Explore Detroit: Guardian, Fisher, Belle Isle

We barely scratched the surface of Detroit’s fantastic architecture and history during our tour of the Guardian Building, Fisher Building, and the Belle Isle Aquarium on Saturday, March 7th.

We’ve been to many parts of Detroit over the years, but never spent much time exploring the marvelous buildings downtown. Most of the time, we have a destination and the buildings are a quiet backdrop that we’ve ignored. I’m sure we are like most people, you blaze into town for a concert or a game, grab some food and a beer (or two), and then head home without so much as a backward glance at the buildings. Saturday, we slowed the chariot down and took a few hours to enjoy the city.

Pure Detroit

We follow  Pure Detroit on Facebook and Twitter and they have tantalized us for months with their FREE weekend tours of the Guardian and Fisher buildings. One look at the photographs and we knew we had to check out one of the tours. Our plan was to tour the Guardian Building at 1 pm and then quickly drive to the Belle Isle Aquarium. It closes at 4 pm, so there was a time constraint. Afterward, we’d wander our way to the Fisher building for our own hand-made tour, and finally have dinner and a beverage. A great plan don’t you think? Yes, even “Woody” the Vernor’s gnome mascot agrees. In case you are wondering, Woody is on the right.

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The Guardian Building

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We started our tour outside the Pure Detroit store located inside the amazing Guardian Building. Our guide, Michael Boettcher, writes much of the architectural and historical posts for Pure Detroit. He shared a ton of history in the short 1 hour tour of this jaw dropping building.

One fact that I found most impressive was that Clinton, Michigan native Wirt Roland was the architect for not only the Guardian building, but also the Buhl and Penobscot buildings. Michael leads a building walking tour from Pure Detroit when the weather is warmer. We will need to come back and check that out.

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The Buhl Building

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The Penobscot

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Back inside the Guardian Building you can see and feel the church motif as you look down into the main hall toward the 3 story mural of Michigan on the back wall (painted by Ezra Winter). You’ll notice that the Upper Peninsula got short changed on the mural. Someone must have figured that folks from the U.P. wouldn’t be coming down to visit.

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The inside of the Guardian is also a riot of color. Its doubtful that any other building can compete with the bright and vivid interior of this building. The tiles are a combination of Rookwood and Pewabic pottery. Pewabic has been making pottery in Detroit for 112 years. Yet another place we need to visit.

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We have more photos in our gallery.

Belle Isle Aquarium

Our next stop was Belle Isle Aquarium.

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It is a free public aquarium and run entirely by volunteers, so donations are appreciated. This is another impressive piece of architecture and was designed by Albert Kahn. It opened in 1904 and when it closed in 2005, it was the oldest continuously operating public aquarium in North America. The aquarium re-opened in 2012.

Here are a few fun facts: The aquarium basement served as a speakeasy during prohibition. And the aquarium made news in 2002 when one of its female white-spotted bamboo sharks gave birth to two baby sharks despite not having been near a male in six years. It is a suspected rare case of parthenogenesis. Holy Mother of Jesus! We didn’t see anything like that, but there was a lot of activity near the seahorse tank and and these frogs were plotting something.

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The aquarium is a single large gallery with an arched ceiling covered in green glass tile.  They were hoping you’d feel like you were underwater. It was oddly calming and yes, I did feel like I was underwater in a nice way.

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Not all of the tanks are operational yet, but there were plenty of fish.

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The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory next door to the aquarium is definitely worth a peek. It caused heat flashes for a few in our party. You go from super muggy tropical to dry desert in just a few foot steps.

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We have more photos of the aquarium and the conservatory in our gallery. 

The Fisher Building

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Do you remember “from the golden tower of the Fisher Building?” I certainly do. I didn’t know the radio had another channel besides “WJR” until I was 10. In December of 1928, WJR leased space in the Fisher Building and is one of the oldest tenants. That phrase was a requirement of the station’s original lease in exchange for a nominal rent.

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Known as Detroit’s largest art object, the Fisher is a grand building located in the New Center area of Detroit.

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It is truly a work of art. Everything is bathed in gold.

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Even the roof was originally covered with gold leaf but is now green tile. I’ve heard two stories about the gold leaf tiles. These  were painted with green epoxy and it couldn’t be removed and I’ve read the gold leaf tiles were removed and replaced with the green tiles.  In either case, during WWII there was fear the building would be a target for enemy bombers and the gold tiles needed to go. Good Lord. That is all I can say.

Fisher Theatre

The building is home the Fisher Theatre and was originally designed in the Mayan Revival Style with live macaws for the patrons to feed.

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Don’t forget to look up, the ceiling is amazing!

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There are more photos in the gallery.

After Tour, Dinner and Beer

Walking around and absorbing a bit of Detroit history can work up an appetite as well as a thirst. We hadn’t really done our homework too well in finding a new place to eat, so we headed to Corktown to our new favorite place, Mudgie’s.

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On the way, we rolled down by the G.A.R. building to catch a peek at this building.

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We rounded out our evening with a beer over at Batch Brewing which was pleasantly packed with folks enjoying their damn fine beers.

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Stay in Touch

There are more hidden gems for us to discover and I’ve started a list and at the top is the Whitney Building and Pewabic Pottery.  Please leave a comment if you have a suggestion.

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2 Comments

  1. When will the walking tours start? I’d like to to be able to walk around town to visit 2 or 3 of the sites if that’s possible. I could probably even bring a group of people with me if its on a Saturday or Sunday.

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Hi Tony – Pure Detroit (www.puredetroit.com) runs the tours. So far they haven’t posted when the walking tours will start. We sent them an email (tours@puredetroit.com) to see when they will start. The tours are generally on Saturdays and Sundays. They have individual tours of the Fisher and Guardian going on now on Saturday and Sunday at 11am and 1pm. Check their facebook page for the most up-to-date tour info. When we hear about the walking tours, we will be sure to share on our facebook page as well.

      Reply

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