Renaissance for Detroit

It stands tall. I always see it much taller than the rest.

It seems from another era. Rich, glamorous. Decadent. Detroit. Those words always seem to follow that same path. It was once above the rest, and now it’s below.

But not the Book Tower. High. High above the rest. First of all, it still stands. Second, it really does stand tall.

I marvel at it every time I see it. I know it has its admirers. And I know it has its critics. But I think everyone agrees its a landmark in the Detroit city landscape.

It was designed by Louis Kamper and built between 1916 and 1930. Since then it has gone through numerous identities, through its selling and acquisitions. Its name though still remains.

But rather than spit out a bunch of facts and re-write a school report, let me share some of the things that I found out while researching and photographing the Book Tower.

First off, it sits in front of what is now the Westin Hotel, in the Book-Cadillac building, another Louis Kamper work.

Book reemerges in all of these names because the Three Book Brothers, J. Burgess Jr., Herbert and Frank, who were the grandchildren of Francis Palms, who was the largest landowner in Michigan in the 1850s, inherited the wealth of their late grandfather and set out to recreate a Fifth Avenue in Detroit around Washington Boulevard.

Stamping names across buildings I guess was not Trump’s marketing invention.

It stands next to the Book Building, and apparently there was a plan to make another tower on the other side; ironically making the Book Tower and the other two book-ends. Yes, the Book Building was also designed by Louis Kamper.

I opened Wikipedia, and it states that the building’s architectural style is Renaissance. To be exact, Italian Renaissance.

Was it really? Or was it an altered version, much like Chicken Alfredo Fettucini, which I constantly get asked whether is a true Italian dish. To my knowledge there is no pasta dish that has chicken in it, and I really do not recall any plates that are named after a specific individual.

But rather than trying to become an expert in Architecture and decipher whether the claim was true or not, I stuck to reading on, and discovering more.

Like reading about the 12 caryatids, stone carving female figures used as a pillar to support the entablature of a Greek, or Greek-style building. And according to this great website I stumbled upon, “back in the 1970s, the priests across the street at St. Aloysius Catholic Church used to call them the wives of the 12 Apostles” (source).

I had not noticed them. I always looked at the Book Tower from afar, as a piece of work that didn’t need to be looked closely at to admire it. Now I know I’ll have to get a closer look.

What I was curious about though was the inelegant staircase on the exterior part. Now why would any architect deliberately choose to ruin one of the building’s facades with metal, rust generating stairs, rather than continue on the caryatids.

Research has it that Louis Kamper forgot the fire-escape stairs, and that they had to be added on afterwards. Now how does that happen? I understand it was built when checks were probably far and few in between, but still, I am a little shocked. Goes to show how much regulation has increased through the decades. Similar to that famous picture of the men eating lunch on a steel bar, while building the Rockefeller Center in New York. Imagine taking that picture now?


Related image

Here is a picture I took from a closed parking lot one day, while strolling around the city. Notice the zig-zag running down the left hand side. Ya, pretty ugly.


It’s hard when photographing architecture. You can’t decide what you want to include, or exclude, how wide of an angle you want, or possibly go in close with a zoom. There is the perspective to take into consideration and although you can alter it a bit in post processing, or have a tilt-shift lens, I think it comes down to what you see. I saw those stairs. The man and the Detroit People Mover were just added elements, like commas to a phrase.

But I wanted to see it closer. Zoomed all the way, and here was that copper ceiling. The one that reminds everyone that the Book Tower does indeed stand out.


Ornate. Windows boarded up.

In the book The Buildings of Detroit: A History, by William H Ferry,  he recalls Kamper saying “I like it varm”, “with a trace of Bavarian accent”. You can tell by the zoomed in photo. Ornate. Elegant? Wouldn’t say. Tacky? Wouldn’t say. But a century later the windows are boarded up, and although it is currently under renovation, for a long period, the Book Tower was unused.

From Fifth Avenue dreams to boarded up windows on a building that some of the critics think of it as a layered cake, and of Kamper as a cake decorator.

Below are the images that show how I see it. It standing tall. A distinguishing building in Detroit’s heart. Architectural critic aside, for me it’s majestic and represents the Detroit I’ve come to love.

Ludovico Einaudi’s playing  (Best 10) while the images upload and I finish this discovery post.

And back to the regulations, here’s another image I found (here) showing it back in the day. Smoking a cigarette up there, without harnesses.


And if you don’t want to open Wikipedia to read up on Renaissance architecture, here is that opening statement we all love to read when exploring something new. Renaissance architecture is the European architecture of the period between the early 14th and early 17th centuries in different regions, demonstrating a conscious revival and development of certain elements of ancient Greek and Roman thought and material culture. Stylistically, Renaissance architecture followed Gothic architecture and was succeeded by Baroque architecture. Developed first in Florence, with Filippo Brunelleschi as one of its innovators, the Renaissance style quickly spread to other Italian cities. The style was carried to France, Germany, England, Russia and other parts of Europe at different dates and with varying degrees of impact.”



Until Next Time,

The Curve