Modern Designers

Smith, Hinchman & Grylls

Design Profession: Firm

Building Types: Commercial, Cultural, Educational, Industrial

Smith, Hinchman & Grylls is one of the oldest operating architectural offices in America. The firm began with architect, Sheldon Smith. Though never formally trained, Smith gained experience working for his brother, an east coast architect. Smith opened an office in western Ohio before moving to Detroit in 1855. His Detroit practice grew steadily as the city boomed. Smith's son Mortimer, also an accomplished architect, became a partner in the firm in 1861. The Smith firm was well known for designing large commercial and civic projects, as well as institutional facilities like the Detroit House of Correction in 1859 and the Detroit Opera House in 1869. They adapted stylistically to the preference of the client, taking inspiration from and copying from architecture books to design various Classical Revival style structures.

After Sheldon Smith's death in 1869, Mortimer Smith expanded the office and it became a place for many up-and-coming Detroit architects to apprentice and gain experience. One such architect was George D. Mason who went on to establish a successful practice in Detroit and to mentor architects like Albert Kahn.

Mortimer's son Fred joined the firm in in 1881. The Smith firm won the commission to design the Michigan building for the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. After Mortimer's death in 1896 Fred Smith hired two graduates of the University of Michigan College of Engineering, Henry G. Field and Theodore H. Hinchman Jr., to incorporate modern engineering and technological advances into the firm's work. In 1903 the firm was renamed Field, Hinchman & Smith. The diversity within the office of both architects and engineers, was one of the first of its kind and produced extremely successful results such as the Olds Gasoline Engine Company factory in Lansing, Michigan(1903), and the Hiram Walker & Sons distillery in Ontario, Canada (1904).


In 1906 Henry Field left the firm and H. J. Maxwell Grylls joined as a partner in his stead, resulting in the firm being renamed Smith, Hinchman & Grylls (SH&G). During this period, the firm occasionally designed a modern industrial structure with little ornamentation, such as the Dodge Brother's Heat Treat Plant in 1910. However, the firm's real contribution to modern industrial architecture was in the testing of new materials in their engineering laboratory. By the end of World War I the SH&G staff totaled 270 and included architects William Kapp and Amedeo Leone who would be proponents of Modernism later in their careers. In 1922 SH&G hired architect Wirt Rowland who was working at the firm of Albert Kahn. Rowland designed Detroit's most outstanding Art Deco skyscraper, the Guardian Building, in 1928. Throughout the 1920s the firm stayed true to its design roots, producing classically inspired architecture throughout the city of Detroit. Though work in the 1930s slowed during the Depression, the firm had a major commission designing the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1938.

In 1945 the firm decided it was time to change its approach to design. Classical styles no longer satisfactorily represented the modern world. George Hellmuth, one of the firm's architects, was asked to find a new head designer who would lead SH&G into the age of modernism. Hellmuth chose Minoru Yamasaki, a young New York City-based architect. Yamasaki's first commission in Detroit was an addition to the Beaux Arts style Federal Reserve Bank Building. Yamasaki's International style addition, completed in 1951, was the first modern building constructed in Detroit and ushered in a new era of modern design. In 1953, Yamasaki left to start his own firm. However, it was due to his recommendation that Eero Saarinen hired SH&G to serve as associate architects for the construction of the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. The firm was instrumental in implementing Saarinen's ideas for innovative technology used in the project. When it was completed, the General Motors Technical Center was considered to be one of the most significant modern corporate campuses in America. It is still a symbol of American Modernism. In 1955 SH&G used much of the same advanced technology developed for the technical center in the construction of the Michigan Bell Telephone Northwest Staff Center in Southfield, Michigan. From 1956 to 1966 they developed the Cultural Center for the city of Flint, Michigan, including Whiting Auditorium, Longway Planetarium, and the Sloan Museum. Other significant modern buildings designed by the firm include the Detroit Wayne County Airport (1964), First Federal Savings & Loan Association Bank Building in Detroit (1965), the Detroit Hospital Medical Research Building (1965), and Hart Plaza (1975).

As Smith, Hinchman & Grylls continued to thrive, they partnered with the well-known Ann Arbor landscape architecture firm Johnson, Johnson & Roy. The new partnership allowed both firms to expand their reach into the architecture and landscape architecture worlds while providing more comprehensive design solutions for their clients. Today, the office is known as Smith Group/JJR and is one of the largest firms of its kind in the country, with offices in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Madison, Wisconsin.

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