Wirt Rowland - Architect


Catalog now available – See the End of this Paper for Details


The “Wirt C. Rowland Exhibition” was created to celebrate, honor and present the creative genius of Wirt Clinton Rowland (1878-1946). Rowland was born and went to school in Clinton, Michigan and kept his family home there until his death. Research has revealed a man who seemed to attract all who came in contact with his charm, good natured humor, keen intelligence and quest for the best life had to offer. His architectural gift to Clinton is the design for the Mortuary Chapel and the addition to the First Congregational Church. In 1901, Rowland went to Detroit to fulfill his boyhood dream of becoming an architect. There he worked for the top Detroit architects of the day including: George Mason, Albert Kahn, Malcomson & Higginbotham, and Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. During Detroit’s golden age, he created a new skyline with his 1920’s designs for the Buhl, Penobscot and Guardian Buildings. The Guardian Building exemplifies both his passion for the Gothic and his use of art deco design. Among his other work are included: three buildings on University of Michigan’s campus, banks in Saginaw and Grand Rapids, and schools in Detroit and Grosse Pointe. In the last years of his life, Rowland created the original designs for the Kirk in the Hills in Bloomfield Hills. Although his name has almost been forgotten, the Wirt C. Rowland Committee hopes that this exhibit and their publications will help create admiration and respect for his great architectural and personal contributions.

Formative Years in Clinton 1878 - 1901

Wirt Clinton Rowland was born to Clinton Charles and Melissa Ruth Rowland on December 1, 1878.  The family home, a small frame building on the West side of town, was near the Clinton Woolen Mill where his father was employed as an engineer.  Rowland attended Clinton Public Schools, and was active in his family’s church, the First Congregational Church of Clinton, where his natural musical talents were developed as he sang in the choir, learned to play the organ, and was involved in many concerts and recitals.  Thus began a lifelong devotion to music that would remain a constant source of inspiration.   Upon graduation, in 1896, he joined his father at the Woolen Mill.  In later years he recalled how he had come across an issue of Harpers Magazine (June 1883) with an article on the medieval Lambeth Palace in London.  He remembered studying the etched illustrations and plans endlessly, and then drawing imaginary castles and palaces on his own.  Clinton could provide few opportunities for an aspiring architect, although he did manage to design a new steeple for the Congregational Church in 1899.  After a short period clerking at the town bank – remembered as time spent filling the margins of ledgers with endless plans and drawing – he was off to Detroit to pursue his dreams.

Early Apprenticeship and Formal Education 1901 - 1911

An introduction from the head cashier at the Clinton bank landed Rowland a job as office boy to the architects Rogers and MacFarlane in Detroit.  His term there was short, as he quickly wrangled an interview with George D. Mason, the acknowledged dean of Detroit architects, and well known as a mentor to young draftsmen.  Albert Kahn, who had begun his apprenticeship with Mason in 1885, left to set up his own office in 1895.   Rowland soon advanced from running errands to making blue prints, and finally tracing drawings.  He was exposed to the complete range of work that Detroit’s most prestigious architectural office was turning out.  Among the projects in the office at the time were the Palms Apartment House (1901-02), one of the first structures to incorporate a reinforced concrete framework, and the Pontchartrain Hotel (1907) another reinforced concrete framed building, that set the standard for luxury and opulence in those years.  In 1909 Rowland moved to Kahn’s office, one of the busiest, and certainly the most progressive in the country.  Included among the projects at this time were the Hudson Motor Car Company (1910) and the Dollar Savings and Trust Co., Wheeling, West Virginia (1910).  Encouraged by Kahn and Mason, Rowland applied and was accepted in Harvard’s Graduate School of Architecture – 1910-1911.  Exposed for the first time to the rigors of academic life and the cultural resources that Boston provided, Rowland flourished. He returned to Detroit with a rich knowledge of architectural history and first hand exposure to the latest work by east coast architects.  This is amply demonstrated in his collaboration with Ernest Wilby on Hill Auditorium at the end of 1911, under the design direction of Albert Kahn. 

