The Influence of the Automobile Industry on Early 20th Century Detroit and Its Architecture

Created by: Kynzie Johnson
Time Period: 20th Century
Topic: Architecture, Remaking Urban Space

GM Building Exterior

Photo of Fisher and GM Buildings in 1937 in New Center of Detroit

By 1914, Detroit controlled 47% of the automobile industry, bringing growth and wealth to the city, as well as influencing the city’s layout and construction. The dominance of the automobile industry beginning in the early 20th century affected many aspects of Detroit, specifically contributing to the design of a car-centric city and the construction of architecture which reflected the prominence and wealth generated by this key industry. The effects of the automobile industry on the city include population growth, increased immigration, increased investment, and higher rates of homeownership. These effects contributed to city expansion throughout the 1910s and 1920s. At this time, automobile companies began to move from what was historically Detroit’s downtown to areas outside of the central business district and more towards the middle and outlying areas of town. Companies like General Motors and Fisher built their new skyscraper office buildings outside of the historic downtown to promote the use of their automobile by building further away, encouraging their workers to rely on automobile transportation rather than walking or using public transportation. Beginning in 1910, new manufacturing districts began to be constructed towards the outskirts of town due to the cheapness and availability of land, which helped to pull further development outward from downtown Detroit and transform neighborhoods in the middle and outlying areas of Detroit. This can be seen by looking at Hamtramck, a neighborhood in Detroit that was transformed by the opening of Ford’s Highland Park plant in 1910 and the Dodge Main plant in 1914. These plants increased the population of Hamtramck from 3,500 in 1910 to a population of 48,600 in 1920. To promote a commuter-driven business sector and to be near manufacturing districts in outlying Detroit, many automobile companies constructed their headquarters outside of the historic downtown, leading to the creation of a new downtown, or “New Center” as GM called it, which was focused on, designed around, and promoted the automobile.

Mosaics in Fisher Building Interior

Architecture itself was also affected by the dominance of the automobile industry in Detroit. For example, the General Motors Building which opened in 1923, was designed by Albert Kahn in a Neo-Classical, Beaux-Arts adapted style using classical elements to promote a sense of order and to tie the building to municipal or governmental aspects. Few other decorative elements were used in order to promote efficiency and increased productivity. Large courts were designed to give the building the best natural lighting possible, theoretically making the workers the most productive as possible. The layout of the GM Building included divisions and hierarchy, such as large corner offices for executives and cramped corridors for low-level clerks, in order to mirror the hierarchy present between General Motors employees. The Fisher Building, also designed by Albert Kahn, was completed in 1928. The Fisher brothers, who developed the closed body for the automobile, commissioned the Fisher Building with the goal of constructing the “world’s most beautiful office building.” Through its gold leaf, marble, and bronze filled interior, the Fisher Building displays the vast amount of wealth that was generated through the automobile industry. Several other skyscrapers, including the Book-Cadillac Hotel, Buhl Building, Penobscot Building, and Guardian Building, were all constructed during the 1920s boom in the automobile industry, which demonstrates the city’s specialization and the outpouring wealth associated with this specialization. Through Detroit’s automobile specialization, car companies were able to mold Detroit to promote the automobile through the city’s design, layout, and construction, ultimately creating a uniquely car-centric city.

Fisher Building Exterior


Further Reading:

Abrahamson, Michael. “‘Actual Center of Detroit’: Method, Management, and Decentralization in Albert Kahn’s General Motors Building.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 77, no. 1 (2018): 56–76.

Mirel, Diana. “Art in the Motor City: The Fisher Building Is an Architectural Treasure Defining the  Detroit Skyline.” Journal of Property Management 75, no. 4 (August 2010): 20–21.

Psarra, Sophia, Conrad Kickert, and Amanda Pluviano. “Paradigm Lost: Industrial and Post-Industrial Detroit – An Analysis of the Street Network and Its Social and Economic Dimensions from 1796 to the Present.” Urban Design International 18, no. 4 (December 2013): 257–81.

Sugrue, Thomas J. “Motor City: The Story of Detroit.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, September 16, 2014.…pdf.

Ticknor, Thomas James. “Motor City: The Impact of the Automobile Industry Upon Detroit, 1900-1975.” Ph.D., University of Michigan, 1978.