Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Penobscot Building (first)

There are actually three buildings in the Penobscot complex.

This one, designed by the firm Donaldson & Meier, was the first. It's a steel-frame thirteen-story brick, limestone and terra cotta building. This Renaissance-inspired office building was erected on Fort Street between Griswold and Shelby streets and has a frontage of 100 feet on West Fort Street. It originally only extended back one hundred feet to the alley behind it. Upon the building’s 1906 completion, the Detroit Savings Bank occupied the first floor’s west half, the Detroit Trust Company the east half.

The first three stories of the building’s front are faced in a rusticated limestone and the seven stories above in red brick. The upper three stories are faced in cream-colored terra cotta. The façade is divided into five bays of paired double-hung windows. The eleventh and twelfth story façades are slightly recessed behind Corinthian column-detailed piers that separate the bays.

The twelfth-story windows are round-arched and display corbel keystones flanked by swag details. The thirteenth or attic story is punctured by deeply recessed paired windows. The original cornice is intact. The building has a flat roof. The west side façade of the building is faced in yellow brick, and an undulating façade allows for corner offices with windows on two walls. The windows are the original wood frame double hung.

The Penobscots were the legacy of lumberman Simon J. Murphy, who named them after his beloved Penobscot River.

“The name Penobscot has been especially dear to me because it was on the bank of that river, in my native state of Maine, that I first struck out for myself,” Murphy told the Detroit Free Press in 1902. “The credit for whatever success I may have attained in after life must be given to the solid foundation which I laid by honest, hard work in those early days. I have never been happier than I was there, and why would I not love the name?”

But just days before tenants started moving into his greatest achievement, Murphy died Feb. 1, 1905, at age 89. His death put a damper on festivities, and the 400-room, 13-story building wasn’t formally dedicated until July 22, when a large portrait of him painted by Gari Melchers was unveiled in the main hall.

His sons would continue and expand his legacy in the years to come, building two more Penobscot buildings.

Make sure to check the Penobscot Building, and the Penobscot Building Annex, for more information on the entire Penobscot complex.

Last updated 27/03/2023