Malcomson & Higginbotham, Wirt C. Rowland, Associate 1912 - 1915

After a few months in Kahn’s office, Rowland was recruited by the firm of Malcomson & Higginbotham to help them prepare competition drawings for their entry for the new Detroit Public Library on Woodward Avenue.  The Library was to be the anchor of the Cultural Center that would eventually include the Detroit Institute of Arts, and a range of museums, schools and a university.  In the first stage of the competition, Rowland’s entry won among Detroit firms and this allowed them to advance and compete with nationally known firms in the final stage.   Cass Gilbert of New York, was awarded first place and given the contract.   There was no time for disappointment, however, for Malcomson & Higginbotham and Wirt Rowland won the competition for Detroit Northwestern High School Campus and followed that with designs for Northern and Southeastern High Schools and twelve Grade Schools all over the city.

Many of these schools would feature remarkable mellow brickwork inset with tile and terra cotta accents.  This fascination with surface decoration would become one of Rowland’s outstanding traits and feature prominently on all of his future designs.

Shortly after his return from Harvard, Wirt was asked to design the Mortuary Chapel for Riverside Cemetery in Clinton (1912).

Return to Albert Kahn 1915-1922

Rowland returned to the Kahn office to work in collaboration with English-born designer Ernest Wilby on the University of Michigan’s General Library, and the Detroit News Building and its additions.  These designs with their emphasis on strong overall massing, and intricately patterned detail, follow closely the forms established with the Detroit Public School Buildings. In 1918, Rowland was the founder and first president of the Thumb Tack Club, a professional club with social and educational purposes.  The Club held exhibits at the Detroit Art Museum.
According to Rowland, he became a chief designer for Kahn. During World War I, Rowland designed Langley Field Hangers (1918) and the Executive Building (1919) at Point Comfort, Virginia. Under Albert Kahn’s direction, he was responsible for the preliminary work and exterior design of the First National Bank Building (1922), and the landmark General Motors Building (1922).  Rowland was able to show a totally new approach to the handling of classic forms to meet the demand of multistoried office buildings. When a competing firm approached him with an offer to become Head Designer with no restrictions on his ideas, he was ready to move to a wider stage. 

Never one to forget his roots in Clinton, Rowland kept his family homestead as a weekend retreat.  When his family church asked for an addition, the Kirker Memorial (1923), he responded with a simple classic frame design that compliments but does not overshadow the original structure.

Smith, Hinchman & Grylls 1922-1930

Once again, Rowland was recruited by an architectural office, only this time it was the largest and oldest in the city.  With a history going back nearly seventy years, and a client list that included the most important people and businesses in Detroit, SH&G was a solid, if somewhat conservative firm.  Sensing the approaching building boom, they needed some new blood in their design department, and Wirt Rowland was their man.  His projects over the next few years show the range of opportunities he was offered and the matchless creativity with which he responded.  The Gothic style of Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church (1925), and Detroit Edison, Palmer Park Sub- Station (1923)   the restrained classicism of the addition to the Michigan Bell Building (1927) and the Farmer Street Building portion of the J.L. Hudson Building (1924); and the Romanesque terra cotta details of the Banker’s Trust (1925); each showed his skill in combining traditional elements with new forms.  The Buhl Building (1925) took Romanesque details and applied them to a new radically improved office layout.  It was followed by the Grand Rapids Trust Company (1926), and the Second National Bank of Saginaw (1927).    Rowland applied his talents to electric sub-stations and gymnasiums, branch telephone offices and prospective clubs.  Rugged stripped modern was used in the Ambassador Bridge approaches and pylons (1927), and the soaring Art Deco style Penobscot Building (1928).  Incredible and diverse as all of these buildings are, Rowland’s greatest design opportunity was still, ahead.

The Union Trust – Guardian Building 1929

Rowland believed that the medieval tradition of artisans collaborating on a huge project could be duplicated in the modern equivalent of a cathedral – the skyscraper.  With the Union Trust Company, and particularly its president Frank Blair, Rowland had an opportunity to try out his ideas.  Rowland worked with the brick manufacturer to develop the custom color which became known as Guardian brick. Rowland combined this with polychromed terra cotta and brightly glazed Pewabic Tile, and as a result the exterior of the building is ablaze in texture and color.  The stepped arch becomes a recurring theme, seen in doors, windows, elevator alcoves and the massive vault of the banking room.  The list of artisans he collaborated with includes: Corrado Parducci (decorative sculpture), Pewabic and Rookwood tile companies (decorative and structural tile), Gorham Foundry (Monel metal gates and elevator doors), Thomas DiLorenzo (decorative painting and stenciling), and Ezra Winter (mural and mosaics).  When completed – to great popular acclaim – the building was dubbed “the Cathedral of Finance.” It was truly the high point of Detroit design and the city, along with Rowland, would not see its like again.

His Own Name on the Door 1930-1941

 In 1929 Smith, Hinchman & Grylls had 250 employees, a year later the number was less than ten. Wirt Rowland, along with most of the city (and country) was out of work. In 1931, he formed a partnership with Augustus O’Dell, a friend from his time in George Mason’s office.  Rowland advised St. John’s Episcopal Church on its reconstruction caused by the widening of Woodward Avenue (1930’s).  He and O’Dell designed the Lewis E. Maire Elementary School in Grosse Pointe (1936).  Their next large project was a WPA residence at the University of Michigan, the Victor C. Vaughan House (1938). In 1938 he served on the Detroit Civic Center Committee and during this period he was president of the Detroit Chapter of the AIA (1934-35).

Rowland and O’Dell were the architects of the Mark Twain Branch Library in Detroit (1940), a new style library with an informal reading atmosphere like that of a private clubhouse.  Col. Edwin S. George was chairman of the library commission’s administration committee, and he received the key to the library from Rowland at the dedication ceremony.  When work in Detroit dried up, Rowland took a job with Giffels & Vallet supervising construction for the Department of the Navy in Norfolk, Virginia.

Rowland attended a fifty year Alumni Reunion in 1936 in Clinton.  He kept his studio room in his house in Clinton, and rented the rest of the house to the Lawson Ward and then the Elmer Brown families.

The Gothic Quest, 1942-46

To fill the idle time, between jobs, he sketched continuously, inspired by classical music, and devoted more time to the study of Gothic architecture.  Col. Edwin S. George asked him to design a Gothic gate for his home in Bloomfield Hills, and shared his dream of one day building a Presbyterian Church to serve the growing community.  Rowland supplied some concept sketches and plans, but in November 30, 1946, he died before the church could become reality.  Col. George turned to George Mason to complete the Kirk.  It was dedicated in 1958, seven years after Col. George’s death.  The Kirk in the Hills is a distillation of Rowland’s sketches and ideas, and by including the tiles of Pewabic Pottery and sculpture of Corrado Parducci, brings together some of the collaborators from Rowland’s greatest achievements.  The last year of his life he was made a Member Emeritus by the American Institute of Architects.

 The text on this site was written by Thomas Holleman for the “Exhibit Guide : Wirt C. Rowland Exhibition”, ,published by The Historical Society of Clinton, 2004.  The text was illustrated for the web by Sharon Scott.

Images:  Are the property of the owners.  Do not use or copy without permission.

For possible use, contact Sharon Scott at sascott2@comcast.net

Wirt C. Rowland Exhibition Papers:  Are held at Historical Society of Clinton Archives, Clinton Township Public Library, Clinton, MI and may be used by contacting Sharon Scott.

An Illustrated Catalog,( 32 pages) is available for $12.50 including postage for HSC. P.O Box 647, Clinton, MI, 49236.  Wirt C. Rowland Exhibition Catalog, by Thomas Holleman,Edited and compiled by Rebecca Binno Savage and Sharon Scott, Historical Society of Clinton, MI, 2004.

The Historical Society of Clinton Michigan, sponsor Wirt C. Rowland Exhibition ©2004