Motor City Landmark: The General Motors Building

Today this stately edifice is a government building officially called Cadillac Square, but from 1923 to 2000 it was the world headquarters for General Motors. Here’s the fascinating backstory to this historic Detroit landmark. 

 

 

Cadillac place, as it is known today, is home to a number of state offices including the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Detroit branch of the Governor of Michigan, and more than 2,000 people come to work here every day. But when the building opened in 1923, it was known as the General Motors Building, and here is its story.

 

The story of the GM Building actually begins here, at the Hyatt Roller Bearing building at West Grand Boulevard and Cass Avenue. Hyatt was a division of General Motors (via United Motors) and its chief executive was a sharp young engineer named Alfred P. Sloan. In 1919, GM founder William C. Durant was searching for a site for a grand new world headquarters for his auto company, but he found downtown Detroit already too congested and expensive for his purposes. Sloan suggested to Durant the neighborhood around the Hyatt Building, an area three miles north of downtown that eventually became known as New Center.

Durant toured the site, liked what he saw, and instructed Sloan to buy up all the homes and shops on the block for the construction of a new building. Even though the Hyatt Building was nearly brand new (built in 1915), it was demolished to make room for the giant new complex, which took up the entire block bounded by West Grand Boulevard and Cass, West Milwaukee, and 2nd Avenues.

 

Designed by Albert Kahn, Detroit’s leading architect, the 15-story building took more than two years to complete, laid out in four parallel wings to provide direct sunlight and fresh air to as much of the space as possible. The entire structure was faced in limestone and at the time of its completion, it was the second-largest office building in the United States. This construction photo shows how the building dominated the New Center neighborhood around Grand Boulevard and Woodward Avenue. A few years later, the Fisher Building, the New Center Building, and the Argonaut Building would spring up on the adjoining blocks.

 

The Cass Avenue wing of the facility, shown here closest to the camera, was ready for occupancy in 1920, and the completed building was dedicated in 1923. An arched colonnade circles the building at street level, and another two-story colonnade and entablature rings the top. A rather grand lobby with marble floors and vaulted ceilings opens to the main entrance at West Grand Avenue, toward the left center of the photo.

 

Originally, the headquarters was to be called the Durant Building in honor of company founder and CEO William C. Durant, and these decorative shields bearing the letter D for Durant were installed over the main entrance and incorporated in the ornamentation. But before the building was completed, Durant was ousted from his own company for the second and final time. (It was discovered he had placed his stake in the company on margin to play the stock market.) However, the shields remained after Durant was removed, and many visitors assume the D stands for Detroit.

 

This modern photo shows the south side facing Milwaukee Avenue and the five-story Annex Building, which originally housed the GM Research Laboratory and later, the Chevrolet Division Central Office. GM’s top brass traditionally occupied the executive suites on the 14th of the main building’s 15 stories. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978.

In 2000, General Motors moved out of the West Grand Boulevard facility and relocated to the much larger  Renaissance Center, a seven-building, 73-story high-rise on Detroit’s downtown riverfront. (A little ironically, the RenCen, as it is known, was co-developed by Henry Ford II.) The state of Michigan took over the former GM complex with a long-term lease that included an option to buy after 20 years for the sum of one dollar. A historic renovation, including the installation of the building’s first central air conditioning system, was then performed. As the state government offices moved in, the facility was renamed Cadillac Place—but not after the car. Rather, the name is a tribute to Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, the founder of Detroit in 1701.

 

2 thoughts on “Motor City Landmark: The General Motors Building

  1. This is a very informative treatise on the architectural and corporate history of this most historic structure. One would hope the State of Michigan will exercise its option to buy the property for $1.00 in 2020. Thank you for this posting.

  2. There are countless personal stories that could be told about this building in its GM days. Mine is one of them. I began my GM (Chevrolet) career here in February, 1952 in the annex on Milwaukee. This annex was known then as the Chevrolet Annex and was where the famous Chevrolet “small block” production version was designed for the 1955 model year.
    There was an automobile showroom on the W. Grand Blvd.- Cass Ave. corner where GM showcased many of their then new models. The appliances manufactured by Frigidaire Division, GMC had a showroom on the W. Grand Blvd.-Second Ave. corner of the building.
    As I walked down the hallway of the lower level of the Annex for a job interview, my eye caught a glimpse of one of the many very attractive young secretaries employed by Chevrolet. I was hired but spent only four months here before leaving for a four year hitch in the USAF during the Korean conflict. However, I made a visit to the building while on leave after finishing basic training and “tech” school and did stop to introduce myself, now in uniform and with one stripe, to the secretary mentioned above. We were married in 1955 and had 48 great years together.
    I had a military leave from GM and returned there in 1956 but Chevrolet Engineering was now located in their new Engineering Center in Warren, MI. I retired from there in 1987 after thirty-five memorable years

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