If you’re an architecture buff, few midwestern cities compare to Detroit. We’ve got Art Deco skyscrapers, midcentury neighborhoods, Victorian mansions and so much more.
But Michigan has countless buildings worth appreciating designed by some of the region’s greats, like Albert Kahn, Eero Saarinen and Minoru Yamasaki. And many of them are a short drive away. If you’re looking for a fun and unique activity, why not take a day trip to visit some great architecture?
Here are some ideas to get you started. We’ve chosen places less than two hours away by car, and planned some short trips for you, themed by city, style or architect. They’re also ordered by proximity to downtown Detroit.
Note: Looking at building exteriors is about as pandemic-friendly as an activity can get, but some of these places are currently inaccessible or have restrictions due to COVID-19. Check with operators for the latest visitor info, and start planning some short-distance travels during and beyond the pandemic.
Explore the gardens at Edsel and Eleanor Ford House
If you’re looking for an easily accessible spot to admire architecture — as well as art and landscaping — then the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House is the perfect choice. The mansion on Lake Shore Drive in Grosse Pointe Shores may be the most elegant home in all of Michigan.
It was designed for the Ford scion and his wife by Albert Kahn in the Cotswold style with a sandstone exterior and slate roof. The interior has sumptuous wood paneling like you’d find in English manors, as well as some eclectic rooms in both a modern and Art Deco design. The Ford’s had an extensive art collection, and though many were donated to the Detroit Institute of Arts, the reproductions in their place still give you a sense of what it was like to live there.
The grounds are also magnificent and include a beautiful garden designed by landscape architect Jens Jensen — bring a picnic and plan to wander.
If you leave wanting more, Grosse Pointe has an incredible collection of historic homes and churches. You can see many of them just by driving along Lake Shore or Three Miles drives.
Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, 1100 Lake Shore Drive, Grosse Pointe Shores
16 miles from Detroit
Grounds open 8 a.m.-dusk, Tuesday-Sunday, house tours to resume later in 2021 ($5 admission)
Take a Yamasaki-themed drive across Metro Detroit
Most of architect Minoru Yamasaki’s famous regional buildings — like the McGregor Conference Center and One Woodward Avenue — are located in Detroit. But there are still some fantastic places worth visiting outside the city limits that could make for a nice architectural tour.
You’ll definitely want to check out Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, which has a grand curved roof that looks like twin sails, and the Reynolds Metals Regional Sales Office in Southfield, which has a glass atrium and jaw-dropping ornamental screen made of gold rings. There are tons of hidden gems as well, like the Land’s Pharmacy Building in Royal Oak, First United Methodist Church of Warren, and Becker House in Huntington Woods.
Approximately 60 miles round trip from downtown Detroit. All buildings will have to be seen from the outside.
Look at Postmodernist buildings in a new light
If you’re into big glass buildings, Metro Detroit has some prime examples.
Southfield Town Center is filled with boxy skyscrapers (2.2 million square feet to be exact), including Michigan’s second tallest building. And they do hold a certain beauty. Most are in the modern style, with little bits of postmodern flare, especially 2000 Town Center, designed by Sikes Jennings Kelly & Brewer.
On your tour of glass towers, you’ll also have to visit the currently shuttered distinctly postmodern Edward Hotel & Convention Center in Dearborn (that’s also strangely located at Town Center Drive). Its crescent-shaped design makes it one of the area’s most distinct buildings.
Approximately 27 miles roundtrip from downtown Detroit.
Spend the day marveling at the Cranbrook campus
The Cranbrook Educational Community arguably has the greatest collection of architecture in Michigan outside of Detroit.
The campus, whose master plan was done by Finish architect Elial Saaranen, contains gorgeous buildings around every corner and extensive grounds for walking. Highlights include the Cranbrook Art Museum (which also has a stellar permanent collection), the Arts and Crafts–style Cranbrook House designed by Albert Kahn and the Saarinen House with its textile-filled interior.
Nearby, there’s the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Smith House, owned by Cranbrook. Built by two public school teachers on a tight budget, its elegant cantilevers and brick screens are a prime example of Usonian design.
While you’re in the area, you might also want to check out the former offices for Eero Saarinen and Associates, the firm of Elial’s son, who exceeded him in prominence (and designed the astounding GM Technical Center in Warren, which would have made the list if it were possible to visit). The understated building is a superb example of midcentury design.
Cranbrook Art Museum, 39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills
Open Thursday, 12 p.m.-8 p.m. (free admission), Friday to Sunday, 12 p.m.-5 p.m. ($10)
Cranbrook House Grounds are open 7 a.m.-7 p.m., home tours to resume later in 2021
Smith House tours are available most weekends
About 25 miles from Detroit.
Take an easy overnight trip to make the most of Ann Arbor’s architecture
There are too many places to recommend visiting in Ann Arbor. Simply walk around the University of Michigan campus and you’ll continually stumble upon great architecture, whether it’s Hill Auditorium, the Law Quad, Burton Memorial Tower or Newberry Hall. Also head to north campus and visit the School of Music Building designed by Eero Saarinen.
We also recommend checking out the Michigan Central Railroad Passenger Depot, built in the late 1800s and now the Gandy Dancer restaurant. And if you plan on staying more than a day (and have a few hundred dollars to spare), you can even spend the night in the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Palmer House, a 1,300-square-foot masterpiece with an amazing slanted roof.
University of Michigan campus, 500 S State St., Ann Arbor
University of Michigan School of Music, 1100 Baits Dr., Ann Arbor
Palmer House, 3935 Holden St., Ann Arbor
About 42 miles outside of Detroit. We recommend finding long-term parking and walking around campus.
Head up to Flint for Art Deco, Brutalism and more
Many don’t think of Flint as having great architecture — but it does. And it shouldn’t be too surprising given the prominence of General Motors to the city.
You can start downtown with the Art Deco Mott Foundation Building, designed by Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. From there, head to the Flint Journal Building (designed by Albert Kahn), the Italianate-style Elks Lodge, the former Genesee County Savings Bank Building with its prominent cornice and the Cornwall Building built in 1883.
You’ll also want to check out two pieces of Brutalist public art designed by Lawrence Halprin: Stepping Stone Falls and Riverbank Park. And definitely don’t miss the Flint Institute of Arts, the second largest museum in the state, which not only has an impressive permanent collection, but an impressive building as well with its large windows and colorful glazed bricks.
Flint Institute of Arts, 1120 E Kearsley St., Flint
Open Monday to Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m.–5 p.m. ($10 admission)
About 69 miles outside of downtown Detroit. We recommend parking downtown and walking, then driving to Stepping Stone Falls & Park and walking.
Give Toledo’s architectural highlights a second look
Another town with a forgotten architectural legacy, Toledo has more than enough impressive buildings for a day trip.
The Toledo Museum of Art may be the city’s most iconic building. The Greek Revival structure also has a gorgeous curved glass pavilion built in 2000.
Other places worth checking out include Burt’s Theater, a Venetian Gothic building with a unique diamond-patterned brick; the Lasalle & Koch department store, which has an attractive stone frieze and large, arched paned-glass windows on the first floor; and the Rosary Cathedral, which has a shockingly ornate ceiling. You’ll also have to drive through the Old West End, a historic 25-block neighborhood with dozens of beautiful examples of early 20th century home design.
Toledo Museum of Art, 2445 Monroe St., Toledo
Open Wednesday through Friday (free admission), book in advance
About 60 miles outside downtown Detroit. For the other places, find longterm parking downtown and walk around.
Bonus: Head across the border to see Windsor’s best buildings
Our neighbors across the pond have a surprisingly impressive collection of architecture — while the border is currently closed, it’s definitely worth planning a visit in the near future.
You’ll find many of Windsor’s acclaimed buildings in Walkerville, a neighborhood east of downtown along the water where Hiram Walker founded Canadian Club Whisky. No visit would be complete without stopping by 36-room Willistead Manor, an English Tudor mansion designed by Albert Kahn for one of Walker’s sons. According to the Walkerville Times, “No expense was spared in the construction of the manor; the exterior of gray limestone was quarried in Amherstburg and hand cut at the Willistead worksite by Scottish stonemasons specifically imported for the project.” Today, the house is a banquet hall and public park.
But there are many other homes in the area worth seeing (here’s a historic walking tour), including the Harry Low Mansion. Also be sure to check out the Italian Renaissance–style Canadian Club Distillery and the Old Walkerville Theatre (formerly the Tivoli). It was designed by C. Howard Crane, who also designed Detroit’s Fox Theatre.