In the late 1920s, Detroit was riding a wave of economic prosperity fueled by a rapidly expanding automotive industry. While car manufacturers were ramping up production, several skyscrapers began to dot the city’s skyline.

When it opened in 1929, the ornate, 40-story Guardian Building became the second tallest building in the city, rising 486 feet. The Guardian Detroit Union Group, then a major financial institution, commissioned the nearly 500,000 sq. ft. structure to accommodate the company’s growth. Hailed today by architectural critics as one of the great art deco skyscrapers built in America, the Guardian’s tangerine-colored exterior was unique. The edifice symbolized wealth and prestige.

The great stock market crash of 1929, however, set in motion a chain of events that eventually resulted in the former “cathedral of finance” being sold at auction in the early 1950s. In the decades that followed, Detroit entered a period of severe urban decay, and the downtown market languished as residents and businesses fled. The city’s population steadily declined, falling from 1.8 million in 1950 to just under 1 million today.
In October 2003, 500 Associates LLC purchased the Guardian from Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. for $5.25 million, according to CoStar Group. At the time, the building was 6% occupied. Through some aggressive leasing efforts, the Guardian is nearly 50% occupied today, reports Danny Samson, vice president of brokerage for the Sterling Group, a Detroit-based real estate firm that manages and leases the landmark tower.

Samson hopes to lease-up the building within two years by capitalizing on renewed business investment in Detroit’s central business district. Millions of dollars have already been spent refurbishing the building, and anexterior lighting project is under way. “It’s a patient [investor] group, and we’re staying the course in making the right improvements that will pay dividends,” says Samson.

LaSalle Bank is the largest tenant in the building, occupying 60,000 sq. ft. on four floors. Rents range from $16 to $17 per sq. ft. (gross, plus electric) compared with other Class-A buildings in the city that rent for $20 to $23 per sq. ft.

Michael Donovan, COO of LaMont Title Corp., which leases 8,300 sq. ft. on the Guardian’s 21st floor, says one attraction is the prime location: The Guardian is one block away from the courthouse and major law firms. The property management team has made all the right moves, Donovan is quick to add. “When you arrive in the morning, a doorman in a full-length cape and top hat is out on the sidewalk. He knows everyone by name. It’s a nice way to start off the day.” In the lobby, the sounds of classical music or jazz frequently filter through the air. A café specializes in European coffees. “It’s a beautiful building,” says Donovan.

The Guardian also is a reminder that capitalizing on Detroit’s rich history holds a key to its future.