Roofing the Penobscot

Photos date from 2004 and 2008.

Once upon a time, anyone could just waltz up onto the roof of the Penobscot Building, or wander through its 30 or so vacant floors at will. I took advantage of this at least twice, though I accidentally almost locked myself into a desolate corridor on the 25th floor once.

You could get access to a lot of the building, but not to the countless little window balconies that made up its dramatic setbacks, as they usually lie behind locked office doors, which was something that always ate away at me...

In early 2008, the Penobscot Building offered a limited "Behind the Scenes" tour of the building, through the Detroit Historical Society...I figured why not go and see if I can get access to a few new parts? I am not above taking hand-outs. 

I love art-deco skyscrapers with setbacks...and the Penobscot is the quintessential example of one. Seeing as the bulk of the building is unadorned stone, those setbacks are what give it its character; I've always been fascinated by how many different little levels and balconies it has...I just want to Q-Bert all over that shit.

Pretty much every office above the 35th floor must have some kind of balcony. I've never seen them except from afar, hence my fascination and desire to check them out in person. But being a private office building, such balconies are rarely seen by anyone except the tenants and owners.

The building went up in 1928, the absolute height of Detroit's building boom, and stood as Michigan's tallest building for five decades (when the RenCen was built). Detroit has not seen growth remotely on the scale of the 1920s since then, and actually, few other cities have. The Penob' is 47 stories tall, and when it was complete, it was the world's fifth-tallest building.

The building's original investor was a lumber baron from Maine, and it was his last name that was transferred to the building, but it also hearkens back to the Penobscot River, and the indigenous tribe that used to live there. Hence the Native American motifs throughout the structure.

The Penobscot is actually not just this one tower, it is a series of several smaller, older buildings covering almost the whole block. The architect was inarguably one of the greatest American architects ever, Wirt Rowland (a native Detroiter). In fact, the Penob' was the inspiration for the Empire State Building's design a few years later.

Our guide, surprisingly, was the current building owner, head of several downtown development concerns. Almost the first thing out of his mouth was to say that this was a "secure building," and that unfortunately he would not be able to take us into some areas (such as the roof), nor were we allowed to take pictures in certain areas.

I sort of had to raise an eyebrow to that, since my recent memory recalls the two times in 2004 I had snuck onto the roof, explored several vacant floors, and taken pictures, all with complete impunity: 

In fact I could have climbed the steel spire sprouting from the roof, had I wanted to (the only thing that stopped me was a fear of microwave radiation cooking my chicken nuggets). I can only imagine the sick view to be had looking back down at the top of the building from up there in the "Big Red Ball":

Oh well, maybe someday I'll luck out and be inside the building during a major power outage...hmmm. My pictures from up there certainly came out pretty crapsomely, thanks in part to the amount of antennas and junk in the way, and a shutter problem:

These were of course scanned from prints.

Notice the big Yzerman mural still on the Cadillac Tower:

One of the things our guide specifically mentioned was that the Friend of the Court was located right here, and as such presented unique security concerns. There is a huge atrium on the mezzanine that is two stories tall and has a barrel-vaulted golden ceiling and is just an eye-popping sight of art-deco architecture, but it has been in use for years by the Friend of the Court for their records storage room of all things, and as a result no one is allowed inside. So that's why the Penobscot seems to lack a big decorative lobby space commensurate with a building of its caliber.

A close-up of the Buhl Building, also designed by Wirt Rowland:

View out East Lafayette Blvd:

A corner office, full of people blocking my shot:

Finally—access to a balcony. This was at the 41st floor. As it turns out, that small penthouse level at the top of the Buhl Building (left) was the location of the old Savoyard Club (harumph!), once upon a time in the 1920s.


The two Davids, the David Stott Building (left), and the David Broderick Tower (right):

Packard Plant, and Gratiot Avenue:

Inside of the building's 41st floor today is just generic office space (much of it vacant), so most of my pics are out windows. Even the lobby is unexpectedly tame for a building of this caliber. I did notice, interestingly, that at variance from all my previous skirmishes into the building, there were now cameras installed in many places...cameras that might have thwarted me back then in 2004.

The owner mentioned something about Homeland Security busting his balls about lax security; I wonder if my forays were somehow to blame for that? Maybe somebody stumbled across my photos online and brought them to the attention of Big Brother, prompting tighter security?

The way to get up there was by taking the elevator up to 30, switch over to the other elevator, which in turn stopped at the 45th floor, and then hoof it up the stairs to the last couple service levels. In a central room at the top was a pair of doors on either side of it, going out to the second-highest roof level, and an iron ladder in the center of the room next to a huge sprinkler pipe, that led to a hatch. 

The hatch had a padlock on it, but a sharp eye could see that it was left unfastened. Once you pulled the lever to open the hatch you could feel yourself caught up in a tremendous updraft of air rising out of the entire building, which would almost rip the thing out of your hand with tremendous force if you weren't prepared—almost like popping a cork on a champagne bottle, and suddenly looming above you was the dazzling sight of the tall steel spire and the Big Red Ball, stabbing up dizzyingly into the stratosphere.

The day I first was up there on the roof, I was 99% certain I heard someone else up there with me. Somehow we just missed each other. Or maybe it was the wind slamming the door to the lower roof?

When I got back down to the lobby that day I snapped a photo of the super cool Arsenal of Democracy-themed mailbox...the security guard at the front desk snapped at me that there was "no photography allowed in the building." Oh, I'm sorry, sir!

Having some second thoughts about trying that Q-Bert stuff now...

The river had a lot of ice on it this April day:

It's not often you can see Cass Tech and the city of Southfield in the same shot: