To me, this is America. Both the building and the image. Some may say it’s ‘the wild open west’ or some vista of water or mountains, plains and horses. But to me, America is a building that juts out with that ‘determined chin’ and says to the world, ‘I can make anything that I need to make in order to accomplish any task and at whatever cost. And I do it because we are here to grow.’ It is a look that is at once expansionist and grounded.
The Penobscot Building is not particularly elegant in the broad strokes. Its proportions speak of power and strength and production during a period when those things mattered more than just about anything else. (Elegance? That was for a worn out effeminate Europe that was wasting its energy arguing over petty anachronisms—they got the World War they deserved for being so wasteful!)
So you’d be forgiven for missing the buildings thousands of and even humorous details;—even if you’ve lived in Detroit and walked by it a hundred times. But if you look carefully it is America. As American as Star Trek… and Ayn Rand… and Thomas Edison… and Walt Whitman… and John Wayne… and Charlie Chaplin.
Penobscot is all those things: filled with the trappings of the native culture we stomped on in order to build a great city. It incorporates touches of humour and elegance and ham-fisted brute force. It borrows attributes it doesn’t come by natively (heck, even the name has nothing to do with Detroit.) It is like a football player who went to charm school; still rough around the edges but he knows how to behave in polite society.
It must have been an exhilirating to place to be. I still remember the impression it made on me the few times I went through it as a kid.
Lately I’ve been watching bits of the TV show ‘Mad Men’. The show could just as easily been set in Detroit; in the Penobscot. I submit that it is one of our cultures ‘Roman Coliseums’—a once glorious place, built for a culture that no longer exists. More than a bit run down now, but still passed by every day by thousands.
I wonder how many people think about what Penobscot meant to us as do the squillions of tourists who visit Rome every year? The irony (to me at least) is that this building was a heck of a lot more useful in it’s day than that Coliseum thing ever was. But that’s America; that’s why it’s been forgotten. It has to be useful to be remembered.
If The Penobscot Building teaches us anything. It’s that there are no monuments in America—no man-made objects that are visited simply for what they did; no matter how pretty. America is about what’s happening ‘now.
If you happen to visit Detroit (Good Lord why should I?), I encourage you to take a walk through. It’s still beautiful. It’s just hard to see the building; but that’s just because of all the distractions. But try. If you see what was so great about Penobscot, you see what was (and is still) so great about us.