothic arches, domes, colonnades, large open spaces, reflecting pools, and gardens. He is best known for designing the World Trade Center complex (1972), but other notable designs include the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis (1955), the Lambert-St. Louis Airport Terminal (1956), Wayne State University’s McGregor Memorial Conference Center in Detroit (1958), Reynolds Metals Regional Sales Office in Southfield (1959), the Federal Science Pavilion for Seattle World’s Fair (1962), the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles (1975), Rainier Bank Tower in Seattle (1977), and dozens of other buildings worldwide.

Making way for MichCon

The MichCon building was the first high-rise building Yamasaki designed. In his 1979 autobiography, he wrote at length about the design challenges he faced. First, the building was to be located in the heart of Detroit’s civic center, at the foot of Woodward Avenue and overlooking both the river and what at the time was a proposed green space (now the all-concrete Hart Plaza). The site was previously occupied by the Equity Building and the Hotel Norton on Griswold Street and a number of smaller commercial buildings along Jefferson and Woodward avenues, all dating to the late 19th Century.

By the 1950s, the Equity Building and the buildings along Jefferson had been demolished, leaving gaping holes in the streetscape. McElvenny made it clear that this needed to be a building Detroiters would be proud to have in such a prominent place. Further, Yamasaki wrote, this was to be the first high rise constructed in downtown Detroit in nearly 30 years. The two men agreed that it needed to harmonize with buildings near it, but also be distinct as a symbol of future progress.

To separate the building from those around it and the busy streets, he set the building on a pedestal, surrounded it with greenery and gardens, and made the lobby open to the public, much like his beloved Japanese temples and Venetian plazas. Its modest gardens, raised platform and sensual sculpture are serene against the backdrop of the all-concrete downtown. Though separated by the wide lanes of Jefferson Avenue, the gardens are an extension of the riverfront and a welcoming vision for passersby. The building’s decorative white façade, with dripping concrete panels and hexagon motif, is neither overbearing nor timid. Instead, it is delicate and delightful, paying homage to the history of its towering neighbors, with their heavy ornamentation, while distinguishing itself as refreshingly new. Finally, the glaring white lobby, with its three-story glass walls and chrome hexagon tracery that is transparent from inside or out, has a surprising lightness amongst the enclosed behemoths of nearby buildings. Yamasaki even incorporated lighting into the unusual penthouse and the tower’s top two stories to distinguish the building in the night skyline.

Taste of things to come

The building’s narrow windows are a motif Yamasaki used in several later buildings. They serve both an aesthetic and practical purpose. Yamasaki had a severe case of acrophobia and expressed concern for office workers in all-glass buildings who might walk up to a floor-to-ceiling window and feel as if they might fall. His solution was to frame the glass in pre-cast concrete modules at a width of one foot, 11 inches. This way, he said, one would feel secure while experiencing the full views looking out from the building. From the exterior, the windows emphasize the verticality of the building. Referencing the soaring Gothic cathedrals in Rome, Yamasaki wanted the narrow windows, with their pre-cast concrete spandrels and mullions, to enhance the sense that MichCon was reaching for the sky.

He also achieved that vertical feeling by employing the marble-faced columns that ascend to the top of the building, culminating in a crenellated roof line. The white marble columns stand out as just barely more bright than the concrete panels between, drawing the eye ever upward along them.

To achieve the “delight” Yamasaki thought all architecture should elicit, he created ornamentation using innovative modern techniques. He believed that most modern architecture, such as the steel and glass buildings his contemporaries were producing, had drab exteriors lacking human touch. By using pre-cast concrete that could be molded to his design, he was able to add ornamentation and what he thought of as humanism to prefabricated materials. The pre-cast concrete panels not only eliminated the need for excess structural steel, they made for an easy, less expensive construction process. In addition, the pre-cast panels, individually bolted to the welded steel frame (the tallest ever built in this manner at the time) allowed for an exposed structure, again unlike other Mid-Century Modern or International Style high rises, whose structures are often shielded by curtain walls.

The building employed two other innovative design strategies. Because downtown Detroit was already too congested to accommodate another parking garage, Yamasaki found a way to incorporate parking into the building’s footprint. Instead of placing the boiler room in the basement, as was typical, he placed it on the top two floors and used the penthouse as a cooling tower. This allowed him to incorporate an underground parking garage. In addition, rather than having a single air-conditioning system that takes up entire floors and regulates the building as a whole, as was also typical of contemporary skyscrapers, Yamasaki designed separate fan rooms for each floor. This way, the environment could be regulated according to the specific needs of the floor. For MichCon, who had some departments working around the clock, this was a highly desirable improvement.

In a 1959 oral history interview, Yamasaki spoke at length about the difficulty of incorporating good art into modern architectural spaces without distracting from the architecture itself. As proof, he searched for three years after the completion of his McGregor Memorial Conference Center on Wayne State’s campus before commissioning Giacomo Manzu to fill the building’s sculpture garden (“The Nymph and Faun,” 1968). He was so impressed by Manzu’s previous work that he asked him to complete a second piece for his MichCon commission; Manzu completed the “Passo di Danza” in 1963.

In 1984, MichCon was spun off to its shareholders. Property records indicate that the parent company, American Natural Resources took ownership of the building at that time. The building’s only glaring alteration is a 15th-floor pedestrian bridge that connects to the Guardian Building. ANR constructed the bridge in the 1980s to connect their own offices to MichCon’s. During ANR’s ownership, the building was popularly referred to as the ANR Building.

In 1997, One Woodward Avenue Associates, Ltd. bought the building. They renamed it One Woodward Avenue, referencing the building’s address. In 2009, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as contributing to the Detroit Financial District Historic District.