Monday, October 16, 2017

A Brief History of the DIA's Parking Lots

(This is not the post where I explain why I quit my job, or make any radical political statements. This is simply a history of how the DIA came to own its parking lots, in case any readers find this information interesting.)

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According to public property records, the Detroit Institute of Arts owns the four parking lots seen on the map below. The Cultural Center Parking Lot is the only one currently open to the public. The Barat House was purchased by the Detroit Institute of Arts in September 2016 and demolished to expand the Cultural Center Parking Lot in October 2017. But how did the DIA get into the parking game anyway?

The Detroit Museum of Art, founded in 1885, came to be owned and operated by the City of Detroit in 1919 and renamed the Detroit Institute of Arts. Originally housed in a building on Jefferson Avenue, the DIA moved to its current location in 1927.

Below is an aerial photo from 1961 when the Barat House was under construction, and before the museum's north and south wings were built. The sites of today's parking lots are outlined in yellow. You can see a small surface lot on the north side of the museum, which today is occupied by the museum's loading dock.

Wayne State University

Going Underground

In March 1963, construction began on a 368-space underground parking garage beneath the DIA's south lawn. Work started on the museum's new south wing that fall. When the parking garage opened on February 12, 1965, an elated Louis Cook of the Detroit Free Press called it "a giant step forward for culture in Detroit." When work began on the new north wing two months later, city officials considered adding a second parking garage beneath the north lawn, but it never came to be.

Detroit Free Press
The DIA's south wing and underground parking garage under construction, 1964.

A massive plan to clear 200 acres east of the DIA was unveiled on April 21, 1965. It called for the construction of musical and theatrical arts centers, a museum of science and technology, and a "hall of man and natural history", the basements of which would contain parking for a total of 5,750 vehicles. The grounds between the new buildings were to be landscaped with gardens, fountains, and reflecting pools.

Detroit Free Press, April 22, 1965.

This plan was of course never carried out, but off-street parking began to appear in the neighborhood. Around the early 1970s, a building that stood at 81 East Kirby Street was demolished and the land converted into a parking lot. The parking lot was owned by the City of Detroit, and use of the property was split between the DIA and the International Institute at 111 East Kirby. Below is an aerial photograph of the area from 1981. The Cultural Center Lot had not yet begun.

Wayne State University

In June 1988, the University Cultural Center Association unveiled another ambitious plan for the DIA vicinity. One feature of the proposal was an underground, 800-car parking garage to be built on the block bounded by Frederick, Brush, Farnsworth, and John R. Streets--the site of today's Cultural Center Parking Lot. A landscaped promenade leading to the DIA was to appear on the surface.

Detroit Free Press

The City of Detroit began to buy up the houses that sat on this block and demolish them one by one. The underground parking garage was never built, and the vacant lots were simply used as surface parking (probably as a "temporary" measure). Photos of these lost buildings from a 1976 survey of historical neighborhoods have survived. Below are a few of the homes bulldozed for the Cultural Center Parking Lot.

Place Promo

In 1997, the alley that ran through the block bounded by Frederick, Brush, Farnsworth, and John R. Streets was officially vacated and became part of the Cultural Center Parking Lot project. To this day, the entrance and exit of the parking lot align with the former alley. Below is an aerial photograph taken that year. At this point, the City of Detroit owned the DIA and all of the parking lots outlined in yellow in this image, except for the building outlined in red.

Wayne State University

That lonely building was the First Philippian Grace Church, previously known as Bethany Tabernacle. Although the structure was not very old, the congregation considered obtaining historic designation for the church in order to protect it from demolition. "The thought that Old Bethany might be torn down someday chills Ms. (Sophia) Ellis, and with reason," wrote Detroit Free Press columnist Louis Cook in October 1979. "Several institutions in the area are coveting territory there, including the Scarab Club, for parking space." But it wasn't the Scarab Club that finally got its hands on the property. The DIA itself (and not the City of Detroit) purchased the property on July 16, 1997, paying $325,000 according to public records. The church was town down and incorporated into the Cultural Center Parking Lot.

Place Promo
Bethany Tabernacle, 265 Farnsworth, in 1976.

In 2013, the City of Detroit declared bankruptcy. As part of the "Grand Bargain" that shielded the DIA's collection from the city's debtors, the City of Detroit ceased to own the DIA (including both the museum building and the art collection). Because parking revenue had always been used to support the DIA, the four parking lots would become museum property as part of the bankruptcy restructuring. The DIA reverted to an autonomous nonprofit organization and became the sole owner of these parking lots on December 10, 2014.

The underground parking garage, now in need of an extremely costly renovation, is no longer open to the public. The Barat House site is currently being converted into an extension of the Cultural Center Parking Lot. The Scarab Club is now the last structure standing on this entire city block.

And that is how the DIA came to own four acres of surface parking lots in Midtown.

Top photo: Wayne State University.
Bottom photo: Bing Maps.
The block containing the Cultural Center Parking Lot in 1948 and 2016.

Coming soon: Why I'm leaving the DIA after the demolition of the Barat House.


  1. The past few times I've visited the DIA I've parked onstreet or across Woodward. I would never have thought to park behind the DIA since there's no point in visiting if you're not enjoying entering through the front door.

  2. Terrific research and history of that area of the Cultural Center. It is also a lesson regarding the lack of maintenance of underground parking.

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